by Jim McCready
Detail from a advertising trade card - 1905
What would it be like to travel back in time and get the chance to test the skill level of today's players with the levels of the game from decades past?
The bar without a doubt has been raised, but what if a club champion took his equipment and experience back in time and traded shots one on one with the top players of, let's say, 90 years ago. How would today's 5.0 (USTA NTRP system) player fair against Big Bill Tilden?
First the simple ground rules. Yesterday's player would remain in his element, no changes in equipment or venue. Today's player would travel back in time with his exact equipment and magically appear to contest history's player in his prime in a championship match. The ball used would be from a halfway date between the two players. Serve 'em up, pilgrim.
The First Wimbledon, 1877
Court Tennis players dominate and play a "pat ball" style of game with consistency, and an occasional winner was the norm. Only the men were competing, so no women's comparison yet. If you are a 3.5 man with a severe shot in your arsenal you might have the edge. Think of the equipment they are using!
The girls break into competition and the favorites are serving underhanded. Eat 'em up on the returns and a strong 3.0 might only have trouble with a legend or two like Lottie Dod.
Into the 1890's the level on the men's side has risen, and the severity of play is just taking shape in the US. Serving and crashing the net is referred to as an "American" trait, as the continental grip, low-ball ground-stroking dominates the European game. Check the 4.0 rating and you will see consistency rules. Men at the end of the century and in early Davis Cup matches are not doing much more than this.
Ladies into the new century are smacking the ball better but are still encumbered by the clothing and a general less athletic approach to the game. Still a half a point behind the men's evolution, 3.5 around the 1900's is a good number.
Booklet, Court Tactics by Vinnie Richards - 1925
Before WWI the men of the new international tennis tour were starting to recognize certain strategies of the opponents and tried to counter with their own. Californian Maurice McLoughlin was the perfect example. He owned the first big serve, which gave him the nickname "California Comet", a forehand and a volley, nothing else. He lost to a steadier ground-stroking Tony Wilding of New Zealand in the 1913 final at the Big W. Classic 4.3 tennis. A club champ with a solid 4.5 game should beat them with today's power frames, but fly that same player into centre court in front of thousands of grumbling Brits and the X-factor makes it very interesting regardless of what era you hail from.
The roaring twenties, and the two titans of the decade, Tilden for the guys and Lenglen for the gals, ignited the tennis world on fire. More spectators, more press and bigger stakes for the players. Big Bill outclassed the field for most of the era as did Lenglen. However, a real 5.0 today on the men's side and a 4.0 on the women's and there might be legends with different names today.
Women's Lawn Tennis Match at Wimbledon - 1910s
The women's game really jumped in the late 20's and early 30's. With the publicity of the great French star, Suzanne Lenglen, the many girls who were just picking up the game were spurred on. Helen Wills, Helen Jacobs, Kitty Godfree and then Alice Marble, all were much better athletes and took the skill level a bit over 4.5. Wills-Moody a ground-stroking 4.3 to Marble an all-court 4.6.
Enter Don Budge (Late 1930s)
The retirement of Tilden prompted a call for more to join the pro game. A ground swell of new players were drawn to the international drama of the big competitions. Naturally the cream would rise to the top and Don Budge was such an example. Having only played casual family tennis on local California courts, his brother dared him to enter the State Championships and he won! Only a few years later he was awarded the Sullivan Trophy, then our nation's highest amateur award. Just around the corner, he would be the first player to win a Grand Slam in 1938.
What was his level of play? His small-headed dead racquet carving out his trademark backhand on mainly grass courts is a marvelous athletic achievement. Softer, lighter, even mushy balls took some steam off the shots when compared to today's yellow bullets. Budge played in about 8 tournaments the year he won the slam and often didn't have any competition until the semis. Could a top college all-star of today push the Donald around?
Program from Don Budge Professional Tour -1939
The "Good Old Days"
One can't help but imagine a lower level of ball speed and attacking strategies of play back then. It's a business now and the stakes are bigger resulting in many more people taking the game seriously. That makes the level of skill higher, but little else. Champions of any era will be motivated to be champions in future eras.
Maybe the rules should be looked at in the opposite fashion? Take a top player of this era Tiafoe or Kenin and reverse the equipment. Budge with the Clash and today's star with the mini wood. Would Arthur Ashe Stadium finally be filled? The debates are endless, but what if?