While my venerable colleague Young Swole might have a man-crush on Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer that's even bigger than Serena Williams' booty, he and others might be surprised to find out that there was such a thing as tennis before 2003. While many people, from the Swolemeister to Brad "I love myself more than anyone" Gilbert, were quick to annoint the Federer/Nadal Wimbledon final the Greatest Match of All Time...that simply is not the case. And even if it does somehow prove to be, saying so is reactionary at best, and fails to respect the illustrious history of this gentlemans game, at worst.
It's true that Federer has dominated the ATP for the past 232 weeks or so, but I would make the case that he has done so without a true rival to challenge him. Sure, Nadal won one Slam final against Roger the Great, but until last year he was little more than a clay-court specialist, the next Gustavo Kuerten, if you will. So while so many out there are eager to annoint him "The Greatest Player of All Time," I don't think that is the case. True champions become known as such because they elevate their game to a new level in the face of equally talented competition. Let's look at a few examples...
-Pete Sampras & Andre Agassi
Swole would make you think that the game has been dominated by one-dimensional players...hard servers with few other weapons. But that is simply not the case. Unless your memory has been burned by Amy Winehouse-esque drug use, you shouldn't have forgotten these two giants of the game just yet. Sampras might have had the best serve of all time (you don't get the nickname "Pistol Pete" for your Bukakke skills) but he could also play at the net and volley like no other. And as any true tennis afficionado knows, serve-and-volley is the purest playing strategy in the game. Little known fact: Sampras did all this with a racquet measuring only 85 sq/in, 10 less than any racquet used by today's players, and it was strung tighter than a...well there's too many good jokes there. Let's just say it was strung hella tight. And that is why Agassi was a supreme foil to the King of Swing...he had the best groundstrokes of his era. He was one of the only players in history who you could sense was MORE confident when returning serve than serving. Sampras and Agassi truly defined the game from the mid-90's to early 00's. Oh by the way....Agassi is the only man to win the "Golden Slam," by winning every Grand Slam tournament and an Olympic Gold medal in his career. (The only woman to do so just happens to be his wife Stefi Graf, a pretty good player you also might have heard of).
And let's not forget the epic matches these guys provided. Sampras' final match, the '01 U.S. Open final, was one of the most epic and emotional matches of all time. It was the final Grand Slam title won by the man who has won more than any other. There wasn't a single break of serve in any of the five sets.
What about Sampras v. Roddick in the semi's of the same tournament?
Agassi winning the Australian Open when he had been all but retired by the media and so-called tennis "experts?"
Sampras, unable to keep his lunch in his stomach due to the flu, yaking all over the court and STILL defeating Alex Corretja?
-Bjorn Borg & John McEnroe
The definative rivalry of the 1980's. Borg was an appropriate name for the big Swede. His approach to the game was just like the Star Trek machine: cold, methodical, and ruthless. He won five French Opens and five Wimbledons, an amazing feat when you consider the stark contrasts between clay and grass. He was only stopped from winning a sixth Wimbledon by the emergence of a complete contrast in styles: John McEnroe. The Brat was part of a new era of athletes, who lived their lives off the court with as much flash and noise as they did on it. Their 1981 Wimbledon final signaled the end of Borg's dominance and the dawn of a new era in tennis.
-Rod Laver & John Newcombe
This is going way back to dudes who played with wooden racquets. However, Laver won all four Grand Slams multiple times, once winning all four in a calendar year. His 11 Slam titles were a record for thirty years until Sampras topped the number. If you ever are lucky enough to catch footage of his game do not pass up the opportunity to watch the man who has what is universally agreed to be the most complete and technically flawless game in history. His longtime foe Newcombe was no slouch either, winning seven Slam's of his own (although, like Sampras, never capturing a French title). He, like Sampras, probably never won at Roland Garros because his game revolved around a huge serve and then volleying, which is difficult to do effectively on slow-bouncing clay. However, on hard surface and grass his cannon of an arm allowed him to hit second-serve aces with amazing regularity. The rivalry between these two was the first premeir rivalry of the Grand Slam Era.
And anyone thinking that these are the only great matchups or players, or that I've had to reach back to the 70's for examples, is sorely mistaken. Tennis has never been devoid of great champions.
-Gustavo Kuerten, who dominated the clay courts in the earlier part of this decade similar to the way Nadal now does.
-The early career of Vitas Gerulaitis, who never reached his full potential but could cover the court like no other.
-Ivan Lendl, the most perfectly-conditioned player ever to roam the baseline.
-Richard Kreijeck winning the '96 Wimbledon title with his arm held on by duct tape.
-Goran Ivanisevic winning Wimbledon in '01 as a freakin' wild card.
-People sometimes forget, but Lleyton Hewitt was supposed to be the next unstoppable champion around 2001-02, until he lost his mind on the court (but found it off the court, when he ditched ugly-ass Kim Clijsters).
-A fella named Arthur Ashe.
-Boris Becker, who won six Grand Slams and was the youngest-ever Wimbledon champ at age 17!
-Mats Wilander, another '80s powerhouse with 7 Slam Titles to his name.
-Jim Courier and Jimmy Connors, two of the most colorful and successful American men ever to play the sport.
While I could type till my fingers fall off about epic matches, I've already mentioned a few (Borg/McEnroe at '81 Wimbledon, Sampras/Agassi at '01 US Open, etc.), I will give you two of my all time favorites that everyone who calls himself a tennis fan must see:
-Andy Roddick v. Younes El Aynaoui at the 2003 Aussie Open (Roddick wins 5th set 21-19, no typo)
-Jimmy Connors v. Aaron Krickstein at the 1991 U.S. Open. Connors, at the ripe age of 39, came back from two sets down against the much younger Krickstein to win. Some of the insults he screams at the chair umpire would make McEnroe blush.
So for everyone so eager to get swept up by the Nadal bandwagon, first rub your ass because you probably just fell off of Federer's, then realize you are not seeing the greatest players ever. Someone has to win these tournaments, and these guys just happen to be the best players around right now. There are always two finalists and there is always a winner. And there always will be.