Due to its complexity this topic har has been divided into five parts – Enjoy!
If you have not read Part 1 and Part 2 of this blog series please click on the links and check them out. Among other things I talk about the complexities of this G.O.A.T topic and the role statistics play when determining who is the greatest player of all time.
Equipment and Surfaces
This is perhaps one of the most valid and important discussions of all. The sport of tennis has undergone many changes over the years. To determine the G.O.A.T maybe we should have categories like boxing has for weight divisions. Wooden racket era, post wooden racket era, pre/post polyester strings, etc.
Players from all eras can only play with the equipment that is available to them like Plimsoll shoes, wooden rackets, polyester strings, etc. Below you’ll find brief comparisons between the equipment and surfaces of previous eras and today. There is so much to cover so I won’t go into much detail but you’ll surprised at the big difference even small changes can make. Most people who discussing the G.O.A.T topic overlook or ignore what I’m about to tell you.
Rackets and Strings
Players now have more powerful rackets and strings. There is no doubt about that. Rafael Nadal could not play or would not be nearly as effective a player with wooden rackets or non polyester strings. This is not to say that he wouldn’t be a great player in previous eras, I’m saying that his technique and spin has probably benefitted more that anyone else in tennis history from new technology.
Racket and string technology today has also benefitted the retrieving or counter punching player. Players such as Hewitt, Murray, Djokovic, Nadal, Ferrer, etc. are able to generate power from minimal connection on the ball which in turn helps them remain in the point and even to hit winners when way out of position.
The equal opposite is true for the wooden racket and faster court eras leading up to the present era. You could not be completely successful unless you attacked at some stage. Even small players with incredible back court shots such as Rosewall were attacking players who serve volleyed.
Tennis equipment has also changed dramatically over the years. Bjorn Borg was the first top player to bring specialist grass shoes in to Wimbledon. These shoes were an advantage . Borg who was the most incredible athlete, had a secret weapon that helped his grip, move and recover better than other players. Gone were the plimsoll supportless shoes and in were the high tech ones (well high tech of the day anyway).
I was playing in Dunlop Volleys (as they are called in Australia), I believe they are called Green Flash in the UK and the US equivalent was something like Converse All Stars. Try playing a five set tennis match in Converse All Stars and see how your movement and knees feel. I should sue the manufacturer for all the knee injuries I incurred later on in my career. Half of my peers are now long term sufferers of knee pain and I think hard courts and those type of shoes have something to do with it. My teeth rattle just thinking about the shock through my body every step caused.
I have heard the argument that players competing before 1977 such as Rod Laver had it easier as he won 3 out of 4 slams on grass. An equally fair argument is saying the players today play all 4 slams on similar paced courts. One just happens to be a little slower and slippery while another is a little faster and green. Both arguments are valid.
In my era (the 1980’s) two were on grass, one on very slow clay and the other on a medium, fast hard court. Indoor tournament courts varied from slow to lightning fast. Because of this there was a great variety of successful styles. Different types of players had different chances of success from week to week.
But does court surface pace make that big of a difference? The answer is yes. It takes extreme skill and ability to adjust from one week to the next. Adjusting for this was always tough for me because my game was quite specialised and focused on attacking the net. However, some players like Ivan Lendl could somehow comfortably adjust from lightning fast courts to very slow courts.
In my time it was not uncommon to lose the top seeds early as many came from the previous tournament that had very different court conditions and balls. Overall this was not great for the tournament as TV would lose interest and the public would be disappointed not to see the stars in the finals. So changes were made throughout the 90’s to have a uniformed court surface.
Because of this almost all ATP indoor tournament today are played on one type of medium/ slow paced surface. Wooden boarding linked together and painted with hard court paint. The intention of the ATP was to enable the top seeds to transition more easily therefore boosting the chances of the top seeds victory in the early rounds.
Is this an unfair advantage to the players who preferred slow to medium paced courts? Damn right it is!! It’s incredibly unfair to the attacking player. This is clearly one of the reasons we don’t see many attacking and volley players on the circuit.
I don’t want to sound like an old grandfather (I consider myself a young grandfather;) talking about how thing were back in the day. What I’m trying to demonstrate is how technology, equipment, court surfaces, etc. have had a huge impact on tennis and has dramatically changed the game. This is one of the reasons comparing players across eras to determine the G.O.A.T is so difficult.
Are Djokovic or Federer better players than Borg or McEnroe because they can hit the ball harder, get more spin and move better? Or is that a result of improved string, racket and equipment technology? What would happen if Borg and McEnroe grew up playing on modern similar paced court surfaces with todays technology? Or how would todays players fare with wooden rackets and Converse shoes? These are intriguing questions that we’ll unfortunately never know the answer to. However, they are important things to consider if you want to determine who the G.O.A.T is for you.
Thank you for reading part 3 this blog series. You can read Part 4 here: Greatest Tennis Player Of All Time – Part 4. Subscribe (on the right) or follow me on Twitter, Google+ or Facebook to get all my articles sent straight to you.