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The toughest game

Think you're a real athlete? Pick up a tennis racket

Posted: Sunday August 28, 2005 12:14PM; Updated: Monday August 29, 2005 1:27PM
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Andy Roddick
Tiger, Vick and Kobe are exceptional athletes; but let's see them try to return one of Andy Roddick's ridiculously hard serves.
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Outspoken tennis pro Justin Gimelstob will be writing every few days from the U.S. Open, where he'll be competing. Click here to read all of Justin's entries.

Tennis is the toughest sport in the world.

Yeah, I know I'm biased, but here is why I feel the way I do: Tennis requires an assortment of physical and mental skills that are unmatched by any other sport. People love to compare tennis to golf, the hand-eye coordination, the mental discipline and the individuality involved.

I feel obligated to point out the staggering differences in the physical demands. No disrespect to the PGA Tour and the compilation of impressive physical specimens they have over there (since this column is new, I want everyone to know that was sarcastic and a direct jab at pretty much all of the PGA Tour members, Tiger excluded), but the occasional uphill stroll isn't an impressive feat of physical prowess.

Next up, baseball. I know everyone loves to say that hitting a baseball is the hardest thing to do in sports. I guess those people never tried returning a 155 mph serve from Andy Roddick. Hitting a baseball is undoubtedly an impressive physical skill, and there are some outstanding athletes in baseball. But overall, when a trot halfway up the first-base line accounts for 90 percent of the cardiovascular output for the competition, I can't give it the nod over tennis.

Basketball is a sport with an overabundance of athletes with ridiculous physical skills. Basketball players would rank in the highest echelons in almost all athletic categories, like running, jumping and strength. However, with the burden of execution divided between five teammates, I think it comes up a bit short vs. the mental demands of an individual sport like tennis.

Football gets the nod in physical brutality, and many position players (wide receivers, running backs and defensive backs) would be right up there with the greatest athletes in any sport. But my problem with football is that there are too many specialty skills. The quarterback specializes in throwing, wide receivers catch, running backs run, lineman block and kickers kick, but none of them are experts in all areas. In tennis, I can't call in Pete Sampras after a timeout to hold serve to close out a set, or Carlos Moya to crush that short forehand I have on break point, or Leyton Hewitt to run around at the baseline while I camp out at the net, where I happen to be most comfortable.

Boxing poses an interesting comparison to tennis. Both sports pit two competitors on an equal playing field, completely exposed, trying to figure out how to better their opponent. It's incredibly demanding physically, as anyone who has taken any boxing-simulated class at their local health club can attest to. Boxing scores high in tactical and technical efficiency as well.

However, I firmly believe that what sets tennis apart from boxing -- as well as all the other sports that I mentioned -- is the incredibly precise skill and hand-eye coordination it takes to be great combined with incredible physical skills.

Tennis is the only sport that requires both aerobic and anaerobic conditioning, as well as the highest level of hand-eye coordination, all while placing the burden of success and failure solely on the athlete. Tennis is a year-round, international sport, in which I have competed on three different continents in three successive weeks.

I have to chuckle when I hear basketball and baseball players complain about their brutal travel schedules and demands when they're traveling on private planes, and their idea of a long trip is from New York to Miami. I would love for them to try to play in Los Angeles, South Korea and Reunion Island (a small island in the middle of the Indian Ocean) in successive weeks, as I did in 2002. I'd also like to see how they'd handle a six-week offseason, like we have in tennis.

Don't get me wrong; I love all the sports I've mentioned and I respect all professional athletes immensely. But it's about time tennis players got the credit they deserve for being some of the greatest athletes in the world today.