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Tennis

A look at Tennis Channel's Top 100

You know you're having an awkward day when you scoff at a tribute to Arthur Ashe, so here's a hint: refrain. Instead of getting all worked up over Tennis Channel's Top 100 players, enjoy this project for what it is: a fun, entertaining and extremely informative exercise.

Throughout the five-hour series last week, TC counted down the list, starting from the rear. I enjoyed watching it that way -- as opposed to seeing the complete list beforehand -- so I could ask myself, Was that person really better than the last? Some of the rankings were, to put it mildly, appalling. But you never get clear-cut answers in endeavors of this kind. I was left with the satisfaction of learning a great deal about the sport, particularly the players from long-ago eras.

Noted historian Joel Drucker, who frequently works for TC but was not extensively involved in the production, told me that he's "never seen a Tennis Channel show generate more dialogue. Over the last few days, I've heard from numerous Grand Slam champions, coaches, instructors and recreational players all over the country -- each sparked by the show to raise questions and offer opinions."

To be sure, there was outrage. The reputable Tim Joyce wrote that the project was "idiotic," that it "takes things to new heights of the absurd," that it's "an insult to both genders" to combine them on the list, and that it's always an "irrelevant and lazy journalistic exercise" to even ponder such a thing.

Bud Collins, perhaps the most valued contributor to the project, wasn't too wild about the idea at first. "I thought, 'This is just silly. I'm not going to do that,' " he said by telephone on Monday. "I had a very difficult time making my own list. But when I saw the show, I realized it's really good. There's a lot of classic footage in there, and here we are, arguing about it. I think that's the reaction they wanted."

It doesn't take an expert like Collins, Drucker or Steve Flink to realize that the selection of Ashe at No. 28 -- well ahead of Jack Kramer (34) and Pancho Gonzalez (35), among others -- is simply wrong. "If you want to talk about cultural significance, that's one thing," Drucker said. "But Arthur Ashe would politely walk out of his grave to say he wasn't better than Kramer. And he would jump out of his grave to say he wasn't better than Pancho. Just to put him ahead of a peer, John Newcombe [31], can be proved empirically false."

Still, Drucker said, "That's not how I treated this thing. We're talking about the pure fun and entertainment value of viewing tennis history. The best part of the show is hearing players talk about the greats of other eras, like Roger Federer talking about Rod Laver. I thought the show was wonderfully paced, with a great array of footage and voices and deft use of music."

Throughout the series, we hear incisive commentary from the esteemed: Collins, Flink, John Barrett, Richard Evans, Scott Price, Jon Wertheim, Chris Clarey, Neil Harman, Pete Bodo, Steve Tignor, Bill Macatee, Ted Robinson and dozens of legendary players. If there's one complaint about the footage -- especially the classic, seldom-seen clips from the 1920s through the pre-Open era -- it's that it rushes by too quickly, perhaps just two or three seconds at a time. I found myself wanting lengthy exposure of Little Bill Johnston's primitive but groundbreaking topspin forehand, Lew Hoad's commanding presence, Baron Gottfried von Cramm in any context (especially if you read A Terrible Splendor), Helen Jacobs' choppy forehand motion or Suzanne Lenglen's veritable ballet on court. In the manner of a Ken Burns documentary -- in which still photographs quite nearly come to life -- I wanted to dwell on the formidable, intriguing faces of Bunny Austin, Norman Brookes, Ellsworth Vines, Tony Wilding, Maria Bueno and Alice Marble.

Still, I felt thoroughly enlightened by it all. Some notes taken along the way:

99. Ann Haydon Jones: She was always in terrific shape, and Billie Jean King revealed that "she practiced with Ken Rosewall almost every day for a year" before the 1969 Wimbledon, when she beat Margaret Court and King to win the title.

97. Pat Cash: He was a brash, irreverent sort, but he admitted that Court was one of his role models and that "I copied her backhand."

92.Svetlana Kuznetsova and No. 87 Mary Pierce: Surprised to see them in such august company. Each had the occasional breakthrough, but they are largely synonymous with regret. Thanks to Flink for pointing out an omission on the women's side: Nancy Richey, a mainstay of the early women's tour and a two-time major winner.

88. Amelie Mauresmo: Great to see her included. She faced the maddening obstacle of skepticism over an openly gay woman on tour, and with one of the most elegant games ever seen, she won two majors and ascended to No. 1 in the world.

86. Tony Wilding: I'd barely heard of the man, but he won four consecutive Wimbledons (1910-13), revolutionized the topspin backhand and (thanks to Richard Evans) we learn that he was killed in the trenches during World War I.

80. Marat Safin: Tremendously endearing character, but his was a career unfulfilled, and he shouldn't rank ahead of Johnston (No. 90), who had a fierce and often successful rivalry with Bill Tilden in the 1920s while teaming with Tilden on seven straight titles by the U.S. Davis Cup team.

74. Tony Roche: There he is, winning yet another point at the net in doubles. "Definitely the best left-handed backhand volley of all time," said John Newcombe, his partner in 12 major titles. What a fine distinction -- although some would favor John McEnroe.

70. Pat Rafter: Won two U.S. Open titles during the prime of Pete Sampras. It's no secret that Sampras badly wanted those titles, and he tells TC, "Pat played that attacking game that I never really liked."

64. Ellsworth Vines: To me, one of the most captivating figures in history. There was a time, in the 1930s, when he dominated both Tilden and Don Budge. He was a wondrous, natural athlete, and he made an effortless transition to golf, leaving behind tennis altogether.

62. Hana Mandlikova: Solid recognition for one of the most talented players I ever had the pleasure of watching. Ahead of Maria Sharapova (71)? Absolutely. For pure athleticism and shotmaking, there's no comparison. She did win four majors and drew great praise from Martina Navratilova, although Martina mentioned a crucial element: "Sometimes her head would get in the way."

58. Alice Marble: Flink paid her the highest compliment, saying, "She was the first female player to play like a man." Her serve-and-volley style was revolutionary in the 1930s, and Marble was about so much more than tennis. She was an avid supporter of Althea Gibson during the days of bitter desegregation in the 1950s, and she was an able, honored government spy during World War II.

55. Gustavo Kuerten: All sorts of style, couldn't have been more charming, will always be remembered for his one-handed topspin backhand. Also did all of his best work on clay. To be ranked ahead of Vines? Somehow, that doesn't register.

50. Tony Trabert: Before Michael Chang (No. 100) came along in 1989, no U.S. man had won the French Open since Trabert (twice) in the mid-1950s. The notion remains daunting for American players to this day, and as Bodo noted, "Pete Sampras couldn't beat anybody" at the French.

39. Althea Gibson: Her courage and influential status seem largely forgotten. Breaking through to the elite in those difficult times, she became the first African-American of either sex to win a major -- and she won the Wimbledon-U.S. Open double in consecutive years (1957-58), a magnificent achievement.

38. Maria Bueno: To hear the raves about her accomplishments, it's remarkable she gets so little recognition. The supremely athletic Brazilian won seven majors, and Flink insists that she was "almost on a par with King and Court as a player."

35. Pancho Gonzalez. Good thing he's no longer with us. Heaven help anyone who tells him he's the 35th-best player of all time. I was just a kid, but I did see him play, on the pro circuit in Los Angeles, and his was a riveting, fiery presence that stays with me to this day. Most historians have him among the top 10 men of all time, if not within the top five.

34. Jack Kramer: Strange relegation for perhaps the most influential man in tennis history. His relentlessly attacking style changed the game and made him the best player in the world in the late 1940s. "I had him at No. 7," Flink wrote in his analytical piece on TennisChannel.com. "He was 'Mr. Tennis,' winning three majors and then dominating pro tennis for five years." Kramer also started the men's pro tour and helped found the ATP Tour, always looking out for the players' best interests.

32. Lew Hoad: So often, the old films make the players look comically antiquated, as if they're playing a different sport. Hoad's style and presence leap off the screen; you want to put him on court with Federer right now, each man in his prime. Laver said he patterned his game after Hoad's, and that only injuries and a lack of motivation held him back. The moody Hoad, said Laver, "just didn't feel like tennis was that important to him."

29. Helen Wills Moody: That's awfully low for someone who won 19 singles majors between 1923 and 1938.

24. Suzanne Lenglen: We've all heard the stories about her charisma, flowing on-court movements and a tendency to sip brandy at the changeovers. I didn't realize how virtually unbeatable she was in the 1920s, and she was a titanic figure in the popularization of tennis, particularly in England. She deserves this slot.

23. Fred Perry: There he is, athletically leaping over the net in triumph. This was once a fairly common practice in tennis; what happened? "I think it sort of became known as hot-dogging," Collins said, "and nobody wanted to be connected with that. The last I remember was Laver, when he completed his Grand Slam in 1969, and he said later he didn't know why he did it. He was kind of ashamed of himself."

20. Ken Rosewall: "He was called 'Muscles'," Collins said, "because he didn't have any." I was particularly taken by Collins' almost misty-eyed recollections of Rosewall, the man who seemed to play forever and owned the most beautiful one-handed backhand in the game's history. "Little Kenny Rosewall," Collins said. "He is just about at the top of my list." (For the record, Collins' top picks were Laver and Navratilova.)

19. Monica Seles: Here's where the visual element of this project -- specifically one still photograph of Seles -- proved so rewarding. It shows the young Monica with a brilliant smile on her face, and that's always how we saw her in press conferences after her best (pre-stabbing) matches. She'd been out there fighting like a wounded animal, just crushing her opponents, and then we'd see this giggling, almost childlike girl who seemed to find it all quite amusing. Lindsay Davenport called Seles "really the first player to be so aggressive with the return, looking to attack and being so accurate at the same time." And a telling comment from Clarey: "The two greatest competitors I've ever seen in any sport: Michael Jordan and Monica Seles."

17. Roy Emerson: From the standpoint of pure tennis and charisma, the kind that puts people in the stands, it's difficult to see Emerson ranked ahead of fellow Aussies Hoad, Newcombe and Rosewall. But the show makes a pretty good case, pointing to Emerson's much-admired fitness and, of course, the fact that his 12 major titles marked the men's record until Sampras came along.

12. Andre Agassi: Proper due is given to Agassi's second life in tennis, how he brought the best out of Sampras and his incredible hand-eye coordination ("best pure ball striker I've ever been around," Jim Courier said). I don't quite understand how he's ranked ahead of Tilden (16), Jimmy Connors (15) or McEnroe (13). And I know I'm not alone.

The top 10: At this point, every candidate sounds worthy of the "best ever" tag. I especially enjoyed Chris Evert's recollection that when she retired, at No. 4 in the world in October, 1989, "The three players ahead of me were Martina, Steffi and Monica," the last of whom would in fact crack the top 3 in early 1990. (Now that's a pro tour.) I tried to fathom the notion of Graf's winning each of the majors four times, and it's eternally fascinating that in the wake of Navratilova's game-changing career -- an absolute triumph of athleticism, physical strength and all-court play -- she set such a lofty standard that ensuing generations didn't even attempt to replicate her game.

Finally, it was a pleasure to watch the film clips of Laver's hitting miraculous shots in his prime, something I well remember from watching Wimbledon telecasts and seeing him in person in the 1960s. Since World War II, he's really the only man without a blemish. Federer can't beat Rafael Nadal, Bjorn Borg never won the U.S. Open, the amateurs-only rule stifled Kramer and Gonzalez, and the French Open eluded Sampras, McEnroe and Connors. Laver won the Grand Slam as an amateur, spent five years unable to play the majors, then came back and won the Slam again in 1969.

That's why I always have trouble placing anyone ahead of Laver. Then again, I could be wrong. Long live this spirited conversation.

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