Almanac Tennis: Can we compare the tennis greats of today to the legends of yesterday? Two different views by Philip Mendes and Lucas Lewit-Mendes

Can we compare the tennis greats of today to the legends of yesterday? Two different views by Philip Mendes and 17 year old Lucas Lewit-Mendes

Philip

It’s the question that tennis obsessives ask over and over again: are the great players of today superior to the legends of yesterday?

Would the relentless left-hand top spin of Nadal, for example, prevail in a head to head over the inch-perfect right hand top spin of Borg? Would the amazing consistency of Djokovic triumph over the dazzling intensity of Connors? Would the delightful touch of Federer overcome the brilliant serve and net-rushing of the aggressive McEnroe? Would Andy Murray’s versatility counter the power of Becker? And locally, would Lleyton Hewitt’s outstanding passing shots enable him to master serve and volley specialists such as Pat Cash or even earlier John Newcombe?

Comparing the quality of individual players is arguably not the same as ranking overall tennis performances. 12 months ago, I ranked the top 15 tennis players from 1974-2014 on this website: Top 15 tennis players – 1974-2014

I placed Borg and McEnroe at one and two, and only included three current day players in the list: Federer at three, Nadal at four, and Djokovic at 10. Since that time, Djokovic has won three more majors, and I would now place him at seven ahead of Edberg, Vilas and Wilander in terms of success. A few more majors in 2016, and I would consider placing him above Becker and Connors as well. But this doesn’t necessarily mean the Djoker is a better quality player than Boris or Jimbo.

In my opinion, it is problematic to compare individual players from different eras for a range of reasons.

Firstly, the racquets are completely different. The players today use large graphite racquets that facilitate massive speed and accuracy compared to the wooden or smaller metal racquets of yesterday. Watch a video of Borg playing McEnroe in the Wimbledon Final of 1980. They were the greatest players of their time, but their hitting seems almost slow and polite compared to that of today.

Secondly, players today hail from all over the world. What was once almost solely an Anglo-Saxon, Commonwealth and partly Western European game has expanded throughout the world. Countries such as Spain now have more than a dozen players in the top 100. The depth of global tennis talent is far higher than that of 20 years ago. The skill gap between the top five and the 100th ranked player is arguably far smaller than at any time in the past.

Thirdly, the players are overwhelmingly fitter and stronger. Tennis has arguably been hijacked by power and athleticism. Comparatively few contemporary players use the subtleties of slice, spin and speed variation that were prevalent four decades ago. That is why Bernard Tomic with his eccentric style seems to be such a unique player.

Finally, there is the simple fact that so few players serve and volley these days. Does this mean that Djokovic and Nadal might struggle against a skilled net-rusher? Well probably not given how easily Andy Murray dealt with Sam Groth on Wednesday. Although Murray may have found an elite server like Patrick Rafter more difficult to handle. But it’s important to remember that guys like McEnroe and Newcombe served to players who mostly used wooden racquets, and in many cases hit only flat rather than top-spin forehands. Their serve and volley pressure may have been easily neutralized by guys who teed off with frenetic ground shots on their returns.

So in my opinion, a direct comparison of Borg and Nadal or Djokovic and Connors is no more useful than, say, ranking Peter Hudson versus Buddy Franklin or Chris Judd versus Leigh Matthews. The champions of tennis are playing a radically different game to that of yesterday, and so are the players they are beating.

Lucas

Although it is difficult to compare players between eras, I believe the above attitude is the easy way out. Rankings, on the other hand, create excitement, debate and interest. In order to counter the aforementioned challenges (racquets, fitness, game styles), I’ve used mainly quantitative factors such as Grand Slam wins, finals and total career titles. The level of competition must also be taken into consideration though, which enables comparison between eras. Finally, I give credit to all-round players, who have been able to win on clay, grass and hard court.

Greatest Ever Male Players:
1. Roger Federer – There is no debate here. Federer has not only won the most majors (17), but also won each of the four majors throughout his career. In addition, 88 career titles is superior to most other contenders. He has also beaten other superstars (Djokovic, Nadal), which seals the deal for Roger.
2. Rafael Nadal – Although Rafa has won 9 of his 14 majors at Roland Garros, he has still won each of the four majors. He is the greatest ever on clay, and four of his five grass/hard court majors wins have come against all-time greats Federer and Djokovic – no easy feat. With 20 grand slam finals (ranked second), he’s a clear standout behind Roger.
3. Bjorn Borg – The brevity of his playing career was his downfall, as he could only win 11 majors. However, he fends off Sampras for Number 3 due to his all-round quality. Borg won 11 majors on clay/grass, while he fell at the final hurdle in four US Open finals (against US Open greats McEnroe and Connors). His great rivalry with McEnroe also shows the high level of tennis throughout his era.
4. Pete Sampras – Sampras is equal second for majors with 14, but had no real competition other than Agassi. If playing in the current era, one would suspect baseline magicians Federer, Nadal and Djokovic would have been able to counter Sampras’ serve and volleys with top class passing shots. He also never won a major on clay.
5. Jimmy Connors – Connors only won eight majors, but won an incredible 109 career titles. He was also able to defeat fellow greats McEnroe and Borg in several grand slam finals. Longevity gets him into the top five.
On the rise: Novak Djokovic – 10 majors and counting… A French Open win, completing a career grand slam, would catapult him into perhaps the top three.

Note: Comparing Rod Laver proved a task too difficult, as he played much of his peak as a professional (excluded from majors) before the Open Era.

Greatest Ever Female Players:
1. Serena Williams – I cannot imagine any past greats (eg. Graf, Navratilova, Evert, Court) competing with Williams, even with the fitness and racquets of the modern era. Her sheer power allows her to ease past every challenger, as evidenced by her 21 majors. Number 1 due to her astonishing dominance.
2. Martina Navratilova & 3. Chris Evert – The rivalry of Navratilova/Evert is possibly the greatest ever, and wins them spots two and three on my list. Between them, they made an extraordinary 66 grand slam finals. If playing in different eras, they surely would have won more than 18 each. Navratilova trumps Evert due to her doubles prowess and a 43-37 head-to-head record.
4. Steffi Graf – The classy German won her 22 majors on all surfaces, including all four in 1988. However, she had little competition other than Monica Seles (from 1990-92, before she was tragically stabbed). This is evident in her grand slam final record of 22-9 against weaker opponents, unlike the even battles between Navratilova and Evert.
5. Margaret Court – Number 5 is a bit harsh for the Aussie with 24 singles majors and 192 career titles. The depth in quality was thin during her career, though, so she falls below the similarly successful modern day greats.
On the rise: No-one. Serena’s dominance means the rest of the modern era are well behind the top five. Look out for youngsters Muguruza (22) and Bencic (18) as potential multiple major winners.

About Philip Mendes

Philip Mendes is an academic who follows AFL, soccer, tennis and cricket. He supported Fitzroy Football Club from 1970-1996, and on their death he adopted the North Melbourne Kangaroos as his new team. In his spare time, he occasionally writes about his current and past football teams.

Comments

  1. Rod Laver : are neither of you aware of him ? I know Phil did a listing of players from 1974 to 2014, Laver faded away after our 5-0 Davis Cup victory over the USA after 1973, but Laver must be included in ANY dialogue re top tennis players.

    The other key variable is the demise of grass as a playing surface. For a long time three of the Grand Slams were on grass, the French being the exception. How many tournaments are played on grass now? I’m unsure about the women, but for the men I think it is only Newport, Halle, Queens, Wimbledon, possibly one more in the UK. Again, I feel this factor must be included in a dialogue comparing players from different times.

    Glen!

  2. As noted below the top 5, it was too difficult to compare him to the Open Era, because he didn’t play the grand slams for so many years.

    Your point about grass is a good one, although I’m not sure how it affects the rankings.

  3. Tennis Analyst says

    I completely agree with Glen. Rod Laver won the calendar Grand Slam twice, whereas at the moment, Djokovic, Federer and Nadal are yet to win 1 calendar Grand Slam, although Djokovic is on target to win 1 calendar Grand Slam in 2021.

    I firmly believe that Rod Laver would have won at least 25 Grand Slam singles titles, had he been allowed to play as a professional between his peak years of 1963 to 1968. Laver won his 2 calendar Grand Slams in 1962 and 1969. With no disrespect to Roy Emerson, who won 12 Grand Slam singles, 10 of which came during Rod Laver’s enforced period absence from Grand Slam singles tournamentts, Rod Laver missed around playing in 24 Grand Slam tournaments at his peak. I believe Laver would have won at least 14 out of those 24 Grand Slam singles titles.

    As for Margaret Court with 24 Grand Slam singles titles, yes she didn’t have the greatest opposition, but she still had to contend with Billie Jean King, who is only 1 year younger than her, and who won 12 Grand Slam singles titles. Also, don’t forget that Margaret Court had to play with a wooden racquet and didn’t have the quality of coaching and player entourages of today.

    To me, Margaret Court is a clear number 1 because she won a total of 64 Grand Slam titles in singles, doubles and mixed doubles. There wasn’t much recovery time between matches and no ice baths or physiotherapy.

    At number 2, I have Monica Seles because as with Rod Laver, I firmly believe she would have won in excess of 20 Grand Slam singles titles in a short timeframe. She had a phenomenal 8 Grand Slam singles titles by the age of 19, before she was stabbed, and then remarkably, another Grand Slam singles title at the Australian Open, after her stabbing, because she wasn’t the same player afterwards for obvious reasons. She was on target to be the greatest Grand Slam female singles player of all time before the stabbing, having the wood over Graf in 2 Australian Open Finals.

    I have Serena a Williams at number 3 because she played in the toughest era, followed by Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert at numbers 4 and 5 respectively. I have Steffi Graf at number 6 because she had easy opposition after Seles was stabbed. I also believe that Navratilova and Evert, with 18 Grand Slam singles titles each, had tough opposition against each other for the majority of their careers. I believe that Graf would have won less than 18 Grand Slam singles titles, not 22, if Seles had not been stabbed. To round out my top 10, I have Billie Jean King at number 7, Maureen Connolly at number 8, Evonne Goolagong Cawley at number 9 and Maria Sharapova at number 10, because Sharapova won a Grand Slam singles title on every surface.

    In the men I have a Rod Laver at number 1, for the reasons mentioned earlier. I have Nadal at number 2 because he has won his 20 Grand Slam singles titles in a tougher era than Federer, as well as in a 5 year shorter timeframe than Federer. Nadal has won every Grand Slam singles title on clay (13) grass (2) and hardcourt (5) at least twice, whereas Federer has only won 1 Grand Slam singles title on clay only so far. I have put Djokovic at number 3, because like Nadal, he has played in a much tougher era than Federer and has also won his current 19 Grand Slam singles titles in a 5 year shorter timeframe than Federer. Also, both Nadal and Djokovic to a lesser extent, have had to miss more Grand Slam singles tournaments than Federer, due to injury. If Djokovic gets to 21 Grand Slam singles titles and wins Wimbledon and the US Open singles in 2021, then having won the calendar Grand Slam once, he would then be number 2 for me.

    At number 5, I have Pete Sampras. At number 6, I have Bjorn Borg. He retired at age 26, but by then John McEnroe was beating him regularly and Borg had lost his motivation. At number 7, I have Ivan Lendl, followed by Jimmy Connors at number 8 and John McEnroe at number 9. At number 10, I have Ken Rosewall.

    Having mentioned all of this, I tend to agree with Philip that you can’t compare different eras for the reasons he outlined, as well as the quality of the opposition.

    Let’s just be blessed to have been able to watch the majority of these great male and female players from over the years.

  4. Philip Mendes says

    Agree, there is some fantastic players we have been fortunate enough to watch. Djokovic would now have to be ranked very high. If as looks likely he passes Nadal and Federer, he would just about have to be the greatest player of the modern era. He is to me the most similar to Borg in terms of being a counter puncher, but incredibly effective. I suspect Tzitzipas may prove the best of the current generation. Think he will win multiple Grand Slams ahead of Zverev, Thiem, Medvedev etc. Young Sinner seems like he could be another Becker, time will tell.

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