In a post few weeks ago, I basically took offense to those that hammered Pete Sampras’s rightful place in history. Part of my argument was that the game back then was just as strong when Pete played as it is now.
Well, after thinking a bit more on it, reading some comments, eating a few more nachos, I’ve changed my stance. And I actually think history will ultimately look upon the current, 2002-2006 ATP years as one of the weaker periods, if not the weakest, in terms of overall competition and strength in the modern era.
Let’s face it, the fact that Pete Sampras won the US Open in 2002 is quite remarkable and often overlooked. The dude could barely win a match all summer and then he somehow flipped the switched, hit the gas, and took that title. Amazing, really.
Along the way to that win he beat Rusedski, Haas, Roddick, Schalken and Agassi in his last career match. Schalken was a cup cake, but the other four wins were pretty impressive, and at that time, no one saw that Pete run coming. So how the hell did that happen. Well…
Just look what happened earlier in 2002. Thomas Johansson wins the Aussie, Albert Costa wins the French and we had that time capsule of a Wimbledon final between Hewitt and Nalbandian. The stage is set, anyone can win a Slam. And Pete just took what he could. Heck, Jiri Novak finished No. 7 that year!
A year later, Roddick wins the US Open and finishes the year No. 1. That’s right, in case you forgot, Andy finished No. 1, year-end. Quite an accomplishment. So much of one that you know how many different players have finished the year No. 1 since the start of the Ranks in 1973? By my count 15. Fifteen folks, that’s it.
Roddick finished No. 1 more than Becker ever did, more than Stich ever did, more than Muster, more than Rafter, more than Kafelnikov. Even more than Safin.
He finished No. 1 one less time than Borg did. One less time than one of the bonafide all-time greats. And who knows, maybe he’ll do it again?
And he’s equal to Wilander, Agassi, Kuerten and Courier in the history books on that page. That’s right, equal. Andy Roddick is in that conversation, like it or not. But is he a better player than those guys? Or, did he finish No. 1 that year because of weak-ass competition? You be the judge.
Over the next few years we’ve enjoyed such improbable eyebrow-raising Slam runs like Tim Henman getting to a French semifinal, Martin Verkerk reaching the French final, Rainer Schuettler advancing to the Australian Open final and Gaston Gaudio winning the French title.
But since Roger and Rafael hit their stride, they have quickly turned the tour into their own personal playground. But what has really changed since 2002? Roger and Rafa. That’s really it as far as the “stronger competition” goes.
And you can still see it in the results. Two veteran serve/volley players both pulled wins yesterday over top 20 players. The 35-year-old Wayne Arthurs beat world No. 8 and Shanghai contender Tommy Robredo, and Max Mirnyi, 29, beats Dmitry Tursunov. And today Tommy Haas needs three sets to beat a doubles specialist in Nenad Zimonjic.
Seriously, if you are going to make the argument that tennis is so much stronger now than say 10 years ago, and guys back then wouldn’t be able to compete now, then how the hell do those results happen?? I mean Nenad is 30 and he’s a doubles specialist. And Wayne Arthurs was strongly considering retiring what, like three years ago (maybe he did?).
And here’s a good one. Remember Dick Norman. The big guy turns 36 next March. Guess when he reached his highest career singles ranking? Just guess?? How about this week. That’s right, big Dick hit No. 90 this past Monday, a new career high for the Belgian. Well done.
Maybe all this guys really are peaking or in their prime. Or maybe not.
What also troubles me is that so many current players in the game today lack belief in big matches, be it at Slams or D-Cup or even late in a Masters tournament.
Just ask yourself, how many big matches has Nalbandian ever won? Robredo? Davydenko? Haas? Blake? Ljubicic (he came through in D-Cup, but little else since)? Gonzalez? Ancic? Stepanek? And on and on. Collectively, aside from Roddick/Safin/Hewitt, it’s very few. And it’s not just about beating Roger and Rafa, it’s about beating the lesser players in big moments.
I really think Andre Agassi kept playing as long as he did because he saw that the level of competition outside of Roger wasn’t very strong. He also knew that most players nowadays play the same strategy: hit it hard, if that doesn’t work hit it harder, and if that doesn’t work go to the gym more. (From my playing experience, I’ve always found it easier to return harder ground strokes than the groundies with lesser pace. But maybe that’s just me!)
And it almost paid off for Andre. At age 35, playing well past his prime and as the older Slam finalist in 31 years, he still reached the US Open final last year and gave Fed a heck of a fright. Amazing.
So was Andre just that good, or was everyone else just that bad? A little of both I think. Andre probably saw the draw and said okay, no Roger in my section and I got a bunch of guys that crush groundies but don’t really know how to win big matches. Sign me up. Pete did it a few years earlier, and if Roger gets upset, maybe I can get a bonus US Open title.
Andre didn’t get the fairy tale ending like Pete, but he sure was close.
But now with players like Gasquet, Murray, Monfils, Baghdatis, Djokovic, Del Potro, Koralev and others coming up, I think the game going forward will be played at a higher level than it has been. And thankfully some of these guys already have shown that they can close out big matches.
Murray of course is the last guy to beat Federer, and privately I’m sure he’s completely baffled a guy like Roddick ever finished No. 1. Baghdatis had good crack at Federer at the Aussie final this year, and has proven he can compete on the big stage. So too has the charismatic Monfils, who his heart and mental toughness with his three consecutive five set victories in front of his home crowd at the French this year.
Monfils’ countryman Gasquet is already more accomplished than Federer ever was at age 20, and he’s arguably just as talented as the Swiss. And Djokovic has an excellent chance at finishing among the Top 15 this year after winning a couple tough three setters over Gasquet and Murray just last week in Madrid.
So things really do look promising for the next few years. Let’s just hope these guys pan out, because tennis is gonna need them and the Fed man really needs some legit competition.
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