How far is the past?

Discussion in 'Former Pro Player Talk' started by Benhur, Oct 26, 2011.

  1. Benhur

    Benhur Hall of Fame

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    Most of us have childhood memories of an old person who was at least 75 years older than us, often even within our own family. If you assume this person also knew someobdy that old in his or her childhood, you can play a game of "I knew someone who knew someone who knew someone...." and get back to any person who lived 2000 years ago (a Roman emperor for example) in about 27 steps. Some may argue this is exaggerated because people didn’t live nearly as long on average before the 20th century. But the key is "on average". At any point, you can be pretty sure there were some people around with longevous genes. So give or take a few steps.

    If you view it that way, it doesn’t look so incredibly far back anymore.

    Thinking about tennis now, the question is: How fast can you get from the present to the times of Tilden with players who played each other across generations, and where the matches were still competitive (not complete mismatches)?


    Here is an example.

    Nadal (and Federer) at the age of about 19 played Agassi at 32 and 36 respectively. Agassi was still competitive enough to win a set or two off Nadal as late as 2005-2006.

    Then Agassi at 18-19 played Connors twice at 38-39. Connors didn't win the matches but won some sets. So still competitive.

    Then Connors at 18-19 played Gonzalez at 43-44, still competitive. Gonzalez won one of those matches.

    Then Gonzalez at about 26 played (and lost to) Budge at 39 (1954).

    Then Budge at about 26 played a number of matches with Tilden at 48 (in 1941). Budge won most of them, but Tilden still managed to win a few.

    And that’s it. So we got from the present all the way to Bill Tilden, whose prime was in the early 1920s, in only 6 steps with reasonably competitive play between all the links. 9 decades with six players.

    Nadal (and Federer) – Agassi – Connors – Gonzalez – Budge -- Tilden

    I wonder if other similar or even shorter sequences can be made. Or further back than Tilden.

    This is something to keep in mind when one is tempted to think of current players as nearly extra-galactic beings, light years ahead of players just a few decades ago.
     
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  2. pc1

    pc1 Legend

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    Tilden I believed played Pancho Gonzalez (Gonzalez won 6-1 6-2 but Tilden was about 59) who played Borg (Gonzalez won 6-1 6-1. Gonzalez was about 44 and Borg 16) who played McEnroe who played Roddick. (In WTT last year and it was a double set point in the one set.)

    I guess you could say Norman Brookes played Tilden also. Brookes was very competitive against Tilden even though he was old.

    Not a bad historical six degrees of separation on your part Benhur.

    How about Tilden-Gonzalez-Connors-Agassi to Federer/Nadal?
     
    Last edited: Oct 26, 2011
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  3. Benhur

    Benhur Hall of Fame

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    I had heard of Tilden playing Gonzalez, but could not find any reference. So if Tilden was about 59 as you say, Gonzalez must have been about 24. I suppose it could not have been very competitive. Anyway, whether you go through Budge or not as an intermediate step, it's pretty surprising how fast you get to the present.

    I find it very strange sometimes how connected everything really is. About ten years ago, in Golden Gate park, I played a set of doubles against a couple of pretty old men. Afterwards, one of them told a story about a match he had played against a young Gonzalez in Berkely (I suppose sometime in the mid to late 40s). He may have been making the whole thing up, I don’t know, but the thought of maybe having played against someone who had played an old tennis legend kept me perplexed for a few days. It’s like those calculations about how with every single breath you breathe contains at least one molecule of nitrogen that went through the lungs of anyone who ever lived.
     
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  4. urban

    urban Hall of Fame

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    The long careers of Tilden, Gonzalez, Rosewall or Connors (and even Agassi) show, that great players can span eras and times. They have the ability to adapt to new circumstances, new formats, equipment and surface changes, technical and athletic developments etc. Its often discussed, that tennis evolves constantly. That may be true, but great players can themselves take actively part in this evolution process.
     
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  5. pc1

    pc1 Legend

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    I agree. Frankly when I read posters writing that an old time player wouldn't be competitive today puzzles me for several reasons. First of all evolution doesn't happen that quickly. But another major reason is that players like Tilden would be playing in the styles that they grew up with. So if Tilden was born in the 1980's (assuming the same drive and type of personality) he would play the tennis style of that time. All these players that Urban mentioned above are extremely talented and would be able to play any style and frankly I think their general styles are universal. Yes I think they would have to make adjustments to new styles of play and equipment but they could adapt.

    A Tilden, who many considered a tennis genius with perhaps the greatest tennis mind would surely imho be able to adapt and change his style for today's game. And as Urban mentioned above, Tilden was one of the players who played a major role in today's modern tennis game with his brilliant ideas.

    Tilden even at a very old age was able to change his tennis style. Here's little bit from Fred Perry's autobiography called simply enough "Fred Perry An Autobiography." When we got on court he asked me to hit a few to his forehand, low and wide. I did this and he returned them using a perfect continental grip, just as if he was mimicking my own forehand. When I inquired when he was up to Tilden said, "After playing so many matches against you and studying your style, I realized that the continental grip, and not my own Eastern grip, is the only one for that sort of shot. I felt I wouldn't be the complete tennis player unless I had mastered it to the stage where I could use it in a match if I wanted to."

    Tilden was always trying to improve himself as a tennis player so to think that he wouldn't be able to adapt to today's style wouldn't be logical in my opinion considering how adaptable he was as a player in his great career.

    I would tend to think all the great players have to be pretty adaptable to change otherwise they wouldn't be great.
     
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  6. pc1

    pc1 Legend

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    That's a nice story. It just shows how much you appreciate tennis history. I assume you didn't get the old men's names.
     
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  7. Datacipher

    Datacipher Banned

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    I would go further PC1....first as you say, evolution does not happen very fast...but ALSO:

    1.it's completely unclear if the evolution is always resulting in "improvement". Some experts have felt some trends in the game were going the wrong way, and it is certainly more than conceivable. I'm sure most people can see that both selection and mutation in tennis operate entirely differently than it would in nature. Moreover, even in nature, it is unclear whether any current iteration of a species would be necessarily be more competitive in direct battle with a previous iteration. Indeed, I'd say many current species would be best off avoiding direct confrontation with some of their primitive ancestors! ;-)\

    Even recently, we saw SV and netrushing die off.....why? Styles. It had nothing to do with effectiveness. Who won the USO against players of recent vintage playing much more SV than he ever had?? What were Rafter, Henman, Rusedski and others doing at the top of the game...right before it simply disappeared entirely?? On the women's side...poor Martina wondered why nobody followed her lead, and Tauziat, openly wondered it at all, when she CONVERTED to SV from a baseline, and played the best tennis of her life!

    Note: I don't necessarily think there IS a "wrong" or "right" way to play, MANY different ways can work just as well...but that is perspective is being lost due to the style uniformity, as well as the notion that "evolution" must mean "improvement".

    2.the changes aren't really as big as we think. Oh...TW gurus and internet experts like to invent "new" techniques, and portray them as though they were completely different than the "classic", but in fact, biomechanics haven't changed, and largely, the fundamentals of the strokes haven't either! (yes, I said it!....this is a modern tennis myth!) In any case as you point out, the greats adapt very well. Many pros have unconsciously adjusted their grips slightly for various groundstrokes. Agassi for example, will go from a weak semi-wester/nearly eastern all the way to close to full western on a forehand (he used to do this often for high balls on clay...back in the early 90's). Quite frankly, if we insisted he start hitting nothing but heavy claycourt topspin, he could do it easily, if we could convince him psychologically to commit to it! The same is true of the other greats.

    In any case, I largely agree with the general thoughts in this thread so far.

    As to the OP's question...so hard to say....I'd say you'd have to go back to BEFORE Pancho to make the match really lopsided. Quite frankly, I firmly believe that wooden racquet and all, if we put Gonzalez in his prime out there now, against anybody, he'd do alright. His serve and volleys would be anything but obsolete...his athleticism, racquet skills, and mental toughness would be first rate for sure. His dated groundstrokes are the only real difference, and while they may be a drawback in some cases, I think people would be suprised just how effective they might be. Petra Korda sometimes hit the ball as flat as can be, and actually, it made him highly feared....Jimmy Connors hit balls like pancakes, and by the 90's that was as rare and weird as it gets, but his game was still highly effective.


    PS. Note that I suspect the #75 guy from Pancho's era would get hammered by the #75 guy today. The standards as a whole have crept upward with each generation. Probably by Pancho's era, there'd be enough difference there.
     
    Last edited: Oct 27, 2011
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  8. urban

    urban Hall of Fame

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    Yes, Pc 1, the example of Tilden and Perry is a fine one. When the old master saw, that the new style with hitting the ball early on the forehand worked well, he adapted that into his style. As he did with his backhand, which he transformed in the winter after the 1919 season, when he had been beaten by Johnston. It would be invalid to think, that Gonzalez played the same tennis against Kramer in the 1940s, as he did against Connors in the 1970s. His had changed some vital parts of his game, including his backhand cross, which was necessary, when Hoad approached his backhand side. And he was one of the very first who turned to metal rackets, when they became available. Agassi transformed his body, when the new muscular strength became common on the tour. Those great players always had great interest and curiosity in new developments of rackets or surfaces, some like Lacoste even invented some things like the metal racket or the ball machine.
     
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  9. slice bh compliment

    slice bh compliment G.O.A.T.

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  10. Benhur

    Benhur Hall of Fame

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    They may or may not have told us their first names, but in any case I don’t remember them. I am not even sure of the name of the guy I played with, even though we hit toghether a number of times. In those days I used to hang around various public courts in San Francisco every chance I got, the main goal being to get someone to play with, not to strike friendships, so you end up playing with a lot of people whose names you either don’t know, or quickly forget if you don’t see them again. I am not even sure who won the set of doubles we played (I think we did). The one detail I do remember is that the guy said he managed to keep up with Gonzalez until 4-4 in the first set, and after that he didn’t win any more games. This guy must have been in his very late 70s or more likely early 80s. He could hit the ball well if it came to him, but could not move well at all.
     
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  11. Benhur

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    I think the difference in equipment would be an important factor, especially against some of the big hitters of today.

    But the main point is always that you need to do these comparisons assuming that the people being compared would be growing up in more or less the same era and with similar equipment, so that the adaptation process doesn’t give any advantages to one or the other. And from this perspective, there is no compelling reason to believe that the greats of the past would be worse.

    The main mistake made by those who automatically assume superiority of the current players is an exaggerated faith in the inherent superior physical abilities of the current players, as if somehow the same training of today applied to baby Tilden or baby Gonzalez, Laver, etc, could not do the same thing for them. It’s as if there is a belief that the human body has changed in just a few decades. It hasn't.

    I also agree that the depth today is bigger because the pool is much bigger, so that the #75 in Laver's day would not be the same caliber of player as the #75 today. There is no doubt about that.

    But if we focus only on the top players of each era, we need to keep in mind that an expansion of the general pool does not have the same effect at all on the top as it does below. It’s a diminishing return as you get closer to the top. Athletics may give a better illustration. If you increase 10 fold the number of people who specialize in the 100 meter dash worrldwide, you will get a very big increase in the number of sprinters who can do it in, say, under 12 seconds. A smaller increase in those who can do it in under 11 seconds, and so on. And you will probably get zero increase in those who can do it in under 9.50 (record today is 9.58 I think).
     
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  12. pc1

    pc1 Legend

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    It's always an interesting question on whether the development of any sport really improves the game or not. For example in Major League Baseball some of the past players wonder why there aren't complete games by starting pitchers anymore and why relief pitchers are used so much. Is it an improvement today? Debatable. In basketball, often due to the ESPN highlights there is an emphansis on the slam dunk and flashy play. You can argue the players are more athletic and some may argue that no one can shoot from the outside that well today. Is the game better? Who knows but I enjoy the game today about as much as in the past.

    Tennis is no different but I tend to agree with you Benhur that the top players are all very competitive and I have no doubt a Pancho Gonzalez would be a monster today. Vic Braden the great tennis analyst believes Pancho would be able to serve often at 140 mph today. While of course that can't be proved I do think that with his great serve he would do well. Some already believe Sampras in his prime wouldn't be competitive today but I would tend to think on just his serve alone he would be very competitive and obviously Sampras had a lot more than just an awesome serve.
     
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  13. DBH

    DBH New User

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    I had posted something similar quite a while ago, which I'll copy here since it's relevant to the OP's question:

    Here's an interesting string of matches (all from major tournaments):

    In the 2006 Wimbledon, Nadal beat Agassi.
    In the 1988 (and 1989) US Open, Agassi beat Connors.
    In the 1974 Wimbledon (and US Open), Connors beat Rosewall.
    In the 1952 US Championships, Gardner Mulloy beat Rosewall.
    In the 1939 US Championships, Mulloy beat (via walkover) Jacques Brugnon, one of the original French Musketeers.

    So in only 5 matches (all in Grand Slam events), we can connect Nadal (born in 1986) to Brugnon (born in 1895).

     
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  14. kiki

    kiki Banned

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    This is a kind of rationale that newcomers to tennis will die before admitting...but you are so completely right...at the end, may be Tutankhamon should challenge Raonic...and we wouldn´t know what the outcome could be...
     
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  15. Moose Malloy

    Moose Malloy Legend

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    if you pay a starting pitcher 15-20 mill a year for five years, you want to protect your investment(& with a 200 mill payroll, there's plenty to go around for great relief pitchers)

    asking a starting pitcher to go 9 innings just isn't necessary anymore(& if there were the type of payrolls around 30 years ago as they have today, many of those complete games that were so common back then probably wouldn't have happened)
     
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  16. pc1

    pc1 Legend

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    I don't disagree with you Moose but people like Tim McCarver and some others have mentioned how they don't see why pitchers can't pitch nine innings anymore. This is what they say and not what I think.
     
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  17. joe sch

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    Many great posts showing the transitive property to associate great champions on the rise and near retirement being very competitive. Its also interesting that these transitive segments tend to factor out equipment and surfaces, such that technology is not a factor which makes comparing different generations too difficult. Same for conditioning, size, power, and strenght.

    Bottom line, I agree with most of the conclusions especially that the GOAT contenders for each era would be just as great in other eras given they developed with the same technology and training techniques.

    Another transitive comparision that may not have reality but I think would be very interesting as far as comparing GOATs: Federer vs Sampras vs McEnroe vs Laver vs Gonzales vs Kramer vs Vines vs Budge vs Tilden vs Brookes. Not as optimal as 5/6 degrees of separation since I wanted to add a few more interesting matchups :)
     
    Last edited: Oct 29, 2011
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  18. stormholloway

    stormholloway Legend

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    The notion of cross-generational tennis matches is wild. Modern tennis players wouldn't have done what they did without past tennis players, so remove the past and you end up with very weak modern players.

    It's more about style and mind in my opinion.
     
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  19. kiki

    kiki Banned

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    Mc Laughlin invented the western grip and Tilden the eastern.Most of players today keep using those grips...
     
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  20. joe sch

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    Tilden was also one of the greatest tennis champions and was known as a great tennis mind who developed an allcourt game with all the strokes and all the tactics for winning against other great champion styles. He played, wrote books, and taught. Same for many of past tennis greats especially Kramer and Gonzales and Sequra. One of Connors recent critiques against the modern champions is that they are too focused on the one dimensional nature of todays baseline blasting game. Training, Diet, and mastering the baseline. Connors and Roche both have tried to help todays greats (Roddick, Federer) evolve with little success. The other current greats (Nadal, Djokovich, Murray) do not consult past champions. The point Im getting at is todays game and players seem to be missing part of the transitive benefits, the coaching and mentoring from past greats. The reason maybe $$$ and the GOATS from the 80s/90s either dont need it, or can make more by playing or commentating ?
     
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  21. urban

    urban Hall of Fame

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    Agree with this. The evolution process in tennis is not so easy to define. Sure in some aspects, mainly in the baseline game, which is today played with strokes that are hard and safe, and others, tennis has evolved, partly due to better training methods, equipment changes, youth coaching. Especially the horizontal step back technique, to get ready for the next shot, is a key for modern tennis. But in some other departments, for instance vertical movement, approaching game, netplay, tennis has certainly not evolved. Maybe the modern tennis camps, which are going for the instant success of young players, have their part of guilt. I have always had a holistic approach and thought that the best possible tennis is sort of allcourt game, with equally vertical and horizontal movement and covering the whole court.
     
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  22. kiki

    kiki Banned

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    I agree, it is a pitty that the game has evolved to a unidimensional sphere, something needs to be done before ratings keep falling down.
     
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  23. pc1

    pc1 Legend

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    I totally agree with this. I have a good friend who is a pro and is also a tennis coach. He tells me that he would love to teach the older style of tennis in conjunction with modern techniques but the parents don't want that. Even some television commentators have often wondered why some top players do not close in a hit some easy floaters for winners but instead decide to move back, let the ball bounce and hit a powerful topspin drive.

    Great post.
     
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