Tennis' Tech-Free Five

Rob YorkSenior Writer INovember 24, 2008

Were I allowed to travel through history and manipulate it according to my whim, I’d prevent the assassination of John Lennon, thus preserving hope of a Beatles reunion. Then, I’d convince a young Mao Zedong that he’d have a brighter future as a poet than as a governmental figure, thus saving the lives of tens of millions of Chinese.

My reward for these good deeds would be that I’d get to select five of the greatest tennis players from the days of outdated rackets, bring them to the present, and give them access to today’s technology and training methods. Tennis has changed a lot over the years, but some players would still be champions. My five examples, the Tech-Free Five if you will, are:

Rod Laver: There’s a contingent of fans who firmly believe that “The Rocket,” the only man to win the complete Grand Slam twice (and seven years apart) is still the greatest who ever played the game. It’s easy to understand why when you look at clips of him, well into his 30s, making younger, bigger baseliners like Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors sweat.

Many American fans of the game today aren’t terribly familiar with his game, but he inspired at least two of their own who appear later in this list. Between that big kicking lefty serve, that deft touch at net and that extraordinary one-handed backhand, there was little Laver couldn’t do with a tennis ball.

Arthur Ashe once called his 12-inch left forearm a “two-by-four with freckles,” making him a fit for the heightened physicality and strength required on the modern tour.

Playing today, it’s unlikely that the 5’8" Laver would continue to play serve-and-volley tennis, as today’s rackets make fiercer returns of serve and more pinpoint passing shots possible. He had the speed, groundstrokes and flair of an effective baseliner, though; imagine a male, left-handed Justine Henin or a Marcelo Rios who actually gave a damn about winning.

I don’t think he’d regularly beat Pete Sampras or Roger Federer on a fast surface, but it’d be great fun to watch.

Bjorn Borg: In an era when groundstroke winners were rarer, Borg still hit a few, primarily by wearing his opponent out first. In the ‘70s, perhaps only Jimmy Connors hit a bigger groundstroke than this guy, and no one could hit them for a longer period of time.

After a few years on tour, Borg supplemented his incomparable skills as a baseliner with one of that era’s biggest serves and enough panache around the net to bag five Wimbledons. Though John McEnroe successfully – on his second try – wrested the Wimbledon title away from him, he won at Roland Garros the last four times he contested it.

He’d probably adapt even quicker to the current slower conditions at Wimbledon. Would he still be able to outlast today’s stronger, fitter players? Would he now be a true power baseliner, moving in and hitting forehands on the rise, as so many of his successors have? Would his better backhand and serve be enough to overcome the huge forehand of Rafael Nadal on clay?

One can only imagine.

John McEnroe: Johnny Mac’s left-handed, aggressive all-court game was inspired by Laver’s, but his personality was all his own. His rants and outbursts were shocking – they remain so on the seniors’ tour—and they unfortunately overshadowed his brilliant play.

In 1984 he was tennis’ Big Brother: his Nike sneaker a boot stamping on opponents’ faces all season long. He dissected eight-time slam winner Connors in the Wimbledon final (a three-set match that took only 80 minutes), and Ivan Lendl fared little better in New York.

McEnroe also came within a set of winning at Roland Garros, losing only three matches all season long. Only Laver in ’69 and Federer in ’06 have had singles seasons that dominant, and Mac did while playing a full schedule of doubles and Davis Cup.

While it lacked the pace of a Sampras or an Ivanisevic delivery, McEnroe’s left-handed serve would still be highly troublesome today. Maybe he would’ve stayed back and tried to hit over his groundstrokes more against today’s baseliners. Then again, maybe he’d keep the strategy he successfully employed that year against Lendl, the consummate power baseliner: Come to net behind everything.

McEnroe’s strategy for fitness and for practice was to play doubles, but he’d probably have to spend some time in the gym to compete in today’s grinding schedule. And though his doubles success actually exceeds what he accomplished in singles, no one in today’s game has time for both. Under what circumstances would he play doubles now? Furthermore, in an era of nice guys like Federer, would anyone be able to stand him?

Ivan Lendl: With our previous names, there’s been a question of whether or not they would use the same style. With Lendl, there is none: He had the game’s original big forehand, and his approach to fitness forever changed notions of what a professional tennis player should be.

Furthermore, he remained active in the early '90s, until the age of 34, advancing into the second weeks of majors against younger players while using a racket that is teaspoon-sized by today’s standards.

How would he fare against guys like Fernando Gonzalez and Marat Safin? Players like this hit with more power than was even imagined in the ‘80s: Would Lendl’s legendary commitment and champion’s instincts be enough to overcome them? Just what could he do with a 110-inch graphite frame?

Pete Sampras: Some will question whether Pistol Pete belongs on this list. He was, after all, playing on the tour throughout the ‘90s, and up to ‘02 against today’s big hitting generation. What’s all the more extraordinary is that he used the same racket the entire time: the 90-inch Wilson Pro Staff 85.

When he came out of retirement to play exhibitions in 2007, many of the skills that won him 14 major titles were still on display, albeit diminished by age: big first and second serves, cat-like quickness, good hands at net and that game-changing running forehand.

One thing that had certainly changed was his backhand: Though treated as his weakest shot through much of his career, thanks to a newer, bigger racket, Sampras was ripping it with even greater confidence. With that kind of tool in his prime, what kind of damage could he have done?

Then again, one wonders if, while preparing for today’s game, Sampras would have repeated his famous decision to switch away from the two-handed backhand, his best shot in his youth. A huge-serving Sampras with a double-fisted backhand might be a better fit for today’s slower Wimbledon courts and longer rallies. However, maybe he’d use his one-handed backhand and aggressive style of play to rob these baseliners of their timing.

At their respective peaks, and armed with equally useful tools, Sampras might not regularly beat Federer; but even on this list he’s the one with the best chance of doing so.

Having the Tech-Free Five at their best would make the year-end championships far more watchable. In fact, they’d make it a major event, the kind a reunited Beatles deign to perform at to kick off the festivities. And it would have a more than suitable host in Shanghai, since the Chinese economy, unencumbered by Maoism, would be through the roof, making the rest of us second-class citizens.

But at least the tennis would be great!