With the 2012 tennis Grand Slam season having recently been completed, it is time to reflect.
Instead of simply listing the greatest hard-court players ever, I have formatted an all-time great tennis tournament played on hard courts.
I began by choosing and seeding my 16 competitors, in my mind the 16 best on this surface ever.
Then, in a single elimination tournament, I worked my way all the way to the final.
Please note that this is only Open Era players.
Also, this article considers that every player is in his prime, or playing his best tennis. However, head-to-head marks are still taken into account when applicable.
Here is the list of the 16 players selected for this "dream" tournament. In parentheses is the seeding.
(1) Roger Federer
(2) Pete Sampras
(3) Ivan Lendl
(4) Jimmy Connors
(5) Andre Agassi
(6) John McEnroe
(7) Novak Djokovic
(8) Boris Becker
(9) Stefan Edberg
(10) Mats Wilander
(11) Rafael Nadal
(12) Jim Courier
(13) Andy Roddick
(14) Patrick Rafter
(15) Marat Safin
(16) Andy Murray
Roger Federer, currently ranked World No. 1, is very widely viewed as the greatest tennis player of all time. He holds nine career hard-court majors, and 51 titles overall on the surface. The Swiss star is tied for the most US Opens and Australian Opens in the Open Era.
Andy Murray, who recently broke out to win his first major title, on hard-court, holds 20 hard court titles overall. He was also previously a finalist at the 2008 US Open and both the 2010 and 2011 Australian Opens. Hard is the Scot's best surface.
In his prime, Federer's forehand is second to none, and his serve is amongst tennis' greatest weapons. Murray has a great return, but even five years past his prime, he has a slight edge over the Brit.
Counting out backhands, a Roger in his prime has an edge over Andy in every aspect.
Although all three sets would be close, Federer would just be too good.
Federer in three.
Pete Sampras gives Federer a run for his money for the top seed, but he falls just short in most criteria. He is the winner of seven hard-court majors and 35 titles. He won the US Open five times, including his final tournament ever, in 2002.
Marat Safin, one of tennis' underachievers, won two hard-court majors in his career, including upsetting Sampras to win the 2000 US Open.
Both players play attacking tennis, with big serves and forehands, but Sampras does it better. In the years of 1994-95, Sampras was almost unbreakable, and the Big Russian is not a great returner.
With every Sampras ace or volley winner, Safin, known for his temper, would grow more frustrated, and the American would wear him down in three relatively easy sets.
Sampras in three.
Ivan Lendl, who won five of his eight majors on hard-court, was one of the first players to play an attacking style of tennis from the baseline. Contrary to most players of his era, the Czech blasted forehands from deep in the court, his aggressive style fit the hard surface perfectly.
Pat Rafter, in an era in which back-court tennis had become much more popular, was one of the last top serve-and-volleyers. His game was very tricky and hard to beat, as he was always consistent and had great touch around the net.
It would take Lendl a few sets to play his best against the Australian, but in the end, Ivan escapes the upset.
Lendl in four.
Jimmy Connors was another of the early players to focus his game around baseline play. His backhand and service return are both among the greatest in tennis history. Three of his majors came on hard-court, but the American had other very successful results on the surface.
Roddick, also an American, and a former pupil of Connors', is always a tough out. Roddick has a huge serve and forehand, but his backhand and movement have plagued into a one-slam wonder. However, other than a few deep runs on Wimbledon's grass, hard court has been the surface of A-Rod's greatest achievements.
Roddick would be able to steal one set in a tiebreaker, but Connors' overall game and ability to put most serves back into play would lead the American legend to a tough four-set win.
Connors in four.
Although most of the numbers would edge toward Agassi, as the brash Las Vegan captured six hard-court majors to Courier's two, one must take head-to-head into account for this matchup.
Courier, a native of Orlando, seemed to always be at his best when he battled Agassi, who was never in peak form when facing his ex-Bollettieri academy classmate. Although this article considers both players to be in peak form, I must also take into account head-to-head.
Courier captured seven of 12 meetings, including three of five on hard.
Neither player possessed a big serve, and both preferred the backhand to the forehand.
In an intense battle, Courier competes another comeback against Agassi, winning the last three sets, and, finally, the match.
Courier in Five.
John McEnroe is among the all-time greatest tennis players. His serve-and-volley game was one of the great versions of that strategy that we have ever seen, as the American had superb touch around the net. He won four of his seven career majors on hard-court, all at the US Open. His left-handed game was hard for even the best of righties to handle.
However, his opponent in the first round is not a righty. Rafael Nadal is among the all-time greats as well, but, with his game less adapted to hard-court, only two of 11 majors have taken place on that surface.
However, at his best, Rafael has been the best hard-court player in the world. Furthermore, the Spaniard has amassed a staggering 63-6 career record against fellow left-handers. He would also feast on serve-and volleyers, with his topspin-laced forehand passing shots among the best ever seen.
However, Johnny Mac is not just any serve-and-volley player.
This match would go on for hours and hours, but the very mentally tough Nadal would outlast McEnroe in grueling fashion.
Nadal in five.
Both of these players are all-surface whizzes.
Djokovic has only recently broken out onto the scene as a great player, but since the start of 2011, the Serb has four major title, of which three are on hard-court. Tack on the 2008 Australian Open title, and it's a pretty darn good resume.
Wilander is a two-time hard-court major winner, but the Swede's game was more adapted to clay, as Wilander also captured three French Opens.
Djokovic is much more attacking, fast surface-centered player, who can also run down tons of ball.
Both these men are thrilling to watch, this would be a great match, with Nole proving just a bit too much late in the match.
Djokovic in four
Over the course of their illustrious careers, Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg went head-to-head a remarkable 35 times. Becker held a significant 25-10 overall head-to-head record, but the German dropped three of the four matchups that were played at Grand Slams.
The pair never met in a hard-court major. Overall on the surface, Becker defeated the Swede in seven of ten meetings.
Half of Becker's six majors were won on hard-court, as the big server much preferred quicker surfaces.
Edberg only won two hard-court Slams.
In this dream match, Becker's serve is, as usual, too strong for Edberg to handle, as the German moves onto the quarters.
Becker in four.
This matchup is a perfect quarterfinal showdown.
Becker is a great serve-and-volley player who excelled on more rapid surfaces and could kill the ball.
Federer is the most fluid player ever and can play any style, and the Swiss could very well go down as the greatest tennis player ever.
However, huge servers are the one kind of players that nobody ever wants to play.
The German would jump out to a two-sets-to-one lead, but Federer would figure him out, and win with two relatively quick sets to finish off the quarterfinal.
This match has upset scare potential, but Roger is just too good.
Federer in five.
This match would certainly be among the greatest encounters ever. It would feature arguably the greatest server in tennis history against it's best returner.
Djokovic has never faced a serve as big as Pete's, especially one that is backed up so well with a big forehand and precise volleys. However, Sampras has never faced a mover like Djokovic, who's returning ability may only be matched by Andre Agassi, Sampras' chief rival.
Djokovic doesn't really have a weakness. He can attack the ball from both wings. His movement is superb, and his serve is much improved.
Sampras' movement isn't great, and neither is his backhand, but the rest of his game is impeccable.
This match would feature momentum swings and many holds, but the American serves too big on the biggest points, so he will pull this out in an epic match.
Sampras in five.
Ivan Lendl and Rafael Nadal going head to head would be one of the all-time greatest matches. Lendl likes to stand deep behind the baseline and crush forehands, whereas Rafa likes to sit far behind and retrieve balls.
However, even at his best, Rafa is not a wonderful hard-court player. His attacking game has always been below the best, but Lendl's has been top class.
I would envision this match to go a little like the Nadal-Djokovic 2011 clashes, with Lendl dominating the points and Nadal doing a lot of the running.
The result would be similar as well.
Lendl in four.
Connors and Courier are both American legends in tennis history. Connors and Courier both were better at returning than serving, and both were better off the backhand wing.
These two players are very similar, except that Connors is a lefty. Also, Jimmy's serve and forehand are both better than Jim's.
Courier does everything very, very well but doesn't have one fantastic weapon. He got lucky with his first-round draw, but facing Connors in his prime would have been too big a task.
Connors in three.
We have reached the semifinals.
Federer, as mentioned previously, is probably the greatest player ever to pick up a tennis racket. The Swiss star has a picture-perfect serve, forehand, backhand, volley and exquisitely fluid movement.
In his prime, Federer won with ease, cruising past opponents. He won three out of four majors in 2004, 2006 and 2007.
Hard court is not his best surface, but even then, Roger has won nine titles on the surface.
Jimmy Connors won three of his five US Open crowns on hard, but it is unfair to judge on statistics only, as the American had less chances to win on the surface, given that he played in the 1970s and 1980s, when the Aussie and US were only just switching.
Make no mistake, Connors is one of the truly great hard-court tennis players of the Open Era.
Federer in his prime, though, lost to almost nobody.
Connors is known as one of the fiercest competitors ever in tennis, and the great entertainer would be sure to make this showdown a match.
As Federer eased in and out of points, Connors would thump the ball from deep behind the baseline and keep Roger on his heels.
However, Federer is too quick and too good an adjuster for Connors' sneaky tactics.
Federer in four.
Onto the second semi we go.
This game would have the potential to go as big as the first.
Both players would thrive on getting to attack, but they would be looking to do so in different ways.
Sampras would bomb serves and try to rush to net and hit volleys. Lendl, contrarily, would attack from the baseline and look for some deep-court baseline winners.
Lendl, with his excellent stamina, would look to push Sampras around and not allow the American to move in.
Lendl would be able to dictate points on his serve, but not on Sampras'.
As Lendl would push much harder to hold compared to Pete, in the end, it would be the emotionless Czech, instead of, the big-serving American.
Lendl is one of the hardest workers in the game, but late in the match, his game would simply undo him.
Sampras in five.
Ah, finally, the finals, and who else could it have been?
Roger Federer, owner of 17 Grand Slam titles, battling against Pete Sampras, winner of 14 himself.
The 16-player field has been whittled down to two, and of course, the top two seeds remain.
Both have had a tough road to get here, but there was truly never any doubt.
Both these players pride themselves on serves and forehands, but their playing styles are still miles apart.
Federer knows that he can block back almost every serve, at least force Sampras to hit a second ball, and probably a third.
Sampras knows that his chances will lie in his ability to get to the net.
Everyone else knows that this would be a classic match.
Federer is a known quick starter, and in this fictional tournament, it is no different. The Swiss star races out and nabs the fist set.
The rest of the match is nip-and-tuck. Although it seems that both players are holding easily, Sampras is forced to hit many shots, and Federer is ripping passing shots to keep his hopes alive.
As we near the fifth set, it is first Sampras who ups the ante, stealing the fourth set and evening the match a two sets all.
However, Roger's ability to get the majority of his opponent's first serves back is too much for the American to handle.
Federer's backhand, often cited as his weakness, is still better than Sampras', and the hard court nullifies Sampras' tactics just enough.
Federer in five.