Diehard fans of Federer and Nadal like to argue why their favorite is better than the other, or they debate whether he is greater than Pete Sampras or Bjorn Borg. It’s an interesting exercise, and when objectively measured, it helps true tennis fans to gain a greater knowledge and respect for tennis history.
Federer’s coach Paul Annacone, who also coached Pete Sampras, even tried to bury the comparisons with the following excerpt from The Tennis Space:
If Pete was to play Roger or Rafa or Novak, here in 2012, it would be a totally different game. You don’t know how Pete would have evolved, and how his game would have changed. He would have been great. I don’t mean to give you a non-answer, but when people try to compare era, it’s apples and oranges. It’s a different game.
If we apply this principle to distinctive mini-eras in tennis, we realize that players, court surfaces, racket technology, media and countless other factors have continued to evolve tennis into several other versions of itself through the years, linked but in constant motion and radically altered.
Suppose we tried to prove that Leonardo Da’Vinci was more intelligent than Aristotle, Albert Einstein and Bill Gates. We would have to invest in scenarios and data that are obsolete comparisons from one time period to another.
If you saw John McEnroe play during 1979-1984, you saw the GOAT dominate and elevate tennis. You saw him invent and create a style of championship tennis that has never been replicated.
All players can be defeated, as McEnroe was, but it’s impossible to prove that Laver or Nadal could step into 1984 and defeat him. McEnroe actually dominated that time.
All champions could adjust to different eras and be great, but it would likely sacrifice or change a part of their makeup that we would recognize.
We will never know what would have happened to Federer if he had to use a wooden racket in 1969, except to say that he would have used his skills to adapt and become the greatest champion that he possibly could. Would it have been enough to trump Laver? We’ll never know. Laver is the king of the 60s.
The following features are merely a reminder that tennis has produced wonderfully unique legends. We will never see any of them again because time will wash away the scenery and grow a new legion of heroes.
By and by you may see glimpses of past legends reappear in future champions. Your sense of nostalgia will brush off of the past and link its memories to tennis’s new performances.
These nine legends changed the way tennis was played, which is why they will be remembered.