These days, women’s tennis is a power-dominated game made up of big hitters capable of generating extraordinary ferocity off their serves and groundstrokes and a new stubborn breed of counter-punchers possessing tenacity, agility and speed to absorb the pace and frustrate their opponents into errors. But it’s amazing to think how recent the power era actually is.
Back in 1990, there were few female players capable of consistently dominating rallies from the back of the court. Serve-volley was still the order of the day. It wasn’t really necessary to be capable of pinging lines with stinging forehands and backhands as the objective was to finish points at the net. Serve played a role in setting up the volley but hardly any players were capable of actually hitting regular aces.
Steffi Graf was the dominant player thanks to her ferocious forehand which generated pace which no other woman on tour could match. However that was before Monica Seles came along.
Slightly taller than Graf, Seles was to become the German’s biggest rival in the early nineties. She wasn’t especially mobile but she made up for that with her crunching groundstrokes on both wings. Imagine a more consistent version of Marion Bartoli and you get the picture.
She was naturally left-handed but used two hands for both her forehand and her backhand, which meant there wasn’t really a wing which could be targeted. And unlike the generation before her, she looked to dominate the points from the back of the court with sheer unrestrained power.
While Graf was more of an artist, inducing weaker shots with her deft backhand slice and then skipping around to crunch a forehand into the space, Seles won her points through simply bludgeoning players into submission.
Her power meant she could pin Graf into her backhand corner with heavy forehands and then blaze a winner down the line. These were tactics which weren’t really seen again until the Williams sisters were at their peak almost a decade later.
Single-handed backhands were still pretty commonplace when Seles turned professional. During her career she showed just how effective the double-handed could be, giving extra control over the ball when hitting heavy flat shots. It was a new way of thinking. Before the backhand had mainly been seen as a way of keeping the ball in play and perhaps hitting with heavy slice to get into the net but now Seles was using it as a genuine offensive weapon.
Even Graf at the peak of her powers struggled to deal with the Seles game and if it hadn’t been for the fateful events of 1993, then it might have been Seles who won the lion’s share of the slams in the nineties.