As the saying goes - the best defense is the best offense. I am not too sure about the applicability of this axiom to the other contexts in which it supposedly holds some significant relevance, but this is very true when it comes to the game of tennis, specifically in the tennis of today. What do I narrow down to such a specification? The game of yesterday, during the time of Sampras, was a game of shot points as the balls were much faster and lighter back then. This favored the aggressor. No wonder the best players were - the ones who kept winning the grand slams - were either aggressive baseliners or predominant serve-and-volleyers. The game today is much slower, making it harder for the offense player to finish off points, and thus easier for the defender. The rallies become longer, and the serve-and-volleyers died out. Perhaps the last of the serve-and-volleyer breed are Karlovic, Llodra and Stepanek. Even then, these are what we would consider serve-and-volley hybrids - by that we mean that serve-and-volleying does not form as prominent a part of their game as the typical serve-and-volleyer from a decade ago. An example of natural evolution in tennis!
So who are the best players in today's tennis game?
Perhaps, they are players like Federer?
Correction. There are no players like Federer. As such, he is an exception that does not prove or disprove the rule. If you look at the Big Four as a whole, the three non-Federer ones are all the best defenders in the game. What about them that makes them so exceptional? Let's state the most important trait of each player which contribute to their greatness.
1) Novak Djokovic
This most important trait of Djokovic, movement, is well.. a defensive one. In fact if one thinks about how good movement is the fulcrum upon which a good defensive game-play rests on, this perhaps becomes all too obviously the best trait of this master defender. Rather counter-intuitively such trait is not his backhand though Djokovic's backhand is indeed very effective. This is because most of the points won by him are ones won when he was in defensive mode. In order words, despite Djokovic having a distinctive weapon, it is his low margin for error - facilitated mainly by his excellent footwork - which is the reason for his greatness.
2) Andy Murray
Like Djokvoic, Murray has some big weapons. He has a great first serve and offensive-oriented backhand. In fact, he is much more capable of offensive play than what he is displaying! Such raises the question if Murray could have been a greater player if he steps up his overall level of aggression. Such increase in aggression would however be useless without his excellent movement. Murray is conventionally deemed one of the greatest counter-punchers to have played the game. In fact, this was a label much more associated with Murray than Djokovic despite Djokovic's arguably better defensive abilities. What does such counter-punching involve? Getting to every ball, which needs some very good footwork skills.
3) Rafael Nadal
Rather counter-intuitively again, it is not Nadal's wicked spins which win him most of the points, but Nadal's movement abilities. In fact, Nadal's intense spin (its extra-ordinariness nonetheless) is one of the most overrated weapons in tennis. Sure, an amateur tennis player might be fazed by such the prospect of handling such raw power, but a professional tennis player is trained to handle such without too much discomfort. Even Federer's difficulties with the Nadal spin were not (speaking about pre-2017) that difficult as they look. What is the basis for Nadal's greatness then? It is a defensive one - nothing but incredible movement. It is ability to wear the opponent down that is getting him the yields. Sure, his offensive shots are much more catchy and paid attention to, but they are also more sparsely occuring.
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