Just for fun, I am trying something different. As the 2009 hard court season heads toward the finish line, I came up with some hypothetical matches between former U.S. Open champions. I am not going to try to update players to today’s equipment or for that matter try to retrofit a current player to past equipment. I mainly found these matches to be interesting due to either contrasting styles of play or the state of mind that each champion had when winning the U.S. Open.
Honorable Mentions – Andre Agassi and Ivan Lendl
1. I am only going to use a given player once.
2. I won’t compare players who ever actually met at the U.S. Open.
Agassi and Lendl’s longevity and consistent excellence left them out of the mix. Agassi having faced Jimmy Connors, Lendl, Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg, Pete Sampras, Patrick Rafter, Lleyton Hewitt and Roger Federer in New York made it difficult for me to work him into a match. Lendl similarly faced Connors, John McEnroe, Mats Wilander, Edberg, Becker, Agassi and Sampras at the U.S. Open. Out of respect for the two, I would love to see if the mature Andre Agassi would have the physical and mental fortitude to overcome Lendl who was an obstacle to a less disciplined Agassi in 1988 and 1989.
5. Contrasts: Lleyton Hewitt 2001 versus Stefan Edberg 1992
This is a classic contrast in both style of play and personality. Edberg would be putting a high percentage of his first serves into play, hitting a second serve that is almost identical to his first, and attacking the net whenever possible. Edberg would play his ground strokes conservatively looking to minimize errors while waiting for a chance to move forward. Hewitt and Edberg shared speed, but the Aussie’s mentality would be to place returns at Edberg’s shoe tops, retrieve volleys and hit passing shots. In 1991 Edberg dominated Michael Chang, Ivan Lendl and Jim Courier to win the title. In 1992 everything was a struggle for Edberg as he came back from a break down in the 5th set three times just to reach the final. Hewitt in 2001 was a young player hitting his prime and was fit.
4. Monsters of the Midway: Boris Becker 1989 versus Marat Safin 2000
1989 is generally viewed as Becker at his best even if he had a strong 1991 and played great tennis from Wimbledon 1995 – Australian Open 1996. Marat Safin’s semifinal obliteration of Todd Martin and championship thrashing of Pete Sampras had to be seen to be believed. This would be a match up of two big, strong, young players who moved exceptionally well. Movement would be key as Safin would need to track down a lot of Becker volleys. Becker would need to avoid letting passing shots and return winners put him into the mentality of shying away from the net as this would spell disaster. Both men were capable of a lot of fireworks. Each could also make bad tactical decisions. These two powerhouses would collide in a monster movie type match.
3. Who Has Momentum? Patrick Rafter 1998 versus Andy Roddick 2003
It is hard to remember two players entering the U.S. Open with more momentum than these two did. Rafter won Super 9 titles at Canada and Cincinnati in 1998. Roddick won Masters Series events in Canada and Cincinnati in 2003. Rafter won the now defunct Hamlet event in New York, and Roddick won in Indianapolis. Rafter would try to slice the ball taking pace off of it as he hit to Andy’s backhand. Brad Gilbert had Roddick standing far behind the baseline to return in 2003 with the idea that his charge would hold easily so if Roddick got lots of returns in play he’d break serve eventually. Ceding that much ground to a serve and volley player would lead to lots of drop volley and angle volley winners. Rafter did return well in 1998, but this was generally a weaker aspect of the Aussie’s game. This match would likely see a lot of tie-break sets. Both guys had to be extremely confident based upon their momentum entering the U.S. Open. That alone would raise the fascinating question of whose confidence blinked first.
2. You Cannot be a Genius! John McEnroe 1984 versus Roger Federer 2006
Federer versus McEnroe would be akin to Isaac Newton versus Albert Einstein or Shakespeare versus Homer for the more literary minded. Love or hate them, no two players have had the adjective genius attached to their tennis more often than these two. Add in the fact that in 1984 McEnroe had complete confidence that he could do anything he needed to on a tennis court and that in 2006 Federer had that same vibe. Would each guy lose sight of the end goal of victory by trying to hit an unthinkable shot to show up the other? Quite possibly, but it would be worth seeing.
1. Mr. U.S. Open versus Mr. U.S. Open: Jimmy Connors versus Pete Sampras
Jimmy Connors reached his first U.S. Open quarterfinal in 1973 and last reached the semifinals in 1991. He won the event on three surfaces and won the fans’ hearts after some initial reluctance on the part of the New York crowd. Pete Sampras was born as a top level tennis player when he became the youngest U.S. Open champion in 1990. Pistol Pete provided a bookend to that introduction by winning the U.S. Open in 2002 to close his career. Each man won five U.S. Open titles and the two finished a combined 11 years at #1. If I had to pick a best year for each, I’d select 1978 for Connors and 1995 for Sampras. Jimmy beat McEnroe and Borg back-to-back in straight sets no less to win the inaugural hard court U.S. Open in 1978. Sampras’ 1995 four set victory over Agassi represented the culmination of a 52 week challenge to Sampras’ supremacy and Pete passed the test by staying cool, serving huge, volleying well and also hitting big ground strokes. I think in this case making a best case scenario for each combatant based upon their entire body of U.S. Open work is actually more fruitful than isolating a single year.
This match would have all of the contrasts found in the Edberg-Hewitt clash, but it would have the added bonus of seeing the two most decorated male U.S. Open champions of the Open Era serve and return with no quarter given. Sampras’ power game would make him the favorite. Jimbo would thrive on being the underdog.
This would have to be a night match. Sampras never lost a night match in New York. A 37 year old Jimmy Connors beat then world #3 Stefan Edberg 6-2, 6-3, 6-1 with the help of a rowdy night crowd. No one was better at night than Sampras, and no one was more dangerous at night than Connors. Something would have to give.
If I had to pick, I’d say these guys would have a better than 50% chance at victory …
5. Edberg – Always found a way to win in 1992
4. Becker – More mentally tough
3. Rafter – He beat 3 big servers on his way to the 1998 title
2. Federer – More natural power to go with imagination
1. Sampras – Jimbo would need to make this a marathon, but Pete would probably get too many free points to let this happen
Who do you think would win these matches?
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