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
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
Still, I felt thoroughly enlightened by it all. Some notes taken along the way:
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
That's why I always have trouble placing anyone ahead of Laver. Then again, I could be wrong. Long live this spirited conversation.