If They Were So Good, How Could The Experts Be So Wrong?

You ever wonder when you read Agassi in “Open” write that the first time he played Sampras he thought the guy had no chance of being a special player, how great players or experts on the game can be so wrong with their initial assessment of players? Yes, Agassi did beat Pete 2 and 1 on the clay courts of Rome in 1989 when Andre was 19 and Sampras 18. But then only a year later, Sampras returned the favor, beating Andre in Philadelphia and in the finals of the US Open 4, 3 and 2. So how could Agassi have been so wrong?

I thought about this yesterday when I talked to Jeff Salzenstein, the lefty out of Denver and later Stanford, who beat Nalbandian 2 and 1 in San Jose, Costa Rica and Tsonga, in the first round of the French Open qualis, both Nalby and Jo Willy were 18 when Salzy beat them. And Jeff didn’t think either had much chance of being a top player, but Nalby broke through the next year and Tsonga a few years after Jeff played him.

Of course, on the flip side of the coin, there are players who are touted to be the next great player and many never really solidify themselves in the Top 50. So here is my Top 10 players List in the Open Era who fell far below their hype and predicted glory.

No. 1–DONALD YOUNG–Do you know this is actually the 23 year old Young’s 10th year playing pro events? He’s currently No. 198 and John McEnroe said he had the best hands of any player since he played. Can you say disappointment of monumental proportions? I know you can.

2. GAELS MONFILS–I know, how can I put a guy who once was No. 7 and is still only 26 yrs old as No. 2 on the Greatest Disappointment List, and my answer is…it’s my friggin’ list! Monfils is the greatest athlete ever to play pro tennis period, but he’s only won 4 titles, never a Masters or a Slam, mind you. And the guy has only reached one Slam semis.

3. MARCELO RIOS–The only player in the Open Era who was ranked No. 1 and never won a Slam title and only got to one slam final and no slam semis. He also lost 192 matches, and won only 391 matches, not a great ratio for a supposedly top player. Plus, he won only 18 titles.

4. THOMAS MUSTER–A former No. 1 player who only won one slam and lost in the first round of Wimbledon four times. Yes, he won 44 titles, and got to two Slam semis, and won 44 titles, so this is a specious pick.

5. RYAN HARRISON–Yes, he’s only 20, but IMO he’s never going to be the Big Cheese that an expert like Mats Wilander has predicted, a Top 3 player. There’s too much wrong with Harry’s game and his approach to getting to the top, meaning, he’s hired the worst coaches imaginable for a supposed shooting star. Yes, Harry is ranked No. 55, but he’s lost in either the first or second rounds of the last 6 Slams.

7. JOHN LLOYD—The former No. 1 Brit (and hubby of Chris “lay ‘em low” Evert) was once considered to be a certain Slam winner, and yet he only won one title in his career and reached a high of No. 21. Early on, Lloyd was considered to be a superior player to Vitas Gerulaitis, another blond heartthrob of the era, but Gerulaitis far out-shone the Brit on the pro tour. Here’s why Lloyd is also on the list: in 4 Slam matches against Jimmy Connors, Lloyd won a total of 24 games!

8. AL PARKER—The Georgian native, was probably the greatest junior American player of all time. During his second year in the 12 and unders in 1981, he won the singles and doubles at all four national tournaments. A double grand slam. He is the only person in the history of American junior tennis to do that. People said he was the future of American tennis, the successor to McEnroe and Connors, but in 5 years on the pro tour, Parker reached a high of No. 261.

9. SCOTT DAVIS—Another great junior player, Davis from San Diego and Stanford, did win 3 titles and reached a high of No. 11–he was also a great doubles player with David Pate–but Davis never fulfilled the promise of his junior years.

10. KRISTIAN PLESS–the former No. 1 junior player, the dashing Dane only reached a high of No. 58. Pless had sick talent, along the lines of another junior singles player No. 1 who underperformed in the pros, Leander Paes, but he was too much of a head case in the pros to make a big splash.

So there you have the definitive list of Top 10 Disappointments in the men’s game. If you have any questions/comments about this list or any other candidates, please feel free to contribute. But this list is the Holy Grail.


  • Steve · February 5, 2013 at 1:44 pm

    “They” get some right. Agassi, Hingis, Sharapova, Djoker were all highly praised as youngsters and delivered.

    Rios had a great career and there’s an asterisk by his slam final loss.

    RH has the desire and work ethic but not too much hype around him like, say, DY.

    I think it can be tough because of the mental variables of the game. It’s easier to assess someone’s movement and strokes but the their mental game not so much. And as with Murray it can be a matter of getting the right coach.

  • Mitch · February 5, 2013 at 1:59 pm

    Muster got into a car accident in his prime. I’d probably add Gulbis or Gasquet to this list.

  • Martin G · February 5, 2013 at 2:31 pm

    Why did you name her – Chris “lay ‘em low” Evert?
    Can you elaborate?

  • Dan Markowitz · February 5, 2013 at 3:50 pm

    Do I have to elaborate on that, MG? If so, let me do it later in the night after I’ve had a couple of martinis.

    Mitch, good call, Gulbis has to be added as does Gasquet. I can’t help Muster got into a car accident. He still under-performed in comparison to his early hype/potential.

    Here are a couple of other honorable mentions:

    Ilie Nastase (probably had the greatest touch of any player besides JMac and Fed)
    Billy Martin
    Butch Walts (who dated Chris Evert and used to drive around in her Porsche)

  • Martin G · February 5, 2013 at 4:04 pm

    Just tired. Too much work.
    That kind of lay them low :).
    Now I know what you are talking about :).

  • Scoop Malinowski · February 5, 2013 at 5:03 pm

    Agassi did not see Sampras making it big in tennis, nor did he see Federer becoming what he did. I asked the A Train about his first memory of Fed at the MSG exo last year and he said he played him as a teen in Basel but was hardly wowed by what he saw from young Roger.

    I really thought Oudin would have a big career after that amazing run at the US Open. But I guess her game is vulnerable to topsin highballs and at that Open she got a lot of flat power from the Russians she beat. Rios was not ballyhooed to be a big star in the beginning, like Spadea says, he sees Rios more as an overachiever than an underachiever. I thought Bag and Safin would have had more accomplished careers based on their early promise.

    Attila Savolt told me he thought young Nalbandian’s game was more difficult to handle than young Fed’s. Joachim Johansson, Fernando Gonzalez and Nicolas Kiefer could have been better than they were. And I always thought Henman should have won a Wimbledon. He had some bad luck.

  • Steve · February 5, 2013 at 5:24 pm

    Scoop, I have this match from Basel when Fed was just a kid. It’s very inspiring to watch even though Agassi makes quick work of him. Fed looked very nervous throughout.

    In the Agassi book the young Luke Jenson was viewed in awe.

  • Andrew Miller · February 5, 2013 at 5:40 pm

    That’s funny that Agassi’ recollection was that way. If I remember from the video on youtube Federer actually played some special tennis. But I know why Agassi thought that way: Agassi at that point had seen everything and knew that no one just “hands” over a match to another player – they had to win and win consistently to get credit from Agassi. Agassi didn’t start talking about the Federer we all know until Federer beat him black and blue in their finals match in Houston in 2003. At that point Agassi said what was plain for anyone to see – Federer was one of the best players he’d ever played if not the best player he’d ever played. Agassi had kind words for Rafa after Rafa beat Agassi at Wimbledon in 2006 for his last Wimbledon.

    I’d say Nalbandian would have to be up there in the category of never fulfilled the promise. And if Nalbandian is there, then Baghdatis is there too. And Tsonga as well, never mind some of his solid slam work.

    In terms of “promise” I think it’s too fuzzy to talk about. I’m in the Agassi mode of thinking – you can’t talk about winning a major unless you are actually a real threat to win and show you can make it deep in a slam. The last U.S. player to do that is retired (unless you count Ginepri). So from that view, I can’t really talk much about Harrison and Young. What I can say is the “hype” factor from McEnroe hasn’t done these guys any favors. If anything it went to their heads and reinforced their parents’ ideas they were doing the right thing.

  • Scoop Malinowski · February 5, 2013 at 6:25 pm

    Steve, I would love to see that match, hope you don’t lose it ) It’s funny that Agassi, the tennis guru that he is, totally misread and underestimated the talent of two players named Pete Sampras and Roger Federer. You would think Agassi would have known. The way he described what he saw from Federer is pretty funny too, it will be in the book, sorry for the tease ) Luke Jensen was big buddies with Agassi in the early 90s, I got to hang out with Luke once at the US Open when my friend Richard Pagliaro interviewed him and he told some fantastic Agassi stories which Andre did not tell in Open. I swear, Open could have been five times longer, a lot of good stories were left out.

  • Dan Markowitz · February 5, 2013 at 9:07 pm

    Harrison has had a lot of hype and promise. The guy has been second only to Young in big expectations of Americans in the last decade. If you look at it, there isn’t another American who engenders that kind of hope. Yes, there’s Sock, but he hasn’t done anything at the pro level.

    When you look back, JMac always had his posse behind him consisting of Mayotte and Tanner and even Gene Mayer. Smith had Ashe and Gottfried and Soloman. Agassi had Courier, Chang and Sampras. Roddick had Fish and Dent and Blake and Ginepri. But Harry is alone in anyone believing an American can be Top 10.

    Maybe Dent should be added to the greatest disappointment list. He had such a big game and a lot of people thought he could be the next Rafter. And then, of course, there’s Phillipoussis. Most people would’ve bet good money he could’ve been a slam winner, particularly at Wimbledon.

    Yes, Safin, Henman and Baggy are good choices, but I think Henman, in particular, exceeded his expectations.

  • Steve · February 6, 2013 at 8:21 am

    Federer looks about 17 yrs old in the match. It’s inspiring because his game wasn’t perfect then and he was very emotional on the court. His service motion seemed almost fully formed though. I’ll have to lend it to you.

    I also read the Sampras book and anticlimactically he says “one day the serve was just there” but his mental calmness on court was always there.

    17 yr old Sampras & 16 yr old Chang take on the Mac Bros.

  • Steve · February 6, 2013 at 8:32 am

    In this clip you can see (with hindsight) Sampras’ game was almost in place.

  • Scoop Malinowski · February 6, 2013 at 9:50 am

    What a find with Pete and Chang vs. the Mac in a near empty LA Forum. Classic stuff, weird to see Pete and Chang about the same size.

  • Steve · February 6, 2013 at 10:59 am

    Looking at P. Mac’s doubles game in ’88 shows how much the pro game has improved over the years as well as the level of local USTA 4.5s.

  • Andrew Miller · February 6, 2013 at 6:30 pm

    Maybe we should praise Isner. He does everything he has to.

  • Dan Markowitz · February 6, 2013 at 10:16 pm

    Isner does everything he has to, what does that mean, Andrew? The guy’s never done well in a slam and he’s one of the most boring players on tour to watch play. His game is so two-dimensional. Basically, Isner is a glorified college player. He does well in the states and in team setups.

  • Tom Michael · February 6, 2013 at 10:54 pm

    Muster does not belong on the list. Now I have a great suggestion. Jimmy Arias. By the way, Arias thought he was going to win 10 majors in a lifetime, after he won a mixed title. He dismissed the significance of that title not realizing that was going to be his greatest grand slam achievement.

    He is a jealous loser of Nadal who can’t stand to witness all he did. Especially after Rafa won all Jimmy thought he should have.

  • Scoop Malinowski · February 7, 2013 at 8:26 am

    Tom I was not aware that Arias is anti Nadal in any way, what makes you say that he is? Arias is before my time, I only know he was a top prospect out of Bollettieri with a huge forehand who though he made it to the top 10 never made it big and then injuries wrecked his career. I heard Arias played an exo when he was a teen in Buffalo and gave a stunned Rod Laver an unexptected war. My friend from boxing Rick is from Buffalo and he said he played Arias when he was around 12 in a tourney and lost 0 and 0 really fast. He said Arias was a phenom. Muster’s pre leg injury career is also before my time, I don’t know how hyped the Moo Man was as a young gun coming up though I got to see him post knee surgery and he became one of my favorites in the mid 90s when I got serious playing tennis. Watching him on clay was like watching Rocky Marciano or Iran Barkley or Ricardo Mayorga fight, mostly all heart and desire and determination with just enough skill and technique to become the best.

  • Dan Markowitz · February 7, 2013 at 8:59 am

    I like Arias, very good suggestion. Although, I do think Arias got to No. 4, and won the Italian Open and reached semis of US Open. I mean, think of it, a guy like Rios never reached a slam semis!! The guy got smeared in his one slam finals and never semi-ed in a slam after that.

    Arias was a one-trick pony and he was too slight for the big boys. Gimelstob is another honorable mention to the list. When he came out of UCLA and reached the 3rd of the US Open right away, people thought he’d be a top player, but never happened.

  • Scoop Malinowski · February 7, 2013 at 9:18 am

    Dokic, Lucic and Stevenson on the WTA side, they came in and had early success in a major but never reached that height again, or came close. Vaidisova is another, she had a MP to make a slam final, missed it and then never threatened again, quitting at around age 20.

  • Tom Michael · February 7, 2013 at 10:21 am

    Arias is so anti-Nadal. He was cheering for Djokovic to win that 2008 Olympic semi, and when he missed that overhead on match point down, he screamed, “Oooh Nooo!” He was taunting Nadal’s injury woes at the end of 2009. He had the nerve of saying that he was finished, thought that Nadal was never going to come back to his old self, and confessed that he did not foresee the 2010 season of domination (the greatest of all grand slam seasons). And of course, he was jealous of Nadal’s half a million dollar watch.

  • Dan Markowitz · February 7, 2013 at 10:38 am

    Tom Michael,

    Just curious what your views on Nadal and whether you think he’s possibly taken steroids or not. He seems to have a lot of the danger signs of players who have dabbled with steroids.

    1. He comes from a country that has been associated with steroids.
    2. He skipped the Olympics where they have the toughest steroid testing.
    3. At 25 years old, he’s been out now for 7 months with a knee injury.

    What’s your take?

  • Scoop Malinowski · February 7, 2013 at 2:37 pm

    Tom you may be right. I have listened to Arias and never got a sense at all that he didn’t like Rafa. I never have gotten a sense that anyone dislikes Rafa except for maybe Peter Bodo for some reason. I will listen to Arias more closely in the future to see if you are on the button. I really don’t understand how anyone can dislike Rafa, so what if he calls some injury timeouts at crucial moments or he makes excuses about knee pain. I mean to complain about minor stuff like that is extremely nitpicky. Even if Nadal is using PEDS I would think it was not his decision at all, it would have been the family and Toni’s. Nadal is pure class and a great champion and sportsman. And I have seen examples of it and heard of other examples behind the scenes.

  • Tom Michael · February 7, 2013 at 3:28 pm

    1. He comes from a country that has been associated with steroids.
    Spain is not the only country. Besides I doubt their drugs are so sophisticated to escape screening procedures. There are other wealthier 1st world countries that are suspicious.

    2. He skipped the Olympics where they have the toughest steroid testing.
    Actually tennis itself may be as tough or tougher in testing.

    3. At 25 years old, he’s been out now for 7 months with a knee injury.

    Steroids prevent injury. And allow faster recovery from injury. This is a weak argument. I would be more concerned of the players who don’t get injured often.

  • Dan Markowitz · February 7, 2013 at 4:14 pm

    Tennis has been shown to be very weak in testing. Djokovic at the Australian Open.

    This excerpt came out of an Australian paper after the AO finals:

    Djokovic raised eyebrows as to the stringency of the anti-doping program when he revealed that, before being blood tested after Sunday night’s final, he had not been tested for at least six months.

    Scoop, to say that Nadal is being coerced to take steroids against his will by Uncle Toni is ridiculous. The player has to be held accountable. Nadal’s not a child.

  • Tom Michael · February 7, 2013 at 4:31 pm

    Players get randomly tested throughout the year outside of competition as well in competition. Nadal has been one of the most tested athletes period.

    I have a hard time believing that Djokovic was not tested outside of competition. He is one of the top players.

  • Tom Michael · February 7, 2013 at 4:40 pm

    I just looked up Djokovic’s comments on testing. He has not been tested for EPO for the last 6 months. He most likely has been tested for other agents. BTW, EPO probably has no performance enhancing capabilities. It probably is only a placebo effect. I am only saying this based on my study of Hemoglobin/Oxygen saturation curves in college Biochemistry. And there is no study that has proven that EPO boosts performance in people with normal HbA1. So if the ATP decided not to test for EPO, it could be for the reasons I just explained.

  • Scoop Malinowski · February 7, 2013 at 5:42 pm

    Is it possible Nadal has been on PEDs since he was a young kid, like Lionel Messi has for supposedly medical reasons? Maybe. I saw Nadal at 16 in the US Open locker room in just shorts, he looked like a cross between Mike Tyson and a bull. Did Jonas Bjorkman say in a quote published by Sports Illustrated that he has “heard of cases of the ITF covering up positive tests”? Yes he did.

  • Scoop Malinowski · February 7, 2013 at 5:47 pm

    Tom, Angel Heredia, fitness coach of Juan Manuel Marquez and former PED supplier to Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery, said in an interview to Spiegel Sport that he knows how to create 25 different PEDs that are undetectable to doping testers. Now if this rogue from Mexico Heredia has this kind of expertise, just what do you think a tennis federation like Spain or France or fill in the blank is capable of? Yes they can test the top guys twice a day and four times on Sunday, but like Bjorkman, said, if you believe him – and why would he fabricate such a thing? – there could be positive tests that are covered up in order to protect the superstar attractions of the tour. Anything is possible.

  • Tom Michael · February 7, 2013 at 6:58 pm

    It is possible that everyone in the top 600 is then using based on what you just said. No one may be innocent.

  • Scoop Malinowski · February 7, 2013 at 7:26 pm

    Anything is possible Tom. If they are using it helps the sport, the tour, the business and the incredibly high level of tennis, week in and week out. The sport is still competitive, it’s not like one guy is just blowing everyone out like Secretariat winning the triple crown by 30 lengths. The sport is great right now, better than ever as far as athleticism and quality of performance. And nobody is dropping dead or having severe life threatening heart problems like some of the PED using NFL and pro wrestlers in the past.

  • Dan Markowitz · February 7, 2013 at 8:11 pm

    Here’s an excerpt from Howard Bryant piece on PED’s in tennis at ESPN.com, on the dubious way in which tennis is policing the steroid blight:

    “According to the ITF, only 21 out-of-competition blood tests were conducted in 2011. Whether by blood or urine, the ITF did not test the Williams sisters once out of competition in ’11. And as many critics have pointed out, while the sport has raised prize money for the major tournaments and renovated its venues, it hasn’t increased its testing budget or improved its protocols. Tennis pays out roughly $300 million in prize money yet budgets just $2 million for its doping program and has cut back on blood tests, especially for EPO — the one test tennis needs because it helps increase endurance and recovery — because of high costs.”

    Both Djoko and Murray have asked for more testing.

  • Scoop Malinowski · February 7, 2013 at 9:04 pm

    Jonas Bjorkman has said he has heard of examples of the ITF covering up positive tests. Published in Sports Illustrated. That’s all we really need to know, isn’t it?

  • Andrew Miller · February 8, 2013 at 5:52 am

    Dokic is awesome. Now THAT girl should have been a slam winner. Goes to show it’s more than the player that wins a slam – they have to basically have a supportive entourage (progressive and supportive). Look at Murray, Federer, Nadal, Djokovic…all have an entourage that both make the player better and that is there for them.

    If it were just the player we’d be talking about Dokic’s wimbledon trophy or who knows what else. It’s more than the player that wins a slam.

    As for Isner, whenever he plays Djokovic I think it’s pretty interesting tennis. He’s a lot more fun than Dr. Ivo. But whatever – personally I’m in favor of players that are effective and on the whole I think Isner’s been pushing to reach his potential. It’s more than we can say for so many other players. You can fill pages and pages littered with the names of players who hit the most beautiful backhand you’ve ever seen, but are they anywhere close to the top 20?

    No. Because they are gloating in how beautiful that backhand is. It’s insufficient. The tour doesn’t reward beautiful backhands.

  • Scoop Malinowski · February 8, 2013 at 9:53 am

    Think you are spot on Andrew, Dokic was the real deal but she did not have the A plus support team unfortunately. The talent and mind were there but not the proper support. Will never forget her inspiring Aussie Open run a few years ago, was really sad to see her lose to Safina in the QF or SF. Dokic that fortnight was one of the best most touching stories I’ve ever seen in tennis. I also like to see Isner vs. Fed and Djokovic and other top players, to see how they handle him, he gives most of them trouble every time. But I don’t really enjoy to see Isner against lesser players who can’t handle his game.

  • Andrew Miller · February 9, 2013 at 5:00 pm

    Scoop you are right about match-ups. One of the huge reasons tennis has fans – the great match-ups. I think it is how tennis survived in the U.S. – in the post Roddick era there is no U.S. hero on the men’s side, but Federer-Nadal and now Djokovic-anyone keeps the ATP exciting in the U.S. market. It’s true that watching Isner against someone who can’t handle his game is not fun. It was fun watching Raonic-Ferrer – for whatever reason it’s a good matchup!

  • Andrew Miller · February 9, 2013 at 5:06 pm

    As for Dokic…loved her game. She was fierce. It’s too bad, for tennis, that the players with some of the best games find very infrequent successes. I’d love to see the Bulgarian kid Dimitrov go big. But I think he falls into Dan’s category of hype. And I think it’s harsh to put players like Dimitrov and Baghdatis in the overhype category when both are top 50 (and when I’d pay money to see them play). But because their rankings aren’t higher they end up matching up against other players who want it just as badly in order to be tired against a Djokovic who just goes for the kill. Ruthless sport.

  • Scoop Malinowski · February 9, 2013 at 6:47 pm

    A lot of people can’t handle Isner’s game! Like you say Andrew, any good matchup is great to watch. Even today Paire vs. Llodra was a nice match, split sets then Paire got in a zone and just crushed returns to beat Llodra 6-1. I really enjoyed watching Nieminen hold off Stakhovsky yesterday in a third set TB. Good matchups, no matter who it is or where it is, is what keeps the sport going and growing.



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