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Agassi vs. Mac

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Posted: Monday February 19, 2001 12:30 PM


Sports Illustrated staff writer Jon Wertheim will answer your tennis questions every Monday. Click here to send a question.

Lots of good questions this week. Sorry I can't get to all of them.

I need you to settle a bet. My brother is Florida's tennis historian. He believes John McEnroe would have beaten Andre Agassi if they played when both were in their primes. My argument is that outside of beating Bjorn Borg and an aging Jimmy Connors, McEnroe didn't face a lot of great players. He also didn't have much longevity. Agassi beat the greatest left-handed server, Goran Ivanisevic, in the Wimbledon finals. When you factor in that only Connors and Agassi have won Slams on three different surfaces, I think Agassi is a better player than McEnroe. What do you think?
—Marty Secada, Stamford, Conn.

I'll start with the standard disclaimer that comparing players from different eras -- even eras as close as Agassi's and Mac's -- is an inexact science. How much better would McEnroe have been had he played with a Head titanium wand and not that Dunlop truncheon? How much worse would Agassi have been had he competed in era when the notion of hooking up with a fitness guru like Gil Reyes never would have crossed his mind?

That said, I'm inclined to take your side. Surface obviously would be a factor, but I say Agassi in his prime (which he isn't far from today, incidentally) beats McEnroe in his. Agassi, you're right, would have little trouble getting a read on Mac's lefty serve; his pinpoint passing shots would neutralize Mac's magic at the net; he would be the more fit of the two; and he would be the superior player in backcourt rallies. Urge your brother to watch Mac at, say, Wimbledon in 1984, and then watch Agassi against, say, Pete Sampras in Australia last year, and see if he can't be swayed.

But all of this hypothetical exercising clouds the real issue your question raises: How does a state with no income tax subsidize a tennis historian?

After watching Jan-Michael Gambill play Davis Cup, I have come to the conclusion that he is ridiculously overrated -- inconsistent groundstrokes, absolutely no variety, laughable volleys, negative body language, and nowhere near the level of court coverage necessary for double two-handed groundstrokes. What is your 2001 assessment of him?

On the other hand, Roger Federer brims with natural talent. His game, by comparison, seems effortless and smooth -- dare I say Borg-esque? How do you rate his prospects? Is he the real deal? Or did a subpar American showing on his home turf make him look like a superstar?
—R.G., Austin, Texas

Lots of you harshing on Rick Ankiel- lookalike Jan-Michael Gambill this week, including Keith of Georgia. I admit I go back and forth on JMG. I watched him beat Lleyton Hewitt at Wimbledon, belting serves around 130 mph, covering the court well and even volleying superbly, and I thought maybe he had turned a corner. Then I saw him play uninspired, unimaginative Davis Cup tennis -- this on the heels of losing in the first round in Melbourne -- and wonder why he was chosen to be a New Ball.

My 2001 assessment: These next few months will be key. He broke through at Indian Wells in 1998 and won his only title in Scottsdale in 1999. If he can kick-start his year in the desert and then pick up some points in Key Biscayne, he'll be fine. If he struggles in March and, as expected, fails to do much on clay, he's suddenly headed to Wimbledon defending a whole mess of points.

As for Federer, I'm not sure I see the comparisons to Borg. To me, he's more reminiscent of Sampras, a natural talent who makes the most difficult shots look routine. Whatever the case, he's definitely the real deal.

Here in Germany, we are all stunned about what has been happening with Boris Becker. He was so beloved, a national hero. It is so sad and shocking. What a fall from grace! What is your take on it, and how are people reacting in the U.S. tennis community? Boris: a liar, a cheat, an adulterer. What's next for him?
—Sabine, Stuttgart, Germany

I'm not sure what there is to say. The tabloid-worthy news of last week is just the latest indication that Becker is having trouble adjusting to life after tennis. The irony is that, as a player, he was always considered uncommonly self-possessed and well-adjusted.

Not to psychoanalyze Martina Hingis too much, but do you find the timing of her Grand Slam slump at all significant? Prior to the 1998 French she had made seven of the previous nine Slam finals, and won five of those. Since then she has made four of eight finals, losing every one. What happened at the '98 French final? Her monumental second-set collapse against Steffi Graf. Any possibility that she hasn't recovered mentally from that loss, or has the rest of the field just caught up?
—Scott, Salt Lake City

First, let's get our dates right. Hingis lost to Graf in the 1999 French Open final. In 1998, she lost to Monica Seles in a semi-classic match.

Anyway, I do find the timing of her current "slump" significant. When Hingis was running the tables, Lindsay Davenport was still a work in progress; Venus Williams was, too, as likely to smack a winner as she was to hit the back wall on the fly; and Serena Williams was still subject to the Age Eligibility Rules. Consider whom Hingis had to beat to win her five Slam titles: Mary Pierce, Jana Novotna, a 17-year-old Venus Williams, Conchita Martinez and Amelie Mauresno. Not exactly a murderer's row.

Hingis' epic meltdown against Graf definitely derailed her confidence for a bit and was responsible for her first-round loss at Wimbledon that year. But the real reason her success at Slams tapered off after 1997 is that everyone else caught up.

For years now, the epithet that has been used over and over again to describe Arantxa Sánchez-Vicario is that she's a player making the most of her limited talents. I guess I've just heard this so many times that I thought I'd finally ask: What is it specifically about her game that's considered so limited? Also, as such a limited player, how has she been able to translate her lack of talent into so many tournament wins (including four Grand Slam titles and two Olympic medals) and a one-time No. 1 ranking? For me, looking at her record and results, it's a little hard to be so dismissive about her career and accomplishments.
—John, San Francisco

No one is claiming that Sánchez-Vicario is untalented. But you look at her physique and her game, and it's fairly remarkable that she has had such an outstanding career and has won the third-most prize money in history. She's 5-foot-6 tops, she can't weigh more than 120 pounds, and she's not particularly muscular. She is quick, but is never described as athletic. She doesn't hit with much pace, she wins few easy points on her serve, her forehand tends to break down, and her net game is nonexistent. Yet through grit, guile, feistiness and an exasperating style that induces errors from her opponents, she has won more majors than Pierce and Novotna (two contemporaries with infinitely more talent and physical stature) combined. When ASV is described as an "overachiever," I don't necessarily think it's pejorative or even a backhanded compliment. It's just an acknowledgment that she has achieved far more than many players endowed with far richer natural gifts.

I think Gigi Fernandez and Natasha Zvereva should have made your list of the top five doubles teams since 1980 regardless of gender.

I noticed that there are more active Grand Slam singles champions on the women's side (10) than on the men's (nine). Why is this the case, when the men's field is supposed to have so much more depth?
—Asmus Teis, Vancouver, B.C.

As a number of you noted, I definitely should have had Fernandez and Zvereva in the top five. Truth to tell, their record stacks up favorably with any team in the Opera Era, including the Woodies and Martina Navratilova-Pam Shriver.

One answer to your question is that Sampras and Agassi are responsible for 20 Slams between them. The top two active women, Seles and Hingis, have won 14. The other answer is that for all the parity on the men's tour, yielding innumerable first-round upsets, the stars come to play at the Grand Slams. I'm wracking my brain right now and can't recall the last time a player outside the top five won a Slam.

What can be done to save Goran Ivanisevic, who not five years ago was a consistent top-five player yet now is bowing out of qualifying tournaments to dime-a-dozen journeymen? Does he just not have what it takes anymore? Or is he a broken man? I am a big fan of the guy and would love to see a Pat Cash or John McEnroe take him in, à la Greg Rusedski, and get him winning again. Or is this too optimistic?
—Galen, London

What is the Croat word for defib paddles? I appreciate your optimism and agree that it would be great for tennis if Ivanisevic made a comeback. But I don't see it. Even if the mind is willing -- a colossal if in the case of Ivanisevic, a notorious head case -- it's hard to whip a 30-year-old body into shape.

How about this top-five list: If you had to pick a player (in the Open Era) to play a match with your life on the line, and you didn't know whether it would be played on grass, clay or hardcourts, whom would you choose? Male and female divisions, perhaps. (And if you wouldn't seriously consider Pete Sampras, as I wouldn't given the 1-in-3 chance the match would be on clay, doesn't that say something about his status as the all-time No. 1 player?)
—Sam Marcosson, Louisville, Ky.

To paraphrase Chevy Chase: It was my understanding there would be no math in the Mailbag.

Assuming we're talking about players in the prime, the women are easier.

1) Graf
2) Navratilova
3) Chris Evert
4) Hingis (so long as it's not a Grand Slam final)
5) Seles


1) Agassi
2) Mats Wilander
3) Borg
4) Sampras (please, please, please no clay)
5) Ivan Lendl (if it's played on grass, tell my wife that I love her and that I want a dignified burial)

Back to Sampras: It's no secret that his failure not only to win the French but even to play competitively at Roland Garros nibbles away at his legacy. But let's not lose sight of the big picture. Thirteen Grand Slam titles -- more than half of them won at the sport's showcase event -- are fairly unimpeachable credentials.

Please answer the easier of the following questions:
1) Will there ever be peace in the Middle East?
2) How is anyone with as little game and as many years as Gianluca Pozzi currently ranked in the top 50?

—Scott K., Chicago

Unfortunately, the prospects for peace in the Middle East look pretty bleak. If it didn't happen under Ehud Barak, it sure as hell won't come under Ariel Sharon, particularly with Yasser Arafat forced to take a tough-line stance to appease the Intifada II faction. Further, when you're talking about a "religious homeland" debate, you're not dealing with reason, you're dealing largely with emotion. As we saw with Oslo, even the best-laid plans for peace are easily undone by extremists on both sides.

(Gianluca Pozzi deserves our admiration for continuing to slice and dice his way to wins at age 35. That a player of his rudimentary game is in the top 50, however, is simply inexplicable.)

Have a good week, everyone.

Click here to send a question or comment to Jon Wertheim.

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