Although his list of career titles may be shorter than his contemporary and American compatriot Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi is still in many people’s eyes one of the most remarkable players ever to pick up a tennis racket. Believed by many with the knowledge to comment to have had the best return of service that has ever been seen in the game, Agassi is unique among male tennis players in having won a career Golden Slam – that is, all of the Grand Slam titles plus an Olympic gold, won in 1996 at the Atlanta games.
In an interesting quirk, Agassi is married to the only female player to have won a calendar Golden Slam, Steffi Graf, who won the Olympic gold in 1988 in Seoul. Agassi won a total of eight Slam titles in his career, and but for much publicized battles with injury and weight gain may have won more. Considered to be a highly talented player who could have won more if he had had the same mentality as Pete Sampras, Agassi is nevertheless more popular than Sampras and believed to be the more naturally talented player.
An anecdote about Agassi’s early career sums up his abilities. When his father sent him to the tennis academy run by Nick Bolletieri in Florida, he agreed for Andre to stay for three months as that was all the family could afford. Ten minutes into his first practice session Bolletieri, considered by many to be the greatest coach of young talent tennis has ever seen, called Agassi Sr and told him to take his check back, because Agassi had more talent than any player he had ever seen.
Although it would be hard in the extreme to make a case for anyone to surpass Martina Navratilova in terms of overall achievement she has been surpassed in terms of achievement in the women’s singles game – by Germany’s Steffi Graf, who won 22 singles Grand Slam titles over the course of a storied career in the game that spanned seventeen years from the age of 13 to 30. Graf is, in addition, the only professional player ever – male or female – to have won a Calendar Grand Slam over the three notable surfaces.
What is even more impressive about the latter achievement is the fact that it was as part of the even rarer “Golden Grand Slam” which comprises of winning all four of the Grand Slam events and the gold medal in the tennis event at the Olympic games. Although tennis has only been a full medal sport at the Olympics since 1988, in the five Olympic years since then her achievement has never been matched, or even approached, by another player.
Graf’s achievement in 1988 is testament to the versatility of the game she played. Not bound to any one style of play, she had few weaknesses in her game and is the only player to have been considered as even an approximate rival to Martina Navratilova, who she overcame on various occasions in finals of tour events and majors. Graf retired from tennis in 1999, and has since got married to former men’s Number One seed Andre Agassi.
In common with the Williams sisters, Martina Navratilova has had to put up with a level of criticism that was out of all measure with her game and her personality. When one considers that in the course of her career Navratilova won titles as a singles, women’s doubles and mixed doubles player, one would be justified in asking why she would be criticised. When one hears that she won a total of fifty-nine Grand Slam titles across these three forms of the game, the question could be asked with greater volume.
It has been suggested that Navratilova played tennis like a man – a bizarre criticism for a player who was shorter during her playing career than virtually any professional men’s player of the time, and who had a game that varied enough to be successful in all forms of the game. This criticism surely comes at least in part from the fact that Navratilova is open about her sexuality – she is a lesbian and was open about the fact even when it was considered to be a big deal.
It is unfortunate that even in this article there should be a reference made to that fact, but the truth of the matter is that it is made necessary by the lack of enthusiasm with which people refer to her as one of the greats. However, Navratilova should not be the source of any lack of enthusiasm – the truth of the matter is that within the field in which she played, Navratilova was the greatest tennis player the world has ever seen – and won a US Open mixed doubles title just a month short of her fiftieth birthday.
Although each deserves to be remembered as a separate entity, there is no ignoring the phenomenon that is the Williams sisters. Still both active players at the time of writing, the sisters have won an amazing twenty Grand Slam singles titles between them as well as a further twelve as a ladies’ doubles partnership and two each as mixed doubles players. Their dominance of the women’s game has been criticised and lauded in equal measure, but only the most stubborn could fail to see how impressive it has been.
Venus, born in 1980, was the first to make an impact on the professional game, but was rapidly caught up by her sister, born the following year. At the time of writing, Serena has won 13 Grand Slam titles to her sister’s seven, although Venus has been more affected by injuries during the course of her career. That notwithstanding, Serena is considered by experts to have the more complete game, evidenced by her having won all four Grand Slam tournaments where Venus has won five at Wimbledon and two at the US Open.
Among the criticisms of their games, both are considered by skeptics to have excessively powerful playing styles. This, it is argued, makes the game less of a spectacle to watch – but this fails to take into account the high level of accuracy that both possess and their tactical abilities. When the Williams sisters have both retired, the women’s game may take some time to find even one player with the same natural talent as either sister.
Although not remembered with the same level of affection that is reserved for the likes of john McEnroe or Bjorn Borg, no-one can deny the quality of Pete Sampras’ achievements as a tennis player. Considered dour in personality and robotic in his playing style, it was perhaps Sampras’ misfortune to play during an era when tennis itself came under attack for being dull and serve-dominated. This tends to ignore the fact that he was possessed of a greater degree of touch than many of his opponents, and a high level of stamina.
It is true that Sampras had a cannon of a serve, although there were players with a greater level of power than him playing at the same time. Mark Philippoussis, Goran Ivanisevic and Richard Krajicek could all hit it harder, but between them fell far short of the 14 career Grand Slam titles won by Sampras because they lacked his accuracy and consistency.
Sampras also popularized a shot that has come to be known as the “Tomahawk Smash” which involved winding up to hit a high ball and leaping high off the ground to hammer it into the ground on the other side of the court. This shot was always the final one played in a rally, often because it bounced high into the seats around the court. Although other players may have had greater charisma and more connection with the fans, Pete Sampras was a player you’d back to win a match for you on grass or hard court against anyone.
In any pantheon of the finest tennis players ever to pick up a racquet, there is no excuse for leaving out the name of Sweden’s Bjorn Borg. Noted by many for his rivalry with John McEnroe as well as his eleven Grand Slam titles, Borg was in many ways McEnroe’s polar opposite. Cool where McEnroe was calm, patient while McEnroe was aggressive, Borg was the kind of tennis player who simply had greater natural talent than virtually all of his opponents. No coach tried to change his unorthodox hitting style – they knew better than to do so.
To look at Borg one would not have thought that he was the great tennis player he undoubtedly was. A bow-legged running style may not have looked fast, but it was. A strong muscular frame may have suggested he could not play with grace and touch, but he did. His six French Open titles are a tour record, although this seems set to be surpassed by a very similar player in Rafael Nadal. His count of eleven Grand Slam titles is all the more surprising when one considers that Borg, like many of his contemporaries, routinely skipped the Australian Open.
This means that Borg never managed the full calendar Grand Slam or the career version of winning all four majors (the calendar version being all four tournaments in a year). However, for the quality of his game and his incredible battles with McEnroe – during which the American never lost his cool, perhaps becoming infused with some of his rival’s poise – he will be remembered for as long as tennis is played.
Although tennis is commonly seen as a “gentleman’s sport”, one of its finest exponents in the men’s game is a man who few people would have referred to as a gentleman. John McEnroe’s career is remembered by casual observers of the sport as being notable as much for his tirades and confrontational approach to umpires and line judges as it was for the tennis he played and the tournaments he won.
Now retired and in his early fifties, McEnroe himself admits that this reputation was well-earned, and indeed he was once nicknamed “Superbrat” in reference to it. It is a shame that people should remember this because on his day, McEnroe was a tennis player of incredible skill and grit. While casual fans might remember his “You cannot be serious” outburst at a Wimbledon umpire, aficionados of the game will also point to his seven Grand Slam titles and his even rivalry with the great Bjorn Borg.
McEnroe may also be seen as the greatest exponent of serve-and-volley tennis, a tactcial style exemplified by a player serving wide to get their opponent to move to one side of the court, and then dispatching their return into the open court on the other side. As this style of tennis has decreased in popularity, he may be seen as its last great exponent – and so much more. McEnroe now makes a living as a tennis commentator, an arena in which he is considered, much like in his playing days, as individual and highly skilled.