Thursday July 9th, 2009

These lists are not mere compilations of all-time bests in their respective sports but all-time bests at quickening the pulse and evoking a visceral response from those fortunate enough to have witnessed their artistry.

10. Evonne Goolagong The two-time Wimbledon champ was a graceful, fluid player with an elegant game and unparalleled court coverage. As for her famed "walkabouts" -- inexplicable lapses in concentration -- they may have cut against her legacy, but they only added to the must-see unpredictability.

9. Pancho Gonzalez

A self-taught player, Gonzalez never lost his outsider sensibilities. McEnroe before McEnroe was hip, Gonzalez polarized fans and alienated most of his colleagues. But man, could he play. Even watching a grainy video from the '50s, it's hard not to marvel at his smooth athleticism and liquid strokes. It was Gussie Moran, a female player who toured with Gonzalez, who famously likened him to "God patrolling his personal heaven."

8. Andre Agassi

Agassi was a rock star while Pete Sampras, for all his winning, could never quite capture the public imagination. For two decades, Agassi simply had "it," a rare combination of style and substance. As a fan remarked the day Agassi played his last match: "I would pay to watch that guy hit a ball against a wall. And I don't even like tennis that much."

7. Mansour Bahrami

He was blessed with both an artist's instinct and a preposterous amount of native talent. The source of sorcery is no mystery: During his prime years, tennis was banned in his native Iran; so he improvised, playing with implements like dustpans and Ping-Pong paddles. (If you can maneuver a ball with a dustpan, you can do it with a racket.) Monsieur Mansour escaped to France in the mid-'80s and, while his prime years were squandered, he's been thrilling fans at exhibitions and seniors' events ever since.

6. Venus and Serena Williams

As a rule, we try not to conflate the two siblings, but we'll do it here. For as many times as we've heard the narrative, this remains the most amazing story in sports. Imagine if Tiger Woods had a comparably talented sibling. Plenty is made of the sisters' athleticism, but their instincts and unrivaled fighting spirit serve them just as well. And no player has moved more gracefully on grass than Venus.

5. Justine Henin

The petite Belgian had one of the most complete games in the sport's history. Her zinging one-handed backhand inspired the drooling but it was a diversified portfolio of shots (and competitive fire) that enabled her to win seven major titles. A shame she's not still out there.

4. John McEnroe

Like most geniuses, he marched (if that's even the right tense) to a beat that few others heard. But what a joy to watch Mac. The improvisation, the volleying, the lefty game -- and if it came with a tantrum, so much the better.

3. Roger Federer

A stylist's stylist, he is capable of hitting every shot in the book -- and a good many that aren't in the annotated appendix. Everyone has a favorite Federer "wow" shot (here's ours). At a time when tennis was dismissed as a robotic ace-a-thon, Federer came along and, funny, you don't hear that critique anymore.

2. Suzanne Lenglen

Though she played her last match in the 1930s, what fun she must have been. Every image depicts Lenglen floating in midair, elegantly brushing the ball, her skirt trailing behind her like a rudder as she won Olympic gold medals, Wimbledon titles and dozens of other tournaments. Nicknamed "La Divine" (The Divine) by the French press, Lenglen was a diva before it became all but an occupational requirement in women's tennis. (She gets bonus points for her habit of sipping cognac on changeovers.)

1. Fabrice Santoro Not for nothing is this creative Frenchman nicknamed the Magician. Though he stands under 6 feet and serves with less wattage than most women, he's made a career (and countless fans) slicing and dicing, lobbing and dinking, playing tennis with a unique perspective. This, alas, is the 36-year-old's last year on tour. So catch him while you can.

Agree or disagree with Wertheim's selections? Weigh in here.

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