Ivan Lendl. The Czech-turned-US citizen was one the most hard working tennis players that the world has ever seen. To be able to reach 19 grand slam finals (and to win 8 of them) is truly an outstanding feat. His play was power, power and more power. I can see him right now play that backhand of his which I thought was one of the best in the game. He had an explosive serve; a short swing but it generated awesome power. He was a great tennis player but his pursuit of a Wimbledon title undid him at the fag end of his career. He put his heart and soul into the pursuit and came up lacking. Another thing that I always thought was that he was a great player but he lacked a flair that Jimmy Connors or Bjorn Borg or John McEnroe had. I know this is a very subjective statement but I truly hold it against him. He introduced a scientific approach to the game which is now the norm in the game but I think it has taken away some of the soul that existed. It had to happen one day but I will not forget that it was Ivan Lendl who introduced this concept.
Pete Sampras. Droopy shoulders, tongue hanging out, as he walks up to the base line getting ready to serve, it seems like he is ready to fall and then BOOOOOM a serve that clocks up to 120 mph barely touching the lines. A forehand that rips apart the opponent’s defense. A backhand that cannot be answered. A volley that is just out of reach. A smash that utterly demoralises the opponent. Reflexes that defy intuition. That was Pete Sampras. The first time I saw him play was in the final of US open against Andre Aggasi. No one knew this guy and it was a foregone conclusion that Aggasi would win (even though Sampras had beaten Lendl and McEnroe in the run up to the final, they were deemed to be past their prime). After he won, each of my friends and I were aping his style of play. A delightful player to watch, his attacking style of play was one of the best in the 90s and he inspired a slew of young players to ape it. In the end he won 14 grand slam titles, the most by any male player ever. This record took almost 25 years to break. But (you knew there was a “but” coming) he never did well on clay courts. Like all the attacking players, the slow clay courts negate whatever edge the attacking style might have on the opponent. This is just a small mark on Sampras’s career. Which is also why he is not the best tennis player.
Whenever I think of Aggasi, the Billy Idol song “Rebel Yell” comes to mind. I call him the Madonna of tennis. He’s had numerous incarnations in the 18 years or so of his career from the rebel years to the sober years to the mature years. He is the perfect athlete. Even long after his heydays, he can outrun all but a few top players in the game. He is also one of the very few modern players to have won all the grand slams. So why have I not chosen him to be the best player? Because he never really could outrun Sampras and other top most players. It always seemed that he had to dig in deep with all
the top players and fight to finish the match. Never did he seem the outright favourite.
I have not included Roger Federer in this list as most critics tend to do at the moment. The reason is quite simple, he is still playing. And he has a long, long way to go before he can fall under the champions category and anything could happen on the way. No one expected Monica Seles to fall, who was definitely on her way to super stardom, before she was knifed on court. To be concluded in the next post……