With the Australian Open approaching, the first Grand Slam event of the last year of this decade is upon us.
At a time like this, a tennis fan might wonder how this generation of male players will be remembered. Will future generations only reflect on the legacies of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, its most dominant players?
Or should today’s game be judged as the sum of the players involved? If so, how do the players active today compare with the greats of the past?
Now, making intergenerational comparisons is, almost invariably, asking for trouble. This is true in any sport, but especially tennis, since new rackets and training methods have made possible shots and strategies that the older generations could scarcely contemplate.
Of course, many of the past champions would jump at the chance to have had that tech and training at their disposal when they were in their primes.
The proliferation of racket technology and changes in surface have also caused segregations in today’s game that didn’t exist before, between clay-court aficionados, hard-court specialists and fast-court giants.
In order to make comparisons that really teach us about the Grand Slam winners of this decade, let’s set some ground rules:
Number 1: The players must have had similar qualifications.
It’s best if they won a similar amount of majors, but if even if one player put up flashes of the brilliance another exhibited regularly, it may still merit comparison.
Even so, Jimmy Connors and Lleyton Hewitt, for example, had many similarities in playing style and attitude, but there’s a wide divergence in their results that makes their comparison an inadequate one.
Number 2: The players must have had similar styles of play.
This is inexact, as some types of player, like the pure net rusher, are practically extinct today, and the big server is out of fashion.
Still, there should be a considerable resemblance in their playing style: Rafael Nadal and Stefan Edberg are currently very similar in their number of majors won, but don’t serve anything close to a similar role in their respective eras. It is not required, but is helpful if the players also have similar personality traits.
Number 3: The players should be judged on their comparative results in the most neutral of conditions.
Imagine that one player’s strongest results were on grass, while another won multiple Roland Garros titles, but both have a single U.S. Open to their credit. In this case, imagining them playing one another on any other surface but the U.S. Open would be unfair.
Number 4: The players must have never met in a sanctioned tour match.
It inhibits one’s imagination if the players have given us a glimpse of how they would match up. Pete Sampras and Roger Federer, for example, already met in Wimbledon 2001, so we have a pretty good idea of how they would play one another.
This is especially true since it was nearly equal footing: Federer was spry but inexperienced while Sampras was a veteran who’d started to lose a step. A match between the two in their primes would be more of the same, only a bit better; we should ask harder questions.
Number 5: The result should reflect who had the better career and why.
With all the other ingredients in place, imagine that today’s players are matching up with the past greats, and playing a single match to determine whose career will be regarded more highly and why. The score of the match should reflect that, and will help us determine how great a roster we have active today.
Let’s get started …
You're Good … But I'm Magic: Roger Federer vs. John McEnroe
Why: Roger Federer is most often compared to Pete Sampras; a comparison that captures the stoicism, explosive power and lithe grace that both possess. However, there’s another side of Federer that’s not exposed by any comparison to the Pistol: the magician.
There were few mysteries about how Sampras would play: He would use his booming serve to stay ahead, his touch volleys to put away what volleys came back, and then hit enough of those game-changing running forehands to break the match open.
John McEnroe was different in the sense that he hit shots, found angles and tried tactics no one else did because no one else could even imagine exploring them. This is a trait Federer shares.
Parallels abound between Federer’s 2005 and Johnny Mac’s 1984 season: McEnroe’s singles record was 82-3, while Fed was 81-4, with both men winning Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, plus making a serious run at Roland Garros.
The biggest differences between the two: McEnroe played the part of the tortured brat throughout his career, while Federer overcome his early tendency toward outburst and became a serene presence on court.
Furthermore, McEnroe was finished winning singles majors after ’84, while most of Federer’s were still to come after ’05.
Neutral Ground: Both men have known the bulk of their success at both the U.S. Open and Wimbledon. Both men have also known limited success on clay, as both are Roland Garros finalists, so practically any surface would constitute "neutral ground."
However, let's put them on Wimbledon center court, circa the mid-1980s. Why? Because the faster the surface, the better McEnroe's chances, and the better the match.
The Outcome: If Johnny Mac has a day like he did in the 1984 Wimbledon final, when he thrashed Jimmy Connors, who knows? However, if he doesn't come out playing lights-out tennis (and maybe even if he does) eventually Federer's superior returning and heavier groundstrokes win the day. Yes, both men have their magic, but in this case Federer's superior muscle breaks the tie.
Federer d. McEnroe – 6-7, 6-3, 6-4, 5-7, 6-1
Federer represents a near-perfect amalgamation of McEnroe's genius and Sampras' power and focus. That's why future generations of players and critics will rank his achievements higher than either of the other two.
The Brawl in Britain: Rafael Nadal vs. Jimmy Connors
Why: Thanks to his oppressive domination of Roland Garros, Nadal is usually compared to Bjorn Borg. Both were utterly dominant there for a long stretch of time, and both are pioneers in baseline play.
The trouble is, while Nadal is no one-surface wonder, his achievements on all types of surfaces can’t approach those of Borg, who also won five straight Wimbledons.
Both are left-handed but enjoy no serving advantage because of their awkward service motions, both are fiery competitors, and both are trend-setters in terms of their groundstrokes, even if Jimbo’s are totally flat and Rafa’s utilize heavy spin.
Plus, Rafa has a greater chance of matching Jimbo’s achievements on court than he does Borg’s. In 2008, he exceeded the record of another great baseliner in Jim Courier, pulled within two of Mats Wilander and three from the power baselining triumvirate of Connors, Ivan Lendl, and Andre Agassi. Some think he may win three more majors in Paris alone.
Neutral Ground: Connors was a five-time champion at the U.S. Open, a venue where Nadal has thus far failed to advance past the semis. The mirror opposite occurs on French clay, where Connors knew some success and Nadal is thus-far undefeated. Both men were comfortable moving on grass, even though the speeds of the British courts were very different in their respective eras.
Let's say that it takes place on the modern, slower courts of Wimbledon, where I suspect Connors, the proto-power baseliner would make an easier transition than Nadal would to the lightning-fast courts of the '70s and '80s.
The Outcome: The troubled with calling this match is that, while Connors's legacy is establish, the full extent of Nadal's is as of yet uncertain. Connors won two Wimbledons (10 years apart), one Australian Open, and five U.S. Opens (played on hard, clay and grass courts).
Nadal has yet to achieve that level of diversity or longevity, but he has dominated one surface to a degree Connors never did. Due to his taxing style of play, almost no one expects Nadal to be winning majors six years from now, but there's little indication that he's finished winning them yet.
Connors defeats Nadal – 6-3, 7-6, 4-6, 7-6
Nadal has not yet matched Connors' achievements, but it’s within his potential to one day surpass them. For now, Connors is the winner, but a rematch may be pending.
The Djoker vs. The Jester: Novak Djokovic vs. Ilie Nastase
Why: Even more than for his natural talent, or his U.S. Open and French Open wins, Ilie Nastase was known for entertaining antics on court. Fans were interested, but his reputation for gamesmanship often didn’t amuse other players, who shunned him in locker rooms for a time.
In this respect, his natural successor appears to be Serbian Novak Djokovic, whose impressions of other players during 2007 made him an Internet sensation, though his reputation for injury timeouts has made him a lightning rod for criticism.
For both men, the controversy and the laughs take the focus off of their all-around talent; both are among the most complete players and naturally gifted athletes to ever play.
Neutral Ground: These guys have similar attributes as players – great groundies, superb movement and strong serves. Their volleys are not weak, per se, but are the least developed parts of their game.
Therefore, both are strong on all surfaces. Nastase won at the USO in '72 and RG in '73. Nastase was twice a runner-up at Wimbledon but never won it. Djokovic's lone slam (so far) is at the AO, while he's a finalist at the USO and semifinalist at the RG and Wimbledon.
Let's put this match on French clay, if for no other reason than because it's the only one in this series to take place there.
The Outcome: This should be a very entertaining contest in terms of quality of play and personality. While Nastase has more major titles so far, Djokovic looks certain to add to his total in the future.
Djokovic d. Nastase – 7-6, 4-6, 7-6, 6-4
While both men like to have fun, Nastase turned his matches into carnivals, and many experts have speculated that his determination to entertain cost him greater success.
Meanwhile, Djoker is all business on court. He saves his levity for after the match, and that's why his career achievements will one day exceed Nasty's, and he may merit comparisons with someone far more accomplished.
The Power Pack: Marat Safin vs. Boris Becker
Why: Boris Becker and Marat Safin both struck at young ages, using their huge frames and booming shots to leave opponents as afraid for their safety as they were of losing the match.
Becker’s 1985 Wimbledon triumph signified the onset of the huge-serving net rusher, while Safin’s domination of Sampras in the 2000 U.S. Open signaled the net rusher’s demise.
Both men went through befuddling mid-career ruts before returning to win Australian Open titles.
At their worst, both were champions of self-loathing, also, as Becker’s on-court castigations in German often dragged down his level of play, whereas Safin has left a trail of shattered rackets stretching across multiple continents.
Neutral Ground: Becker's strongest surface was, of course, the grass of Wimbledon, having won three titles and four times been runner-up. Safin has struggled on grass, saying it hinders his movement. On clay, both men are Roland Garros semifinalists, but Becker never won a clay court title, while Safin has won a pair.
Both have won a single U.S. Open title, while Safin has one Australian Open title and two runner-up appearances. Becker has two AO victories. The two men are probably most comfortable on European indoor carpet, however, so let's put the match there.
The Outcome: The trouble with calling this match is that there's no doubt that Becker had a more distinguished career, but Safin had more game and more talent. He is the guy who humbled Sampras in 2000 (and Sampras was a better version of Becker) and dueled Federer down to the wire in 2005, after all.
In fairness to Becker's greater consistency and dedication, we're going to make this a matchup between Becker at his best (the 1996 indoor season) against Safin at a pretty good state (his 2002 indoor season), as opposed to Safin at his summit (late 2000, early 2005) or his nadir (almost all of 2003 or 2007).
Had they been contemporaries who played 10 times, Becker would likely have only faced invincible Safin once or twice.
Even if the Russian isn’t at his peak, this matchup would be a barnburner with a great contrast in styles, but it's easier to see Safin blinking at the end.
Becker d. Safin – 6-3, 3-6, 4-6, 7-6, 6-3
Had Safin's talent been matched by his work ethic, it's Becker who might have considered it an honor to be compared to him. In the end, though, it's the German's drive that earns him a greater measure of respect. The Russian goes down here, and down in the record books as this decade’s greatest disappointment.
It's How Good You Are AND How Bad You Want It: Lleyton Hewitt vs. Thomas Muster
Why: The similarities between Jimmy Connors, Lleyton Hewitt and Thomas Muster are fascinating: All three were baseliners with a relentless desire to win, which brought with it a confrontational attitude that made them far more respected than liked.
Connors, with his pioneering power baseliner approach, had a far more decorated career than the other two, but a three-way comparison would make a good case study someday.
For now, let’s focus on comparing the junior members of the Brash Basher Club. Both Muster and Hewitt compensated for the lack of a real weapon through their intensity, great defense and fitness.
Who knows how long a match between them on equal footing would last, but it most definitely would feature some really long points.
Neutral Ground: At Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, this match is no contest: Hewitt won his two majors there, while Muster never got past the quarters in New York and won not a single match at the All-England club.
On clay, the situation is similar, as Hewitt reached a few quarterfinals in Paris, but Muster utterly dominated the surface for a period in the mid-'90s.
Middle ground in this case would be a surface where neither man quite broke through: Australian DecoTurf. Though it's Hewitt's home soil, don't look for this to be an advantage: Hewitt has never relished the pressure of playing at home and Muster never seemed bothered by playing the bad guy.
The Outcome: Hewitt's best result on DecoTurf was a hard-earned finals appearance in 2005, while Muster reached the semis in 1997. Muster was blown off the court by Sampras in straight sets, while Hewitt took a set from Safin before being similarly overpowered.
You know the expression, "It's not how good you are; it's how bad you want it?" Well, both of these guys want victory with every sinew of their bodies.
Muster's stamina and consistency are pretty much without equal since Bjorn Borg's retirement, but Hewitt is quicker, has a better serve, and can take the ball earlier than the Austrian.
Hewitt d. Muster – 6-2, 7-5, 3-6, 7-6
Since both men want it equally, the fact that Hewitt is better breaks the tie.
One is the Loneliest Number: Andy Roddick vs. Michael Stich
Why: Dominant players like Federer, Sampras and Borg help to define their eras. Almost as important in judging a time period is the kind of player who wasn’t able to win consistently. Almost every decade has known its share of one-slam wonders, but not all OSWs are created equal.
Andy Roddick and Michael Stich each scored a major relatively early in their career, sandwiched between periods of dominance: Stich won Wimbledon in between Becker’s dominance there and Sampras’ ownership, while Roddick won the U.S. Open after Sampras retired and before Federer took over the game.
Both reached additional majors on more than one surface later in their careers, but never got back to that summit. The centers of both men’s games were certainly their huge first and second serves.
Both men also struggled with the pressure of living up to the expectations of fans in their home country. Stich was expected to fill Becker’s sizable Lotte sneakers, while Roddick faced the discouraging task of filling the void left by Sampras and Agassi, not to mention Jim Courier and Michael Chang.
Neutral Ground: Roddick won the U.S. Open, where Stich was a finalist in 1994. Stich won on the fast courts of Wimbledon, where Roddick was a semifinalist in 2003 (before the courts had really been slowed down).
On clay, Stich was clearly more comfortable. Again, Aussie Deco-Turf provides neutral ground, as Stich and Roddick have both been semifinalists there.
The Outcome: Like Safin vs. Becker, this is a tricky one to call because Roddick is the more accomplished singles player: He won more titles, had more runner-up appearances, more Grand Slam finals appearances, led his country to a Davis Cup victory, finished the year No. 1 in 2003, and has finished in the top 10 seven years in a row.
Stich, however, was a more complete player, with a smooth but powerful service motion, better volleys and beautiful one-handed backhand. In Sampras' halcyon mid-'90s, Stich was widely regarded as the second-most gifted player on tour.
Roddick d. Stich – 7-6, 6-7, 6-4, 7-6
Sorry, Stich, but you were a one-slam wonder because you couldn't handle the pressure of being Becker's successor. Roddick has a much more valid reason for having only one slam to his name: Roger Federer. Conclusion
Imagine McEnroe, Connors, Nastase, Becker, Muster and Stich, all active on tour in the same decade, winning or threatening to win majors. How entertaining would that be? Together, that crew won 25 Grand Slam titles.
Their counterparts in today’s game, however, have already won 24 in this decade with one year to go. Andy Murray cannot yet join this list because his first major, which nearly everyone thinks is coming, hasn’t arrived yet.
Today the game is more global than ever, which has opened the door to newer, more exciting possibilities. Whether this is the greatest active generation of tennis players ever is not quantifiable, but it matches up well with any other generation so far produced.
Keep this in mind as you watch the AO: We are blessed to be watching this group play.