Commentary

Top 10 hardest feats in tennis

Updated: June 1, 2013, 6:05 AM ET
By Matt Wilansky | ESPN.com

PARIS -- The shock and horror across the media center was silent but very much real when Rafael Nadal dropped his opening set of the French Open for the second straight match. Imagine that: The guy plays a subpar couple of sets and suddenly the earth is knocked off kilter. But that's how good Nadal has been in Paris. He has secured nearly every conceivable record, including his most celebrated accomplishment a record seven titles. And beating him here at Roland Garris? Near impossible. With that, here are the current top 10 most difficult feats in tennis:

10. Hit a better two-handed forehand than Marion Bartoli

The facts: Bartoli hits the best two-handed forehand in tennis. Of course, as it turns out, she's one of only two players using both wings, so her chances of being the best are fairly decent. Peng Shuai, for your edification, is the other. Is it a smart tactic for Bartoli? Certainly it hinders her reach, but then again, the Frenchwoman uses a customized racket, one that is 28½ inches long (1½ inches longer than the standard stick) and a head size akin to that of a snow shovel to compensate. So unless Monica Seles decides to come out of retirement or Jan-Michael Gambill sports a comeback, good luck trying to snare the top seed from Bartoli in the two-handed forehand Power Rankings.

Brad Gilbert analysis: She cracks it, man. She goes after it. She definitely must have grown up watching Monica Seles. Best in the game right now.

Degree of difficulty: 6.14 out of 10

9. Return John Isner's first serve on grass

The facts: I suppose you could make an argument that other players' serves might be as potent on grass as Izzy's (Milos Raonic? Roger Federer?). But we can't help but flash back to a match that lasted longer than most tournaments, when Isner smashed a record 112 aces against Nicolas Mahut in the marathon of all marathon matches at the 2010 Wimbledon Championships. Isner is a colossal 6-foot-9½ . And grass is slick. With that combination, you'd be lucky to make contact with the ball, even with Bartoli's racket. Last year, Isner led the tour with 1,004 aces, the only player to reach four figures. And though he hasn't advanced past the second round of Wimbledon since, well, ever, if you covet your safety, keep a bulletproof buffer between yourself and Isner's serve.

Gilbert analysis: I actually think it might be more difficult to return it on clay. On grass, the ball doesn't bounce up as much. Grass isn't one of Isner's best surfaces. I think he serves best in altitude or on a fast clay court. But he can clock it on any surface.

Degree of difficulty: 6.77 out of 10

8. Play with more pressure than Andy Murray at Wimbledon

[+] EnlargeAndy Murray
Julian Finney/Getty ImagesIt's never easy to win a tennis match when the mood of an entire country swings with every stroke.
The facts: Oh the ghastly ghosts and Fred Perry and the suffocating hordes of parochial British media. Blah. Blah. Blah. Murray doesn't want to hear about it, but we guarantee you, he will, unless one of two things happen: Murray wins Wimbledon, or hell freezes over. Sure, Murray was glittered with gold after last year's Olympics in London, but, as resounding a win as it was, the exorcism won't be complete until he walks away from SW19 with the big trophy.

Darren Cahill analysis: The pressure is a lot less than it used to be. Winning the Olympics last year was massive and gave him confidence to win the US Open. That was a huge monkey off his back. But there's still so much talk that no man from Great Britain has won a major tournament since Fred Perry in the 1930s that Murray has to contend with. But to win those titles last year relieved a lot of pressure.

Degree of difficulty: 7.01 out of 10

7. Vanquish Victoria Azarenka early in the season

The facts: Whatever the reason, Azarenka is utterly unstoppable in the early going. The Belarussian won 26 straight matches to kick off 2012, then 17 consecutive from the outset of the 2013 campaign. As a matter of fact, from Jan. 1 through Miami (the winter/spring hard-court season), Azarenka is a combined 43-1 the past two seasons. Why is that? The naysayers might tell you Vika withdraws far too often when she isn't feeling up to snuff, which is partially true, but the far more obvious answer is that she has deftly found a way to avoid Serena Williams at almost all costs.

Cahill analysis: Tennis is a little bit different now than it was 10-15 years ago, when a lot of players used that November/December period to prepare. Obviously, Azarenka is one player who still has that preparation right. I think she likes the conditions down in Australia; she enjoys the heat and the court surface. It obviously gives her a little bit of confidence and momentum moving forward.

Degree of difficulty: 7.32 out of 10

6. Come up with a better trick shot than Agnieszka Radwanska

[+] EnlargeAgnieszka Radwanska
Matthew Stockman/Getty ImagesAgnieszka Radwanska, or anyone for that matter, likely won't duplicate the hocus-pocus shot she pulled off in Miami.
The facts: You probably wouldn't think of Radwanska as a shot-making magician on the court. But at the Sony Open in March, she pulled off the inaugural rush-the-net-360-spinaroo-lunging-backhand-volley-look-what-I-found-mom drop-shot winner. That circus shot propelled her near the top of YouTube's most-watched videos with all the other trick-shot artists -- except Rad's was real.

Gilbert analysis: Epic. Made the top 10 plays on "SportsCenter." It was around the back and a winner and led to the break. Thing of beauty.

Degree of difficulty: 8.48

5. Upset Roger Federer before the quarterfinals at a Slam

The facts: In 2004, Federer slid onto the rustic grounds of Roland Garros, only to meet beloved Gustavo Kuerten, who put on a show reminiscent of his three title-winning years on the terre battue. Kuerten beat Federer that day, a straight-sets thumping in the fourth round. Now, nine years later, not a single other player has thwarted Federer so early in a major. No one. Heading into the French Open, he has made 35 consecutive trips to the quarterfinals or beyond. Just another untouchable record for the widely feted greatest-of-all-time lad. Put it this way: That loss was so long ago that Kuerten is now a year removed from his Hall of Fame induction ceremony. And, oh by the way, Federer hasn't missed one Slam appearance, a magnificent feat of its own. (More on that one in a bit.)

Chris Evert analysis: This is especially impressive on the men's side, where historically there is more depth and the players are stronger. It's amazing consistency that he hasn't played one loose match along the way.

Degree of difficulty: 8.91 out of 10

4. Make more money than Maria Sharapova

The facts: Sharapova is the No. 2-ranked player in the world and the defending champion here at the French Open. But the $6.5 million she made in prize money last year is a quarter of what she'll earn in endorsements, thanks to deals with Evian, Head, Nike, Samsung and Tag Heuer. And to boot, she has her own candy line, Sugarpova, now available at most corner stores. So for $5.99, you can cave in to your sweet-tooth cravings and purchase a bag of Spooky Sour gummies or Sporty Pink gum balls. And, of course, help ripen Sharapova's pocketbook just a little more.

Gilbert analysis: Considering she's the highest-earning female athlete in the world, good luck making more money than her. She has an extremely large bank account that continues to grow. Life's good.

Degree of difficulty: 9.07

3. Ascend to No. 1 more times than Serena Williams

[+] EnlargeSerena Williams
Matthew Stockman/Getty ImagesNo matter how long she's out of the game, Serena Williams always finds herself looking south at the rest of the rankings.
The facts: Williams first snagged the top ranking on July 8, 2002, shortly after winning Wimbledon for the first of five times. Then, and this is hard to fathom, the No. 1 ranking changed hands 20 times before Williams finally reached the tour's crest again more than six years later. Since that time, Williams has conceded and then regained the top spot four more times. So, if you're doing the algebra, that's six stints as the world No. 1. And you have to believe her current stretch will be her last, not because she's aging but because, based on the way she is waxing her opponents, she might never leave the penthouse.

Evert analysis: It's her resilience and stamina. After all these years, she's still so motivated. Most of the time when she wasn't playing well, it was because of injuries. When she's on her game, she's always at the top. Look at [Andre] Agassi, who fell into the 100s [in the rankings]. Serena never did that. She was always at the top when healthy.

Degree of difficulty: 9.62

2. Force Roger Federer to retire from a match

The facts: Federer has played 1,103 matches and has never, ever retired from one. N-E-V-E-R. This is from a guy whose career dates back to 1998. Not one twisted ankle, cramped leg, stomach bug, niggling back or gouging hangnail has forced him to the locker room before a final result. Even the wacko fan who ran onto the court in the 2009 French Open final and scared the holy heck out of Federer failed to give him a heart attack. And with another paltry 1,530 consecutive retirement-free matches, Federer will strip the Iron Man moniker from Cal Ripken's webbing.

Cahill analysis: I think there's a lot of things you can look at. His 35 consecutive quarterfinal appearances; many things that will never be broken. This is one of them. It's incredible how well he has taken care of his body. It says a lot about his competitive spirit, his willingness to never give up and his willingness to respect his opponents. All of those rolled into one gives you the great man, Roger Federer.

Degree of difficulty: 9.97 out of 10

1. Take three sets off Rafael Nadal on clay

The facts: Try these numbers on for size (and we warn you, there isn't enough room, even in the boundless black hole of the Internet, to unleash all his triumphs): Nadal is 54-1 at the French Open (in other words, he wins 98 percent of his matches) and has a record seven titles. But how about these nuggets? In 55 matches at Roland Garros, Nadal has dropped only 16 sets. Hello! No one, man or women, has a better winning percentage at any Grand Slam than this beast. And then there are his eight Barcelona, eight Monte Carlo and seven Rome championships. All records. What do all these numbers really mean? Not much except it's proof positive that beating Nadal on clay, especially for three out of five sets, is the most taxing ask in tennis.

Evert analysis: He hits the ball with such topspin and acceleration. Most players' strike zone is at their waist, but Nadal hits the ball so high that opponents are hitting it from their shoulders. It's almost impossible to attack a player like that.

Degree of difficulty: 12.24 out of 10