History has seen many great tennis players like Connors, Becker, and Lendl. Great players all, but they have not eclipsed their sport. Certain people, because of the near perfection with which they have played, can occlude their sports, impact in ways far more profound than the number of records they hold: players like Tiger Woods and Kelly Slater. In tennis, three come to mind: Laver, Sampras, and Federer.
Certainly they are three of the greatest in tennis but their records almost are insignificant in comparison to their impact on the game.
How did Laver change the game? His decision to turn pro ushered in the modern era of professional tennis. As the number one amateur, he completed a Grand Slam of tennis by winning the Australian, French, Wimbledon, and US Open in 1962, and promptly turned pro.
Footnote- in the years 1963- 1968 that Laver was unable to play in the “official” Slams, the pros had three contests they called the Professional Slams. They were the Wembley Championships, US Professional Championships and the French Professional Championships. Laver won a professional Slam in 1967, plus another six Pro Grand Slam tournaments, bringing his total to nine “Pro Grand Slams” before the beginning of the Open Era. Though not officially a part of the record, his accomplishments should certainly be considered when talking about who won the most “official” Grand Slams. That would put him as record at 20 if you included those.
Laver caused the tennis establishment to realize that if they wanted to see the best players at their tournaments, they were going to have to pay them and when the tennis world embraced professionalism in 1968, Laver then justified the move by again completing his second Grand Slam. This is probably not something that is given much recognition but it was a “cause and effect” circumstance.
Laver didn’t protest or cause a scene. He simply did what he did - which was pretty much kick everyone’s ass, and in doing so ushered in a new era of tennis.
Pete Sampras is another player whose game and career were so superlative that he had a dramatic impact on the game.
But Pete has had an entirely different effect on the game, one in direct contrast to the type of game he loved to play. He is acknowledged as having the best one-two punch ever in the history of tennis, and though things did move along rather quickly when Pistol Pete played, you had to love the way he did it. Sampras ended points so fast that the tennis establishment got worried that audiences would get bored.
Naturally, as in Laver’s era, there were other players that helped to cause these changes, but again it was the sublime near perfection of these particular players' games that initiated the changes.
Back in the 1990’s there were discussions about ways to slow the game down: different types of surfaces, heavier balls, different grass, and in these conversations Sampras was held up as the reason. The tennis establishment worried the game was too fast and the points too short to hold the interest of the spectators.
In my opinion the tennis establishment went too far, as establishments are wont to do, and they have now essentially standardized all the major surfaces. Because of this move towards uniformity, we are going to see the number completed career and calendar Grand Slams rise dramatically. No longer will there be the difficulty of transitioning from clay to grass, a fact that has already been proven with Federer and Nadal winning on both surfaces.
This is also why so many of the U.S. players are having such a hard time and why there are so few top level Americans. In the 1990’s, clay courters generally only did well during the clay season then their rankings dropped as the season moved on to the grass and the hard court seasons. Now it’s the players from the U.S. and Australia known for their hard court games that come and go with the season.
Historically speaking, these two powerhouses of the hard court are Australia and the U.S.A. However, as the courts have changed, there has been a dramatic decline in top level players from these two countries. Lytton Hewitt a few years ago made this very point during the Australian Open by complaining about the slow surfaces, and pointed out how much it was going to hurt the Aussie players - and it did.
So now a generation of U.S. players has to rethink their games, as the era of the big serve and put away shot is at an end. It’ll be a generation before the philosophical quick game mentality of Australia and the U.S. is superseded by the long rallying style necessary in this modern era of slow uniform courts. This is a weirdly sad legacy for someone that was just too good at being good.
So what of Federer?
Federer is the perfect player for this modern era. He is not a player of booming serves and put away shots, he its antithesis, the perfect player both offensively and defensively. We know he is one of the all-time greats, and officially holds the record for the most Grand Slam titles, as well as the Career Slam. One thing he has done already is ushered in the era of uber fitness as players struggle to keep up with his effortless movement. But what impact will he have on tennis in its entirety? Or perhaps he follows too closely in the footsteps of Sampras and is utilizing the changes created by Sampras impact? I don’t think so, though certainly this leveling of playing surfaces suits him.
But what, I wonder, will be his overall legacy?