As you know, many of the best grass court players over the years have been outside the top ranks, which were understandably dominated by other specialists. Grass is a uniquely alienating blip on the tour that sometimes favored distinct talents. Roddick's wins over guys like Ancic, Grosjean, Rusedski and Schalken were more credible than ousting certain higher ranks.
And again, this has been consistent for years. Let's not forget that Sampras' last three Wimbledons were won without facing a single guy in the top 15.
I didn't mention rankings at all when I was talking about big scalps on grass. Those guys are very good players and were noteworthy wins for Roddick. However he hasn't had many huge, stellar wins on grass at Wimbledon, as like Murray, Djokovic etc he has played in an era where there has been a dearth of experts on grass (or clay for that matter), with the vast majority of players on the tour being hard courters in a hard court dominated era. It's not like the situation in the 90s where Agassi had to overcome the likes of Krajicek, Becker, Rafter etc before getting to the final.
He has also played in an era with fewer dangerous floaters to worry about in the 1st week at Wimbledon, compared to the 80s or 90s, when clay and grass court tournaments were full of them (plus only 16 seeds at the slams made things more dangerous for the top guns). That's not his fault at all but while he was thwarted by Federer time after time, that is offset by the fact that he benefited from a relative lack of competition on grass, and thus generally faced pretty easy routes to progress far enough to play Federer in the first place on those occasions.
And Sampras faced three opponents in the top 15 en-route to his 1999/penultimate Wimbledon title.
I agree insofar that some of the bigger servers of yesteryear were better returners than Roddick, but not by much. The primary difference was that guys like Sampras and especially Ivanisevic took more chances than Roddick, who played deep on returns. When he was proactive, though, it was mostly to the same effect. You mention Ivanisevic breaking Sampras; I'm pretty sure Roddick and Hewitt were the only two guys to have broken Federer at Wimbledon '04. And before we go praising the return of the old guys too much, those are the same guys who championed the tiebreak/one break of serve format that's so prevalent today.
No those guys were all significantly better returners than Roddick. Roddick’s return of serve has been average at best and routinely mocked by commentators. Goran had an exceptionally good cross court backhand return (one of his best shots in fact), that was not just effective on grass, but also on clay which he enjoyed success on in the early 90s. His forehand return wasn't as good but still pretty effective. Jimmy Connors marvelled at how strong Stich’s backhand return was (and he played him) and Sampras feared it. Krajicek was hitting backhand return winners like Agassi in 1996 (that shot had previously been a noticeable weakness for him), and began to tee off even on Sampras 1st serves in their quarter-final. His forehand return could always be dangerous and explosive from the early 90s. The return game that Goran played to clinch the 4th set of the 1998 final is one of the best return games I’ve ever seen at Wimbledon.
Roddick has never been able to return as well as that throughout his career. Yes he has often been passive on his return of serve but that is symptomatic of his own lack of confidence in the shot.
And yes breaking Federer at Wimbledon in 2004 was very a good achievement, but breaking opponents on the slower grass when floating returns are sufficient, is very different to breaking opponents on faster grass when you had to be more aggressive and take more risks on the return, otherwise your opponent has an easy putaway at the net. Grosjean also broke Federer in 2004 in the 3rd set of their semi-final.
Still, I concur that Roddick's return-of-serve would be hindered on faster grass, but frankly, I think some of your points inflate the old guard. Ivanisevic and Krajicek as more athletic, better movers on the surface?
No inflation at all, those assertions are pretty clear. Goran was faster than Roddick and a better mover on grass than him. He moved exceptionally well for a guy of his height, or a guy of any height. He was a natural athlete who could have taken up a number of sports, but he ultimately chose tennis.
Krajicek also moved very well for a guy that tall (1.96m) and his compact strokes allowed him to move effortlessly to the net.
Stich was also an exceptionally gifted athlete who moved very well on all surfaces, and like Goran, as a junior he could have taken up other sports if he wanted to as German coaches have confirmed.
When was movement on grass ever really an issue for prime Roddick on grass? When he dropped weight for Wimbledon '04, he looked as quick
as ever, and it showed in his improvisation.
Roddick was a decent mover in his prime but not an exceptional one.
In 2008 and before he teamed up with Stefanki and embarked on another weight loss campaign, he was moving pretty poorly on grass.
Roddick's footwork and balance has looked very clumsy at times. On slower grass that isn't that big an issue. But on the 90s grass, quick reflexes, instincts and effective footwork would be more crucial. I don’t think Roddick stacks up there.
I've seen enough of Ivanisevic's clunky approach shots and clumsy horizontal movement to know that his athleticism is not otherworldy.
Watch Goran’s matches in full from the 90s (and not just on grass), and not just youtube highlights. He was a tremendously gifted athlete. He was an excellent football and basketball player as a junior as well as a superb cross country runner. His footwork wasn't great but his athleticism was enough for him to overcome that on grass (like in the women’s game both the Williams sisters have had poor footwork but overcame that with sheer athleticism). His athleticism was one of his strengths and it came naturally to him.
To that point, as much as poor returns wouldn’t fly on fast grass, guys in the 90’s got away with baseline and approach shots that just wouldn’t cut it today, so Andy’s game would certainly have its strengths on the surface.
Speaking of approach shots, Roddick's was famed for coming in like a headless chicken on poor approach shots only to get passed at will (many of his opponents’ winner and passing shot counts against him were absurdly high). Hewitt in 2004/2005 and Federer were very good at hitting short balls to bait Roddick into coming to the net. Roddick would take that bait, and his lack of confidence at the net would be exposed.
Roddick had no problem making his way around a grass court in his youth, and he actually played net quite well. And hell, as late as ’09 he even posted better percentages up there than Federer. His net game might not hold up to some guys in the 90's, but it made a difference. And on a quicker surface, who knows? It's a lot easier to anticipate moving forward when the surface speeds facilitate such an effort.
Even in an era when many players hardly came to the net, Roddick has been a mediocre volleyer at best with shaky hands. Likewise Goran was a mediocre volleyer during his era, but he still had far better hands at the net than Roddick did.
His service motion (going straight up rather than into the court like Goran) isn't particularly conducive to serve-volleying. Goran's finish on his serve allowed him to be further in the court than Roddick, thus volleys were easier.
Roddick was a very defensive player as a junior, so a net-game never came naturally to him.
In any case, as you mentioned, a guy like Agassi dismissed the notion that grass court tennis was restricted to serve-and-volleying. What’s important is to play to the principles of the surface. While serve-and-volleying is one way to do that, it’s certainly not restricted to that. Guys like Roddick and Murray, despite their limitations, clearly had a natural feel for the surface, even if unconventionally so.
Agassi was one of the only players that was comfortable predominantly staying back on the old grass, thanks to his compact strokes, all-time great return of serve, strong baseline games from both wings, and unrivalled hand-eye co-ordination. Lendl who also had one of the greatest baseline games of all time but a longer backswing on his strokes, wasn't comfortably staying back at Wimbledon, nor was Courier or many other baseliners. Goran played from the baseline on slower surfaces but came in at Wimbledon. As with many other players, Roddick's baseline gamewouldn't cut it on old style grass. Like practically every player not named Agassi, he would have to come in at least semi-regularly to stand a chance.
I personally think if Roddick played in the 90s, the hard courts would suit his game a lot more than grass. During his time on the tour and even during his prime, his record in the big fast indoor events before they were slowed down wasn't exactly stellar (in fact he never reached the final of a big indoor tournament during his career). He has openly commented that medium paced surfaces suit his game, notably his return of serve and groundstrokes, more than faster ones. It was funny when the San Jose organisers thought that speeding up their surface would benefit him, when it didn't at all and he had to tell them that. Ahead of the USA-Croatia Davis Cup tie in LA in 2005, he asked for the hard court surface to be slowed down.
Roddick has been an outstanding player, but I have always laughed at the overly simplistic (and IMO incorrect) notion that with his huge serve he would have preferred the faster 90s surface conditions to the ones he has played on in the 00s. He played in exactly the right era for his style of play I think.