What was is like to watch tennis in the 80's?

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Answered by: Kunal, An Expert in the History of the Sport Category
if you were a fan of tennis in the 80's in India, your exposure to the game was through the sports magazines and newspapers. Live telecast were limited to Grand Slam finals and - if we were lucky - semi-finals. So fan followings were built from images and iconic matches. McEnroe's first Wimbledon trophy; Boris Becker leaping through the air against the background of the green grass of Wimbledon; a gangly German teen with a horse-like mane of golden hair called Steffi Graf taking on - and defeating - none less than Martina Navratilova. But well, this was the 80's and this was India, so more than green or golden, what we saw was light grey and white, since most media was black-and-white until the latter half of the decade.



Not that this dampened the enthusiasm of us fans. Colour or black-and-white, in still photographs or live telecasts, tennis was about epic rivalries. Becker versus Edberg, Wilander versus Lendl, Graf versus Navratilova, Evert versus Navratilova...these and more made up the most exciting part of the game. Families would settle before the one television set in the extended family (when I was a kid this sometimes meant a half-hour drive to my grandfather's home) and then camps would be formed. #TeamSteffi and #TeamMartina were a thing long before Twilight made people choose between brooding, handsome Vampire and brooding, handsome Werewolf.

But that was not the only thing. In retrospect, compared to the present day, tennis in the 80's was also about contrasts. Players had distinct personalities and distinct playing styles. Becker was brash, emotional, bad-tempered at times - and played an aggressive serve-and-volley game. Ivan Lendl was dour, unsmiling and played an aggressive baseline game. The great Swede Mats Wilander was more defensive than either of them. And then there was John McEnroe - the ultimate tennis bad-boy - who ensured that you neither knew what shot he would play next (for he could play anything, literally anything) or whether he would provide excitement in another way - by losing his temper.



The women were no less a contrast in styles. The decade was dominated by three towering greats of the game - the baseline warrior Chris Evert, the serve-and-volley arsenal of Martina Navratilova and later, the incredible athleticism and explosive forehand of Steffi Graf. As the decade drew to a close, Evert was in steep decline; Navratilova on a slower fall from very-lofty heights, and even Graf's dominance was being challenged by a new tide of players, one Spaniard, Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario and one Yugoslavian, Monica Seles.

For the men as well, the year 1990 was when the two men who would dominate tennis through the next decade emerged - Andre Agassi made two Grand Slam finals, and Pete Sampras won his first US Open championship.

But the stylists were gone by then. Becker and Edberg would be the last of the great serve-and-volley players. Sampras would dominate tennis for a decade with a similar style, but he would be the exception among a crowd of baseline sluggers. As clay courts and hard courts dominated the non-Slam circuit, the skills that were relevant on grass courts - a booming serve, lightning reflexes at the net - would become less relevant. Similarly, Navratilova would be the last dominant player of her style of play. Though Jana Novotna would win Wimbledon in the late 90's, the norm was for players who could hit shot after shot from the baseline to dominate the game.

By that time, colour television was the norm, and a few short years later, satellite channels beamed entire tournaments into our homes. But the charm of tennis had begun to fade. Maybe it was the increasing uniformity of styles, or maybe we had grown less passionate as we grew older. Maybe it was just that with television in every home, the family was not gathering in groups.

Tennis is still a major sport for me, and one of the fastest-growing in India, which can now boast of serious prowess in the doubles game if not the singles. Still, the black-and-white photos, cutting from magazines and newspapers, still lie in a box in my drawer, and on the occasions when the family does meet now, scarcely does the evening pass without a hark-back to those days. Those days, when we all gathered round a television set to cheer for a teenaged German, a dour Slav or a graceful Swede, so many thousands of miles in distance, and now so many years in time, away.

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