Book Club: The Greatests

Thursday, June 21, 2012 /by

The-greatest-tennis-matches-of-all-time-by-steve-flink-e1340043924362To tide everyone over until the Wimbledon draw tomorrow, we bring back the Book Club. Today I'm talking with author and tennis historian Steve Flink about the new edition of his book, The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time, which has just come out in hardback, and which will make a good summer read for tennis junkies of any age.

Steve, who has been covering tennis since 1972 and attending the U.S. Open since 1965, also writes a regular blog at the Tennis Channel's website. (Because of our dueling first names, I'm going to keep us on a more awkward, but necessary, last-name basis here.)

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TIGNOR: I was happy to see a new version of "The Greatest Matches," because, having your last one from 2000 at home, I wondered what you might make of the classics we've seen in the first decade of this century, especially between Nadal and Federer and Djokovic. And I see you've included them here; it must not have been easy to shoehorn the 6-hour Aussie Open final in there, but you did a good job of describing it nonetheless.

I'll start this conversation with an obvious, but still difficult question: What's your criteria? Each year here I wrap up the season with a list of my 10 best matches, with YouTube clips to go with them. I don't have any criteria that I could point to or write down. I just have a gut instinct about what the "best" were. It's some combination of drama, occasion, and quality of play.

How do you do it? I see that your No. 1 match of all time is Nadal-Federer 2008 Wimbledon (I agree), No. 2 is Borg-Mac 1980 Wimbledon (agree again, I think), and then your third is Lenglen-Wills at Cannes in 1926. That's a very different type of match, and "great" for different reasons, am I right?

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FLINK: My criteria for the greatest matches is essentially this: the contest must be between two great players, in an important setting (preferably in a Grand Slam event, Davis Cup or Fed Cup) and it should be a high caliber match. There were a number of important considerations. In my mind, most of the meetings had to be finals, because so much was riding on the outcomes. Furthermore, it was important to do justice to all of the great eras in tennis, to the dominant players who have emerged in every decade since the 1920's.
 
I wanted to make my selections very carefully. They are almost entirely from the majors, although there are some exceptions. For example, you mentioned the Wills-Lenglen match at Cannes in 1926. That was clearly not at a Grand Slam event, nor was it a contest at another prestigious setting. But it was the one and only head-to-head meeting between the two best female competitors of the first half of the twentieth century. I felt it had to rank awfully high for that reason. Another match that I chose along those lines was a relatively obscure battle between Jack Kramer and Don Budge at the U.S. Pro Championships at Forest Hills in 1948. The same reasoning applied there: Budge was the best player of the 1930’s, and Kramer was the finest of the 40s in my view. Here were two all time greats in a rare match against each other, and it went five sets. It was one of those hidden treasures that deserved special consideration.
 
To get to the heart of your question: yes, these matches can indeed be great for entirely different reasons. Arthur Ashe defeating Jimmy Connors in a four set final at Wimbledon in 1975 was included because it was a tactical masterpiece from Ashe, and one of the most celebrated contests of that decade. It was a major upset for Ashe and the only time he ever defeated Connors, who was the defending champion and the dominant force in the game. And yet, the vast majority of my matches are hard fought, high quality, very suspenseful confrontations between players who belong in lofty territory on the historical ladder of the sport. There were some tough judgment calls, but, in the end, I felt comfortable with all of my choices.

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TIGNOR: I like the fact that you write about some matches that most of us, even if we think we know our tennis history pretty well, would probably have never have heard about. One of my favorite chapters covers the match between Pancho Gonzalez and Lew Hoad from the U.S. Pro Championships in Cleveland in 1958—quite a clash of the titans. I didn’t even know the tournament had been played in Cleveland, only at Longwood. There’s a whole history of tennis, the pro years from, say 1948 to 1968, out there to be told.

Two new elements of this edition that I think a lot of fans will like are your lists of “best players ever” (men and women done separately) and best shots of all time. I’m guessing, since you made these lists, that you think it’s OK to compare players across eras. I think that while it may be technically impossible to match up, say, Suzanne Lenglen and Serena Williams, it’s still fun and fascinating to try, and our brains will naturally tend to do it anyway. And it certainly makes your book more interesting that you’ve gone ahead and made these judgments, because it gives the rest of us a chance to argue in our heads with you.

Let me bring up a couple of interesting choices you made: Sam Stosur has the greatest women’s second serve of all time, and Bjorn Borg, Pete Sampras, and Juan Martin del Potro are tied for No. 5 in the best forehand of all time list. That’s the thing when I look at your lists: It’s so hard to choose one great player’s strength over another’s. How, for instance, do you choose between Agassi’s, Connors’, and Djokovic’s returns?

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FLINK: I felt it was crucial to remind people of some of the more obscure yet surpassing matches between great players before Open Tennis arrived in 1968. That Gonzales-Hoad match was one of the hidden gems, as was Jack Kramer against Don Budge in 1948 at Forest Hills. To leave those out would have been a major omission on my part.
 
As for the rankings of the all time great players and the greatest strokes of all time sections, it's my belief that it is worth trying to compare the greats of different eras. As I pointed out in the book, the game keeps evolving, but I believe that a Kramer or Gonzales or Budge playing with the modern equipment and having the benefit of today's training techniques would do very well.
 
In my selections for the top five in the various stroke categories, I tried to be fair to all eras. In Stosur's case, I have never seen a woman hit such a biting, second serve kicker. I felt she belonged at the top. But in the men's backhand category, I put Budge at the top of the list. I have Federer at No. 1 for the forehand, but on the forehand volley, Kramer and John Newcombe were my top two.
 
How do you choose between Djokovic's return versus Connors or Agassi? These are all tough judgment calls that I based on what I have observed over a long period of time, and what I know as an historian. I can tell you this: I spent a lot of time making those difficult choices, and right up until publication I was constantly assessing an re-assessing. It was a lot of fun, but I also took it very seriously.

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TIGNOR: One more question, Steve. Speaking of your role as an historian, you've been watching tennis first hand, live, since the 1960s; what do you think of today's game? I see that you made Djokovic-Nadal's Australian Open final from this year your 7th best match of all time, so you don't seem to find baseline tennis boring or too one-dimensional. Was there a period when you enjoyed the play itself the most? Sometimes I think the 80s, despite not being remembered as fondly as the fashionable 70s, might have had the best mix of baseline and net-rushing tennis.

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FLINK: That's an excellent question. When I started going to these major tournaments in the 1960's, the serve-and-volley players were dominant because three of the four Grand Slam events were on grass. I enjoyed that era immensely. I thought the emergence of Connors and Borg was terrific for spectators in the mid-to-late seventies because they turned the game into more of a backcourrt spectacle with very different styles of play. And, of course, the two of them, along with Chris Evert, brought the two-handed backhand into prominence. In the 80's, I was astonished by Lendl's brute force off the ground. I would agree that the 80s gave us perhaps the best blend of styles with Lendl ushering in the new era style of building a game around a big serve and an inside out forehand, and Becker taking the serve-and-volley game to a new level of potency. I loved the 90s because it was so much fun to watch Sampras with his elegant attacking game facing the likes of Courier, Chang and, of course, Agassi. And yet, this modern cast of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray are all very compelling players to watch.
 
I have immensely enjoyed watching all of these eras. In the end, of course, it comes down to the best matchups, and we have had our share of those in every decade since the 60s. I believe the only drawback in today's highly appealing tennis is that the strings and rackets have given a distinct advantage to the baseline players and discouraged many of them from approaching the net more frequently. But I offer that as a minor criticism. All in all, the game keeps moving forward in an appealing way—at least the way I see it.

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