I have taken-up the argument of this Roger-is-now-better-than-ever debate and declared it bankrupt. It’s complete wizardry, poppycock and tomfoolery. People, don’t believe a word of it. It’s an episode of Mission Impossible where all the cool agents get smashed and killed. Roger is quite advanced in age when it comes to competing on a regular basis vs. the top of the ATP. If you can’t see that, I can’t help you. I guess time will be the best rhetor in this case. Stay tuned.
However, the game of tennis is better than ever. I’m pretty sure.
I am referring to the level of tennis on the court, along with some generic philosophy and a bit of analysis. We arrive at this conclusion, I believe, holding the sparkling example of Novak Djokovic in our minds, who has a very worldly sense of the game, and finds himself in quite the opportunistic situation playing perhaps the best tennis, pound-for-pound, of all time.
If you ask me this next Wednesday, I might waver a bit; but I think this is the case.
In a different article I plan to examine the style component of the game, hopefully provide some clarification as to why Roger and Pete are often so high on people’s lists (certainly on mine). If you look at varying lists, the top 3-4 usually include Roger, Pete, Rafa and Laver; certainly you will almost always see Roger, Pete, and Rafa at the top. The rest of the list is just your basic gathering of other greats: Lendl, Borg, Johnny Mac, Agassi, Conners, maybe Emerson. Djokovic is usually in these top tens, but apparently hasn’t reached the top of the mountain in this collective tennis consciousness.
Granted, this is all debatable and who in the hell is making these lists in the first place? My point is most lists – use several different “credible” perspectives if you’d like – tend to have a general consensus. Because the truth is usually right there, in the pudding (numbers).
And to their collective points regarding Novak, he still has work to do. If he laid his racquet down today, he’d be somewhere in the top five or ten. Tough to argue otherwise. A lot of us avid fans are “seeing” his career play out in-front, projecting into the future. We know what he is capable of, what he’s most likely to do. Nothing is guaranteed, but the future looks very bright for the superb Serb.
But I’m wanting to go in a slightly different direction here.
I read an interview of one of my favorite players of all-time, Ivan Lendl. The interviewer asked if the players today could beat the players of yesteryear. This is a touchy subject, especially if you are “tight” with a player from the past. Again, ask me next Wednesday about this question of eras, and I might go pull my wooden racquet out of the basement and defend the wall.
Lendl very clearly answered, “Yes” to this question of players and eras. He briefly, in his orderly efficiency (resembling his great game), explained players are just better today. I wasn’t so sure I could agree, wanting to reach for a new racquet and hand it to him, or Borg, or even Pete, perhaps dig-up some current state-of-the-art discourse on sports nutrition and sports science, so they could update their “greatness,” fashion a more “current” form for this strange, hypothetical match for the ages that we play in our imaginations constantly.
But Lendl is right, I’m afraid. After all, who’s going to disagree with this man amongst men? No one may know the game as well as he. My proof? He orchestrated a couple major championships and an Olympic gold for the handicapped Andy Murray. That is some incredible coaching, perhaps Lendl’s greatest tennis achievement. Ok, I’m being sarcastic. But you know what I mean.
This little epiphany of mine about the current state of tennis, in historical perspective, took another step forward after watching the Sampras v Agassi 2000 AO SF this past weekend. Have you seen this tilt?
The clip below contains the pivotal 4th set TB. A pretty epic match of pure rivalry between two foes who, sure they respect one another, don’t really like each other, especially during a match like this. The body language/facial expressions are a great read on their personalities, the roles they play in the grand narrative that is men’s tennis, the drama of this match.
I’d like to direct your attention to a few points from this clip. This TB is fairly representative of the match as a whole and probably their games, in general. Let’s start with Pete. His game has so much intimidation. When I write the word “intimidation” I think of Rafa, but Pete’s was of a different kind, a more lethal variety. In fact, the best way to differentiate between Pete and Rafa’s intimidation is one’s was offensive and the other’s defensive (this is what makes Rafa’s game so much less interesting and inferior, imho. His mental game is perhaps unmatched, but his tennis was almost purely a kind of anti-Roger brand of tennis, built for that player and that era).
Pete’s offensive weapons were GOAT. Watch his serve during this TB. I watched the entire match and this TB is representative, as I said. He finished the match with 30+ aces. A stat I do not have, but this is what, to me, makes Pete so deadly, is his second serve ace count. His confidence is incredible. He will mark the T with a 118 mph second serve. If he DF, he’s coming again. This also refers to his serve and volley. He’s hitting his first serve 125+ and he’s coming in to net, probably 80% of the time. Here he comes. Andre passes, brilliantly. But he’s then getting ready for another 125 first, 117 second and Pete’s coming to net on both serves, most likely. His net game, remember, with such incredible touch and class, is probably the best net game of all time (made better by that serve), which includes big overhead smashes to go along with his long, athletic frame. Just a beast. Very intimidating.
What you’ll see, however, is his lack of baseline game. We know his ground strokes were incredible. The forehand (the running forehand) and his big OHBH are legendary. But you’ll see he just can’t quite hit with Andre consistently, so he’s forced to come to net, which wasn’t a bad strategy, but. . .
His return of serve is a liability, too. If he can break serve more consistently, it’s over. But he’s forced to go to TB twice here and the second proves too much in the end. The return is straight-up liability. Most of his return BH are slice. You’ll see him hit a few with top spin and these prove to be more effective. This style varied some through out his career, but that was his approach more or less. The baseline and return were not big confidence builders. This certainly kept hope alive for Agassi. This is all he had as he’d often just watch 3-4 serves blow by with out a whiff at much of any kind of exchange.
Agassi was all baseline attack. I got into some exchanges online with people who did not think Andre was a great returner. Andre Agassi is not one of the greatest returns of serve of all time? Good luck with that. Along with this great ground game, his serve improved later in his career. Some of his game, the power, the angles, and the return of serve remind me of Djokovic and Nadal. Sure it’s a bit of simplification, but Nole and Nadal followed Andre in this two player-type paradigm and Roger followed Pete (though Roger abandoned his S&V until more recently).
Great match, but Pete and Andre both show big vulnerability. I focus on Pete here because I think we all think that Nole is gunning for that top of the food chain legacy. Pete’s game (take a gander at the clip and other evidence) was so big, yet so full of style, class, panache and confidence. He did not think Andre belonged on that court after the 2nd set. And after the 3rd set TB. This one was going to Pete. But Andre battled, ala Novak and Nadal.
God forbid Nadal and Andre ever did have some kind of illegal “lift” to their games to compete and beat Roger and Pete, respectively. That’s not the point here. I’m still so impressed with Pete. Andre, too. These are all great players with different games, different styles.
Novak, however, seems to be devoted to completing his game. No weaknesses. Already, we see so much balance and very little weakness. His serve has improved and he’s coming to net more, certainly with the help of Boris and others.
To reduce the Agassi/Sampras match down to a very tangible discussion, the THBH just looks less vulnerable than the OHBH. I will attach to this the return of serve since the THBH often supports a more effective service return. That’s what kept Agassi in that match and many others vs. Pete, imo. That’s dealt, we all know, so much difficulty Roger’s way, which probably kept him from winning 20+ majors. I use Pete in this analysis, but we know the same issues with OHBH and return of serve, to a certain extent, apply to Roger, as well. Novak is more than just the defensive player ala Andre or Rafa. He’s taking tennis to that next level: Pete. . Roger. . Novak.
Novak has perhaps the greatest THBH ever and the greatest return of serve of all time. As he improves the rest of his game, which is already #1 in the world, FH, serve, 2nd serve, S&V, mental strength, fitness, etc., it’s tough to disagree with Lendl.