No time to rest. No off-season. Once the game begins there is no one to help you. No teammates, no time outs, and no coaches. Conditions change, court surfaces change, and in a tournament like Wimbledon there is no bell to save you in the twelfth round. You play until someone is broken. It requires a unique blend of world-class hand eye coordination, physical condition, stamina, willpower and mental toughness. To thrive in tennis you have to be a warrior. With apologies to the greats who came before my time here is a list of some who have impressed me. The list is in no particular order:
Andre Agassi – It was great watching Agassi’s metamorphosis. From seeing him not make the most of his talent to the light bulb going on and watching him get the most out of every last drop he had. We should all appreciate the way he learned to value every point, every win, and every match and incorporate that zest in our own lives. His gesture of blowing kisses to the crowd after matches at the US Open always seemed to me like an acknowledgment of all that was behind him, his awareness of the moment, and the hope it would never end. Yes he was a great player, but as he got older, he beat people with his will, conditioning and brains. Watching him dissect and carve up opponents was amazing. Watching him jog on and off the court during changeovers while his opponents were fighting off dehydration was almost comical. Lastly he managed to inject his personality and have fun with the game minus the nastiness of some of his predecessors. He retired with a rare career slam (winning at least once at the four majors) and eight wins total in slams.
Jimmy Connors – Andre Agassi gave so much in the second half of his career its hard to imagine someone giving that much over an entire career (that included making it to a US Open semi-final at age 39!) but that is exactly what Jimmy Connors did. I generally don’t put people in the same sentence as Michael Jordan but when it comes to competitiveness that is exactly what I do with Jimmy Connors. His drive, obsession, and love of the game was every bit the equal to Jordan’s for basketball, maybe greater when you consider Jordan’s hiatus from basketball to play baseball. Another thing impressive about Connors’ run was that it took place in an era when tennis greats burnt out faster than they do today. My theory is training methods are so much more advanced now that today’s player can stay fit and motivated longer. Connors was doing it on blood and guts and he could fire up a crowd like no other. Jimbo still holds the record (by far) for most tournament wins at one hundred and nine, and count eight slams among them.
Bjorn Borg – Imagine winning the Olympic gold for the fifty yard dash in the same year as finishing with the fastest time in the New York City Marathon. Or being the best starting pitcher in baseball and its best closer. Back in Borg’s day the difference between the clay surface at Roland Garros and the grass of Wimbledon were so dissimilar (far more so than today) it was like dominating two different sports. The feat being more amazing when you consider there were only a few weeks separating the two events. Borg won both events in the same year three times and eleven times overall in an abbreviated career. He was the Barry Sanders of his sport walking away with the all-time record for slams in his sights. His back-to-back Wimbledon finals with John McEnroe (in which they split) are classics.
Ivan Lendl – Perhaps the most under appreciated champion in tennis. He was Ivan Drago before Ivan Drago. The Czechoslovakian cyborg with the high ball toss on his serve and the laser passing shots who refused to be intimidated by the dominating personalities of John McEnroe or Jimmy Connors, even on their soil. He went to a record eight straight US Open finals, winning three championships and eight overall grand slam events. He was also Andre Agassi before Andre Agassi. He didn’t have the peaks and valleys of Agassi but he did change his diet and dedicate himself to fitness that helped take his game to the next level. Perhaps his greatest career accomplishment was coming from two sets and a break in the fourth set in the finals at Roland Garros against McEnroe to win his first Grand Slam.
Pete Sampras – Whoever said defense wins championships never saw Pete Sampras’ offense. I always felt Sampras received too much criticism for being too stoic. He followed the Connors / McEnroe generation where on court outbursts were lamented by the media and was classy as can be. For baseball fans, he kind of reminds me of Mariano Rivera in temperament and delivery. You had an idea of what was coming, but good luck dealing with it. In the decline phase of his career, his ability, mental toughness, and presence were enough to keep him winning. And when his game really dipped, he got a new coach, (Paul Annacone) dug deep and won one more slam, his fourteenth overall, at the US Open and then left the game on his terms a la John Elway. He retired with the record for most grand slam wins (which was later broken by Federer) and consecutive weeks being ranked number one in the world. If ESPN fawned over tennis in his day the way it does over golf, Sampras would be the bigger sports icon he deserves to be.
Andy Roddick – Tennis’ A-Rod is not on this list because he is great champion. However, an athlete who is never going to win as much as he wants or thought he would, but keeps fighting is also a warrior. Roddick burst on to the seen with a booming serve, a winning personality, and with Sampras and Agassi aging, he was to be the next great American player. He did win a US Open, and he briefly reached number one, but maybe had a little too much of the young Agassi in him with the distraction of getting his own reality show. Then that guy named Federer ascended and Roddick, as well as many others, were in for a rude awakening. From the outside looking in it seemed like a bucket of freezing water got thrown in Roddick’s face. What do you do from here? Accept mediocrity? There would still be a lot of money and fame in that. No. Roddick dedicated himself more so then ever, working harder, getting fitter, changing coaches, and trying new things. And while it has kept him relevant, (including a historical, epic Wimbledon final with Federer) he has yet to win another major.
Too me there is something about training your ass off, getting beat, knocked down again and again and charging back for more that is impressive, for different reasons, as doing it when you have a reasonable expectation you’re going to get results. For all of us who aren’t going to accomplish what we want to A-Rod is on this list.
John McEnroe – Putting aside his sometimes boorish behavior, Johnny Mac is in the conversation of athletes who have done more for their sport than anyone. He was a great singles player finishing the year ranked number one four times and winning seven grand slams. He and doubles partner Peter Fleming are arguably the greatest doubles tandem of all time. Mac was a part of nine men’s slam doubles teams and for good measure he won a mix doubles slam at the French as well. In his prime he was as fierce a competitor as any yet always made time for Davis Cup, the tennis equivalent of the Fed Cup in golf. Mac dominated leading America to victory four times. In his time and since you do not see top players in the world dedicate themselves to their country the way Mac did. Post playing days, he is the games best commentator and sports ambassador. He has dedicated his life to tennis and the sport is better for it. Oh and despite what I said about his behavior, McEnroe and challenges? That would have been fun to see if they had them in his day.
Roger Federer – The Swiss Maestro. If there were one reason not to include Federer on this list of warriors it would be because he is so incredible and moves so gracefully that he makes the game look easy. He belongs in the conversation of most dominant athletes of all time. Holding the record for most grand slams with sixteen, he won three out of the four majors three years in a row and set remarkable records for reaching consecutive grand slam finals (10) and semi finals (23). For a sport with no real off-season, that demands so much physically and mentally, not to mention the worldwide travel, not to get burnt out, to stay healthy and play through injury and maintain that standard of excellence is phenomenal. It is an iron man streak worthy of inclusion with Cal Ripken, Brett Farve and A.C. Green. Like Sampras in his prime, he is probably under valued due to the comparative popularity of other sports. The Tiger Woods fan club in the media in particular seeming to take offense at any comparison.
Let not Federer’s demeanor or grace on the court fool you, he has the fire in his belly of a true warrior and at age thirty though his game may be on a slight decline, don’t count him out, he has been written off prematurely before. Oh and his matter fact confidence cracks me up.
Rafael Nadal – Toro toro toro. To me Nadal is like the Derek Jeter or Tom Brady of his sport. Very hard to dislike. At just twenty four he already has nine slam wins and before all is said and done he could go down as the game’s best. And this is coming from a Federer fan! He is great, he is humble, and while Sampras and Federer may be under appreciated outside the tennis world, Rafa might be inside of it. Seemingly fans always finding a reason to root for his opponent.
Unsatisfied with being a clay court specialist Nadal has been relentless in improving his game on all surfaces and accomplished his career slam of winning all four majors at a much younger age than the previous two to accomplish the feat, Andre Agassi and Roger Federer. He plays with the heart of Jimmy Connors, the physicality of Agassi, the fitness of Borg, and the cerebralness of Federer.
Having dominated Federer on clay and perhaps gotten inside of his head it may have been in Nadal’s interest to keep Federer at arms length off the court. But these two great champions have developed a respect and friendship that’s serves them as individuals and the game for the better.
Novak Djokavic – I consider Novak to be a younger more talented version of Andy Roddick. Novak came on the scene with number one in the world talent and a number one in the world ego. Problem was Federer and Nadal were having none of it. Djokavic broke through for a major in a year Federer had mononucleosis but then his game took a slide to the point where we began to wonder if he was going to be one and done in the majors. But he fought back and with his fun personality and Federer aging, the game is better for it. Heat and stamina do seem to still be issues for the Serbian but he has corrected issues he was having with his serve and fought through the mental and physical barriers to be a champion again. Further, he has put together an impressive twenty-four match and counting winning streak (including two straight wins in finals over Nadal) to start the 2011-year. It might be premature having him on the list but I like his on and off the court growth process so far so I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt that it will continue.
From Borg, Connors, McEnroe, and Lendl, to Sampras and Agassi to Federer, Nadal, and Djokavic you see the evolution of the game, one generation learning from the previous and taking the game to a new level. There are so many more warriors and great players in the sport, if you haven’t already check it out or better yet pick up a racket and give a try.
Tennis giants who could have just as easily been included in this article are: Mats Wilander, Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg and perhaps the Jackie Robinson of the sport, the great Arthur Ashe.