Roger Federer and the Top 15 Shot-Makers of the Last 25 Years
When we talk about the best “shot-makers” in men’s tennis, not all of us will be defining the term the same way. For our purposes here we blend pure aesthetics with compulsory success.
Each man selected won at least one major.
Britain’s Tim Henman, for example, played superlative tennis, but he did not succeed on the biggest stages where ultimately all tennis players are judged.
Some players were less spectacular to watch but with foresight and often technology caused a shift in the way tennis was played. These players affected a change in the game.
By 1985 the era of Borg and McEnroe with a huge dose of Connors was over. True McEnroe and Connors were still playing but both had moved past their peaks.
Serve and volley tennis would soon be giving way completely to tennis played from the baseline.
Tennis slowed down, at least, it gave the appearance of slowing down. Serve and volley could not survive as grass gave way to hard courts and technology improved rackets and string.
Rushing the net became a detriment, and an era in the men’s game died.
Players became bigger, taller and definitely more fit.
These 15 men helped the game evolve to where it stands today...
15. Patrick Rafter
Patrick Rafter was a serve and volley player from Australia who won the U.S. Open twice in 1997 and 1998.
The Aussie was also a finalist at Wimbledon twice during his career in 2000 and 2001.
Plagued by chronic shoulder injuries, Rafter did not get to extend his career very long, but the Aussie was an extremely athletic player who hugged the net with the best of them during the years he played.
Rafter was a counterpuncher but a very quick one because he had to do it at the net more often than not, rather than at the back of the court where most counterpunchers reside.
His approach to any point, any game or even match seemed to be by the seat of his pants because nothing appeared the least bit organized in his game.
Yet he won surprising not only himself, but his opponents as well who never seemed quite sure where Rafter would be or what shot would come off his racket.
His matches were dizzying to watch, especially the ones with Agassi where the contrast in style was so marked.
Rafter’s groundstrokes were not that amazing but often good enough to win the Aussie a point or two on the way to victory.
Rafter had amazing hands and superb volleying skills and he is often called the last true classic serve and volley player.
Weakness: Just as spontaneity would win him points, it often lost him points as well.
A solid game plan and consistency were not present often enough to send him on to the next match on many occasions.
Rafter also did not do well on clay which slowed everything down and where his weak groundstrokes became a real liability.
14. Goran Ivanisevic
Goran Ivanisevic won the Wimbledon title in 2001 after his ranking slipped to No. 125 in the world.
The Croat had suffered with a shoulder injury, spending most of 1999 and 2000 on the sidelines.
In 2001 he was given a wild card into Wimbledon where he had been runner up in 1992, 1994, and 1998.
Finally in 2001, unseeded and unranked, Ivanisevic won Wimbledon, his first and only grand slam title.
Ivanisevic played left handed and employed a two-handed back hand, but his real weapon was his serve.
While he played, he frequently held the title of ace-leader because often his serves were simply nonreturnable.
His ball toss was deceptively low and unreadable. His play was fast like his foot work and his moves to the net.
Opponents often complained that they never got to hit the ball when they played the lanky Croat who stood 6’4” and weighed 165 pounds.
The balls whistled by them either a serve or a reply to a short ball they managed to get back across the net.
One year at Wimbledon, Ivanisevic served 206 aces in seven matches.
The Croat was a serve and volleyer––one of the last of a breed on grass that caused the promoters at Wimbledon to slow down the courts so tennis would once again be a two-man game, instead of one man serving.
Ivanisevic often lost his temper, smashing rackets. Once that happened, often he could not regain his composure, and his game deserted him. His mental hold on a match remained tenuous. It cost him throughout his career.
13. Marat Safin
Charismatic Marat Safin won the U.S. Open championship in 2000 and the Australian Open title in 2005.
For many, however, Safin remains the ultimate “missed opportunity” in tennis.
His talent seemed unending with a seismic well-placed serve and massive groundstrokes.
Although the Russian was powerful off both wings, Safin’s backhand appeared to be his primary weapon––he wielded it well against all opponents.
The big Russian was deceptively quick on the court and covered the net well, volleying the ball with the best of them when required.
Standing 6'4" Safin produced power moving forward or staying back. The Russian possessed an all around game that allowed him, when he was mentally fit, to defeat any opponent on any given day.
Surprisingly, Safin did not enjoy playing on grass. This remained true throughout his career despite the nature of his game which seemed perfect for the surface.
Safin’s career was continually downgraded by the Russian’s lack of consistency caused in part by his frequent emotional outbursts, including smashing of rackets.
Once the big Russian lost his concentration, his game failed and he lost, often badly.
His lack of mental fortitude stopped the big Russian from winning more––even though Safin had the game.
12. Lleyton Hewitt
Lleyton Hewitt became the youngest man ever to be ranked No. 1 in men's tennis.
The Aussie won the U.S. Open in 2001 and Wimbledon in 2002.
Still active, Hewitt’s game springs from the baseline where the Aussie reigns.
The success of Hewitt’s counterpunching style flows from the Aussie’s movement on court.
Hewitt's tenacity is considered legendary even today. The man simply never quits on a point until forced to either produce a winner himself or watch as his opponent does.
With amazing foot-speed and brilliant anticipation, Hewitt chases down every ball hit to him and returns it with dividends.
The Aussie’s successful return of serve allows Hewitt to stay in the point waiting for his opponent to hit the ball short or make another deadly error.
Hewitt is also a very skilled volleyer. While his overhead smash is superlative, Hewitt’s topspin lob is highly regarded as one of the best in the game.
Generally, Hewitt’s lack of a powerful serve, particularly his second serve is regarded as a weakness.
As the Aussie ages, his foot-speed has lessened, making him not quite as quick and agile as he was once was.
11. Jim Courier
Jim Courier reigned as the No. 1 tennis player in the world for 58 weeks in 1992 and 1993.
During his career he won the French Open twice and the Australian Open twice.
Courier was a baseliner. He used a Western grip to execute his powerful forehand.
Courier ground players down, hitting the ball with pace and accuracy from the back of the court.
Courier liked to win by outlasting his opponents––by wearing them down to an exhausted nub.
The American was superbly fit, quickly realizing the advantage of being able to stay on court as long as it took to win by utilizing his forehand to dictate play against his opponents..
Courier’s aggressive stance toeing the baseline allowed him to pounce on a short ball when the opportunity presented itself.
He could do so because of his powerful compact swing.
This same forehand allowed Courier to win on all surfaces, hard courts, clay courts and even on grass where he made the finals of Wimbledon but could not secure the trophy.
His most productive and admired shot was his inside-out forehand.
Courier also had an excellent return of serve and his backhand was adequate.
Courier was not comfortable at the net and his volleying skills were negligible and rarely used.
10. Juan Martin Del Potro
Juan Martin del Potro is most definitely a baseline player who can generate tremendous power on his groundstrokes.
Standing 6’ 6” tall, his serve can be lethal hit flat and deep up the middle or on the corners.
The Argentine strikes his big forehand using an Eastern grip, compared to most of his contemporaries who utilize the Western grip or variations on it.
His groundstrokes are truly powerful, some hit in excess of 100 miles per hour, pushing players back or blowing them off the court.
To vary the pace, del Potro employs a two-handed backhand which he can shoot up the line before the player opposing him can blink an eye.
Del Potro is the cutting edge of a new era of extreme power hitters whose power, depth and accuracy have been built on physical prowess and new technology.
Players like Federer cannot withstand the constant power and relentless aggression thrown at them.
Players like Nadal cannot offset del Potro’s reach at 6’6” because the Argentine is not affected by Nadal’s high bouncing returns.
Now at age 22, del Potro is working his way back after being out most of 2010 injured, recovering from wrist surgery.
Having won the U.S. Open in 2009, most feel that de Potro is the future of men’s tennis if he can overcome the injury and reclaim his aggressive game. The injuries have held him back so far.
9. Mats Wilander
Mats Wilander: As the game of tennis kept evolving in the 1980s, Wilander was able to adapt, often changing strategies from match to match and during a match if need be.
The Swede was a master tactician. He could think, analyze and react on the fly whether he was playing Stefan Edberg, Boris Becker or Ivan Lendl.
In order to win without overpowering weapons, Wilander learned to counter his opponent’s strengths.
The Swede became the ultimate counterpuncher guarding his serve and attacking his opponent’s.
Wilander possessed an all-around court game. He could serve and volley if he had to, or he could play from the back of the court if that is what he needed to do to win.
Playing to win became Wilander’s mantra. Do what it takes to win and not an ounce more.
His passing shots against a net rusher were dead on. Or he would send Lendl wide and wait at the net for an expected weak response. Wilander remained deadly accurate on all shots, painting lines and corners.
His footwork and foot speed were remarkable, and Wilander always anticipated his opponents moves well and countered with dividends.
In terms of shotmaking, Wilander did not have any real major strengths or weaknesses. But he could not get a win on the grass at Wimbledon.
He did, however win the Australian Open when it was played on grass, so you have to assume he had the game to do it.
Like his arch-rival Lendl, Wilander never won on the grass at the All-England Club which kept him from completing his career grand slam.
8. Novak Djokovic
Novak Djokovic has won the Australian Open twice now, in 2008 and 2011.
Hard courts seem to be his preferred surface although the Serb has proven himself on clay as well.
After toying with his serve the greater part of 2010, Djokovic finally seems to have recaptured his service motion that inexplicably deserted him for so long.
The serve, after all, remains an integral part of the Djokovic offense. The Serb typically hits the ball flat and hard during the first serve allowing Djokovic to win many free points.
When a second serve is required, the Serb prefers to slice the ball out wide.
The Serb typically remains at the baseline with tremendous defensive capabilities, but he is considered an all-court player.
His forehand and backhand are both consistent weapons, but the two-handed backhand is Djokovic’s preferred stroke.
His groundstrokes are hit consistently and cleanly with depth and precision, often angled sharply with topspin.
The Serb is widely regarded as one of the best in the men’s game at returning serves.
Although Djokovic has an effective drop shot, sometimes he tends to over-use it or telegraph its use in a point.
In the past, Djokovic appeared to give up or resign in a match, if not physically, then emotionally. This tendency may be a thing of the past and certainly his performances in 2011 will clarify that point.
7. Ivan Lendl
Ivan Lendl has often been called the “father of the modern game.”
His baseline style of play became the standard in tennis as grass died out and distinction between court surfaces became more blurred.
Utilizing a Western forehand grip, Lendl came to dominate men's tennis in the mid 1980s and early 1990s.
The Czech employed his heavy topspin forehand as a lethal weapon with the ability to direct the ball down the line or cross-court depending on his opponent’s position on the court.
Lendl was especially crafty when deploying a running forehand back across the net.
As time progressed in his career Lendl learned to adapt his game. A direct result of this was the development of his backhand hit with significant topspin.
The Czech was almost robotic in his consistency on his groundstrokes, except on grass whose bad bounces interrupted Lendl’s rhythm on his strokes.
This explains in part why Lendl could never win at Wimbledon.
Many contend that Lendl’s high ball toss was the reason for the Czech’s inconsistency on his serve. It was an area of concern for the former World No. 1.
Also you must consider Lendl’s inability to volley consistently as a weakness. This is also a reason why Lendl could not win the Wimbledon championship, something he sought throughout his long career.
6. Andre Agassi
Andre Agassi was NOT a serve and volley player.
His style of play, however, employed a method used by volleyers to squeeze his opponent, denying him adequate time to execute shots or continue to dominate in the point.
That is because Agassi stood inside the baseline to return the ball, which, if you have never tried it, is very difficult to do with skill.
It requires perfect timing, anticipation and excellent footwork. It demands concentration, ultra-clean ball striking using a very compact back swing.
Agassi’s return of serve has been called the best in tennis.
The American often continued to apply pressure by playing fast, not allowing his opponent time in between serves to catch his breath.
In his second life on the courts, Agassi perfected his groundstrokes. His ability to remain consistent throughout a match was aided by his extreme fitness.
He would often wear out an opponent rather than simply defeat him.
Agassi’s success came from his ability to deliver sharply angled shots from anywhere but mainly from the back of court.
In time the American added a backhand drop shot to his arsenal which was especially effective for Agassi because he kept his opponents pinned behind the baseline.
Agassi also became known for his swing volley which he developed for rare moments when he rushed the net, taking the ball in the air and delivering it across the net.
Agassi’s serve was never much of an asset although he worked continually to improve it. By the end of his career, his serve was not the liability to his game that it was in the beginning.
5. Boris Becker
Boris Becker: The big German burst onto the scene with a huge serve and volley game that took him to the Wimbledon championship in 1985 where he won as an unseeded player at 17 years of age.
Becker repeated as champion at the All-England Club in 1986.
Grass was his favored surface and the surface that allowed the German to optimize his skills.
Becker, a right-hander, used an effective serve to set up the point which he subsequently backed up at the net with quick and agile volleying skills.
His play at the net with deft movement and pinpoint accuracy made Becker difficult to pass.
The German also thrilled crowds with his “diving volley” which allowed him to save spectacular points as well as earn many rounds of applause. In the process the German earned his share of skinned elbows and knees.
When not serving, Becker’s return game was top-rated, aided by a very heavy forehand.
The German applied instant pressure on his opponent’s serve, taking the ball early and never giving the guy on the other side of the net enough time to develop shots or follow through on game plans.
Becker’s pure athleticism and timing gave him a decided edge.
Becker’s game, like many classic serve and volleyers, did not translate well to clay. The big German never did well on the red dirt.
Then too, Becker’s emotional outbursts on court tended to distract him rather than provide incentive.
Also, when the big guy decided to hug the baseline and try to play from the back of court to prove he could win that way, he was generally unsuccessful. Becker could be stubborn to a fault.
4. Rafael Nadal
Rafael Nadal harkens back to true baseline tennis as the ultimate counterpuncher.
His strength comes from a ball hit with heavy topspin which Nadal utilizes employing a full western grip and a lasso-whip follow through. He is able to do that aided by racket and gut technology advancements.
This means that his left arm hits through the ball and finishes above his shoulder forcing the ball through the air with tremendous rotation.
Nadal averages over 3,000 revolutions per minute. His high was recorded at 4,900. These shots rebound high forcing the opponent back and even off to the side to return a Nadal forehand hit with heavy topspin.
That opens the court for Nadal, allowing him to capitalize whether on offense or defense, winning the point.
Nadal also is rigidly consistent, painting the lines, encouraging his opponent to try for more and more to get a ball past him.
The Majorcan moves quickly on court, remaining relentless during a point, never giving up on any ball sent back on his side of the net.
Nadal has a finely tuned drop shot that he uses after he has forced an opponent back far behind the baseline.
Even though primarily a baseliner, the Majorcan can also volley and does well at the net with deliberate shots and acute angles.
Nadal’s serve was at one time his Achilles heel. But, the Majorcan has improved his first serve to the point where he often wins free points off it because of increased speed, power and placement.
Many regard his second serve as a weakness.
Nadal often seems to fall to injury brought on by inherent issues with his feet and his knees. So far, no permanent weaknesses have been assessed because of these physical areas of concern.
3. Stefan Edberg
Stefan Edberg played during an era when Swedish men seemed to dominate tennis courts.
True, Bjorn Borg had set his wooden racket aside in 1981. Borg as well as the esteemed Mats Wilander ruled the court with magnificent groundstrokes but Edberg’s forte was the net.
His forehand was not good enough to win from the back of the court so the Swede learned to play up close and in your face––to serve and volley.
Edberg used his vaunted kick serve to set up the volley, to give him time to set up at the net.
His volleys were exquisite to behold. Edberg kept the racket head at eye level, exercising precision and maintaining balance.
His motions were contained and precise. Like Federer today, Edberg seemed to flow, float across the surface with perfect foot work.
Edberg used placement to move the ball out of reach, not power.
Right-handed, Edberg also possessed, perhaps, one of the finest one-handed back hands in the game and he could use it with power and speed, or with spin or slice to carve up winners from any place on the court.
He also had excellent court coverage.
Edberg’s forehand was a definite liability for him. It was not a stroke he employed readily to win points.
Edberg also never adapted to clay, like many playing serve and volley.
2. Pete Sampras
Pete Sampras: Just as Becker did, Sampras used his serve to set up his volley.
But the Sampras serve was bigger, faster and deadlier.
What's more, the American often served as hard and fast on his second serve as he did on his first.
No one else used the second serve the way Sampras did. Both were disguised, meaning it was extremely difficult for opponents to get a read on the Sampras service motion.
With tremendous foot speed and balance, the Sampras movement on court was seamless.
His first-serve accuracy allowed Sampras the luxury of holding his own serve easily.
Should the opponent return the ball, however, Sampras waited at the net to flick the ball out of reach.
Sampras’ volleys were smooth and well-placed and the American dominated the net.
Sampras also used his forehand to great affect, especially on the run.
Add to those key strokes the Sampras “smash,” which was, perhaps, the best overhead in tennis, and you have the complete serve and volley player. Arguably the best in the past 25 years.
As was true for all natural grass-courters, clay was not a good surface for Sampras. He never did exceptionally well at the French Open or at clay events.
1. Roger Federer
Roger Federer: After the death of serve and volley and a brief resurgence in tennis of stolid baseline play led by Lleyton Hewitt, Andy Roddick and Andre Agassi, Roger Federer restored some well-needed balance to the overall game.
Federer with his all court prowess brought back athleticism and finesse.
The Swiss incorporated baseline power and its requisite pinpoint accuracy to the agility and quickness of those net rushers who loomed large during the era of serve and volley.
Both worlds seemed to coalesce in Federer’s game so his appeal was often universal.
Federer could play brilliantly on all surfaces although his ultimate success was greater on grass and hard courts. On clay, Federer continued to bump into the best clay court player the world has known to date, Rafael Nadal.
Federer has perfected a number of great shots including his forehand which has often been described as the best in the game.
The Swiss employs a one-handed backhand which he can slice to draw in opponents. By using topspin Federer can fire backhand shots for winners.
The Swiss may use a backhand flick with his wrist providing the power at the net to pass his opponent.
Federer’s serve is perhaps his greatest assets; yet, that weapon remains underrated in assessing the game the Swiss delivers.
Federer has amazing serve and volley skills and he can hurt opponents as well with his smash, lob and his newly perfected drop shot. Federer never stops tinkering, trying to improve his game.
Some have said the Federer backhand is weaker than his forehand which is why his opponents tend to zero in on it.
Many have also pointed out that Federer nearing age 30 is slowing down a step which leaves his susceptible to hard, aggressive play on the part of an opponent.