Rafael Nadal and the 25 Most Intimidating Tennis Players of All Time

Eduardo AfiniContributor IIIOctober 10, 2011

Rafael Nadal and the 25 Most Intimidating Tennis Players of All Time

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    According to the Oxford Dictionaries “Intimidate” means “frighten or overawe (someone), especially to make them do what one wants.”

    In the history of tennis there are players who, despite their technical attributes, are able to put extra pressure on their opponents by making them feel uncomfortable, thanks to elements such as aggressiveness, physicality and intangibles like strength of personality and on court behavior.

    Intimidation is not a must ingredient to success and technical quality alone is not an intimidating factor, which explains the absence of some great names in this list.

    Usually, intimidation is closely related to charisma and the ability to produce entertaining and even controversial performances.

    The order in which the players are presented is subjective, as is the theme of this analysis. The core and main goal of this article is the attempt to explain what makes a player intimidating.

25) Patrick Rafter

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    Rafter won the US Open on two occasions and was twice the runner-up at Wimbledon. He was ranked as high as number one in the world.

    Rafter was the one of the last pure serve-and-volleyers of the game. Remarkable is the fact that he was so successful in the modern era, when it is almost impossible to adopt this style of play.

    His aggressiveness and constant charges to the net are what made him an intimidating player and didn’t keep him from reaching the semifinal on the slower clay courts of Roland Garros in 1997.

24) Juan Martin Del Potro

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    At 23 years of age, Del Potro is the best South American player currently active, holding the 13th spot in the ATP ranking.

    In 2009, he captured his first major title, winning the US Open and becoming the first player to beat both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in the same Grand Slam event.

    Arguably anyone hits the tennis ball as hard and flat as he does. The proof of his intimidating style is how badly he beat Rafael Nadal in the semifinal of the 2009 US Open. It was amazing how he stunned the incredibly fit Spaniard who just watched winners go by him in bunches.

23) Robin Soderling

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    Robin Soderling has been ranked as high as number four in the world.

    Soderling is one of the hardest ball strikers in today’s game. He is able to generate tremendous amount of power from both the forehand and backhand, in addition to having one of the fastest services in the game.

    He is one of the few players on the tour capable of overpowering the likes of Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. 

22) Guillermo Coria

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    Coria won a total of nine singles titles in his career. His best result in a Grand Slam was also the biggest disappointment of his career: the loss to Gastón Gaudio in the 2004 French Open final, in which he was the clear favorite and won the first two sets.

    Very impressive was his natural ability to play tennis. He had no powerful shots, and yet he was able to use his opponents pace to his advantage.

    His arrogant and cocky behavior used to bother his opponents on the court. He enjoyed showing disdain for his rivals and didn’t hesitate to use his talent and produce humiliating shots whenever he had a chance.

21) Jo-Wilfried Tsonga

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    Tsonga became known to the tennis world when he reached the final of the Australian Open in 2008, where he lost to Novak Djokovic.

    He has won six titles in his career and is currently ranked No. 7 in the world.

    Aggressiveness is one aspect of Tsonga’s game that stands out. He is able to serve hard and finish points with his powerful forehands or from the net. This combined with his impressive physique (6’2” and over 200 pounds) is what makes his game intimidating.

    The unique flair he brings to the courts makes him one of the most entertaining players to watch. 

20) Lew Hoad

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    Lew Hoad was an Australian tennis player who competed in the 1950s. He is considered by Jack Kramer as one of the 21 best tennis player of all time.

    Hoad won four Grand Slam titles: French Open, Australian Open and Wimbledon twice. He fell one match short of a calendar Grand Slam in 1956, when he lost in the final of the US Open.

    The most intimidating aspect of his game was his audacity and his willingness to go for winners at the least expected moments. As Jack Kramer said: “ Hoad had the loosest game of any good kid I ever saw….There was absolutely no patterns to his game”

    He was a tennis icon of the '50s, with his good looks, impressive physical presence and outgoing personality.

19) Boris Becker

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    Boris Becker was ranked as high as No. 1 in the world and won six Grand Slam titles in addition to having reached at least the semifinal round in all of them.

    Becker was a great serve-and-volley player, but what made him stand out was his ability to also play from the baseline when he needed to change things around in a match.

    He was a complete player who could intimidate his opponents by showing little or no flaws.

18) Andy Roddick

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    Roddick has been ranked No. 1 in the world and is the winner of the 2003 US Open.

    He is known for having one of the biggest and fastest serves in the game.

    His aggressiveness and willingness to keep points short, in addition to having a very competitive and strong personality makes him a very intimidating player.

17) Jim Courier

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    Courier was ranked No. 1 in the world and won four Grand Slams (two Australian Opens and two French Opens). He also played in the final round of both Wimbledon and the US Open.

    Courier was an incredibly fit player, and possessed a lethal combination of consistency, power and mental toughness in his game.

    He was one of the first players who brought shot making ability to a new level. He could hit amazing shots from anywhere on the court and was one of the players responsible for the serve-and-volley style to vanish from the game.

16) Roy Emerson

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    Roy Emerson is a former Australian great who competed in the '60s and won 12 Grand Slam singles titles.

    He won each of the Grand Slams at least twice throughout his career.

    Emerson used to intimidate his opponents by being a tall and physically fit serve-and-volley player. He could go through long and strenuous battles without losing his power and aggressive characteristic.

15) Goran Ivanisevic

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    This Croatian player reached a career high No. 2 in the ATP rankings and captured his sole Grand Slam title at Wimbledon, as a wild card in 2001, after having reached the final there on three other occasions.

    What made Goran intimidating was his attacking style of play triggered by one of the most powerful services the game has ever seen. He led the tour in ace statistics for several years.

    He was considered capable of beating any player on a given day, provided he played his best tennis.

14) Ivan Lendl

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    Ivan Lendl is a former No. 1 player in the world who won eight Grand Slam titles, reaching the final round of a major 19 times.

    Lendl was a very solid baseline player who knew how to be consistent and aggressive at the same time. He hit balls with heavy topspin and had incredible passing shots.

    He was known as one of the most committed and hard workers of his time. He dedicated a great amount of time to improving his game even after he established himself as a top player. His tremendous concentration and "never give up" attitude used to throw opponents off balance.

13) Marat Safin

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    Marat Safin is a former No. 1 player in the world who won two Grand Slams: the US Open and the Australian Open. He is also one of the few players to reach at least the semifinal of every major event.

    Very charismatic and temperamental on the court, Safin is a rare talent and capable of playing some impressively powerful tennis. If he didn’t let his head get in his way, he could beat ant player at any time on any surface. There was no defense against him when he was performing at his best.

12) John Newcombe

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    John Newcombe was a dominant Australian player in the '50s and '60s. He won seven Grand Slam events and was ranked as high as No. 1 in the world.

    Newcombe’s intimidating reputation relied on an offensive serve-and-volley style. He was known for having the best second service in the game, capable of generating a great amount of aces from it.

    Newcombe is the creator of a famous saying in tennis: “a player is only as good as his second service”.

11) Andre Agassi

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    Agassi won a total of eight Grand Slam titles and is one of the five men to win all four of them. He is also the first player to win the four majors on three different surfaces.

    He is considered one of the most charismatic players in the history and to have one of the best service returns ever.

    His fast paced style of play and his ability to play inside the baseline, constantly taking the initiative of the point and keeping his opponents under pressure, are the most intimidating aspects of his game.

10) Ilie Nastase

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    Nastase was the No. 1 player in the world between 1973 and 1974. He won two Grand Slams (French Open and US Open) and was twice the runner-up at Wimbledon.

    He was one of the most talented players the game has ever seen. He could play both from the baseline and at the net. This talent allowed him to play with such a flair that could be embarrassing for his opponents many times.

    Nicknamed “Nasty”, he was known for his irreverent behavior on the court. For him, entertaining the crowd and throwing off his opponents emotionally on the court, were just as important as winning.

9) Bill Tilden

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    William Tilden completely dominated tennis in the early 1920s. He won a total of 10 Grand Slam events and was the first tennis player to ever become professional, in 1930.

    He is considered one of the most influential people in the history of tennis.

    The intimidating part of his game came from a huge and powerful serve, known as “cannonball” at the time.

    But the service wasn’t all of it. Tilden was known for having a great understanding of the game, and therefore was able to read his opponents’ games and come up with tactics and strategies that would turn them into hopeless targets.

    Tilden’s showmanship was also an intimidating factor. It is said that he used his dominance to let opponents win the first set, in order to make his matches more entertaining for himself and for the crowd. 

8) Rod Laver

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    John McEnroe’s idol won 11 Grand Slam titles and was ranked No.1 in the world for seven consecutive years.

    He won a calendar Grand Slam twice (1962 as an amateur and 1969 as a professional). He is also the only male player in history to have done it in the Open era of tennis.

    Laver’s dominance was due to his all around ability. He was a serve-and-volley player who also managed to be steady from the baseline, leaving his opponents with few options.

    Dan Maskel, a former English player and best known as BBC’s “voice of tennis” described Laver as “technically flawless, from his richly varied serve to his feather-light touch on drop volleys plus a backhand drive carrying destructive topspin when needed or controlling slice when the situation demanded it. “

    Rod Laver is considered one of the best players of all time.

7) Novak Djokovic

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    The Serbian is stunning the world of tennis in 2011. His run this year is considered by many as the best single season performance of all time.

    Novak is currently ranked No. 1 in the world and managed to dethrone Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, arguably two of the best in the game.

    Djokovic has probably the best return of serve in the game, which puts his opponents in an incredible amount of pressure. Losing a service game in the men’s tour these days is like saying goodbye to the set.

    Another amazing aspect of Novak’s game is his shot making ability. He took Rafael Nadal’s amazing ability to cover the court and hit winners on Nadal from all over.

6) Pete Sampras

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    Pete Sampras is considered one of the greatest players of all time and won a total of 14 Grand Slam titles.

    Perhaps the best all court player the game has ever known, Pete could be aggressive from the base line and at the net. He had the ability to choose between playing serve-and-volley and staying back, without losing his offensive characteristic either way.

    He his serve was a huge weapon and was capable of serving aces on crucial points.

5) Jack Kramer

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    Jack Kramer is a former number one player in the world in the 1940s and is a sure name in every “greatest of all time” discussion. He won three Grand Slam titles: two US Opens and one Wimbledon title.

    As a major advocate of Open Tennis and one of the founders of the ATP, he was a great leader and in a large part responsible for what the game is today.

    Kramer’s intimidating factors were his big serve and powerful forehand. He was the first top level player to adopt the pure serve and volley style of play, in which he came to the net after every first and second services.

    His physique played a major role in his dominance of the game. He was slim, fast and stood 6’2”, which was way above average height at the time.

4) Jimmy Connors

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    Jimmy Connors won eight Grand Slam titles (five US Opens, two Wimbledons and one Australian Open), and was the first player to win major titles on all surfaces, a feat the has been repeated by only four other players: Mats Wilander, Andre Agassi, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

    Connors’ return of serve is still considered one of the best in history, and along with his remarkable footwork, turned him into one of the most feared player of his time.

    His competitive spirit was second to none and highly intimidating. In addition to that he was very charismatic on the court and therefore was capable of drawing crowds to his side, using them in his favor on “down to the wire” matches.

3) John McEnroe

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    The former No. 1 player in the world won seven Grand Slam titles (three Wimbledon titles and four US Opens).

    McEnroe can easily be seen as the most talented player to have ever picked up a tennis racket, even with Roger Federer around. His unorthodox style of play, which included a continental forehand in an era when it had practically disappeared, and his absurd volleying ability were capable of embarrassing opponents on the court.

    His short temper and confrontational on-court behavior, with frequent verbal abuse to opponents and umpires illustrates a strong and intimidating personality that seemed to be harmful to his opponents.

2) Pancho Gonzales

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    Pancho Gonzaeles was an American tennis player who had a long career that ran from the late '40s to early '70s.

    He was the No. 1 player in the world for eight years and won the US Open in 1948 and 1949. Some experts still consider him one of the greatest who ever played the game.

    Gonzales stood 6’3" and weighed 183 pounds. He was at least five or six inches taller than his major rivals at the time.

    His biggest and most intimidating weapons were his service and forehand. The former was measured at 112.88 mph, the fastest in the era of wooden rackets.

    In regards to his service, a 1999 Sports Illustrated article on the 20 favorite athletes of the 20th century had this to say about Gonzales: “If earth was on the line in a tennis match, the man you want serving to save humankind would be Pancho Gonzales."

1) Rafael Nadal

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    At the age of 25, Rafa Nadal has won 10 Grand Slam titles, including at least one of each of the four majors, and is the biggest threat to break Roger Federer’s record of 16 Grand Slam titles.

    His mental toughness and intensity on the court is what intimidates his opponents. Anyone who plays against Nadal knows he will have to win every single point as the Spaniard will not give anything away. His ability to run every ball down and make seemingly impossible shots from every corner of the court sets him apart from the crowd.

    Rafael Nadal does not believe in losing. He thinks he can win every point in every match against any opponent and this is the attitude with which he plays, turning the lives of his opponents into a real nightmare.


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