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 last in a five-part series examining such possibilities.
In the 1990s, as part of its annual readers’ poll, Tennis magazine asked which non-tennis playing athlete fans would most liked to have seen playing tennis. Wayne Gretzky was a very distant second.
The vast majority of respondents wanted to see number 23 wearing all-whites on the courts of Wimbledon. In 1992, my uncle, who along with my father taught tennis to me at a young age, also speculated that a player of Jordan’s size and talent with the tennis skills of Jim Courier, then the No. 1 player in the world, would be unstoppable.
I agreed that he would be dominant, but I always saw him as more of a Pete Sampras.
There are great athletes, and then there’s Michael Jordan. I could cite his statistics, his awards won, the clutch shots and staggering one-man shows he put on while dominating the mid-‘90s, but such anecdotes shouldn’t be necessary.
All that should be needed to say is that now those who dominate their line of work, and not just in sports, are called the Michael Jordans of their profession.
Had he grown up with a tennis court rather than a hoop in his back yard, what kind of player might he have become?
Well, whenever discussing what role the very tall might have in the future of the sport, there are those who believe that those 6’4" or taller cannot dominate the sport.
Looking at those of such stature who’ve already played the game, it is apparent that they sacrifice movement, especially laterally, which more than compensates for the advantages they have while serving or volleying.
But when I look at players of great height we have seen near the top of the game, I think of Richard Krajicek (6’5") and Todd Martin (6’6").
Krajicek, at one inch shorter than Jordan, only won one major title, but his ’96 Wimbledon win was one of the most dominant Grand Slam efforts of the Open Era, and many thought that he had the game to win more.
Martin, the same height as Jordan, was one of the worst movers at the top of men’s tennis, but thanks to his great serve, volley and return of serve, was able to reach a pair of major finals, and put serious scare into Andre Agassi in one of them.
Given what Martin and Krajicek accomplished, who among us thinks that either of them are athletes of Jordan’s caliber? If you’re not sure, watch some of his slam dunk highlights and then make up your mind.
More athletically gifted he may be, but I see Jordan as a big serving, net-rushing tennis player in their mold. There’d simply be no good reason for him to play any other way: His size ought to give him a great serve and excellent net coverage, and what are anyone’s chances of getting a lob over a vertical leap like his on a regular basis?
But it was a lot more than just their shared leaping ability that caused many tennis fans of the ‘90s to call Sampras the Michael Jordan of tennis: During the ‘90s, both men were bankable presences in their sports’ most prestigious summer events.
Jordan was Mr. June, carrying the Chicago Bulls to six NBA titles in eight years, and Sampras Mr. July, capturing seven Wimbledons.
Just as Sampras hit the clutch second-serve ace at deuce, Jordan nailed the clutch jump shot as the clock was running out. Those players who are accustomed to the singularly special qualities of the championships play their best in those occasions.
That, more than talent, is what separates Sampras from Krajicek, just as it distanced Jordan from Karl Malone.
I don’t know when or even if we’ll ever see a mental/physical equivalent to His Airness cracking aces on SW19 one day. I am confident that, if we ever do, it’ll change tennis forever.
Many thanks to those of you who’ve followed this self-indulgent exercise of mine. Keep in mind, there are a lot of great competitors in sports I was never exposed to, so please don’t complain on this page that I missed your favorite footballer/swimmer/figure skater.
But please do share who you’d like to see in the comments section.
For Part 1, Usain Bolt, click here.
For Part 2, Lance Armstrong, click here.
For Part 3, Gabrielle Reece, click here.
For Part 4, Walter Payton, click here.