A few years ago, during a Serena Williams match at the U.S. Open, Chris Evert was in the announcers' booth when the director decided to show an old match between her and Tracy Austin. The two all-time greats were locked in some sort of baseline rally, and as a tennis fan, I have to say there was an obvious and inescapable response to seeing this classic bit of tennis history.
After a few shots, Chris Evert put that response into words.
“My gosh,” she said, “Look how SLOWLY we’re hitting the ball.”
Tennis is not the same game it was 30 years ago. It’s not the same game it was 20 years ago. Realistically, it’s not even the same game it was 10 years ago. No sport on the American landscape -- unless you consider video games sport -- changes as rapidly and as radically as tennis. Yes, football players get bigger. Golf balls fly longer. Basketball players get stronger.
But in tennis, because of the equipment, the court conditions, the tennis balls and the players training regimens, the very game sheds its skin and reforms into something new every few years. This makes comparison through the years -- one of the wonderful things about being a fan of an individual sport -- almost pointless. It's hard to watch film or John McEnroe hitting those gorgeous touch volleys or seeing Steffi Graf dominate her opponents with her powerful forehand without thinking: "Holy cow, they would not stand a chance against players with today's equipment."
Rafael Nadal is probably the best example of this phenomenon. You watch him whip forehands with that extreme semi-Western grip and crush two-handed backhands from the most defensive positions and it's almost painful to go back and watch Rod Laver or Jimmy Connors or Arthur Ashe. They were not playing the same sport. Heck, even Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi were not playing the same sport. It's hard enough comparing LeBron James and Michael Jordan, who were at least playing basketball under similar conditions. You go back and watch highlights from the French Open in the 1970s, you will watch two players bloop topspin pop-ups at each other until one wilts from exhaustion or boredom.
You watch Nadal crack shots past the amazing Novak Djokovic from 10 feet behind the baseline ... not the same game.
Does this make Nadal the best tennis player ever? It's an utterly fascinating question, and one I probably spend way too much time thinking about. You can look at the statistics: Nadal has now won 14 grand slam championships -- three clear of Rod Laver (for years considered the "greatest player ever"), tying him with Pete Sampras (who had his own time as the "greatest player ever”) and putting him just three behind the leader Roger Federer (who seems in the minds of many to be the reigning “greatest player ever”).
Federer's lead probably won't last long. He won 16 of his 17 slams before he turned 30. Nadal doesn’t turn 30 until the French Open in 2016 -- eight grand slams away. I think Nadal is going to tie Federer’s record before he turns 30. In time, he might smash Federer’s record.
Nadal has won one Australian Open, nine French Opens, two Wimbledons and two U.S. Opens. The nine French Opens is a grand slam record. He has beaten the great Federer in the final of the Australian, French and Wimbledon. He is 66-1 at Roland Garros, has reached the final of his last nine non-Wimbledon slams (this, even while dealing with a devastating injury that some thought might end his career) and he is an absurd 137-48 (74 percent) against the next ten ranked players combined.
But how do you compare Nadal to previous generations? Nadal is only capable of playing the style he plays because of the advances in the tennis racket. This is not a knock -- you play with the equipment you're given. But it's fair to say he could not have used Connors' trampoline Wilson T2000 or Martina Navratilova's graphite Yonex R-7 and hit anything resembling the shots he hits now. The frame heads were way smaller, they did not have the lightness or whip of rackets today, they had a sweet spot about the size of a Canadian penny, the strings were not nearly as responsive, on and on.
Nadal also plays a Wimbledon where the grass courts are much slower and truer. In 2001, Goran Ivanisevic hit a preposterous 212 aces to become the one and only player to win Wimbledon as a wildcard entry. That's more than 30 aces per match -- and that doesn't even count all the serves he hit that were returned long or into the net. That's how grass tennis was in those days, ace after ace after ace -- I will never forget the post-match press conference of a bewildered Frenchman named Arnaud Boetsch after Ivanisevic blew him off the court in 84 minutes. "Boom! Boom! Boom!" Boetsch said when asked to describe the match.
I don't know that Nadal could have won that version of Wimbledon. It is true that Andre Agassi won it playing a power-baseline game not unlike Nadal's -- Agassi beat Ivanisevic in five sets in the 1992 final -- but again those were different rackets. You give servers like John Isner and Milos Raonic and Ernests Gulbis and others the old Wimbledon surface, it's hard to see how Nadal competes against the blur (as it stands, Nadal is 16-0 against Isner, Raonic and Gulbis).
The point here is that there is no particularly satisfying answer for "greatest tennis player ever" because the game changes so radically. That doesn't stop us from playing the game, though. If I had to choose the best ever, I'd choose Nadal. I'd like to say Roger Federer, and I could make a case. Roger Federer's peak is unmatched -- to reach at least the semifinal in 23 consecutive grand slams is a feat that might never be matched. He is older than Nadal, so they haven't been often matched peak-to-peak. Most of Nadal's head-to-head dominance comes on clay, which is Federer's least effective surface.
But the numbers are simply too striking; Federer's game simply could not handle Nadal -- Rafa's high topspin forehands dominated Federer's backhand and he lost 23 of the 33 times they two have played. He beat Federer at Wimbledon too. He has dominated Federer on the Australian hardcourts. It's hard for Federer to be the best ever when Nadal beat him so regularly.
Sometimes it seems like Novak Djokovic plays tennis better than it has ever been played before; but again he could not beat Nadal in the French Open. And then you go back: Pete Sampras' game was blunted on clay, Andre Agassi's game was like Nadal's game minus about 5 percent, John McEnroe's game is an anachronism; it belonged to a specific time and it's hard to translate it to 2014. Rod Laver's game or Bill Tilden's game are even harder to imagine in our time.
Maybe McEnroe would invent a whole new way to play tennis with these new rackets. He had a particular tennis genius. Maybe Bjorn Borg would find a whole other level of speed and power. Maybe Jimmy Connors or Ivan Lendl or Jim Courier would create a kind of power tennis that would overpower the seemingly invincible Rafa Nadal. We will never know.
What does seems clear, though, is that Rafa Nadal plays tennis better than it has ever been played. He was given many advantages over previous generations. Much better rackets. More comfortable surfaces. Advanced medical treatments. But advantages are a part of tennis. Nadal has taken the game to a new level. That's what the greatest do.