We've all had that conversation inside our head. ‘If only Roger Federer had a two-handed backhand, he'd be unbeatable’. Or: ‘if only Rafael Nadal had a better serve, he'd have won 20 Slams by now.’ More recently: ‘if only Novak Djokovic had more hair on his head, we wouldn't mind him defeating Federer and Nadal so often.’ And for the more sardonically inclined: ‘if only Andy Murray behaved like he had achieved puberty, he'd have so many more fans.’
Okay, maybe the last two are only indulged in by the haters and the internet trolls. But the sentiment is not uncommon. Who hasn't been fascinated by the idea of what would happen if we were to combine the best weapons of different players, to create one flawless superhuman?
Even theoretically though, it's not as easy an exercise as it sounds. There's never been any consensus on who has the best serve, or the best backhand, or the best movement; choosing any one player for any category is bound to inspire a mountain of outrage, and maybe a few death threats too.
So here's me sticking my neck out, and giving my opinion of which players’ shots would go into making the perfect male tennis player:
(Note: I've only considered players who are currently active).
1. The Serve
There are a few very obvious contenders here – the really big men Ivo Karlovic, John Isner and Kevin Anderson, the not-so-big-but-still-gigantic Sam Querrey, Marin Cilic, Juan Martin del Potro, Milos Raonic and Tomas Berdych, and the regular old tall guys Gilles Muller and Nick Kyrgios. But a couple of midgets sneak into the shortlist too – Roger Federer, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Feliciano Lopez and Steve Johnson regularly prove that being ‘only’ as tall as 6'2” is not such a serving handicap after all.
Fortunately, the ATP website maintains proper statistics for the serve, so it's not too difficult to arrive at one inarguable name here. Karlovic, who is officially listed as 6'11”, has the highest percentage of service games won – not just among current players, but in the recorded history of tennis. He also sends down an average of 19.3 aces every match – another all-time record – while winning a staggering 82.7% of his first serve points.
You might argue that the likes of Federer and Raonic are better clutch servers, coming up with unreturnables when they need them most. But the stats again come to Karlovic's rescue – he has saved 70.9% of all the break points he has faced in his career, which is higher than Raonic's 70.6% and Federer's 67%. Even if you expand the pool to retired players, and include the man widely regarded to be the greatest server ever – Pete Sampras – Karlovic comes up trumps. Sampras saved 68.1% of all his break points, won 88.7% of his service games, and averaged 10.6 aces per match – all smaller numbers than Karlovic's.
Statistically at least, the Croat has no match.
But even if you go beyond sheer numbers and look at other intangibles, it's hard to deny just how potent Karlovic's serve is. Most of the other players I've mentioned here have a decent-to-good-to-great ground game, with at least one big weapon apart from the serve. Isner, Raonic and Anderson have their atomic forehands, Federer the all-court brilliance, Del Potro the flat missiles from the back of the court, Berdych the effortless power off both wings, Kyrgios the all-round shot-making ability.
What does Karlovic have? At the risk of sounding like a judgmental prick, I must say I can't think of anything. He rarely uses his topspin backhand, doesn't have much confidence in his net play, and is far too hit-or-miss with his forehand. He has won eight titles in his career by being a serve-bot through and through, and if that doesn't entitle him to a win in this category, I don't know what will.
The pick: Ivo Karlovic