8 All-Time Tennis Greats Who Would Struggle on Today's ATP and WTA Tours

Jeremy EcksteinFeatured ColumnistMay 9, 2012

8 All-Time Tennis Greats Who Would Struggle on Today's ATP and WTA Tours

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    Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic have formed probably the toughest era in history for another player to try and break through with a Grand Slam win.

    For evidence, we will rely on the speculations of history's greatest legends and give them a chance to come to 2012 to take on the ATP, and also measure them by the past decade.

    Of course, removing the technology and conditions from past legends takes away their comforts and methods of success, so part of this speculation will attempt to examine the former legends by guessing as to how they would adapt with today's demand for baseline power and efficiency. Do they have the skill sets to generate topspin and pace, and can they return well?

    There are five legends from the ATP that would undoubtedly struggle with this simulation.

    In the WTA, things are more in flux in 2012. It would not be as difficult for Steffi Graf to continue her success now, for example.

    There are three legends from the WTA that would probably struggle today, and in the context of the past decade.

    Finally, the players that appear in this article were champions, so they would continue to battle with their trademark determination and heart. This is not to denigrate the players from the past, but to try and give an honest look at their skills in the modern game, and likewise show the evolution of tennis. They will be presented chronologically.

    There is a major surprise on the final slide that may take a BCS computer to help with the math and speculation. Have fun!

8. Jimmy Connors

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    If Connors played today, he might resemble a left-handed Lleyton Hewitt. He could translate into a 5'10" return specialist and ball retriever with feisty mannerisms that would irritate Federer fans and start fights with Nadal followers.

    The biggest question is if Connors could take today's racket and add a great amount of topspin and pace to his flat shots. If not, he would not be able to defeat tennis's big three.

    The problem is confounded in that he would have no shot at winning the French Open or Wimbledon against Nadal and Federer, respectively.

    The U.S. Open and Aussie Open would be his best chances, but it would be hard to get more than two Slams in the previous decade. There is no way Connors could win a Grand Slam in 2012.

7. Martina Navratilova

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    There hasn't been a player quite like Navratilova before or since. She always insisted she played tennis the right way, but would she change her game in today's WTA?

    She is one of the great athletes in tennis history and could add more topspin to hold her own on the baseline. Her reflexes and touch at net would produce some Grand Slam wins at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.

    But the WTA is deeper now, even if there is currently no dominant player. There are enough very good players with different skill sets that would still make it difficult for Navratilova to dominate.

    Would she get overpowered by the Williams sisters and Maria Sharapova? Do Victoria Azarenka, Agnieszka Radwańska and Samantha Stosur represent enough variety to trouble Navratilova?

    In 2012, Navratilova could very well be the No. 1 player, but taking on the previous decade, it would be tough to win 10 Grand Slams, a far cry from her 18-Slams career at an earlier era.

6. John McEnroe

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    For all of his hot-blooded competitiveness and genius, McEnroe was already unraveling by 1985. Big servers like Kevin Curren and Boris Becker overpowered him. Baseliners including Ivan Lendl exploited his suddenly vulnerable game by employing graphite rackets and bigger groundstrokes.

    This is heresy to McEnroe fans, but could he win a single Grand Slam from 2004-2012?

    Late McEnroe, circa 1991, could not generate enough topspin, depth or pace to hit with the likes of Sampras, Agassi and the new generation of power.

    Without the power to dictate play on his terms, McEnroe would be a sitting duck in trying to hit with any of the top 20 ATP players, let alone the big three. His return game would be severely exposed. Could his forehand even handle Nadal's brutal topspin?

    Stefan Edberg and Boris Becker would have similar problems but not to the same extent. Both still had some success in the early '90s, but would find it much more difficult to match up with today's field.

5. Mats Wilander

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    Today, Wilander would be the mild-mannered version of mercurial Andy Murray. Their defensive mindsets and conservative styles have much in common.

    If they were to match up on a regular basis, their offensive strategies and foresight would be comparable to chess master Garry Kasparov.

    Wilander would likely be a top-five player in 2012. He would also add more topspin and power to his groundstrokes.

    However, his serve would be exploited, and he does not have the weapons to defeat Federer or Djokovic on hard courts. It also seems equally unlikely that he could manage more than one French Open title in the Nadal era.

    Maybe he and Murray would find themselves in an epic eight-hour final at Melbourne, battling to see who would get their Grand Slam win.

4. Arantxa Sánchez Vicario

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    Though her tenacity could give Steffi Graf some fits in the 1990s, Sanchez Vicario's greatest talent was keeping the rally alive for one more ball.

    She was the ultimate retriever, but it's a tough way to win Grand Slams in today's WTA, even without the truly dominant players that made women's tennis so strong 10 years ago.

    Sanchez Vicario could win the French Open this year, but there are more athletic women who have various ways to attack her game.

    A backboard like Caroline Wozniacki could also use her terrific backhand to put pressure on Sanchez Vicario.

    Would she have defeated Li Na in last year's French Open?

    How would she do against Petra Kvitová's left-handed forehand?

    Sanchez Vicario would be a winner, but just one of the mix on the merry-go-round of the WTA.

3. Jim Courier

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    I rarely interrupt expository writing to include personal anecdotes, but I must do so in this instance:

    Jim Courier was one of my all-time favorite players, and I spent countless hours trying to mimic his baseball-swing backhand and crush in-and-out forehands. I loved his grit, fitness and run to No. 1 in 1992-1993. He won two French Open titles and two Aussie Slams, going through the likes of Agassi, Edberg and Sampras.

    But Courier's game peaked before most of the rest of the ATP figured out how to smash forehands as hard as they could. Once more talented players adapted, Courier was no longer a Grand Slam threat.

    At best, Courier would crack the top five in today's ATP and probably struggle against Andy Murray and Juan Martin del Potro. There is no chance he could defeat Nadal or Djokovic on his favorite surfaces, let alone Federer anywhere else.

    But I'll always wear a baseball cap playing tennis and go for long runs afterwards.

2. Martina Hingis

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    There was a lot of beauty to her tennis, juxtaposed with her occasional surliness. It's actually a shame she was overshadowed by the power of the Williams sisters, Capriatti's resurgence and other big-hitting players.

    It would have been especially delightful to see her extend her peak another five years to challenge Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin.

    Now? It might be another similar opportunity for Hingis to direct her intelligent strokes. She plays similarly to Agnieszka Radwańska with her construction of points, scrambling and use of guile.

    The biggest question is Hingis's toughness against a variety of skilled players. She rides her confidence well, but her early success may have blighted her willingness to fight through a competitive field.

1. Pete Sampras

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    What if Sampras, like Federer, were born in 1981? If we erroneously assume he developed into the same player and career arc, we can have fun with the following:

    At age 19, he wins the 2000 Wimbledon, but then needs a couple years to get back on track.

    In 2003, he finds himself playing Roger Federer for Wimbledon. Sampras goes on to win because of his experience and more proven net game.

    The 2004 season turns into Sampras's peak year with Wimbledon and U.S. Open titles, though Federer took the Aussie Open.

    Sampras adds his lone Aussie title in 2005, but Federer turns the tide by winning Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.

    Then the Sampras drought, as even he cannot stop Federer's masterful 2006 season of three Slams.

    Sampras comes back with wins at Wimbledon (2007-08), and adds the 2009 U.S. Open to his resume.

    Sadly, Sampras retires with nagging injuries, falling to one of the big three in the 2012 U.S. Open with one last great effort, but not quite enough.

     

    Final Totals:

    Roger Federer 11 Grand Slam wins (AO 4; FO 1; Wimb 2; U.S. 4)

    Pete Sampras  8  Grand Slam wins (AO 1; FO 0; Wimb 5; U.S. 2)

    Rafael Nadal    9 Grand Slam wins (AO 1; FO 6; Wimb 1; U.S. 1)

    Novak Djokovic 5 (His career is unchanged by Sampras' arrival.)

    What's interesting about this mix is that Nadal would only trail Federer by two Slams. He has his own niche on clay, so would be less affected by the Sampras arrival than Federer.

    And poor Pete Sampras would end up with barely over half his actual career total of Slams, if he were ending his career in 2012.

     

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