Tennis' best era elevates game, prompts historian to rewrite book
By the time I finished Steve Flink's account of the Suzanne Lenglen-Helen Wills match, a classic of the early 20th century, I wondered if somehow he'd been there, drifting back in time. Such is the detail and craftsmanship of "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time," Flink's latest exploration into the sport's rich history.
If the title sounds familiar, it's your recollection of Flink's "The Greatest Tennis Matches of the 20th Century," published in December of 1999. As the new century evolved into an especially memorable era, Flink felt compelled to update his project.
"So many great players emerged, some of them just coming along when the first book came out," he said in a telephone interview. "There was no Serena Williams in the first book, no Justine Henin, no Jennifer Capriati, and above all, no Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic. I felt that once 10 years had elapsed, with so many great matches in play, it was time."
Flink expanded the list to 30 matches, and it's actually 31, in deference to Arthur Ashe's stunning upset of Jimmy Connors at the 1975 Wimbledon. The scoreline wasn't particularly dramatic (6-1, 6-1, 5-7, 6-4), but Ashe's win carried so much historical significance, Flink placed it in a tie for 30th with a Fred Perry-Ellsworth Vines classic in 1937, Perry prevailing in that year's opening of the professional tour at Madison Square Garden.
It's the latter match that, to me, capsulizes the book's appeal. It's not terribly surprising to see Nadal-Federer (2008 Wimbledon) and John McEnroe-Bjorn Borg (1980 Wimbledon) at the top of the list; most every critic would lean that way. Flink goes the extra mile with some relatively obscure matches that showcased the greatest players of their time.
My personal favorite, ranked 20th: Pancho Gonzales defeating Lew Hoad, 3-6, 4-6, 14-12, 6-1, 6-4 in the final of the 1958 U.S. Pro Championships in Cleveland. Thanks to my father's keen eye, I had the good fortune of watching both players in the mid-1950s when the pro tour stopped in Los Angeles (the old Sports Arena). The images stayed with me for a lifetime, and I've always been gratified to hear seasoned observers include those two among their all-time Top 10.
Along those lines, Flink also included the Jack Kramer-Don Budge semifinal of the 1948 U.S. Pro Championships at Forest Hills. "I didn't want to see eras get lost," he explained. "So often during that period (because professionals were banned from Grand Slam events), the best tennis was
A number of tennis experts are put off by the idea of comparing eras, and without question, serious complications arise in terms of equipment and the general pace of play. It's difficult to imagine Bill Tilden taking the court with a wooden racket to face Pete Sampras and his Wilson Pro Staff. For Flink -- and I couldn't agree more -- it's a matter of character and athleticism.
"If you put Jack Kramer on the court today, he'd make the adjustments and be a great player," said Flink. "So would Gonzales, and so many others. With their mental toughness, they would find a way to impose themselves. You have to look at the impact players had in their era. Kramer's case is a bit like Sandy Koufax: a five-year stretch where he played as well as anybody ever has. Gonzales was the more enduring figure, covering a 20-25-year span. In 1970, when Gonzales turned 41, he beat Rod Laver twice (Laver had won the Grand Slam the previous year). That, to me, is the classic example. People should not be so quick to say that today's champions are better."
Flink feels the same way about Serena Williams, now widely labeled the greatest female player in history. "I do think that Serena's performance at the Olympics was the highest technical level we've ever seen from her," he said. "But some of the past greats were champions of a higher order than anyone she's playing right now. I think Steffi Graf, especially, would have done very well against her, with the athleticism, the speed, and a sliced backhand I think would give Serena problems. Margaret Court was a great attacking player, imperturbable, like all the great Australians. So that argument -- Martina (Navratilova) and Chris (Evert) included -- is not so clear-cut. People shouldn't be so quick to assume that nobody in history could have stayed with her."
Serena's match in the rankings falls at No. 23: her 2-6, 7-5, 8-6 victory over Maria Sharapova in the semifinals of the 2005 Australian Open. A number of greats are cited twice, and "I decided that no more than two matches should be chosen from the career of any one player," he writes. "I did not want the book to be too heavily slanted toward a particular champion of either gender. Drawing the line at two matches was a sensible solution."
Flink makes a stirring case for Lenglen-Wills, contested on a clay court in Cannes, France, in 1926, as the No. 3 match of all time. I'll let readers savor the results of Flink's extensive research, particularly regarding the anticipation of this match, but it proved to be a rare confluence of events. "It's remarkable that the two of them played just that one time," he said. "You'd have thought they faced each other at Wimbledon or Forest Hills, at the very least, but their paths never crossed."
Placed at No. 25 on the list, and deservedly so, is Maria Bueno's conquest of Court (then Margaret Smith) at the 1964 Wimbledon. "Bueno was such a joy to watch," Flink said in the interview. "Probably the most elegant woman I ever saw. Margaret was the better player, but Maria was such an artist; the crowds always gasped. The closest I ever saw to Maria was Evonne Goolagong. The galleries were just enraptured. They never knew what was coming next."
Although Flink breaks down key points in great detail, I took the greatest pleasure in his exploration of the scene, the buildup, the players' careers to that point, and exactly what was at stake in each great match. Just as Tennis Channel's recent ranking of the all-time Top 100 provided priceless historical background, Flink's book shines in the realm of context, with some endearing photos along the way. (The shot chosen of Evert, grim-faced as she awaits serve, says more about her career than any snapshot of that two-handed backhand.)
In his desire to expand on his original project, Flink listed 30 additional matches in the Honorable Mention category, updated his lists of the Top 10 players of all time, and broke down the Top 5 in terms of strokes: first serve, second serve, return of serve, forehand, backhand, forehand volley, backhand volley, overhead, lob, and passing shot, with an extra category for mental toughness. This can be tricky business, especially considering the radical evolution of rackets, but such issues are well worth discussion.
Controversy? Flink gladly extends an invitation. For instance, he leaves McEnroe out of his Top 10, placing Connors and Andre Agassi in a tie for 10th, just behind Budge and Gonzales. "That was a very tough call," he said. "I didn't particularly like leaving Ivan Lendl out, either. But when it came to eliminating Connors or Agassi, I just couldn't see it. I went for Connors' long run of consistency, unparalleled in the men's game at that level. With Agassi, whom I hadn't even considered in the first book, it was winning all four majors, plus many more accomplishments in his late-career resurgence. There's no question that McEnroe between the ages of 19 and 25 was spectacular. But to me, four U.S. Opens and three Wimbledons wasn't enough. He could and should have accomplished more. I feel he didn't do justice to his talent.
"The thing that hurts Lendl is that he never won Wimbledon," Flink went on. "I think you have to win it somewhere along the line. That would have changed Ivan's entire place in history. Yes, Lendl reached eight U.S. Open finals in a row, but the problem was, he lost five of the eight. He was always in the thick of things, but in my mind he lost too many big matches."
When it comes to the Best Strokes section, Flink is right up to date. He ranks John Isner in a tie with Federer for No. 5 in the first-serve category, and he rates Samantha Stosur's second serve the best of all time, writing, "Her ad-court second serve is almost unanswerable, bounding high and deep to the backhand, making life miserable for her adversaries, even those with extraordinary two-handed backhand returns."
And if you're up for nostalgia, there's always the section on volleys. "In neither list (men or women) do I have a modern player," he said. "Venus has a pretty nice conventional volley; Serena really doesn't, although she can hit the swing volley. None of them hit conventional volleys like Jana Novotna, or Louise Brough, or Martina or Billie Jean (King). I find today's tennis highly appealing, but the lack of volleying is a drawback. String and racket technology has discouraged too many players from approaching the net."
Flink gives extensive recognition to the career of Monica Seles, "a greatness too easily forgotten," he said. "I've got her ranked No. 1 on the return of serve, No. 2 on the backhand and No.4 on the forehand. She was so devastating in her prime, headed into the top three or four of all time without a doubt, if she could have kept going. She had such great depth and angles off the ground, and she was always just bearing down on you all the time. Historically, she gets short-changed."
That is the author's mission, to sort out the sport's finest treasures in a logical, clear-headed manner. Mr. Flink has succeeded mightily.