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Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and 16 US Open Champions in One Draw

Jeremy EcksteinFeatured Columnist IVJanuary 7, 2017

Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and 16 US Open Champions in One Draw

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    How would Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic fare against the other 13 US Open champions at New York's Flushing Meadows since its 1978 advent of hard courts?

    Though impossible to provide equal conditions and technology, we will allow each player to be at his peak and have him face off in summer 2012 with the technology and strings of his choice. Feel free to argue your case on this.

    The following is a playoff format to remember these champions.

    There will be only four top seeds, determined by total championship success. The top half of the draw will feature #1 seeded Roger Federer and #4 seeded Jimmy Connors. The bottom half of the draw will have #2 Pete Sampras and #3 John McEnroe. (Note: I had to discount Connors’ two USO Slams on grass and clay, but gave him the nod over Lendl’s three victories.)

    All of the match-ups were randomly drawn, so this is one of many possible brackets.


    Top Half

    1. Roger Federer vs. Ivan Lendl

        Marat Safin vs. Boris Becker


        Andre Agassi vs. Rafael Nadal

    4. Jimmy Connors vs. Patrick Rafter


    Bottom Half

    3. John McEnroe vs. Lleyton Hewitt

       Novak Djokovic vs. Mats Wilander


        Stefan Edberg vs Andy Roddick

    2. Pete Sampras vs. Juan Martin del Potro


    The following 15 slides will briefly look at these opening matches and remaining possibilities. It’s meant to be a tennis fan’s guide to the timeless match-ups and debates that make the sport the great discussion that it is, so each slide will end with a question rather than an answer.

2006 Roger Federer vs. 1986 Ivan Lendl

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    Lendl has the biggest gripe with this draw as he is arguably the toughest non-seed.

    For Federer, this will not likely be as difficult as playing Nadal, Safin, or Edberg among others.

    Federer would be the huge favorite because it’s a bad match-up for Lendl. It’s hard to find a single advantage for Lendl.

    Lendl’s forehand is great, but Federer’s is better.

    Lendl’s serve, backhand, and net game are all weaker than Federer’s.

    Even Lendl’s footwork and athleticism still come up short against Federer.

    With Federer a strong favorite, what would Lendl have to do to pull off the upset?

2000 Marat Safin vs. 1989 Boris Becker

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    Safin and Becker could have won multiple US Open Slam titles, so perhaps they underachieved somewhat.

    This would be a war well worth its price of admission and entertainment. Two fiery competitors with enormous talent and athletic ability facing off to see who can best maintain his composure.

    Safin’s edge is his powerful backhand and baseline game. He destroyed Sampras in the 2000 final, and showed his hard courts talent against Federer in Australia 2005.

    Becker will ride his serve and volley game. He also has the edge in winning more big matches, and he was excellent in other venues such as Wimbledon, Davis Cup and year-end tournaments.

    Becker would likely be the slight to solid favorite, but what’s the over/under for a Safin racket slam or Becker shouting in German?

1994 Andre Agassi vs. 2010 Rafael Nadal

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    One of the most intriguing match-ups, and there is precedent with these two in a hard courts final in Montreal 2005. Nineteen year-old Nadal won that one against 35-year old Agassi 6-3, 4-6, 6-2. Agassi was also getting ready for a run to the U.S. Open finals.

    Agassi would seem to be the favorite with two Slam titles in New York and losses to Sampras and Federer in four other years. His game is well-suited for hard courts and certainly hits the ball more offensively and on the rise better.

    Nadal is not as comfortable on hard courts but his 2010 run featured the right adjustments including a bigger, flatter serve.

    Nadal would make Agassi hit many extra balls. His spirit alone makes it a closer match than it may appear by the numbers. Nadal is a big match fighter.

    If we give the slight advantage to Agassi, we can at least acknowledge that Nadal is the only true clay-court specialist to make this US Open draw. If it goes five sets, do we give Nadal the edge?

1978 Jimmy Connors vs. 1998 Patrick Rafter

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    A savory match-up of tennis skill in which we can almost say Rafter may prefer going back to play Jimmy in 1978.

    Rafter’s sweet net skills and grace led to back-to-back championships in 1997-1998, which is interesting because he might have and possibly should have had better success at Wimbledon.

    Connors would have little problems attacking Rafter’s game as he played against the great Aussies of the late 60s and against other great serve-and-volley players such as John McEnroe and Stefan Edberg.

    Connors would also hit several great passing shots against Rafter, who had an effective but not dominant serve.

    Rafter did win his epic semifinal in Wimbledon 2000 against service-return genius Andre Agassi, and captured all the hard courts titles in summer, 1998. He would be tough.

    Connors would be the solid favorite. Could Rafter come in enough during rallies against the Connors return game and attack?

1984 John McEnroe vs 2001 Lleyton Hewitt

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    If the Safin vs. Becker match had enough spark, this one might set Flushing Meadows on fire. It would be a gritty, intense match of bravado.

    Hewitt would undoubtedly get under Mac’s skin.

    The tennis would be good also with their contrast in styles. McEnroe’s magical touch at net would have to be efficient. Hewitt is a retriever who would surely return any sloppy volley and perhaps pump some fists at his legendary opponent.

    It’s one of those matches where technology could affect the outcome, but 1984 McEnroe in 2001 would still be a solid favorite. If Hewitt had to go back to 1984, forget about it.

    Which player from the late 70s and early 80s would most resemble Hewitt?

2011 Novak Djokovic vs. 1988 Mats Wilander

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    Two baseliners with contrasting weapons who have been involved with some marathon matches.

    Wilander is the classic thinker and backboard who is not going to beat himself. He is calm and in control of what he needs to accomplish and will force his opponent to make difficult shots.

    Djokovic has more power from the baseline and would have no trouble with Wilander’s serve. At his best he would be a solid favorite in this one.

    How many more US Open Slams will Djokovic pick up in the next several years? He seems like a good bet for at least two more but time will tell.

1991 Stefan Edberg vs. 2003 Andy Roddick

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    The curious thing about Edberg was how he turned around his miserable times in the 1980s at Flushing Meadows into championship successes in 1991 and 1992. It’s a testament to his patience and smooth resilience.

    Roddick’s big serve would have to overpower Edberg for easy holds. This would not be easy as part of Edberg’s championship runs were through the likes of Pete Sampras and Boris Becker.

    One factor in favor of Roddick is he would have the confidence of a rising star before he hit the Federer wall. His belief would be high and maybe his forehand could get the upset.

    Would Roddick have won the 2003 final if Agassi had made it through the semis?

1995 Pete Sampras vs. 2009 Juan Martin del Potro

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    Maybe this match-up would be about right if all the players were seeded.

    Safin may have blasted Sampras in 2000, but that was late career Sampras with injuries and reduced footwork.

    Del Potro would need that kind of baseline perfection, but Sampras would also be better equipped than Federer to short-circuit Del Potro’s rhythm and power.

    How would it be for Sampras to pit his baseline game against Del Potro with modern strings?

Quarterfinals Top quadrant

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    Federer vs Lendl would square off with the winner of Safin vs. Becker.

    We’ve already seen Federer vs. Safin and Lendl vs. Becker, so have a good sense of how these matches would go.

    Lendl vs. Safin would be very interesting and perhaps a draw with the Russian’s superior backhand power. Lendl’s forehand and consistency would cause problems for Safin, especially as the match wore on.

    Federer vs. Becker might be the most dynamic match. Becker certainly can rise to the occasion against big players, so this would not likely be easy for Federer.

Quarterfinals 2nd quadrant

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    Agassi vs. Nadal would square off with the winner of Connors vs. Rafter

    Young Agassi faced an aging Connors in 1988-89 US Open quarterfinals, the second encounter a classic that required Agassi five sets to hold off the old lion.

    Nadal vs. Connors might be the most interesting match, just to see two mentally-tough lefties from two very different generations.  A young Connors would have to be the solid favorite based on his greater US Open triumphs.

    Rafter vs. Nadal would be another fascinating match with the Aussie perhaps having the edge on this court. He could be even money against 2010 Nadal.

Quarterfinals 3rd quadrant

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    McEnroe vs. Hewitt would square off with the winner of Djokovic vs. Wilander

    McEnroe said he never really had any kind of rivalry with Wilander because they favored different surfaces. Wilander would be a big underdog on US Open hardcourts to Mac.

    Hewitt vs. Wilander might last seven hours, Wilander with better strokes and Hewitt more feistiness and speed.

    McEnroe vs. Djokovic would be the primetime attraction with their different generational talents opposing each other. On one hand we could say McEnroe dominated Lendl in his heyday, but on the other hand Djokovic’s more lethal game from both wings could keep Mac from controlling the net. Tough call.

Quarterfinals 4th quadrant

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    Edberg vs. Roddick would square off with the winner of Sampras vs. Del Potro

    We’ve seen Roddick vs. Del Potro with the latter winning three of four meetings.

    Sampras would have a massive edge over Roddick—there’s nothing that favors Roddick in that match-up.

    Inevitably we would root for an Edberg-Sampras rematch. They had a good rivalry until Sampras peaked and Edberg got older. Their 1992 US Open final, won by Edberg, was a US Open classic.

Semifinals Top Half

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    The matches we would pay the most money to watch:

    2006 Federer vs. 1994 Agassi would shed more light on just how close or lopsided their 2005 US Open encounter was. Great baseline creativity in this one.

    Federer vs. Connors would tell us a lot about the evolution of tennis. If Connors kept it close, and he likely would, he might be the better closer in a fifth set. Still, the odds favor Federer.

    Likewise, it would be a treat to watch primetime Connors and Agassi. There was a bit of dislike/disrespect at their meetings, so it would be great to play it off with their prime years.

Semifinals Bottom Half

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    The matches we would pay the most money to watch:

    McEnroe vs. Sampras was a thrilling match in the 1990 US Open semifinal. Mac didn’t take kindly to Sampras’s emergence but there was nothing he could do to stop his serve and forehand.

    Djokovic vs. Sampras would be equally thrilling, with the added factor of their admiration for each other. No doubt Sampras would have to force things at the net and might be the toughest match-up they could each face.

Championship Possibilities

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    With this format several combinations are possible, and almost all of them would be capable of winning two matches and landing in this kind of a final.

    Certainly we would think of Federer and Sampras as the co-favorites, but we’ve also seen them lose on this surface to Del Potro, Safin and Hewitt.

    Who is the most confident and tough-minded of this group?

    What would be your dream match-up?


    Click here for a more personal tribute to the GOAT players

    Click here for an introduction to three of the most remarkable eras in professional tennis

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