Ranking the 10 Most Skilled Players on the ATP Tour

Jake Curtis@jakecurtis53Featured ColumnistJuly 13, 2013

Ranking the 10 Most Skilled Players on the ATP Tour

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    The most skilled male players are not necessarily the best players on the ATP Tour, and vice versa.

    Being skilled is certainly an important aspect of achieving tennis success, but attributes such as athleticism, power, endurance, decision-making, confidence, experience and will also play vital roles.

    For our purposes, we define skill as an ability to manipulate the ball and a point with a wide range of effective and varied tennis-specific techniques. Whether the player has the wherewithal or opportunity to implement that skills set is another issue entirely.

    Tennis players' skill was more evident when wooden rackets were used. The finesse, touch and variety exhibited by Miloslav Mecir, John McEnroe and Manuel Santana allowed them to dominate foes. Today, the game is more about raw power.

    David Ferrer, Tomas Berdych and Juan Martin del Potro are among the best players in the world, but they are not among the most skilled players in our estimation. Ferrer survives on sheer relentlessness. Berdych and del Potro can simply blow opponents off the court.

    To borrow a comparison from basketball, LeBron James would not rank among the most skilled players in the NBA, but because of his athleticism, power, court awareness, smarts and ability to perform in the clutch, he is generally considered the best player.

    Here is our countdown of the most skilled players on the ATP Tour.

10. Benoit Paire

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    Benoit Paire's considerable arsenal is coupled with questionable shot selection and a controversial personality that make him intriguing, if nothing else.

    In a 2013 article on Paire, the New York Times stated, "One tennis analyst labeled the newly turned 24-year-old a 'magician,' a word most commonly associated, at least in tennis circles, with another Frenchman, the retired Fabrice Santoro. Those who witnessed his between-the-legs lob facing the net in a match in January wouldn’t disagree."

    Although attempting a between-the-legs shot may say more about his choice of shots than his skill, it illustrates the available weapons he's willing to use.

    He has enough touch to attempt drop shots often, perhaps too often, and is a good enough at net to play serve-and-volley occasionally.

    Paire is ranked only 27th primarily because he lacks the vital intangibles required to be a star. But he is still just 24 years old.

     

9. Rafael Nadal

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    A few years ago, Rafael Nadal would not have been on this list. Even now, his success is built on athleticism, endurance, mental toughness and ability to perform in the clutch as much as it is on his tennis skills.

    However, he has added variety to his backhand, and is now a capable volleyer. Nadal still seldom ventures to the net, but when he does, he shows a deft touch, particularly on low balls. 

    He can complement his heavy topspin forehand with a flat version when needed, and he has improved his serve by making several subtle changes over the years.

    Winning Wimbledon and the French Open in the same year, as he did in 2008 and 2010, indicates he has a sizable bag of weapons from which to choose.

8. Jurgen Melzer

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    Currently ranked 33rd in the world, Jurgen Melzer was as high as No. 8 two years ago. At 32, he's probably past his prime, but his vast repertoire of shots still makes him a threat.

    This is a guy who claims his favorite shot is a backhand drop shot.

    He can play defensive tennis or hit winners. He can rally from the baseline or come to net to finish off points. And he can do each in a variety of ways.

    Melzer's problem has never been his tennis skill. It's his decision-making and focus on the court that prevent him from being a consistent member of the top 10.

7. Alexandr Dolgopolov

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    Though a bit unorthodox with his technique, Alexandr Dolgopolov has a lot of options when hitting a shot or planning a point.

    He's a good and willing volleyer and can be aggressive when he wants. Dolgopolov can also be a counter-puncher, probing opponents with a variety of groundstrokes. He can hit his backhand either two-handed or one-handed with various spins or even flat.

    Perhaps his best skill is his ability to wait on his groundstrokes, effectively disguising the pace and placement of his shot until last possible moment. 

    It appeared he might be making a run at a top-10 ranking when he reached No. 13 in January 2012 at the age of 23. He has since slipped to his current No. 24 spot.

6. Andy Murray

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    The fact that Andy Murray has reached the finals of the last four Grand Slam tournaments he's entered, and won two of them, suggests he might be the world's best player at the moment.

    He has reached that plateau partly because of his versatility, which is facilitated by the range of weapons at his disposal.

    Murray can beat rank-and-file players with his defensive counter-punching style. He can change pace and move the ball around the court with his deft racket control, simply waiting for his opponent to falter.

    However, he now can challenge the elite players because he has developed an aggressive style as a complement. Ground strokes that are more penetrating and a dependable volley have given him a complete repertoire with which to work. He wins more points on his serve, too.

    His consistency and tactical excellence still may be his biggest assets, but he wouldn't be No. 2 in the world, and pressing for No. 1, if he did not have the requisite skill set.

5. Bernard Tomic

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    Bernard Tomic's greatest talent is making his opponent play poorly. He does this by calling on his vast repertoire of shots, changing pace and spin at will. His foes can never get a read on what he will do or develop a rhythm.

    He loves to hit drop shots, but then can come back with a big flat forehand. His skill set on his backhand side is particularly impressive. Tomic can hit a penetrating two-handed backhand, but he also has one of the most effective one-handed slice backhands in the game.

    Tomic is a capable and willing volleyer and he can win points outright on his serve.

    Tomic is ranked No. 42 and he is vulnerable against players who can overpower him. But he is just 20 years old and has a chance to be something special.

4. Michael Llodra

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    The New York Times perhaps described Michael Llodra's style best in its report of a 2010 match: "Llodra showed off a wide range of tennis exotica that sent ripple after ripple of appreciation through the sun-baked crowd."

    Llodra is an anachronism whose style might have been more effective in the days of wooden rackets, when touch was a bigger factor.

    He plays a highly aggressive style without hitting the ball particularly hard. Llodra is like John McEnroe in that regard.

    Llodra may be the last of the true serve-and-volley players, using his touch to execute any type of volley needed. He works his way to the net using a variety of speeds, angles and spins. His deft use of drop shots and drop volleys keeps opponents off balance.

    In today's game, he can be overpowered by big hitters, and, at age 33, his best years are behind him. Still a quality doubles player, as many skilled players are, Llodra's singles ranking has dropped to No. 47. His skills remain evident, however.

3. Novak Djokovic

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    Because Novak Djokovic thrives by wearing down opponents with his consistent, penetrating ground strokes, his skill set is often overlooked.

    It shouldn't be.

    He displays elegant touch around the net, whether volleying or delivering a feathery drop shot. And there is diversity to his backcourt game, as varying amounts of spin and pace allow him to manipulate points.

    His serve and net game are good enough that he can serve-and-volley on occasion if he chooses. His short angle shots and the occasional slice backhand demonstrate the finesse that is often hidden by his power.

    Court coverage, power, consistency and toughness are Djokovic's calling cards. But don't discount his varied tennis skills in the equation that make him No. 1 in the world.

2. Grigor Dimitrov

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    In style, Grigor Dimitrov is often compared to Roger Federer.

    Dimitrov has the same variety as Federer with his one-handed backhand, able to drive it with topspin or direct it with slice. Dimitrov's forehand is a weapon as well. He has Federer-caliber touch on lobs and drop shots. He can volley effectively. In a single point, Dimitorv can display a complete arsenal.

    All the elements are there, and he is fun to watch.  But Dimitrov's style is not yet accompanied by Federer-like substance. Currently ranked 29th, Dimitrov is young enough at 22 to develop that championship quality. 

    As a June 2013 article in The Guardian noted:

    He has also been approvingly compared to Roger Federer – the consequence of a Federer-like one-handed backhand, his love of the slice, a well-crafted serve and his willingness to construct points in a fashion to please the purists. This is not the Roger fully formed, for Dimitrov is not yet that, but as a kind of Roger in gestation. They call him Baby Fed.

1. Roger Federer

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    Roger Federer is past his prime, but his skill set still reigns supreme.

    Tennis artistry and tennis skill are not quite the same thing, although it's difficult to make the distinction in Federer's case.

    It's simplistic, although true, to say Federer has virtually every shot at his disposal. The contrasting effect of his slice backhand and his backhand drive hint at his mastery, even though his forehand is his stronger ground stroke.

    He remains one of the game's top volleyers and is able to deliver drop shots, drop volleys or half-volleys with equal precision.

    Though Federer seldom follows his serve to net these days, he's very capable of playing serve-and-volley if the situation warrants.

    Federer is not as powerful as some of today's sluggers, and he has slipped to No. 5 in the world rankings. He will be 32 by the time he plays in the U.S. Open and seems unlikely to win another Grand Slam title.

    However, no one can manipulate points in as many ways as Federer. There's a reason he has won 17 major titles and was rated the greatest player in history by the Tennis Channel.

    Former player Vijay Amritraj hit the nail on the head when he commented on Federer's appeal in a June 2013 Sports Illustrated article:

     "There's so much skill, so much grace, so much elegance -- such majesty about the way he's played the game, and of course, the way he's carried himself. And in today's version of slam-bang, he's able to have been No. 1 for so long -- and keep that kind of play in motion. Why is the general comment, 'Oh, I love to watch Federer play?' For the last decade-and-a-half, there's been no one like him."