If They Were Tennis Players, Pt. 4: Walter Payton

Rob YorkSenior Writer IMarch 19, 2009

Today tennis is being played at a standard of athleticism and fitness never seen before. There is, however, always room for growth, and other sports may show the way. This is the fourth in a five-part series examining such possibilities.

Why: There once was a time when heavy hitters with poor movement (by pro standards) could carve out a very successful living in professional tennis. Mark Philippoussis and Todd Martin, thanks to their huge serves, solid volleys and heavy groundstrokes, each won numerous titles and both reached a pair of Grand Slam finals.

Those days have passed. Look at those ranked in the top 20 today: Are there any whose movement can truly be called a weakness? Andy Roddick and Mardy Fish come closest, but both are better movers than Big Head Todd or the Scud.

There is, however, a difference between simply being “fast” and “moving well”: James Blake, currently ranked No. 13, and Gael Monfils, No. 9, could in all likelihood beat most of the top 20 in a 100-yard dash. When asked who is best at “moving well,” however, and the answer would probably be Roger Federer.

Being “fast” can certainly help a player reach drop shots or chase a crosscourt forehand. “Moving well,” on the other hand, involves the reflexes that allow a player to return the hardest serves, the anticipation of when those drop shots/crosscourt backhands are coming, and getting into position to shift from defense to offense.

Though he is a heavy hitter, it’s these areas, along with his champion’s mindset, that put Federer on top of the rankings from 2004 to the middle of 2008.

Physical Characteristics: The late Walter Payton was the Roger Federer of NFL running backs, and not just because he was the best of his time. Though not necessarily the fastest guy on the field, and certainly not the biggest (5’10), Payton’s quick feet, plus his ability to change direction suddenly helped him not only avoid tacklers, but break free of them.

He ran for 16,725 yards in his career, and for 275 in a single game, both of which were records at the time.

Though his movement was Federer-like, his size is one inch shorter than that of many of tennis’ greatest baseliners: Andre Agassi, Jimmy Connors, Lleyton Hewitt and Thomas Muster are all 5’11, as are David Nalbandian and Alex Corretja.

Movement has become such a necessity on tour because it is dominated by baseliners, who need to chase down balls from the backcourt for long stretches of time.

We have no idea how Payton might have played had he started training to play tennis from a young age: Might he have hit the ball cleanly like Agassi, or a bigger, heavier swing like Corretja or Muster?

Maybe it’s his mid-sized, heavier-than-the-average-tennis-pro build, but the idea of Payton as a Nalbandian-type player sticks in my mind.

Mental Characteristics: Nalbandian, however, has not demonstrated the kind of mental fortitude that defined Payton’s career. The man who trained by running up hills in the off-season showed just as much determination on the field.

His quick feet may have played a part of it, but part of the reason he was able to break so many tackles was due to the size of his heart.

Never Die Easy was not only the title of his autobiography, but his motto on the field, making certain that would-be tacklers felt a hit every time they tried to take him down. Despite those hard hits, he missed all of one game in 13 seasons.

From Nalbandian to Marcelo Rios to Gaston Gaudio, many of tennis’ most talented baseliners under six feet have made up for a lack of size with sheer flair. Many of them, and certainly those just named, have lacked Payton’s grit.

Though his training regime might have been novel for tennis players, his personality would mesh quite well with our current Mensch era on the ATP Tour: He was known as Sweetness, not just for his smooth running style, but his kindness and warmth.

His death in 1999 from a rare liver disease brought sorrowful tributes from even the most hardened NFL veterans who’d known him.

A Note: Among our athletes who aren’t tennis players, we’ve covered size, speed, endurance and grace, plus the will to maximize these traits. On Sunday we’ll conclude the series with the non-tennis playing athlete who best combines all of these descriptions.

For Part I, Usain Bolt, click here.
For Part II, Lance Armstrong, click here.
For Part III, Gabrielle Reece, click here.