Best Defensive Tennis Players

Best Defensive Tennis Players

If you’ve watched tennis for any longer than a few minutes, you will have noticed that the best defensive tennis players are incredibly difficult to beat.

These are the players that are seemingly like a brick wall — no matter what kind of shot is made against them, it comes back over the net with the regularity of a metronome. Such defensive tennis players rely on their high levels of fitness, speed and consistency to prolong rallies, and extract errors from their opponents.

Over the years, there have been several notable defensive tennis players. The majority have come in the past 25 years, and we look at what has made five of these players so special.

5 Best Defensive Tennis Players

#1: Lleyton Hewitt

Lleyton Hewitt, Australian former professional tennis player
Lleyton Hewitt – focus” by JC is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Remember back before Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic embarked on their multi-decade dominance of men’s tennis? Lleyton Hewitt was one of the stars on the ATP Tour around the turn of the millennium, rising as high as World No.1 in 2001.

Hewitt was known for his excellent defense as a tennis player. The Australian was adept at hitting the ball off both his forehand and backhand from deep in the court, and had incredible speed that enabled him to defend tenaciously. He would often convert defense into attack by varying up the pace of a rally with slices, drop shots and lobs, but could also hit through a ball and counterpunch from the baseline.

Debuting as a professional in 1998, Lleyton Hewitt had a rapid rise on the ATP Tour. Within two years, the Aussie had cracked the Top 10, and then another two years later, in November 2001, Hewitt ascended to the sport’s pinnacle and was crowned World No.1. His dominance lasted for 18 months, before giving up the position. He never regained the top spot, but remained a competitive top 20 player for years to come, until his career tailed off in 2008.

#2: David Ferrer

David Ferrer, Spanish former professional tennis player
David Ferrer” by Carine06 is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

The Spaniard battler from the 2000s and 2010s will always be remembered as one of the best players on the ATP Tour to never win a Grand Slam.

Ferrer will also go down in history as one of the best defensive tennis players to have played the game. Particularly adept on the clay court, Ferrer would rely on his incredible fitness, mental fortitude and low-error game to grind opponents into submission.

For years, the only players on tour able to penetrate his strong defensive game were Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, with others getting out-lasted or frustrated at the Spanish maestros’ defensive skills.

The high point of Ferrer’s career came in the early 2010s, when he was as high as World No.3. Though he debuted as a professional in 2000, it wasn’t until over a decade later that Ferrer really broke through.

In 2012, the Spaniard picked up seven titles, having his best year that propelled him to a career high ranking. This was the year he won his only Masters 1000 title as well, claiming the silverware in Paris.

The defensive guru continued to perform for many years, picking up another five titles in 2015 and always keeping the top few players in the world honest.

With a height of 5’9″ or 175cm, Ferrer is recognized as one of the best short tennis players and despite his smaller stature, he made significant achievements in the sport, competing at the highest levels of the game.

#3: Andy Murray

Andy Murray
Andy Murray – moving better” by Carine06 is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

There’s a reason why Andy Murray was briefly extended the honor of being included in the same group as Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.

While the term “Big Four” has not withstood the test of time, Andy Murray is still one of the players on the ATP Tour who has found the most success through his defensive game. Murray, much like Ferrer, would rely on his superior fitness to win matches, simply out-working his opponents until their legs faltered.

Similar to Hewitt, Murray also employed excellent variation in his game as a form of defense, with a strong slice, varied dropshot and adept lob all part of his arsenal. Perhaps the biggest weapon in Murray’s defensive game was his mindset, however — Murray prided himself on being a stubborn fighter, who would give every point 100% regardless of the match situation.

Across his career, the Brit claimed three Grand Slam titles, an Olympic Gold Medal, and held the World No.1 spot for several months. While he has not retired as of 2023, Murray is now past his prime due to a plethora of injuries and surgeries. This is often the case with defensive players, who put their bodies through a particularly strenuous toll with their play styles.

At the age of 35 in 2023, Andy Murray was able to execute an incredible break point against Kokkinakis during the 2023 Australian Open tennis tournament. Additionally, towards the end of his career, Murray demonstrated impressive defensive skills, using his experience to outmaneuver younger opponents and make impressive plays on the court.

#4: Rafael Nadal

Rafael Nadal
Rafael Nadal” by Tatiana is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Speaking of generational talent, no list of the best defensive tennis players would be complete without mention of one of the game’s greatest competitors, Rafael Nadal.

Nadal needs little introduction for anyone that has been around tennis for a minute, or even just reads the newspaper. The Spaniard has 22 Grand Slam titles to his name, and has been the World No.1 for multiple years, and has 92 titles to his name since debuting in 2001 as a professional. Much of Nadal’s success comes down to his defensive style of play.

It’s important to note that there are nuances within the general umbrella of a defensive play style. Nadal is what’s known as an aggressive baseliner, or counterpuncher. Similar to Ferrer, Nadal excels on clay where he can wear down his opponents through long rallies and heavy topspin.

While the Spaniard is not afraid to patiently engage in a 30+ shot rally, he is always ready to turn defense into attack. Whenever an opponent hits a short ball, or fails to generate enough pace or spin on a shot, Nadal will deliver his return with interest, often turning baseline defense into a winning shot within the space of two shots.

#5: Novak Djokovic

Novak Djokovic, The Defensive Genius
Novak Djokovic” by Carine06 is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Last but not least, the first player that comes to anyone’s mind when thinking of the best defensive tennis players is Novak Djokovic.

The Serbian superstar has made a career for himself by excelling at the return of serve, in a way that no other player has been able to consistently achieve over the years. Djokovic really saw a breakthrough in the success of his defensive style, when he made some improvements to his overall health and fitness around the turn of the decade in the early 2010s. The Serbian went on a 44 match winning streak that propelled him to World No.1 and helped him charge towards 21 Grand Slam titles, all thanks to his defensive prowess.

It’s no surprise that when Djokovic improved his health, his defense also improved. Djokovic’s defense relies heavily on flexibility, with the ability to slide and stretch in ways that mean balls which usually wouldn’t be returned are sent back over the net by the Serbian. Add to this his strong mindset and deep cardio fitness, and the recipe for one of the best defensive tennis players in history exists.

FAQs

Q1: Is Nadal a defensive player?

Yes, Nadal is considered an aggressive baseliner, which is a style of defensive tennis player. Rafael Nadal relies on his heavy topspin and power from the baseline to wear down his opponents, particularly on clay, before capitalizing on any poor shots to turn defense into attack.

Q2: Is Djokovic a defensive player?

Yes, Djokovic is one of the best defensive tennis players of all-time. He is particularly adept at the return of serve, and is also incredibly flexible and mentally resilient. These features all combine to make Djokovic an excellent defensive player.

Q3: How do you beat a defensive tennis player?

The key to defeating a defensive tennis player is patience. They often rely on opponents getting frustrated and making errors in an attempt to force the issue. Don’t fall for that trap — instead, take the defensive player out of their comfort zone by volleying, forcing them to volley, varying your serve and taking pace off the ball.

Wrap Up

Big booming forehands may catch the highlight reel, but many of the world’s best tennis players have been incredible defenders primarily. Lleyton Hewitt, David Ferrer, Andy Murray, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic are some of the best defensive tennis players of all-time.

Through fitness, mental strength and intelligent shot selection they have dominated much more aggressive opponents and found incredible success on the ATP Tour.

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