Okay, the whole notion of “a generation” is a sticky wicket, a big-picture shortcut that invites oversimplification. Still, we adore our categories. We love to compartmentalize, label and list. So, ever since the Lost Generation, pop culture gurus have divided and wrapped up our eras into nice neat, user-friendly packages.
The Greatest Generation: They sacrificed so mightily to win a war and were such hard-working, sensible neighbors. Yes, there was an array of testy little unresolved issues — race, gender, war, conformity — that polite people didn’t talk about. But these were good “Father Knows Best” folks who loved their Sinatra.
The ’60s Counter Culture: “Make love, not war.” “Don’t worry, be happy.” Forget the stock market, this is Woodstock. ‘Twas the Dawning of the Age of Aquarius. (Or was it the end of civilization?) C’mon people now, smile on your brother, everybody get together, try to love one another right now.
Gen X: As the Berlin Wall fell and gas prices soared, alienated, über-educated post-hippies infatuated with laptops, not love-ins, raised their Seattle roast lattes as “just do it” types got their IPOs launched while others simply muttered, “Whatever.”
Unfortunately, tennis’ generations are rather more hazy, inexact matters subject to nuanced debate. Some might go back to France’s Four Musketeers and Big and Little Bill (Bill Tilden and Bill Johnston) or Jack Kramer and his battling band of nomads (Pancho Gonzalez, Bobby Riggs, et al) in their station wagons taking the game from drafty city armories to the high school gyms of the North Plains. Others adore the Aussies, the hale and hearty g’day blokes who were frequent flyers long before their were frequent flyer points. In their impeccable whites, they were a close knit cadre of gentleman athletes with classic games who won 48 Slam singles titles and still draw adoration. Mary Carillo confided that she still finds herself “comparing the legacies of the recent greats to the generation of Aussies. I am so old school…but it says something that the two players I hold in the highest esteem — Pete and Roger — were raised to look to Laver and Emerson, Rosewall and Hoad, Newcombe and Roche as the game’s gold standard, and that class of Aussies still holds up for me, too. And it wasn’t just their games and their fitness; they honored their sport by fighting to the last, and even more than Pete and Roger, they treated their opponents with respect, and comported themselves with grace and humility. I wish I could give those men back their youth, and new equipment, and high-tech training, and…and…and…
But ultimately, in the Open Era, we can divide men’s tennis into three prime groups. First came “Bjorn and the Bad Boys” (Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, with Vitas Gerulaitis, Ilie Nastase and Guillermo Vilas on the margins); a rollicking rat pack like no other. On court, on magazine covers or in discos, this was, pound for pound, the most rip-roaring, riveting, kind of infantile, rebel clan in the history of sports.
Then came “The Era of the Sampragassian Wars,” which included Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg and America’s Fab Four — Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier and Michael Chang. And these days we have our own Golden Era of “Djokovic and The Duopoly” — Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer — three players who are suggestive of a trio of pioneers who put tennis on the sports map in the first place.
No other group delivered more over-the-top, operatic, in-your-face fun and folly quite like Bjorn and the Bad Boys. Dreamy Borg — the Angelic Assassin — was tennis’ answer to the Beatles; McEnroe was a Jekyll-and-Hyde explosion waiting to happen; and, according to the New York Times, Connors was prone to having “group sex with the fans on the grandstand court.” Hockey had its brawls and auto racing its gory crashes, but tennis was branded by its “YOU CANNOT BE SERIOUS!” implosions — twitchy tirades that morphed into outrageous anti-authoritarian theater.
Meanwhile, back on the court, each of the era’s stars suffered their flaws. Borg faltered at the U.S. Open and retired too early. No other player attracted more fans and so personified the modern game more than Connors. But his forehand, serve and approach game were problematic. McEnroe’s slice-and-dice poetics and fabulous feats in doubles and Davis Cup were astounding, but his groundies were less than lethal.
In many ways, Ivan Lendl was a pivotal transitional figure between generations. Yes, with his Soviet personality, he was dismissed as the “The Champion Nobody Cares About.” And no other star could so adeptly empty stadiums. Still, he upgraded tennis with his power baseline game, initiated a focused, somber professionalism and a commitment to fitness and no-nonsense practice regimes that set the table for a whole new generation.
Enter blonde and bounding Becker, who broke out at Wimbledon in ’85. Eventually he and the elegant Edberg joined with America’s Greatest Generation, the Fab Four, to form a kind of middle period in modern tennis. The “Era of the Sampragassian Wars” not only showcased perhaps the best rivalry in men’s tennis history —(Sampras won 20 of his 34 matches against Agassi) but boasted the deepest-ever top 10 that included three-time French Open champ Gustavo Kuerten, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Patrick Rafter, Sergi Bruguera, Goran Ivanisevic, Thomas Muster and Richard Krajicek.
Now there was an emergence of a certain professionalism. The intoxicating (or was it toxic?) era of snits ‘n fits began to recede. Sure, there were plenty of characters; Agassi and Ivanisevic were hardly bland. But the introverted Sampras, with his muted emotions and “just-win, baby” approach, set the tone. All the while, zealous officials tapped their control-freak sensibilities to enact semi-draconian rules that reined in the racket-slamming chaos and helped establish a far more modern, professional and international sport defined by conventional competition. Tennis evolved into a deep pocket game that could compete both in the sports marketplace and in the entertainment world. All the while players still had their limits. Sampras’ French Open record was modest and Agassi’s serve was less than dominant.
Enter Fed. The seamless magician not only upset the reigning king, Pistol Pete, at Wimbledon in ’01, but with Swiss precision raised the level of the game with his textbook technique, stunning shotmaking, sublime athletic grace and an “every detail matters” professionalism.
Nothing’s perfect, but here at last was a player with no real flaws. Go ahead and call him a genius. He reached 23 straight Grand Slam semis and won 16 majors. Maybe his early rivals — Lleyton Hewitt, Andy Roddick, Marat Safin, etc. —weren’t exactly all-time greats. Still, he set the bar so outrageously high that the field soon realized they had to raise their levels mightily. Thus the long rise of Nadal, who sat perched at No. 2 for nearly three years before he at last supplanted Roger. Similarly, Djokovic hovered for five years, a consistent quarterfinalist/semifinalist, until his seven-month surge catapulted him to the very top. Amazingly, Djokovic and The Duopoly have collected 28 of the last 31 Slams and as broadcaster Cliff Drysdale noted, none of the top three has a weakness. No wonder a chorus of observers insists we are in a Golden Era, that this is the best generation of all time.
“The men’s game is absolutely loaded,” noted Brad Gilbert. “This is the greatest era I’ve ever seen…These are the three best players I’ve seen at the same time…Federer has to be the greatest No. 3 ever.” Former doubles great Peter Fleming said, “If you’re talking about their sheer impact on the sporting public, I would have to say it’s the Borg, Connors, McEnroe era because it was a transitional phase. They transcended tennis and got a much larger viewing audience interested. But in terms of sheer brilliance and exceptional skill, it’s the current era. You have three guys now who are all exceptional champions.”
Fleming’s doubles partner, Johnny Mac, concurs. “Their records speak for themselves. Federer plays on all surfaces…and won the French…Nadal has upped his game and changed to where he can play on anything now…[Still] I look at guys who had a different style and [faced] a different kind of player every match. They had to figure out a way to beat seven different guys with different kinds of games. [They were] more versatile compared to the guys today. I would like to see a little bit more [versatility]. That’s why I go back to the Samprases, the Lavers, the McEnroes and the Borgs. Right now, it’s one style fits all, and that lets a guy get lulled into a kind of game which is playable on any given day…[But] how can you say anything about the guys today and their records?”
Mats Wilander can. The Swede says that while Federer may be the best of all time, “the era when he played is the worst of all time. That’s why he was winning so much…His era had the worst Nos. 2, 3, 4, 5 — the Nalbandians, Roddicks, Hewitts. That’s one of the reasons he dominated…How could you be that dominant in this day and age? It’s impossible.”
Sampras went even further, saying, “What’s happening is that there’s only a handful of great players. There’re a lot of really good players, but there’s only a number of guys who have won majors. In Mats’ generation, in my generation, there were a lot more major winners — Becker, Edberg, Stich, Courier, Agassi. With Rafa and Roger being so dominant, there’s no one else who really believes they can win majors. A Soderling or a Robredo, they’re really good, but I’m not sure they believe. I’ve never seen two guys dominate as much as Roger and Rafa. The competition is just not that great. If he beats Wawrinka [in the Aussie Open quarters] 1, 3 and 3 in an hour and 20 minutes, it’s not his fault. He’s that much better. Guys are pretty content now just getting to the quarters. They’re not believing they can beat Roger and Rafa.”
Sampras noted that, in his days, there were “some who could serve you off the court. I’d play one of those guys one day and the next day play a great returner. But Roger never feels scared out there. He’s not under that much pressure. Everyone sort of plays the same. It’s just that Roger and Rafa are just better at it. No major threats come through like a Krajicek, an Ivanisevic, guys who could blow you off the court with their serve.”
And how would Sampras fare against today’s best? “The top guys from our generation, Andre, Becker or me, are going to win our fair share of big ones,” said Pete. “We all would have been pretty even depending on the surface. I don’t think one guy would have been 10-1 against someone. My game would certainly hold up in any generation. Everyone talks about the serve and volley being extinct, but I still think it’s an effective way to play. We all want to compare. It would be exciting to see what I’d do against Borg, McEnroe or Laver. In my prime I felt unbeatable, as did Lendl and Laver, as does Federer. That’s the way we look at our decades. I felt I came out of a generation that was very, very strong, and I feel proud about that.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, when IT asked Federer to compare generations he flip-flopped mightily. “It’s not fair to say that our generation is stronger,” he began. “For many years many said [our generation was] weaker because there was only me and then there was only Rafa…And now all of a sudden there’re people talking about four [including Djokovic and Andy Murray.] Now it’s the best ever. This is where I disagree. It doesn’t happen so quickly. When Pete, Andre, Becker, Edberg and McEnroe and all those guys were still around, it was more even. It was very good already. The generation before that was also very strong…Rafa and myself…didn’t allow anybody else to shine really. The other players didn’t get the respect they deserved. That’s just to straighten that record a little bit…I still feel [the players from] 10, 20 years ago…would be doing excellent. Pete’s serve…would be one of the great serves today if not the best. Agassi…had a return that many don’t have today. Maybe they had other weaknesses, but maybe they were able to eliminate those with their great strengths. This is maybe where today we’re better overall because we have to, because the conditions have slowed down, and that allows us to win the French and Wimbledon back to back a bit more easily than in the day where you had grass court, hard court, indoor and clay court specialists. Today everybody can play everywhere.”
Now everyone has to play the nine Masters tournaments, so players must consistently face each other on all surfaces and they must play all the Slams or be slammed in the rankings. Gone, too, are the days of skipping out on the Australian Open (far away/bad date) or the French Open (“there’s nothing worse than clay in your underwear”) or Wimbledon (“grass is for cows”). Plus, all the Slams have been updated into “must-play” showcases with clear appeal and importance. The French clay is much faster while Wimbledon’s grass and the balls themselves are slower.
Just go to the videotape and compare the generations. Now serves — faster and bouncing seven feet high — are more varied and wicked. Groundies zap deep to the corners. There is an intensity to virtually every point. Euros from across the continent and many of the best athletes on the planet — armed with wonder rackets and catapult strings – are playing closer to the baseline where they re-direct the ball with nonchalant brilliance and effortlessly unleash astounding defense-to-offense counter-attacks.
With indisputable Hawk-Eye electronics in place, work-the-ref ploys and “YOU’RE THE PITS OF THE WORLD” baiting have become long, lost arts. And the tour’s So-You-Want-to-Be-a-Millionaire rewards are vast. No wonder a laser like, get-me-to-the-academy-on-time focus prevails. Tennis is hard, but it pays.
The modern generation, which is bigger, stronger, and faster, is also more dedicated to merciless conditioning. Out of shape huff and puffers, with bellies like the one Agassi once endured, need not apply.
In fact, Andre himself is quick to sing the praises of today’s generation. “In any sport where you can measure distance, height and speed, athletes have made their sport better,” he told IT. “With every generation the sport has improved. I played Pete and Roger at their best, and with Roger you’re dealing with an entirely different athletic skill set than the level that I ever competed at. I believe wholeheartedly that Roger and Nadal have pushed the game much further than Pete or I ever did. Their options on court are considerably more than ours were. So every three to five years you consistently see an improvement in the standard of play. Having somebody dominate like nobody else, like Federer has, and having Nadal always playing second fiddle in the rankings, but then having a head to head advantage over the No. 1 player in the world is very intriguing. We talk about Federer being the best that’s ever played, but right next to him in the same generation is a guy that has a 2 to 1 winning record over him. That’s compelling and it speaks to the complexity of tennis. So therefore I give this generation and these players the mark…And when I see Roger and Rafa, I see two true professionals and very strong characters. They’re wonderful people, they’re great to fans, their peers, the media…They’re a class above.
It’s compelling when you look at the three best players in the world [and] two of them are unquestionably the top two to ever play, and the third is well on his way to proving that he should be in that discussion. So overall this generation of players is going to contribute more to the game than probably other generations combined.”
Yes Andre, the current Golden Era is, by a significant measure, the best ever. But, your time — the “Era of the Sampragassian Wars” — did have greater depth and a better Top Ten. And no other generation will probably ever be more important or more entertaining than those rowdy long ago pranksters — Borg and the Bad Boys, McEnroe and Connors.