- Matt Wilansky, Tennis editor
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Editor's note: Our weeklong series of "What If …" scenarios are only hypothetical. We understand that a matchup of players from different generations comes with its share of things to take into consideration, such as the advancement of technology and the slowing of court surfaces in today's game. Some of these head-to-heads have an actual, albeit brief, history, with one player winding down his or her career; thus, we're not taking those into consideration. For the sake of this series, we're assuming both parties are playing each other at their peak. It's just for fun, so enjoy and let us know who you think would win.
Matchup: Rafael Nadal versus Andre Agassi
Venue: US Open
Case for Nadal:Give the man a pair of healthy knees and watch him bully his way around the court and hit the stuffing out the ball as no one in the history of the game ever has. We know what the detractors say about Nadal and hard courts, but take a gander at his past four results at the U.S. Open (2008-11): semis, semis, win, final. That's not a shabby stretch. (Nadal missed the missed 2012 Open because of a knee injury.)
And let's remember, he went to Indian Wells earlier this season, his first hard-court tourney since returning from a seven-month layoff, scorched Roger Federer in the quarters, and then won. Of course, Rafa's clay-court title collection versus his others is pretty disproportionate (43-14), but make no mistake: There's no ambivalence on Rafa's part when it comes to playing on hard courts, even considering the damage they do to his knees and his admitted antipathy toward the length of the post-Wimbledon season.
When he's committed, he'll play, even if it's going to be a more judicious schedule moving forward. But clay, grass or hard courts, the 3,200 rpms coming off Nadal's racket create somewhat of a problem for his opponents.
Case for Agassi: Who better to handle Nadal's violent topspin than a guy who made his Hall of Fame career by returning power with even greater power. Agassi was not even close to your stereotypical retriever. He lived on top of the baseline, taking the ball on the rise, cutting off angles and attacking while finding a way to exploit his foe's weaknesses with precision and authority.
His groundstrokes were masterfully timed, and he was willing to grind as long as it took until he found an opening. He played with a real sense of urgency, and when he got rolling, it was nearly impossible to restrain him. Agassi was a two-time U.S. Open winner. He was clearly better on hard courts than on other surfaces. There's no question Nadal would crush Agassi on clay and likely beat him most of the time on grass. But cement would be the ultimate neutralizer in this matchup, allowing Agassi to pick off balls cleaner than anyone.
Only one player, Roger Federer, has more career hard-court titles (52) than Agassi (46). And let's not forget the overwhelming fan support he'd receive from the New York crowd. They are a passionate type who dig players with flare and amazing shot-making ability.
Brad Gilbert verdict: Andre would want the court to be quick and lower bouncing. Against Nadal, who likes a slower surface and higher bounces, this would be an equalizer for Andre. It's a big factor. But the surface at the Open has changed a few times. In recent years, it's medium-paced and the ball bounces really high. Andre would have to make Nadal move, but on today's surface that would be a lot harder.
Andre would have to hit through Nadal and control every point, and couldn't put himself in a defensive position, which would be pretty difficult to do on a consistent basis. A good match, but if they were playing with the court as it is today, I'd go with Nadal.
Rafael Nadal’s topspin is nasty. Andre Agassi was a master at returning power with more power. Who would win at the U.S. Open?