Andre Agassi, Rafael Nadal: Masters of the Masters Series
At his best, nobody outhit Andre Agassi from the baseline; certainly not on a hard, fast surface, and only a few could on clay.
He hugged the baseline, using his preternatural vision and reflexes to pick up shots right after they bounced and fire them back at opponents.
If they hit at him, he moved the ball around the court, keeping them on the run.
If they hit away from Agassi, he took two-three quick steps to catch it on the rise and then launched it back, keeping himself from having to go on defensive.
If they hit it short, he stepped into the court, cracking the ball for a winner or at least a deep approach shot.
When Agassi played his best, the only players who knew regular success against him were Pete Sampras, Patrick Rafter and, later, Roger Federer—players who served, volleyed, and moved (at least defensively) better than Agassi, and didn’t have to try to outhit him.
Nobody had ever made opponents cover more court from the baseline; that was one of the keys to his success.
The other was conditioning: Knowing that he would have to wear down anywhere from five to seven players to win an event, he was determined to be the fittest and strongest player on tour.
As such, he ran hills in the winter before the Australian Open and could bench press 300 pounds. Since he weighed only 170, this means Agassi had the kind of pound-for-pound strength that would make an NFL player proud.
His strength allowed him to drive the ball just as well on championship Sunday as it did in Round One.
This was an important factor in Masters Series events; there, top players need to win five best-of-three matches and rarely have a day off in between them.
For these reasons, Agassi won 17 Master’s Series shields, the current record.
He won his first at the Lipton (now the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami) in 1990; his last came in 2004, beating Lleyton Hewitt in Cincinnati.
He won Miami six times, including three in a row in 2001-03. The only Master’s Series events he never won were in Monte Carlo and Hamburg, which was downgraded to an ATP Tour World 500 event starting this year.
The Masters Series events are in the second tier of the game, less prestigious than the Slams, requiring less overall effort and not as much of the mental fortitude that a two-week event does.
But it takes a great blend of talent and raw physicality to thrive at them.
Pete Sampras made the game look easy; he won 11 Masters shields and 14 majors.
Agassi, who made it look like work, won 17 of the former and eight of the latter.
Thomas Muster, the consummate clay court grinder, only won one major but eight Masters shields, including the Lipton on hard and Essen (now Madrid) indoors.
Yevgeny Kafelnikov, a gifted all-courter who won two majors, won no Masters Series events.
I first got the chance to watch Rafael Nadal at the Miami Masters in 2005 against David Ferrer. My first impression of him at the time was that he was the clay court version of Agassi.
Double-A kept opponents on the defensive by taking the ball early and sending it back at opponents before they could react adequately; Nadal does so with his extraordinary topspin, which stays out of the opponent’s strike zone.
Agassi stayed on offensive with short, quick steps and little backswing; Nadal stands well behind the baseline, where his speed allows him to easily reach the opponent’s shots.
Different styles, but the same result: A very tired opponent.
Nadal is also Agassi’s successor in terms of strength. Though he lacks the broad trunk that allowed Double-A to drive an endless number of flat shots through the court, Nadal’s python-sized arms probably play no small part in the amount of spin he’s able to generate.
Plus, he has an advantage over Agassi; while both are adept at controlling the point, Agassi had to in order to win matches.
Thanks to his speed, tenacity and supremely accurate passing shots, Nadal can better afford to scramble.
And that’s why the Spaniard’s success in Masters Series events extends to all surfaces.
He’s won two each on the hard courts of Canada and Indian Wells, plus one indoors in Madrid in 2005.
Of course, his greatest success has been on clay, with one Hamburg title, three in Rome, and now five straight in Monte Carlo.
With his win on Sunday, Nadal now has 14 Masters Series shields, tying him with Roger Federer and putting him only three behind Agassi.
His odds of catching Double-A this year are good; his chances of overtaking the American in 2009 aren’t too bad either.
Off to the best start of his career, Nadal’s efforts in the Grand Slams this year will receive attention, and justifiably so. But his results in the Masters Series events are also no weak feat, and deserve recognition.
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