January 03, 2011

The exercise of constructing the perfect tennis organism by cherry-picking assets from history's greatest players has been done for so long that most veteran fans can skip the thinking and rattle it off by heart: Sampras for serve, Agassi for return game, McEnroe for net play, etc.

But what if you were trying to build the best player for 2011, based on today's players and current form?

We asked SI.com's tennis experts to design a player for the unique challenges of today's game. The one ground rule: you could only pick one attribute from a given player. The process was a series of difficult choices -- Serena for mental toughness or forehand? Where to play the Federer card? -- but the result presents a revealing look at the state of tennis entering the 2011 season.

First, their picks for the men's tour:

Serve: Ivo KarlovicBasic geometry: There's no substituting a delivery from FAA-jurisdiction.

Return game: Andy MurrayCompact strokes and uncanny anticipation.

Forehand: Juan Martin del Potro(Wrist willing.) Nothing flashy, not a lot of spin. Just pure power.

Backhand: Novak Djokovic For sheer precision; over Stan Wawrinka for aesthetics; Tomas Berdych for power and Marat Safin for old times sake.

Net Play: Bob BryanYes, in part because we're saving Federer for later. But still ...

Fitness: David Ferrer He's been to cool down after runs by ... jogging.

Footwork: Roger FedererWe'll play our Federer card here. So smooth and efficient.

Mental Toughness: Rafael NadalNot even close. One stat among many: His record in slam finals? 9-2.

Serve: Andy RoddickAndy's predictable but overpowering.

Return game: Andy MurrayThe counterpuncher's main punch, without it he wouldn't be in the top five.

Forehand: Juan Martin del PotroWhen he's on, no one can handle Delpo's sledgehammer.

Backhand: Richard GasquetRichard is the one-stroke wonder of the men's game.

Net Play: Mardy FishThe game's dying art, so Fish wins by default.

Fitness: Roger Federer The foundation of all of Fed's wonderful play.

Footwork: Novak DjokovicWould put Fed here, too, but at his best Djokovic floats like a dancer.

Mental Toughness: Rafael NadalWithout it, he wouldn't be half the player he is.

Serve: Andy RoddickHe has the reputation, and consistently delivers in the clutch.

Return game: Andy MurrayMagical hands; if only he attacked the way he defends.

Forehand: Robin SoderlingRides this shot straight up to the penthouse.

Backhand: Rafael Nadal His two-hander on the run, or the retreat, is one of the most amazing sights in sports.

Net Play: Michael LlodraOne of the few serve-and-volleyers left, and he's coldly efficient up there.

Fitness: Nikolay Davydenko Can't stand watching him, but the man can run all day.

Footwork: Roger FedererThe man is a living textbook.

Mental Toughness: John IsnerFrom the NCAA championships to the Wimbledon marathon against Mahut, he thrives on will power.

Serve: John IsnerBig John gets free points at will. If only all the Slams were on hardcourts.

Return game: Andy MurrayGreat hand-eye coordination and a gutsy returner.

Forehand: Fernando GonzalezSince we've picked Federer and Nadal elsewhere, we go Gonzo here.

Backhand: Novak Djokovic The backhand is the Joker's biggest weapon.

Net Play: Bob BryanThe doubles specialist's quick hands is why he's famous worldwide.

Fitness: Nikolay Davydenko Would be happy to play every tournament.

Footwork: Roger FedererThe most efficient mover in men's history.

Mental Toughness: Rafael NadalLegendary steel when it matters most.

Serve: Ivo KarlovicEven at 31, I'll give Dr. Ivo's 6-foot-10 frame the edge over the younger Isner.

Return game: Andy MurrayPeerless anticipation. No one combines offense, defense and accuracy on the return better.

Forehand: Roger FedererDavid Foster Wallace famously called Federer's forehand "a great liquid whip."

Backhand: Novak Djokovic The two-fisted backhand is Nole's signature stroke -- and with good reason.

Net Play: Mardy FishWe saw just how effective Fish's volleying could be in 2010, when he finally was fit enough to get into position for them consistently.

Fitness: Nikolay Davydenko Not exactly a crowd-pleaser, but no one questions his endurance. "He plays like PlayStation: he runs to everywhere," Del Potro remarked in 2009.

Footwork: David FerrerArguably the best in the business on clay and top flight on anything else.

Mental Toughness: Rafael NadalAlways confident and never beats himself. Ingenious control of match pace.

Serve: Rafael NadalWould you like a side of speed to go with that topspin? No? Too bad -- no point for you!

Return game: Novak DjokovicTalk about hitting against the wall; dude can retrieve anything from just about any position.

Forehand: Robin SoderlingListen close, and you'll hear a sonic boom about 10 seconds after contact.

Backhand: Richard Gasquet It's as if he's saying "ta-da!" after every stroke; the only thing it's missing is jazz hands.

Net Play: Michael LlodraNot only kisses his volleys, but hugs ballgirls when he crashes into them.

Fitness: Roger Federer That wet patch you see on his shirtfront isn't sweat. It's condensation.

Footwork: Andy MurrayFew are as graceful on the move. The trick is getting him to do it.

Mental Toughness: Andy RoddickWhen his mind is vaulted, he's a tough opponent to crack.

Next, SI.com's experts craft their ideal women's player.

Serve: Venus WilliamsStill clocking, especially when it matters.

Return game: Vera ZvonarevaA key to her late-career surge.

Forehand: Ana IvanovicWhen she's getting it in the court -- which fortunately has occurred lately -- it's as good as any this side of Serena (whom we're saving).

Backhand: Justine Henin We're still suckers for beauty.

Net Play: Samantha StosurSuch an agile athlete. Just wish she'd get there more often.

Fitness: Francesca Schiavone Even at her age, she'll win matches simply by being in superior shape.

Footwork: Kim ClijstersAlways a terrific mover -- and childbirth did nothing to impede her locomotion.

Mental Toughness: Serena WilliamsNot even close.

Serve: Serena WilliamsSerena's accurate and overpowering.

Return game: Caroline WozniackiThe counterpuncher's main punch, without it she wouldn't be in the top five.

Forehand: Samantha StosurSamantha's stinger gets the job done.

Backhand: Venus WilliamsHenin's would be here normally, but her head is her best weapon.

Net Play: Francesca SchiavoneFrancesca's is a marvel of skill, whimsy and imagination.

Fitness: Kim ClijstersClijsters, still, looks like she can run forever.

Footwork: Jelena JankovicAt her best Jankovic floats like a dancer.

Mental Toughness: Justine HeninWithout it, she wouldn't be half the player she is.

Serve: Serena WilliamsStronger, more accurate and more intimidating than anyone else's on tour.

Return game: Venus WilliamsStill one of the tour's best athletes, and it shows here.

Forehand: Samantha StosurGets the max out of that chiseled right arm.

Backhand: Justine HeninHer lingering elbow injury is disturbing, but nobody disputes that form.

Net Play: Francesca SchiavoneSo elegant and creative, so far removed from baseline tedium.

Fitness: Caroline Wozniacki There's a reason she played more often, at the elite level, than anyone else on tour.

Footwork: Kim ClijstersAlways set to deliver a bullet, from either side.

Mental Toughness: Maria SharapovaBig-time fighter in a field of sheep.

Serve: Venus WilliamsSister Serena has one of the best serves of all time but Venus can still crank it up when healthy.

Return game: Victoria AzarenkaBelrussian has great instincts and keeps getting better.

Forehand: Kim ClijstersMomma's forehand is one of the most powerful in history.

Backhand: Justine HeninHer one-hander is the Kandinsky of the sport.

Net Play: Francesca SchiavoneFlamboyant Italian has McEnroe-like skills at net.

Fitness: Samantha StosurGet ready for the gun show: This Aussie is chiseled.

Footwork: Caroline WozniackiThe Dane is beautiful to watch on the run.

Mental Toughness: Serena WilliamsThe toughest player in tennis, male of female.

Serve: Venus WilliamsSerena has grown more consistent, but Vee still has fastest serve in history.

Return game: Victoria AzarenkaAbility to retreive every ball seems immunte to mental frailties that crop up in other facets.

Forehand: Samantha StosurWhich way to the gun show? Credit coach David Taylor for harnessing the latent talent in Sam's pythons.

Backhand: Kim ClijstersHenin's is sublime, but I worry about her elbow; Clijsters' two-handed version is a hammer.

Net Play: Francesca SchiavoneHer charmed 2010 season was a triumph for tennis aesthetes; creative, stylish net play that belongs in the Uffizi.

Fitness: Caroline WozniackiNo one played more matches on tour in 2009 and '10. That's not an accident.

Footwork: Justine HeninSuperlative balance, court coverage, tactics and ability to shift from defense to offense seamlessly.

Mental Toughness: Serena WilliamsThe Everest of the women's tour.

Serve: Serena WilliamsIt isn't just the WTA's most powerful and accurate, but it's also the most consistent.

Return game: Jelena JankovicGood luck passing this 5-foot-9 condor -- especially when she's doing splits.

Forehand: Venus WilliamsEven more incredible than her Plasticman range is her Hulk-like force.

Backhand: Francesca SchiavoneAs Italian gesticulations go, this is my favorite.

Net Play: Cara BlackIf her touch with Liesel Huber were as soft as it is inside the service line, maybe they'd still be partners?

Fitness: Justine Henin Now that Dementieva's gone, she takes the pound-for-pound crown.

Footwork: Maria SharapovaIt ain't the prettiest, but it rarely fails to get her in position to lash that massive forehand.

Mental Toughness: Kim ClijstersFor as much as Mommy Dearest seems to have on her mind, it never impedes her game.

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