Greatest male hardcourt players


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As the hardcourt season comes to a close, Tramlines takes a look at some of the players to have mastered the surface in the Open era - starting with the men's game.

There have been some dominant players on the surface, especially in the period from the late-1970s to mid-80s, when most grass tournaments were replaced with low-maintenance hard courts.

The Australian Open is the most high-profile example of this, switching from grass to 'rebound ace' rubber hardcourts in 1987 then switching to a medium-paced plexicushion court in 2008.

Ivan Lendl

Many refer to Ivan Lendl as the 'father of modern tennis' - and the way the surface is played today, with great power and speed, can certainly be traced back to him.

Lendl won over 20 hardcourt titles in his career and is up there with the very best players of the surface. He reached eight consecutive US Open finals from 1982 to 1989, winning three straight between 1985 and 1987 - defeating John McEnroe, Miloslav Mecir and Mats Wilander. Lendl's final defeats in New York were to some of the best players of the Open era in Jimmy Connors, McEnroe, Wilander and Boris Becker. He also won two Australian Opens on rebound ace and was a regular winner on the American hardcourt circuit.

Most important of all is Lendl's influence on the way tennis is played today, both tactically and technically: he had a huge first serve that - if it did not result in an ace - set up his points well, coming to meet the short reply with a winner or at least using it to dominate the rally.

He changed his game significantly in the early days on the professional tour. Known initially for his slice backhand, as with many 70s players who used wooden racquets, he developed a superb topspin backhand which he used to stay in rallies and hit passing winners when attacked.

But it is the forehand that Lendl was most famous for - it is considered one of the best strokes in the history of the sport. Using his tactic of keeping the backhand side of the court covered, Lendl could hit punishing inside-out forehands crosscourt or down the line.

A good-length ball could become a fairly short ball in those circumstances - and it is that level of tactical play which made Lendl stand out. Many great players were to later adopt that approach, with the key to the strategy being possessed of the athleticism to cover the right side of the court should the opponent go down the line to his forehand.

Lendl was also credited for taking fitness and training methods to a new level in tennis and was one of the first players to get a freshly strung racquet every time new balls were called by the umpire.

Andre Agassi

Andre Agassi holds the record of the most hardcourt titles won, with 46 - three-quarters of his total number of 60. In 1995 he won seven titles, all on hardcourts.

Agassi won the Australian Open four times on rebound ace, including the 1995 title on debut against defending champion Pete Sampras in the final. He also won there in 2000, 2001 and 2003. He played in six US Open finals, winning in 1994 and 1999; he reached the final in 2005 at the age of 35, losing to Roger Federer. Agassi also holds the record of winning the Miami title on six occasions.

His philosophy and style of play were somewhat different from that of Lendl, with Agassi possessed of great hand-eye coordination and lightning-quick reflexes. Agassi was not as athletic as Lendl, so he preferred to take the ball right on the baseline as opposed to well behind it. This allowed him to deprive his opponent of time to play his shot. Agassi also took up a central position most of the time so he could move his opponent around, wearing them out with punishing deep groundstrokes.

Agassi was most famous for his return of serve. He had the ability to take the serve and nail it, often straight back at his opponent - setting him up for a passing shot off either wing. In fact, Agassi had a winning record against every serve/volleyer and attacking player on the tour, bar one... Michael Stich never beat him in five matches, and the guys with the better records against him were Richard Krajicek and Goran Ivanisevic. Agassi comprehensively beat Boris Becker and Patrick Rafter over his career.

The American was also known for his double-handed inside-out backhand, while he gave his serve a lot of kick: in his early years, his serve was seen as a liability, but this nuance meant it became a real weapon later in his career.

Roger Federer

Roger Federer was by far the best hardcourt player in the Noughties, winning the US Open five straight times - something that may never happen again. Federer also won the Indian Wells-Miami double twice and was a multiple winner at both Cincinnati and the Canadian Open. He is also a four-times Australian Open champion - in 2004, 2006, 2007 and 2010.

For a long period Federer was unbeatable on hardcourts. It is only recently that he has been challenged - with Novak Djokovic beating him in the US Open and Australian Open in 2010 and 2011 and Juan Martin del Potro triumphing in the 2009 US Open final.

Federer took the Lendl style of play to a new level, dominating points and matches with his forehand like no other player. He is able to hit winners anywhere on the court and covers the left side of the court brilliantly by relying on his athleticism and running forehand. He takes advantage of the technology available to the modern player: while Lendl was often happy to rally when he could have pulled the trigger, modern strings have led players such as Federer to pull the trigger at any point.

However Federer is more than capable of staying in any extended rally with his superb topspin backhand and slice - and when attacked, can come up with great passing shots off both wings. That said, there have not been too many players who have gone after him, so his passing skills have not been on display quite as often.

Federer does not often go to the net to finish off points, especially in the last three years or so, but with that forehand there isn't any great need to. A beautifully balanced player, his game seems made for hardcourts.

John McEnroe

John McEnroe, like Agassi, had a unique, unorthodox approach - and was consequently seen as a very gifted player. He won the US Open four times between 1979 and 1984, defeating Bjorn Borg twice, Vitas Gerulaitis and Lendl.

Whilst Agassi took the ball very early, often on the half volley, McEnroe hit many shots on the rise. It was very effective, and allowed McEnroe to generate more power from his strokes than he is probably given credit for by today's fans and pundits.

McEnroe had a great lefty serve and was also a change-up server - meaning that he used his serve either way for deception and was always looking to score aces. He also had the best volleying around, along with Stefan Edberg. When McEnroe rallied, he often did so with a purpose, always looking to get to the net to finish off points. He would not hit many baseline winners compared with some of his contemporaries.

He was the ultimate chip-and-charge merchant when it came to returning serve: he relied on his speed and athleticism to cut off passing shots with stop volleys and overheads. One interesting thing about this is that because he took the ball on the rise well inside the baseline, he sort of bunted the ball and followed it to the net. It looked unusual, but was effective - taking time away from his opponent.

Jimmy Connors

Jimmy Connors is tied with Roger Federer and Pete Sampras on the most US Open titles won. However, unlike the other two, Connors won one US Open on grass and green clay. He also appeared in 12 consecutive US Open semi-finals, which is a record, and won an astonishing number of tournaments - 109 officially, plus others not sanctioned by the ATP - a testament to his durability. That record is unlikely to be broken because top players on average retire earlier than in the past.

Connors's style of play was interesting because he had no big weapons. His serve was adequate and forehand considered a weakness because he used a continental grip; his greatest strength was his return of serve, which was considered the best in the business.

But what really made Connors stand out was his competitive spirit. He was the baseliner who was never afraid to attack the net - he hit flat drives down the lines and was always looking to get to the net to finish off points. Ion Tiriac once said of him: "He's the biggest fighter I've ever seen in professional sports."

Connors was also the player who would use any means to win a match; whether by getting the crowd on his side or undermining the umpire, he did it all. His signature shot was the sky hook, a hooked overhead shot.

Pete Sampras

Pete Sampras is up there in the all-time list of hardcourt titles won with Agassi and Federer - he has 36. In the era of Sampras and Agassi, the duo won 82 hardcourt titles between them. Many people have said grass was Sampras's best surface because he won Wimbledon so often, but Sampras always said that hardcourt was his favourite surface. He won the US Open five times and played in eight finals, while also claiming the Australian Open twice, doing the Indian Wells-Miami double in 1994 and winning the Cincinnati and Miami tournaments three times apiece.

Sampras came to everyone's attention in 1990 when he won the US Open having barely turned 19. From the fourth round onwards he beat Thomas Muster, Lendl, McEnroe and Agassi - his final victory over Agassi was completed with 90 minutes of power tennis, where he broke Agassi five times but was never broken himself. In the semis, McEnroe had probably never seen so many passing shots whistle past him in one match. McEnroe summed up Sampras as a hardcourt player in 1993 whilst commentating at the US Open, saying it was rare to see a serve-and-volley player with such an all-round game.

That's what made Sampras the ultimate hardcourt player. On that surface he played from the net and from the baseline in equal measure, often going toe to toe with the top baseliners of the day in Agassi and Jim Courier. He had the big first serve and second serve, athleticism and smoothness. He could pull off incredible half volleys and turn them into outright winners into the corners. He also enjoyed hitting stop volleys off hard-hit and dipping shots. Sampras also took on the Lendl philosophy of covering the backhand side of the court where he would rally, but any sniff of a relatively short ball and he would run around it and hit an inside-out forehand crosscourt or forehand down the line.

Sampras developed the best running forehand in history, which he could hit down the line or crosscourt, flat or loaded with topspin, if attacked. Unlike many players today, Sampras would hit punishing inside-out forehands to take the net to finish off points - sneaking in, as Pat Cash would call it. Because he played in an era of many attacking players, Sampras often demonstrated great passing shots off both wings against players like Rafter and Becker.

In the last two years of his career, Pete's style of play mirrored his grass play. He no longer stayed back on his second serve to rally and chipped and charged on return of serve, something he hardly ever did previously. Most people put that down to the influence of his later coach Paul Annacone, who favoured aggressive play.

Sampras's signature shots were his swing serve down the middle on the ad court, second serve aces, slam dunk and running forehand.

Compiled by Laurie Burnette

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