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Steve R.

Men's Tennis - Who Is The Greatest Of All Time?

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Steve R.   
On 7/3/2014 at 11:17 AM, DonRocks said:

It's possible that Nadal's early exit from Wimbledon will quiet the GOAT (Greatest Of All-Time) murmurings for a short while - this is the third year in a row he hasn't made the quarter-finals.

Remember, Federer made the finals in a Grand Slam (the four Grand Slam events being the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open) 18 out of 19 times in a row (this means he was in the finals of almost every Grand Slam for 5 years!) Also, the semi-finals 23 consecutive times with a total of 35. It's easy to look at these numbers on a page, but very difficult to actually comprehend just how amazing these stats are.

Both Nadal and Djokovic have legitimate claims as GOAT, but they're not there yet. Right now, if all three got struck by lightning, it would be Federer. That said, Nadal probably has more than one French Open title left in him; this, unless his body breaks down from his unprecedented physical style of play.

In case anyone can't tell, I love all three players, and consider this the greatest age of Men's Tennis in history (yes, the equipment is *much* better, the training regimen is better, the athletes are better, *everything* is better than it was a generation ago, but World #4 Andy Murray - who many readers here have probably never heard of - would have beaten the snot out of just about everyone else who ever played the game). I cannot over-emphasize just how much racket technology has changed tennis - go to a random spot of this Borg-McEnroe match, for example - it was physically impossible to do the things that new technology has allowed for (today's 110-mph forehands were yesterday's 70 mph forehands - both are nearly equal feats of athletic excellence, given what they had to work with).

Amazingly, Nadal is currently only in 11th place on the all-time clay-court wins list (but look at his winning percentage, and how is Bjorn Borg not on this list?)

My goodness, how did Vilas win 644 clay-court matches playing in the same era as Borg? On the other hand, his 163 losses indicates that he didn't win 163 clay-court tournaments he entered (assuming he didn't play any round-robin events).

Unless Nadal picks up the pace over the next several years, I fully believe that Federer has to be considered the better all time player.  It will be hard for me to think of Djokovic as a potential #1 of all time but, as you say, the book's still open.

The players just keep getting better and better and it becomes unfair to compare one generation against another.  As someone old enough to have seen Laver et al play (in person), then to continue thru the Conners, Borg, McEnroe, Sampras, Agassi eras, I am continuously amazed at how each "new" great player is so much better than the ones before them.  And I expect this to continue.

I have some perspective on this issue.  Having converted from tennis to squash in college & graduating in '74, I played NYC league squash in '81-'83 while I was ranked in the top 100 (amateurs) nationally.  I played on a co-ed team and played #1 for a season, with the #2 player being the #2 women's pro. in the country.  I could beat her in a match, barely, but I could (the #1 woman's player at the time could roll over me like I was hit by a train, but that's another story).  At any rate, a # of years later, by the time Venus was coming up in the tennis ranks and I was playing tennis again (at a much lower pedestrian level), I remember standing court side and having a revelation that, in my prime, I wouldn't stand a chance against the then current top 50 women squash players and would be lucky to win a game (okay, 2 points) against a top woman's tennis player.  Not even a tough analysis.  They were just that much better.

I cannot fathom how good these current players are.  Yes, as you (Don) say, the training is better, the equipment much better and everything else is a better environment to produce better athletes.  But, the bottom line remains -- these are the best ever.  And soon there'll be better.

By the way, I still have my Tad Davis Imperial wood racquet & the "new" racquet I replaced it with"¦ the Wilson T-2000.  Both are strung and usable.  Neither can be used effectively & I'll stick with my current Head Radical.  Too bad I didn't keep a container of white balls.

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DonRocks   

Unless Nadal picks up the pace over the next several years, I fully believe that Federer has to be considered the better all time player.  It will be hard for me to think of Djokovic as a potential #1 of all time but, as you say, the book's still open.

The players just keep getting better and better and it becomes unfair to compare one generation against another.  As someone old enough to have seen Laver et al play (in person), then to continue thru the Conners, Borg, McEnroe, Sampras, Agassi eras, I am continuously amazed at how each "new" great player is so much better than the ones before them.  And I expect this to continue.

I have some perspective on this issue.  Having converted from tennis to squash in college & graduating in '74, I played NYC league squash in '81-'83 while I was ranked in the top 100 (amateurs) nationally.  I played on a co-ed team and played #1 for a season, with the #2 player being the #2 women's pro. in the country.  I could beat her in a match"¦ barely, but I could (the #1 woman's player at the time could roll over me like I was hit by a train, but that's another story).  At any rate, a # of years later, by the time Venus was coming up in the tennis ranks and I was playing tennis again (at a much lower pedestrian level), I remember standing court side and having a revelation that, in my prime, I wouldn't stand a chance against the then current top 50 women squash players and would be lucky to win a game (okay"¦ 2 points) against a top woman's tennis player.  Not even a tough analysis.  They were just that much better.

I cannot fathom how good these current players are.  Yes, as you (Don) say, the training is better, the equipment much better and everything else is a better environment to produce better athletes.  But, the bottom line remains -- these are the best ever.  And soon there'll be better.

By the way, I still have my Tad Davis Imperial wood racquet & the "new" racquet I replaced it with"¦ the Wilson T-2000.  Both are strung and usable.  Neither can be used effectively & I'll stick with my current Head Radical.  Too bad I didn't keep a container of white balls.

All the proof anyone needs is the second point of this video featuring an older Rod Laver (playing with a wooden racket) against a younger Jimmy Connors (playing with a steel Wilson T-2000 - *extremely* primitive technology by today's standards). To paraphrase Sean Connery, it's like bringing a knife to a gun fight (this is something of a Laver highlight reel - Connors beat him badly him in this match). For a more representative video, look at this 1980 match between Chris Evert and Tracy Austin: Their precision is fantastic, but by today's standards, there's just no power.

Incidentally, I'm not sure there has *ever* been a better wooden-racket tennis player than Rod Laver, and that includes John McEnroe.

Harold Solomon, ranked #10 in the world in the 1970s, would play Eddie Dibbs (ranked slightly higher than Solomon) on clay, and they would get into rallies with shots called "moon balls" that went 20-30 feet over the net because the person on the receiving end was incapable of generating enough power to hit a winner. Points would routinely last 30-40 shots on clay, and the players would barely even be running. Today, the person on the receiving end of a moon ball would stroll into the net and smash a swinging volley at 100 mph, and that would be the last moon ball hit in the entire match.

Lest anyone think Steve is exaggerating, he isn't. Technology has helped the women's game even more than the men's. Today, a talented 13-year-old girl (say, top 100 in the world for her age group) can routinely hit 80 mph groundstrokes which is far more velocity than any male in the world could have ever generated in the 1970s, and that includes the best players in the world such as Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall. Think about that for a minute - I am not exaggerating when I say "13 years old."

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It has seemed to me for a long time that the current tennis equipment isn't so much "better" as it is "cheating" -- bat-corking, as it were.

The greatest tennis player of the open era, by far, is Martina Navratilova. Her lifetime titles record leaves everyone else a long, long way behind in the dust.

The greatest male player of the open era is John McEnroe, whose beautiful, subtle, nuanced serve I'd much rather see than one of these cannonballs that the current players are able to deliver thanks not to their ability but to their racquets. And when I say greatest male player, I obviously don't refer to McEnroe's singles record in grand slam events. He has 148 career titles, which doesn't even include mixed doubles or any of his Davis Cup success. Roger Federer has 87 titles. Rafael Nadal has 72.

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DonRocks   

It has seemed to me for a long time that the current tennis equipment isn't so much "better" as it is "cheating" -- bat-corking, as it were.

The greatest tennis player of the open era, by far, is Martina Navratilova. Her lifetime titles record leaves everyone else a long, long way behind in the dust.

The greatest male player of the open era is John McEnroe, whose beautiful, subtle, nuanced serve I'd much rather see than one of these cannonballs that the current players are able to deliver thanks not to their ability but to their racquets. And when I say greatest male player, I obviously don't refer to McEnroe's singles record in grand slam events. He has 148 career titles, which doesn't even include mixed doubles or any of his Davis Cup success. Roger Federer has 87 titles. Rafael Nadal has 72.

Yes, but.

The emphasis has shifted at the highest level to "collecting Grand Slams" as opposed to winning the most tournaments - this pretty much started with Pete Sampras. Jimmy Connors used to go out and win a tournament every week, it seemed.

You also included doubles in your McEnroe tally, and none of the top players play doubles anymore (because they're too busy trying to win Grand Slam singles titles). Before this week, I would have named the Williams sisters as an exception to this (but I'm too busy saying WTF? (*))

If you want to argue for McEnroe over Laver as GOAT in the wooden racket era, I won't disagree. And yet, there was Borg - last generation's prototype of Nadal - who was not nearly the doubles player McEnroe was, but was a much better clay-court player, so choose your priorities and go from there.

In the chaos of technology, it's also easy to forget that today's generation of players are *much* better athletes than yesterday's. Players today are out there doing wind sprints for five hours while swinging the racket as hard as they can nearly every shot - there's no such thing as "throwing up a few high balls to give yourself time to suck in some air" anymore. Lindsay Davenport is being enshrined (deservedly) into the Tennis Hall Of Fame next Saturday night - she was a fine player, but she's also a perfect example of someone who could not survive the rigors of the modern game.

Player's today have six-pack abs; Babe Ruth's idea of training was going out and drinking a six-pack. :)

(And yes, there was an intentional pun on "high balls" and "six-pack.")

(*) That said, Serena Williams has an autoimmune disease (which is, incidentally, a "viral illness" just as she's claiming), and probably takes medication for it - yes, it could be drugs, depression, or dehydration (if you have a stomach virus, it *is* possible to be that disoriented from dehydration, but you'd think she would have gotten IV fluids before the match) - regardless, I would be careful about jumping to conclusions.

---

Edit - I don't want to make a big deal out of this, but seven weeks later, Martina Navratilova may be right. The only thing other than a mental meltdown it could have been is an adverse drug reaction - it was not a virus.

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Steve R.   
On 7/4/2014 at 3:12 PM, The Hersch said:

It has seemed to me for a long time that the current tennis equipment isn't so much "better" as it is "cheating" -- bat-corking, as it were.

The greatest tennis player of the open era, by far, is Martina Navratilova. Her lifetime titles record leaves everyone else a long, long way behind in the dust.

The greatest male player of the open era is John McEnroe, whose beautiful, subtle, nuanced serve I'd much rather see than one of these cannonballs that the current players are able to deliver thanks not to their ability but to their racquets. And when I say greatest male player, I obviously don't refer to McEnroe's singles record in grand slam events. He has 148 career titles, which doesn't even include mixed doubles or any of his Davis Cup success. Roger Federer has 87 titles. Rafael Nadal has 72.

No offense, but yours are exactly the arguments that I couldn't disagree with more.  To think that everything that came after McEnroe is "cheating" just disregards all the advantages that he had over those before him.  Do you think that playing in shorts gave an unfair advantage?  How about the sneakers that he had"¦ not significantly better than those a generation before him?  How about those real wood racquets he used"¦ you don't think that they held the string pressure better than the ones used by Kramer et al?  Or that they were lighter?  Or that the strings were made of a better material?  Or that the racquet was strung by a machine that did a better job?  Really?  He played in a context just like everyone before and after him.  Simple as that.

And, let's go to your last point.  Granted, McEnroe's serve was a thing of beauty.  Still is (I saw him play sets during the last few years, one against Borg, another against Agassi"¦ part of a pro league benefit at the club I played at (Sportime, which he co-owns)).  But he combined that finesse with the power that his advanced equipment gave him"¦ he was a product of his environment & times.  But let's compare apples to apples here and not compare his finesse serve with cannonball servers of the current time.  There were hard serving non-finesse players during his time and there are finesse players now.  You think Federer isn't every bit as smooth & is a cannonballer?  Just because his racquet gives him more power than McEnroe had (as McEnroe's racquet did compared to previous generations) doesn't make Federer a Roddick.  We'll never know if McEnroe would be as good as Federer if he grew up now, just as we'll never know if Federer would've been able to use his talents to equal or surpass McEnroe back then.  But to dismiss Federer's talent as due to improvements in the equipment and not the athlete is disrespectful & just plain wrong.

I love Martina & would never deny her greatness.  But the argument is the same.  Let her, as she actually was in her 20s, try to win a set from any of the top 10 women players of today.  There's just no comparison in strength, agility, conditioning, power and maybe even precision.  Even she'd admit that.

Bottom line:  you can argue that you enjoyed the old game you knew better than the current game.  It's a statement I make all the time vis a vis basketball & I appreciate the part of your post that says "I'd rather see."  But trotting out the same "they don't make 'em like they used to" argument that every older generation makes about "the kids today" misses the reality that they really are better.  It pisses me off, but its true.

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Well, Steve R., you seem to want to compare McEnroe's technical advantages to players of the pre-open era, and I was talking only about the open era. But even granting all of your points, which are mostly fair enough--indeed, comparing players of one era playing with their physical gifts, their training regimens, their competitors, their equipment, with players of another, with all of their comparative advantages or otherwise, is ultimately useless--and even ignoring mine, that, for example, a McEnroe serve is a prettier thing to watch than even Federer's prettiest serve, the fact remains that McEnroe has a better lifetime record, by far, than any other male tennis player in the open era. Don's rejoinder, that the top players nowadays don't play doubles and mostly try to collect grand-slam singles titles at the expense of everything else, basically concedes the point: That today's players don't even try to match McEnroe's accomplishment doesn't diminish McEnroe's accomplishment, it diminishes theirs. (It also indicates, to me, that today's players are motivated more by the pursuit of money than by the pursuit of tennis.)

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DonRocks   

Well, Steve R., you seem to want to compare McEnroe's technical advantages to players of the pre-open era, and I was talking only about the open era. But even granting all of your points, which are mostly fair enough--indeed, comparing players of one era playing with their physical gifts, their training regimens, their competitors, their equipment, with players of another, with all of their comparative advantages or otherwise, is ultimately useless--and even ignoring mine, that, for example, a McEnroe serve is a prettier thing to watch than even Federer's prettiest serve, the fact remains that McEnroe has a better lifetime record, by far, than any other male tennis player in the open era. Don's rejoinder, that the top players nowadays don't play doubles and mostly try to collect grand-slam singles titles at the expense of everything else, basically concedes the point: That today's players don't even try to match McEnroe's accomplishment doesn't diminish McEnroe's accomplishment, it diminishes theirs. (It also indicates, to me, that today's players are motivated more by the pursuit of money than by the pursuit of tennis.)

"Roger Federer Heads Tennis Channel's List Of Top 100 Greatest Players Of All-Time" on tennis-x.com

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DaveO   

Recently Agassi changed his mind, now suggsting Nadal is the greatest tennis player.   Even these experts can't agree and as time goes on they are apt to change their minds.

Me...I don't change my mind.  Mickey Mantle is still my fave baseball player of all time, and I still think Babe Ruth is the best...and I never saw Ruth...so what the H do I know?   ;)  (ooooops...we're talking tennis)  sorry.  :D

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DonRocks   

Recently Agassi changed his mind, now suggsting Nadal is the greatest tennis player.   Even these experts can't agree and as time goes on they are apt to change their minds.

Me...I don't change my mind.  Mickey Mantle is still my fave baseball player of all time, and I still think Babe Ruth is the best...and I never saw Ruth...so what the H do I know?   ;)  (ooooops...we're talking tennis)  sorry.   :D

I think if Federer had won Wimbledon yesterday, it would have really solidified his case for GOAT. That said, I'm on record saying that I'm suspicious about nearly everyone (and just because you're not heavily muscled doesn't mean anything - when I went to Clemson, a cross-country runner, thin as a beanpole, was found dead in his dorm room - although the Wikipedia article says he had a heart deficiency, what it doesn't say is that he tested positive for massive doses of steroids), so there's that extra "x-factor" that might never be known, even with players you might not suspect.

Based sheerly on statistics and "dominance in his era," I would also go with Ruth - his pitching clinches it. That said, we *all* know what would happen if Ruth - without any preparation - stepped into the modern era. And so the classic argument goes on ...

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Steve R.   

Well, Steve R., you seem to want to compare McEnroe's technical advantages to players of the pre-open era, and I was talking only about the open era. But even granting all of your points, which are mostly fair enough--indeed, comparing players of one era playing with their physical gifts, their training regimens, their competitors, their equipment, with players of another, with all of their comparative advantages or otherwise, is ultimately useless--and even ignoring mine, that, for example, a McEnroe serve is a prettier thing to watch than even Federer's prettiest serve, the fact remains that McEnroe has a better lifetime record, by far, than any other male tennis player in the open era. Don's rejoinder, that the top players nowadays don't play doubles and mostly try to collect grand-slam singles titles at the expense of everything else, basically concedes the point: That today's players don't even try to match McEnroe's accomplishment doesn't diminish McEnroe's accomplishment, it diminishes theirs. (It also indicates, to me, that today's players are motivated more by the pursuit of money than by the pursuit of tennis.)

We can agree about the prettiness of McEnroe's serve.  But it's not diving and there aren't style points.  So, let's talk about the main point & here, once again, I think you conveniently leave out context and ascribe motivations that may or may not be there with the current players.  I don't think that McEnroe would deny his own pursuit of money.  However, in his time, the money came with playing as many events as he could.  Today's players have a much harder grind with many more tournaments needed, 12months/year to get the computer points needed to earn a living.  There's no way that McEnroe would have played as many doubles tournaments if he had to be on the current men's tour.  That Serena & Venus (& several other top women players) do it is a mystery to me and probably also puts a hole in your argument about them chasing the big bucks.

Nothing diminishes what McEnroe accomplished and I recognize it.  But nothing should diminish Laver or others' accomplishments either.  We build on history but don't try to argue, without context, that life was better in the old days"¦ the life span difference alone makes me appreciate living in this day and age.  Not to mention the internet  :rolleyes:

Federer would kick Johnny Mack's ass"¦ case closed!  :ph34r:

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DaveO   

.........

Federer would kick Johnny Mack's ass"¦ case closed!  :ph34r:

What I have a difficult time imagining is how you can compare these or any other players of different eras.  The game, based on technology is dramatically different.  How would McEnroe fare with today's equipment.  Similarly how would Federer fare with the equipment of McEnroe's day?

We don't know how either player would play and how they would alter their games...either these players or any of the other greats of differing eras and extremely different rackets.   Could McEnroe play a net game today???   Essentially nobody does.  Would Federer, one of the few players who ventures to the net these days, do so more or stay back virtually all the time as he does now?

How would either player cope with vastly differing pace of play?   I can't even conceive of the argument for comparing players from different eras head to head against one another.

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DonRocks   

Based sheerly on statistics and "dominance in his era," I would also go with Ruth - his pitching clinches it. That said, we *all* know what would happen if Ruth - without any preparation - stepped into the modern era. And so the classic argument goes on ...

I read this article the other day which says that there are two athletes in American history that "transcended and transformed" their sport: Babe Ruth and Wilt Chamberlain. I can't disagree with this - not even Gretsky had the impact those two had.

Back on topic, this may not help with the GOAT argument, but it's fun to watch:

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DonRocks   

The excellent tennis columnist, Jon Wertheim, has this to say in his Feb 18, 2015 "Mailbag" on si.com:

"An argument against Federer being the GOAT is that he was not the greatest player in his own era"”Nadal was. But can't the same be said to argue that Nadal is not the greatest player in his era"”Djokovic is? What say you Jon?
-- David, Urbana, Illinois

I say: Let's take inventory when all three are retired. Right now, it's like obsessing over stock options that don't vest for several more years. O.K., I'll bite a little"”for each point, there is a counterpoint. For every serve, there is a riposte. (Why, it's almost like ... tennis.) Federer has a lousy head-to-head against Nadal, but he's won more Slams, more titles and is more well-rounded on surfaces. Djokovic acquits himself well against Nadal, but has half as many Slams as Nadal does and lacks the Career Slam. We should also weight the "prime years" of a players' careers. And around we go. We all enjoy this is as a thought exercise. But it's a little circular, no? Part of the beauty of the GOAT discussion is the absence of hard, fast criteria. And yet this absence makes it difficult to arrive at real conclusions.

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Tweaked   

Having my first tennis memories from the late 1970s and being a tennis fan from the early 80s forward, i would vote for Federer, on the basis that he played with the grace of the wooden era while playing in the composite era.

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DonRocks   

Thought: Novak Djokovic might turn out to be Roger Federer's best friend when it comes to being named GOAT (Greatest Of All-Time).

Federer is pretty much done. It's possible he could eek out 1-2 more Grand Slams in his career, but even that's becoming more-and-more unlikely as time goes by.

At this point, Nadal would be in hot pursuit of Federer's legacy, either until someone else came along, or he got injured, or he got caught.

But Djokovic has the tools to stop Nadal from this point forward, French Opens notwithstanding.

And Djokovic will most likely not catch Federer - so, in essence, he's playing the role of spoiler.

"Novak Djokovic Entering Rarefied Air With Recent Dominance" by Joe Kennard on bleacherreport.com

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DonRocks   

I thought we'd already established that John McEnroe is the greatest male tennis player of the open era. <_<

McEnroe might be in the Top 10; then again, he might not be, depending on what type of criteria you were using.

I have a picture in my mind of him stiff-arming his forehand, raising his entire body upwards as he hits it - a waste of motion, and a loss of power by not utilizing hip rotation.

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My mother had a thing for Jimmy Connors. So I remember watching Connors and Borg and the rest of the tennis players of the 70s. Boring, boring, boring.

And then there was John McEnroe.

He made tennis interesting and exciting. I appreciate the skills of players before him and since, but the pleasure of watching the game starts and ends with John McEnroe.

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DonRocks   

My mother had a thing for Jimmy Connors. So I remember watching Connors and Borg and the rest of the tennis players of the 70s. Boring, boring, boring.

And then there was John McEnroe.

He made tennis interesting and exciting. I appreciate the skills of players before him and since, but the pleasure of watching the game starts and ends with John McEnroe.

I'm not going to let you get away with this comment. :)

You cannot deface the sport of tennis by saying that only one person is worth watching. Nobody is saying that McEnroe wasn't an all-time great; I'm merely saying that he's not the all-time greatest, no matter how you measure it. Genius? Yes. Artist? Yes. Virtuoso? Yes. Champion? Yes.

By definition, one must say that either Wilt Chamberlain or Michael Jordan is not the men's basketball GOAT. Is that disrespecting the one you don't choose? Absolutely not. The only credible "out" is by saying you refuse to participate in this silly bar game, which is probably the smartest thing to say.

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I'm not going to let you get away with this comment. :)

You cannot deface the sport of tennis by saying that only one person is worth watching. Nobody is saying that McEnroe wasn't an all-time great; I'm merely saying that he's not the all-time greatest, no matter how you measure it.

"No matter how you measure it" is quite simply incorrect. As I pointed out up above somewhere, McEnroe is indisputably the greatest male tennis player of the open era measured by total career titles. But I agree that there have been other players well worth watching--to me, most notably, Boris Becker.

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DonRocks   

The above threads got me thinking...

as to the reference to Jim Brown and lacrosse, I'd simply like to add that probably the greatest athletes are NOT in lacrosse.  (If they are that great and motivated they'll probably migrate to a sport with big money and big time professional sports.).   Brown played lacrosse in the 1950's probably before most of the lacrosse commentators could have seen him.  I'd bet he was so extraordinarily physically dominant over others it wasn't close.  Having watched a couple of the other so called "greatest ever" in the sport, including Frank Urso a former 4 time first team all american in lacrosse, it was so obvious Urso was extraordinarily dominant over all the competition.  He seemed like a threat to score on EVERY play.  I think there was a huge and significant difference between his speed, strength and explosiveness versus the competition.   Its visible every so often in lacrosse.  I just don't think it attracts the elite of the elite.

Try and transition this line of thinking into tennis circa 1980.

20,000 pounds in prize money in 1980 vs. 1,760,000 pounds in prize money in 2014.

Connors, McEnroe, and Borg were about 5'10"; Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic are about 6'2".

McEnroe had a career record of 16-21 vs. Lendl. Was Lendl a superior athlete? No, but he was *the very first* top player to use carbon racket technology, and developed a monster forehand that nobody could handle. Lendl was *the* prototype of the modern player.

This line of thinking is exactly why tennis players of yesteryear just couldn't compete with the players of today (and every single one of them, with the possible exception of a proud and stubborn Pete Sampras, admits it).

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Steve R.   

Hell, Sharapova is 6'1" and Venus is 6'2".

It must be nice to be Isner height and serve from so many feet higher than the net.  Just gotta make sure you earn enough money so you don't have to take the subways and can ride in a high ceiling'ed car.

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