Debating the Debate

Wednesday, April 11, 2012 /by

JmThe Greatest of All Time debate: a well-established recipe for tedium, but irresistible nonetheless. The Tennis Channel was the latest media outfit to wade into it, with its ambitious, well made, and predictably controversial list of the Top 100, which ran a few weeks ago.

I feel whatever pain the creators of this program have experienced since then. Six years ago, for the 40th anniversary of Tennis magazine, we counted down our own list of the Top 40 Players of the last 40 years. When we ended up with Martina Navratilova at No. 2 and Steffi Graf at No. 3, I received an email about how we had made a “grave mistake,” and that the sport would never be the same because of it. People take it seriously.

Like Tennis Channel, we put men and women together, which is obviously tricky—how, exactly, do Pete Sampras’s 14 majors stack up against Steffi Graf’s 22?—and which a lot of people hated. But I like the uniform finality of a single list, even if you have to compare an apple to an orange now and then along the way.

But like everyone else, I had my issues with this one. Lendl below Connors? Agassi and Billie Jean ahead of Serena? Emmo ahead of Muscles? Thirty-four players ahead of Pancho Gonzalez? The latter judgement just shows that, along with the difficulty of combining men and women, there’s an even greater difficulty in simply comparing statistics across eras—Roger Federer is No. 1 primarily because of his Grand Slam total, yet for 20 years Gonzalez wasn’t even allowed to enter Grand Slams. If your primary criterion for greatness is only available to certain players on your list, you're in trouble.

What’s the alternative? Not to do it at all? That would have meant not seeing all of the archival footage that the Tennis Channel dug up, not learning about and imagining a fabled talent like Norman “The Wizard” Brookes of Australia, not hearing the opinions and assessments and memories of various legends and quasi-luminaries—not, in short, getting a rare chance to appreciate how rich the history of tennis is, and how much farther it goes back than many of us realize.

Looking at this 100 Greatest, two broad thoughts came to mind. First, the meaning of “tennis player” has changed in the last 40 years. Now, when we say "greatest," we mean the greatest singles player ever. Before the 1970s, the decade when the top men stopped dedicating themselves to doubles, a player’s greatness would likely have been a combination of his or her singles and doubles abilities. "Tennis,” in the total sense of the word.

Of course, you can’t go back in time, and if you include doubles in your criteria, you’ll end up slighting Federer, Borg, Graf, Lendl, Jimbo, and all of the recent greats who didn’t prioritize it. It would be hard not to make Margaret Court, with 62 total Grand Slams, the Goat. Still, I like the idea of thinking about a complete tennis player, of considering their ability to battle through physically and mentally grueling singles matches, and then turn around and have the skills—the serve, the hands, the volleys, the quick movements, the team leadership—to dominate in doubles as well. It adds dimensions to the sport, and what we expect from its players.

Two modern greats stick out in this regard, and their stock would rise even higher if doubles were part of the equation: John McEnroe, who won a nicely symmetrical 77 singles titles and 78 doubles titles; and Martina Navratilova, who won an ungodly 350-something total titles in singles, doubles, and mixed. Navratilova and McEnroe had plenty in common: Both are lefties, both were hotheaded and smart, both arrived as the sport was transitioning from amateur to pro, and both were blessed with speed, hands, and flashingly aggressive styles. They were great tennis players, in a pure sense of the word.

The second thought that comes to mind is that your own Top 10 or 20 list can say as much about you as it does about any player on it. I mention this because since TC’s 100 Greatest came out, two writer-historians, Richard Evans and Joel Drucker, have commented on it and offered their own more idiosyncratic choices. The results were illuminating.

For Drucker, it’s “sustained long-term excellence” that earns his respect. “Perhaps this is because all my life I’ve been more planner than crammer,” Drucker writes. “In college, my belief was that those who stayed up all night to crank out a paper were less concerned with sustainable learning and knowledge and more focused on a short-term goal. . . . So in that sense, I favor those who persistently ask things of themselves, who continually improve and therefore seek to endure.” He lists multi-decade champs like Navratilova, Evert, Rosewall, Sampras, and, of course, Joel’s hero, Jimmy Connors.

Which leaves me wondering, as it often does with tennis fans: Does Joel value Jimbo because he was enduring, or does he value endurance and longevity because he likes Jimbo? Does our choice of a favorite player happen because he or she fits some philosophy of life that we have always had? Or do we create a philosophy to justify the fact that we just really like this player and who knows why? I’m starting to think it's the latter—that inarticulate fandom comes first. Either way, what matters is that Drucker’s indentification with Connors has led him to create some of the best writing about what it means to be a tennis fan.

Evans, on Twitter, offered his own top-of-my-head Top 15, which went like this (I’ll leave it in the form of his tweet):

1 Fed 2 Hoad 3 Navratilova 4Laver 5 Rosewall 6 McEnroe 7 Seles 8Borg 9 Graf 10 Hingis 11Sampras 12 Kramer 13 Agassi 14 Court 15 Connors

Evans went on to say that he openly favored talent over titles. I love the individuality of his choices. Hingis over Sampras? Seles over Graf? Lew Hoad over everyone except Federer? No Pancho? Clearly, he went with his gut and didn’t apologize for it. What does it tell us about him? Perhaps, as an Englishman, in his privileging of talent, Evans carries more residual respect for something that's inherited than an American like Drucker does. Nature versus nuture—a debate beneath the debate.

Since Evans was willing to jot his Top 15 down off the top of his head, I’ll do the same with my own Top 6. Your first instinct, done in a blink, is usually your truest response, right? I'll limit mine to Open era, since I watched those players and can bring a personal response to it.

1. Federer—16 Slams, 23 straight Slam semis, domination for four straight years, and a blend of beauty and purpose, of the aesthetically pleasing and the useful, that I've never seen from any other player.

2. Navratilova—Six straight Slams, utter domination for five years, three-decade longevity, and the thought of the slashing, instinctive way that she moved toward the net.

3. Graf—All four majors at least four times, her fearsome desire to win, which never seemed satisfied, and a forehand that broke all the rules and was still one of the most important shots in history.

4. Laver—Two calendar-year Slams, and a hard, practical purity of form shot through with sudden explosiveness and flights of artistry.

5. McEnroe—There have been plenty of unique styles over the decades, but to my eyes McEnroe made contact with the ball differently from you, me, and everyone else.

6. Sampras—At his best, the closest to unbeatable that any player has ever been. Forget art and beauty—though he had both of them—Pete took the racquet out of your hand.

I guess this list tells you . . . that I identify with left-handed people.

Whenever these canonical countdowns are made, we hear that the best thing about them is that they spark discussion. That’s true, but I think tennis’s lists go past that. The fact that they're impossible to do in any absolute sense makes anyone’s personal choices as valid—or at least as potentially valid— as anyone else’s.

We shouldn’t say that we “can’t compare players from different eras." Subjectivity should be encouraged, because that's what makes these lists worthwhile—that's what allows us to engage and act out as fans, and to think seriously about what made certain players special. When we decide which legend we would "take" over another, we might even tell each other a little bit about ourselves.

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