Stick from Stich for decline of serve and volley
Blast from the past: Former champion bemoans slower courts and balls that encourage the clay way
Michael Stich is an unusual Wimbledon champion in that he never courted publicity or popularity. When the general concept of German tennis did not extend beyond Boris and Steffi, Stich proved otherwise, and proved it in some style, too, defeating Becker in straight sets in the 1991 final, having seen off Jim Courier and Stefan Edberg along the way.
It has been the same at Wimbledon over the past week, with Becker's face all over television, whether it be from courtside or appearing on The Weakest Link. Stich has been there, too, but you might have missed him unless you were tuned in to his excellent radio work for BBC 5 Live. He prefers, he says, to do radio "because you can talk more than on television, you don't have to wait for the pictures."
Stich doesn't do much commentating, though. This is his first visit to Wimbledon for three years, though he has worked for Eurosport at Roland Garros for the past two summers. He never goes near a broadcasting studio in Germany, preferring to devote time and energy to his business, a clinic in Hamburg for people with chronic back problems, and his lifetime cause, the Michael Stich Foundation for HIV-positive children around the world.
The foundation, celebrating its 10th year, banished Stich's reputation as a grump. It demands less of his time nowadays, and for the right reason, he says. "Fortunately the HIV problem is getting less, but there are still children being born with it, it's still there."
At 35, he still enjoys tennis through exhibition matches and the seniors circuit, and is planning to return to the Albert Hall in December for the seniors' Masters event, but limits his involvement because he no longer enjoys the travelling. His opinions, though, remain wide-ranging. Though enthusiastic about the new Wimbledon layout, he has not been overly impressed about what has happened to the courts. "Grass-court tennis is being played mostly from the back of the court now, it is not an attacking game any more," he said. "Baseline matches lasting five sets are not that exciting.
"The courts are getting a bit slower, the balls are getting a bit slower, that's something I don't like as a spectator and as a former player. What is happening on court is more predictable and less exciting. In those matches we played in my time, Boris against Stefan [Edberg], me against Pete [Sampras], there was a lot of serve-and-volley, obviously a lot of aces, and people loved it.
"When Goran hit his 35th ace in a match people were screaming, and when Agassi managed to get a return back it was, like, wow. Now the serve is more often just being used to get the ball into play. For me, that's clay-court tennis, not typical grass-court tennis, and I find that sad.
"All of a sudden you see all of these baseliners coming to this tournament who refused to come before, and they are doing well. The serve-and-volley players of my time would have had to adjust, though serve-and-volley remains capable of winning Wimbledon, and it should. But clay-courters have started to believe they can succeed here.
"Let's take a guy like Carlos Moya, who I like and respect. He refused to come to Wimbledon early in his career but now he is here because he believes the surface and the balls are set up for him to do well, maybe not to win the championship but to get through a few matches. It is good for the game that those guys are here, but not good for the game that they are only here because the surface has changed.
"There are some serve-volleyers who are not that highly ranked and it is getting tougher for them to advance into the third or fourth round because baseliners are doing well, they are fit and strong and know how to play this game on grass."
As someone who could play on any surface, and proved it by winning titles on clay, grass, carpet and hard courts in the memorable year of 1993, Stich regrets that serve-volley is not being taught by many coaches now. "Yet it would be a great game to teach right now because you could give these other guys trouble on any surface. It will come round, definitely."
One reason, Stich thinks, is because Tim Henman did so well at the French Open recently with an attacking game. "Tim doesn't have a huge weapon on any surface, he is a great all-court player and has all the strokes needed to do well. It was good to see someone like him playing drop shots and chip-and-charge and getting to the semi-finals. The last one who did that at the French was myself, when I got to the final in 1996 [where he lost to Yevgeny Kafelnikov]."
Stich stirred the ire of Martina Navratilova last week by chiding her for wanting to play singles in a Grand Slam at the age of 47, and he vigorously defends that opinion. "I didn't criticise her personally, because she is the greatest-ever women's champion at Wimbledon, and if she wants to come out and play for the fun of it I completely accept that.
"But if she beats a player who is on the regular WTA Tour 6-1 6-0, as she did, it is not a good sign for women's tennis, it is a sign of the lack of depth. And I think she would have made the same comment if, when she was 18, someone aged 47 had come and done that. It has always been the same over the years, the women's event started basically at the quarter-finals when Steffi [Graf] was playing.
"Martina has to accept that is something other people can criticise, and not just get furious about it. If she had said she just wanted to be on Centre Court one more time, I would have said, 'Well done'. You can do this three or four years after you finish your career, but not 12 years. It is like Jimmy Connors coming back and playing again."
Stich did not offer an opinion on who will win the women's title, but plumps for Roger Federer in the men's. "I think he will win if he keeps his game together, if he doesn't get too relaxed and too loose. If he stays focused, then he is going to win. I would love to see that, because Roger is the most complete player, he has so much talent.
"Obviously, Andy Roddick is very exciting to watch, and it would be a great final between those two, they represent a new generation and different styles as well. But I also see Lleyton Hewitt as a real threat because he is so competitive."
No mention of Henman, then, Michael? "Tim has a chance if he lifts his game. If he plays against the guys I mentioned he cannot just play percentage tennis. Believing in himself, he can compete with them, but I don't know if he really believes that, on a certain day, he can beat a Federer.
"The way Tim plays he certainly has that chance, and it would be great for tennis for him to go through as a real serve-volleyer. It's just a question of whether he can raise his game up to that point."
Though he did not say so, the implication was that if Michael Stich could do it in 1991, why not Tim Henman in 2004?
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