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The Players Who Made Today's Tennis

Almost every well-known player throughout the long history of tennis has left at least some mark on the game. From some players, we just remember a nuance on the serve delivery or the footwork accompanying an approach shot, but when we think about tennis history, we usually remember the top players of their times, like Bill Tilden, who completely dominated tennis from 1920 through 1926, or Maureen Connolly, who, in 1953, was the first woman to win the Grand Slam. I'll focus here on four players who had an especially distinct influence on the way tennis is played today.

Rod Laver is the male player most often cited as the greatest of all time, although many would argue for Roger Federer, Pete Sampras, or Bill Tilden. Laver arrived on the tennis scene in 1956 as the most complete player tennis had ever seen. In that year, at age 17, he won the U.S. Junior Championship. He could hit every type of shot from every part of the court, setting a model for more recent complete players like Sampras and Martina Hingis.

Laver's biggest effect on tennis, though, was his use of topspin. Although he certainly didn't invent topspin, he was the first player to employ it as a devastating weapon. Laver's groundstrokes came at opponents with more pace and kick than anyone had ever seen, and his type of groundstroke attack has become the core of most players' games today. Bjorn Borg was among Laver's early successors who emulated his topspin, and Borg's tremendous popularity helped further promote that style. Laver won 20 major titles and was ranked number one in the world in 1961, 1962, 1968, and 1969. He won two Grand Slams, in 1962 and 1969, a feat that will probably never be equaled.

Ivan Lendl was a distinctly less complete and talented player than Laver, which is precisely what led to his major contribution to today's tennis: an emphasis on fitness. Lendl succeeded through sheer hard work. He trained fiercely, and played a phenomenal number of tournaments. He played 101 tournaments between 1980 and 1983, winning 36 of them, but it wasn't until 1984 that he finally broke through to win a major. In that most memorable 1984 French Open final, Lendl came back from two sets down to win 3-6, 2-6, 6-4, 7-5, 7-5 and deny John McEnroe his best shot at a French title. He went on to amass a total of 94 singles titles, with eight majors, including all but a Wimbledon, where his discomfort at the net was too big a handicap. Lacking a full range of talents, Lendl had to grind out his victories, but he showed the tennis world that extreme fitness can pay off, and many successors, such as Michael Chang, Thomas Muster, Jim Courier, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Roger Federer, and Rafael Nadal, have benefited from his example.

Next Page: Navratilova and Evert

Additional Resources:

Major Records in Tennis History Maze

Tennis All-Time Records

Wimbledon History Maze

The Origins and Early History of Tennis

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