There's probably no major spectator sport that's gotten shorter shrift in PC gaming than tennis--rather odd when you consider that one of the very first video games, Pong, was a no-frills tennis derivative that millions of people played as they put their minds on cruise control. But the fact remains that there have been only a handful of PC tennis sims over the last decade, which leads inexorably to a very simple question: Why? One reason for the paucity of tennis sims is that the tennis craze of the 1970s is now just a distant memory. Another is that while the players of the new millennium are probably more skilled at their craft than their predecessors, there aren't many who grab your attention the way players such as Borg, Connors, Ashe, McEnroe, Smith, Laver, Vilas, Gerulaitis, and Nastase did.
So perhaps it's not unreasonable for game publishers to avoid investing cash in a market that's not gripping the world--except that PC tennis sims can be a lot of fun if they're executed properly and deliver what fans want. And with so few tennis games to choose from over the last few years, Tennis Master Series from Microïds would seem to be in the perfect position to take the Grand Slam in the PC tennis world. Unfortunately, it falls short of that goal, because of its sluggish controls, paper-thin career mode, fictitious players, and mediocre court graphics.
The Tennis Master Series comprises nine events: Indian Wells (California), Ericsson Open (Miami), and TSM tourneys in Monte Carlo, Rome, Hamburg, Montreal, Cincinnati, Stuttgart, and Paris. Play in Monte Carlo, Montreal, or Paris, and the commentator speaks fluent French. But when you move to any other country, you get a British announcer--apparently, Microïds didn't feel that German, Italian, or American voices were worth the money. That's nitpicking, but it does highlight the game's evidently small budget, which stands in stark contrast with its $45 retail price.
You can choose from any of 67 players to control in exhibition matches, season play, or multiplayer action over a LAN, but despite the ATP license, you won't recognize any names here. A real tennis buff might be able to figure out who's supposed to be whom, but the bottom line is that all the players bear an uncanny resemblance to each other both in appearance and in movement. Microïds says that more than 500 motion-capture animations were used to create the game, but apparently only a couple were used for serves--none of the players snap their elbows or wrists regardless of how fast the serve is clocked or what type of spin is put on the ball.
Thankfully, the bums play like bums and the stars rip it up almost too well, and the fictional players do behave as they should--baseline players slug it out with positional play, while net rushers make a beeline for the center of the court at the first opportunity. On the downside, there's apparently no way to take a poor player and improve his play through practice and tourney participation because you aren't awarded any skill points or anything of the sort to allocate for various aspects of play. In fact, there's absolutely no practice mode at all, unless jumping into an exhibition match qualifies.
Tennis Masters Series looks good at least. While the stadium graphics won't invoke that "you are there" feeling, they are more than good enough to pull the plow. However, if you want to see the game at its best, expect to pay a high price in hardware. Microïds recommends a 700MHz Pentium, 128MB RAM, and 32MB AGP card for optimum performance, but our best guess is you'd need at least a 1GHz processor and double the RAM if you expect a smooth frame rate and want to enjoy the excellent lighting and shadows.
In exhibition mode, you can choose the number of sets per match and how many games will make up a set, but you're stuck with full play when you enter a season. Luckily, you can save any season match whenever you quit the game, but it's still a far cry from a top-notch football, basketball, or other pro sport sim in which you can set the length of each period to make it easier to finish a game in one sitting.
Tennis Master Series covers all the bases when it comes to shot types, allowing you to easily execute flat, topspin, and backspin serves and shots (and of course lobs), but the tricky part--just as in real life--is determining shot placement. It all boils down to getting your player into position in time to hit the correct shot button while using the directional pad to aim. Sadly, this is where Tennis Master Series it at its weakest.
The problem is the animation is fluid--not fluid as in "smooth," but fluid as in "underwater." Choose the best, fastest player, and he still seems to react to gamepad input as if he were wearing concrete Adidas. Even if you've played every tennis sim for the PC released in the last 10 years, you wouldn't recall another tennis game in which you had so much trouble just getting to the ball. The results of the sluggish controls are far too many crosscourt winners for computer opponents and far too few aces for your player, but when you put the game on an easier setting, you'll find yourself landing an outlandish number of winning shots in the precise same spot time and time again.
Being frustrated by computer opponents isn't an issue in multiplayer mode, and to its credit, Tennis Masters Series does offer four-player support via a LAN. However, even if you can round up three friends who own a copy of the game, the laggardly controls are sure to be frustrating. The good news is that you can get used to the poor responsiveness of the controls and finally put together a string of good shots, at least against your friends or most of the middling computer opponents; the bad news is that you shouldn't have to. Tennis Master Series gets the basics right, but for $45, it should do a lot more than that.