Roy Emerson: Adam
At the forefront of tennis’s charge into professionalism, the undervalued Roy Emerson’s statistics still impress.
In an age when Australians dominated world tennis, Emerson and Rod Laver were the names that stood out, with ‘Emmo’ winning 12 individual major titles (including six Australian Opens in seven years), along with 16 in doubles.
He was a brilliant volleyer with a booming serve, but a mark of his greatness was his work ethic and his ability to adjust his game for different conditions.
Emerson is often overlooked when the game’s greats are mentioned as he nabbed many of his grand slams while Laver, who had already turned pro, was not competing against him. Emerson held the record for the most grand slams right up until Pete Sampras came along.
Rod Laver: Rocket
With five of Rod Laver’s best years lost to the record books due to the fact he turned professional before tennis officialdom deemed it proper, stats don’t tell the full story of his remarkable career.
Not only is he one of just two men to have completed a calendar Grand Slam, he actually did it twice, in 1962 and 1969 on his way to 11 majors. And while the ATP only acknowledges 52 of his overall tournament wins, it is estimated he won close to 200.
He was an absolute nightmare to play against due to his speed and supreme set of skills across all surfaces, the most formidable feature being his Popeye-like forearm strength which enabled him to tear his left-hand forehands past hapless opponents.
Little wonder Roger Federer idolises him.
Bjorn Borg: Cold as Ice
They called him the Ice Man or the Ice Borg because he didn’t show any emotion on the court. He didn’t even seem to enjoy the game. Regardless, he won five Wimbledons in a row and four straight French Opens. He usually couldn’t be bothered coming to the Australian Open because it was too far to travel.
He helped himself to 11 grand slams, then promptly retired at the age of 26. Borg is indisputably one of the best to have played the game. Imagine the consequences for everyone else had he played a little longer.
Pete Sampras: The Trendsetter
He may never have been wildly popular, or have generated as many headlines as his fiercest foe, Andre Agassi, but that didn’t seem to trouble Pete Sampras much while he ruled the tennis world for close to a decade.
If you were a sporting god designing what the ultimate tennis player would look like, you would likely end up with an end product closely resembling ‘Pistol Pete’.
Tall and powerful, Sampras sent down first serves that were so consistently perfect that they have never been matched, before or since. He could also move about the court like a panther, despite his hulking frame, and played with an aggression that belied his colourless off-court persona.
Sampras claimed the last of his major titles, fittingly, with a win over Agassi at the 2002 US Open, meaning he had amassed 14 by career’s end, in an era that overlapped with quite a few legends’ timelines. At that point in time, people thought that this record of 14 Grand Slams could never be broken. But then, the King came along.
Roger Federer: The King
You can argue all day about who the best men’s tennis player is, but it’s almost a given that nobody has mastered the game like Roger Federer.
Though he might not be able to match Nadal or Sampras in terms of pure power, he more than makes up for it with all those adjectives you would wish upon yourself if you were an athlete in a non-contact sport; his tennis is intelligent, elegant, artful, beautiful … sublime.
For those reasons, the claim that he is the G.O.A.T. can never be completely refuted, even if you believe the best of Laver or Sampras or Djokovic might beat the best of Federer.
Rafael Nadal: The Bull
One of the reasons the Rafael Nadal v Roger Federer rivalry was so hard to watch at times was because it was difficult to see one of them lose any final, knowing neither really deserved to end up finishing second to anybody.
The 2008 Wimbledon final stands out in particular, Nadal had long been looming as his great nemesis, but to that point he had been able to assert his dominance only on clay, conquering the French Open four times in a row. It marked a turning point in their rivalry, in which Nadal now had the upper hand.
His weapons on clay, that massive left arm and that tremendous hustle, had become so potent that they translated to all surfaces, helping Nadal to the number one ranking and 14 grand slam titles, as many as Sampras.
Novak Djokovic: The Wolf
No sooner had the tennis world become convinced that it was watching two of the finest tennis players of any generation play out one of the sport’s great rivalries, than someone else came along and started challenging both of them.
Novak Djokovic may not have accumulated as many major titles as Federer or Nadal just yet, but the manner in which he has surpassed that duo on the court must raise serious questions about his status in the pantheon. Nadal is now severely hobbled by the accumulation of injuries, and Federer is 34, but Djokovic has arguably been the superior player to the pair of them since he won nearly every tournament in sight when they were both at or near their respective peaks in 2011.
If you belong to the ‘Federer is the G.O.A.T. and that’s that’ brigade, consider this: aside from divvying up majors with Nadal, Roger Federer conquered names such as Mark Philippoussis, Marcos Baghdatis, Fernando Gonzalez and Robin Soderling on his way to notching up a record 17 grand slam wins.
Djokovic, meanwhile, has had to face Federer, Nadal or Andy Murray in 17 of his 19 finals, on his way to winning 11 of them.
Like a coiled-up spring, Novak’s wiry physique is capable of unleashing tremendous power, and he boasts just about every weapon the modern game requires to attack and counter-attack; a searing first serve, unbelievable defence and the capability to laser-guide his shots to all corners of the court at will.
He pushes his body relentlessly past its limits, but if it can withstand that strain for another few years he could end his career with more major titles than anybody.