This argument is rehashed over and over again in all sports:
Better people than me have taken a shot at this argument, one way or the other
It's fun to talk about. It's just fun. So with that said...
but I tend to think that the will to dominate has not changed, which is the essence of sport, and that sports are more similar than they are different.
The will to dominate is not enough. If you have two people who are equally gifted physically and technically, yes, the one with the stronger will will win. But...
Yeah, all games have gotten bigger and faster, but don't you think that Rod Laver, with better nutrition and better health and year round training and full-time coaches and greater competition, wouldn't have also made the corresponding gains in his game?
He would still be only 5'8".
I understand what you're saying, but most great athletes with the "will to win" also had exceptional physical gifts. Michael Jordan was supremely competitive, but let's not forget that he was one of the most athletically gifted people to ever play basketball, or any other team sport for that matter. Federer, McEnroe, Sampras, and Agassi are also all insanely gifted people. I think it's incomplete to say that it's their will to win that separates them at the expense of underestimating how much their physical abilities played in their success. A will to dominate is great, but in order to actually dominate they need the weapons to back it up. The will does not transcend how the game has evolved over the years. Just saying Rod Laver by today's standards would be small and low powered. it's not just me being present-centric, it's a simple matter of physics. We can speculate all day on how well he might compete and this and that, but the fact that he's 5'8" is a matter of fact. A guy might arrive into the modern game feeling like the biggest stud in the world, like he's assuredly destined to become an all time great, but he might be crushed and he won't be the first. After a few losses time-traveler Laver might be reduced to a journey man in the modern game.
The will to dominate, yes, will always help an athlete, but only the ones with the physical gifts to turn will into actual results. Back then, Laver's physical make-up was enough, but is it today? Could a 5'8" guy who probably weighed around 140 lbs. or so dominate guys like Mirnyi, Safin, Federer, and Roddick, not matter how badly he wants it? I say "no."
My point being that people tend to cite only the champions as being the ones with the iron will to win, but I believe there are a lot of people out there with that will to win, but they just don't have the technique to back it up.
I think this applies to all sports. In the end, I'll just say that Rod Laver is an all time great, and it really doesn't matter how well he would do in today's game. But this is fun to talk about.