Wayne Gretzky and Steve Nash are legends in the hockey and basketball worlds, respectively. Besides both of them being Canadian, they share something else in common: a love for tennis.
Gretzky, 59, and Nash, 46, both followed the sport closely before this era, but both stars are in awe of the Big Three: Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.
“If you could see a Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal final, and Djokovic is pretty good, but there’s something [special] about Nadal and Federer playing and competing for a championship,” Gretzky said on Tennis United. “For me, that gets my blood flowing and I can’t wait to watch it.”
Gretzky’s favourite match of all-time is the 1981 Wimbledon final, when John McEnroe — who is now the hockey legend’s good friend — won The Championships for the first time by defeating Bjorn Borg.
“McEnroe-Borg was a unique rivalry because it was more of my era, so I’m probably a little more comfortable with that,” Gretzky said. “As you know, the athletes of today are so much better and so much more conditioned… it’s a different sport now, and every sport is like that.”
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Nash’s love of tennis began with McEnroe, too. The American intrigued the Canadian with his personality, and reeled him in with his talent.
“You couldn’t take your eyes off him because you never knew what was going to happen. He wore his emotions on his sleeve,” Nash said. “But I just think the touch, the creativity, the feel at the net, those things were just so beautiful. He was an artist out there in many respects. It was this crazy mix of this big personality, you never knew where his emotions were going to go. At the same time, he’d hit a drop volley… he was mesmerising with his play, his competitive fire.”
But like Gretzky, Nash is consistently in awe of the Big Three. The basketball star is perhaps most impressed that they all have different styles, yet each has enjoyed tremendous success.
“I never really felt like I had to choose between Federer and Nadal. I felt like I could really appreciate both of them to reach their limit, their max, their potential, and may the best man win,” Nash said. “It’s just amazing to see the modern game with Djoker, Roger and Rafa, how they’re all so different. They all get it done in different ways. But if you individually looked at their resumés, you can make a case that each of them is the best player to ever play the game.
“Roger started out being so mesmerising. He was a great athlete, but he also has so much variety, beautiful strokes. He slices the backhand, he comes over the top of it hard, he finds angles. The forehand is obviously mastery, but then he has the serve, the volleys and all the variety in between.
“Rafa, when he started playing you thought, ‘Wow, this guy’s just a beast of an athlete and he’s mentally as tough as anyone we’ve seen maybe in any sport.’ But as the years go by you realise, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen Rafa miss a volley. He’s an artist, too.
“Then you look at Djokovic, the way he moves, his flexibility, his consistency. If he’s playing at his best, to beat him is almost impossible. He makes you hit so many extra balls and then he puts so much pressure on you to hit the lines. He’s in his own right as good as anyone we’ve ever seen.”
Gretzky and Nash are both proud of the recent success of Canadians. Gretzky was in attendance at a memorable match three years ago, when Canadian star Denis Shapovalov stunned Rafael Nadal in Montreal at the Coupe Rogers.
“We were lucky enough to be at the [Coupe Rogers] when Denis had his run. We were at the Nadal match, which was so exciting,” Gretzky said. “My wife kept hitting me a little bit saying, ‘Every time you cheer for Denis, Nadal is watching you.’ So I had to back down a little bit out of respect for the opponent.”