One complaint lobbed at today’s game is that everyone is content to play the same style of tennis: Just stand at the back of the court and hit hard topspin groundstrokes over and over until your opponent, who’s attempting the same, can’t keep up. We live in a “power baseline” era, and it didn’t use to be that way, the old-timers grouse. Serve-and-volley used to be viable, they say. People stirred much more side- and underspin into their rallies, they say. But now we sit and watch freakishly vascular endurance athletes pursue the same few grinding patterns of play, over and over.
(To me, and obviously to the millions who continue to watch the sport, this style is still entertaining as hell, but I understand the kernel of this complaint.)
If tactical sameness is what you’re sick of, then the remedy might be Alexandr Dolgopolov, a ponytailed 28-year-old Ukrainian who offers some of the most offbeat shot selection on the men’s tour.
This weekend Dologopolov, the world No. 50, upset Kei Nishikori in the finals of the Argentina Open, an ATP 250 event on the rich red clay of Buenos Aires. Nishikori, top seed in the tournament and No. 5 in the world, is an accomplished clay-courter with some of the smoothest groundstrokes you can find. While he didn’t look particularly solid en route to the final, he was destabilized even more by Dolgopolov’s screwy playing style.
Let me try to explain what I mean by that. Rafa Nadal is a difficult opponent, but you know well in advance the contours of his game: He is going to bludgeon you with a high-bouncing forehand to your weakest side, and will refuse to cede any ball on defense. Novak Djokovic is a difficult opponent, but again, you go into the match with an sense of his gameplan: He will cover the court as well as anyone ever has, and slowly counterpunch you to death.
Dolgopolov is a difficult player because of all the unknowns. Because you have no idea where he’s going to put the ball, because his only apparent strategy is framed in the negative: He won’t let you get comfortable doing what you want to do. And, largely, because he’s always trying to fuck you up. “Aggressive to the point of psychosis,” observed Andy Roddick in a 2011 postmortem.
That’s a joke diagnosis, but here’s a real one: Dolgopolov has Gilbert’s Syndrome, a genetic disorder that affects liver function and can cause episodes of extreme fatigue. “Now and then, it just hits me and I have to go to the hospital for a week or two. It’s something I’ve had to live with,” said Dolgopolov in 2014. “The whole time, all you want to do is sleep. And then on the court, after a few rallies, you’re really tired, so it’s tough to play ... It’s nothing deadly and it occurs just a few times a year, but it’s tough to play at a high level with that going on.”
Aside from rendering his tennis accomplishments that much more impressive—he’s been ranked as high as No. 13 in the world—his Gilbert’s diagnosis also helps to explain his mercurial playing style. For his own sake, Dolgopolov needs to end points fast, relying on his Swiss-army-knife repertoire of shots to disrupt his opponent’s rhythm with spins and pace, never settling into any one knowable pattern.
“If Alex tried to play a regular solid game of just rallying and wearing someone down, he wouldn’t get too far. But in a silly kind of way, it almost helped his tennis career because he played freely, which is how he should be playing. The talent he has, he can pull off some crazy stuff,” his then-coach Jack Reader said a few years ago.
Watch an average rally between two great baseline players and you’ll see both players working their way into a rhythm, and picking their kill shots very carefully, searching for the right moment. Watch a good Dolgopolov point and you’ll see a rangy dude just whaling at the ball from random areas of the court, seemingly on whims. Behind that wildness is an immaculate sense of timing, which opens up all kinds of odd shots from uncomfortable positions. This held especially true in the first set against Nishikori. I love the sequence of backhands at 0:48, from ultra-heavy slice, to very fast and flat crosscourt, to weird abbreviated flick. That last awkward winner owes everything to pure feel for the ball.
While Dolgopolov is unpredictable on a broader tactical level, the same holds true on a granular level. Mechanically, his strokes don’t follow the usual rhythms, which could very well set an opponent off-kilter. Watch the final serve above a few times. It’s a spastic, compact service motion that doesn’t look much like what you’re used to seeing from pro players; it looks like he’s tossing it as low as possible and hurrying to scrape it out of the air, rather than a tossing it way up in the air, waiting for it to dip, and smoothly swinging up to slam it down. With that unconventional form Dolgopolov generates nice pace and pop for a guy who’s only 5-foot-11 and a lithe 157 pounds. In the last point above, he uses a well-placed serve to extract a short ball, then sauces his putaway forehand with a little bit of sidespin to curve it away from Kei.
By far his most potent tool against Nishikori was his two-handed backhand, which he seems to abruptly slap with a twist of his entire body. (After once hearing someone compare it to the stroke of a Wii Tennis player, I’ve never been able to shake the image.) Because of how fully he turns his body before the shot and how rapidly he whips through it, it’s very hard to predict whether he’s going down-the-line, crosscourt, or even subtly shifting his grip for a dropshot. His backhand is a well-disguised weapon. Some of the backhand winners he reeled off in the second set were pristinely timed and just disrespectful, especially off the return of serve.
This win in Buenos Aires yielded Dolgopolov’s first ATP trophy since 2012. Dolgopolov’s 28, but I’m less and less convinced that age acts as any kind of death sentence in the current game. Last night he sustained that hot streak in the first round of the Rio Open, beating David Ferrer, a player who was ranked in the top 10 for much of 2016, and on Ferrer’s best surface, no less—clay. I’m very much here for whatever other hijinks Dolgopolov can pull off this year.