Kings of the Court, Tennis Channel’s showcase of 11 men’s singles matches played between 1975 and 2017, is a wonderful way to see both how the game has evolved and the ways greatness remains constant. Joel Drucker describes three macro concepts revealed by these matches:
What Makes The Pros The Pros
Henman reached the semifinals of his home Slam four times. (Getty Images)
Though my Tennis Channel colleague Paul Annacone is most known for his coaching work with Pete Sampras and Roger Federer, one of Paul’s most profound insights came when he told me about a lesser-known charge of his, Tim Henman. As Annacone dug into the nuances of Henman’s playing style, he explained a very powerful idea: At the lower levels of the game, you look for ways to minimize errors. But when you’re talking about big-time professional tennis, it’s vital to maximize offense. In other words, how do you put yourself in a position to hit your particular set of forceful shots?
Again and again in the Kings of the Court matches, we see how these champions do precisely that. For all the newfound mastery of the off-pace that Arthur Ashe displayed when he dismantled Jimmy Connors in the 1975 Wimbledon final, note how frequently Ashe deployed his superb wide slice serve in the deuce court. Then there’s Boris Becker, well aware that for all his flirtations with baseline play, when it mattered most in a pair of Australian Open finals, he needed to put those notions aside and charge forward. Or Sampras, always aware of his assets, cracking sharp forehands, crisp volleys and, of course, big serves on the way to a career-ending win at the 2002 US Open. And then there’s Goran Ivanisevic, Wimbledon’s Sisyphus, tossing up the ball and striking that massive lefty serve in his dramatic 2001 Wimbledon final versus Patrick Rafter. Ditto for righty Andy Roddick at the 2003 US Open. To extend the Annacone insight, it’s not going for it if you own it. Hit the shot you’ve been trained to hit (and as these matches demonstrate, time spent improving the serve is worth every minute).
At Last, Wonder from Down Under
Chief rivals and compatriots Sampras and Agassi battled for the 1995 Aussie Open crown. (Getty Images)
Well into the ‘80s, the Australian Open was by far the shallowest, least significant of the majors. As recently as 1982, the highest-ranked player entered in the tournament was world No. 12 Johan Kriek. Andre Agassi had been a pro for nearly a decade before he first played the tournament in 1995.
But as King of the Courts shows, over the last quarter-century, the Australian Open has blossomed into a sparkling showcase all its own. In the heat of an Australian summer, on a surface that rewards all-court play, it’s delightful to see the Melbourne-based matches featured on Kings of the Court. Sampras’ ’95 quarterfinal win over Jim Courier included great rallies and a rare glimpse into the Sampras soul. That year’s final between Agassi and Sampras—won by Agassi after a suspense-filled third set—greatly advanced the plot line of their rivalry. And the 2017 final sparked a new phase in the life and backhand of Roger Federer.
Connors after his 1982 Wimbledon victory. (Getty Images)
Of all the matches featured on Kings of the Court, none has more personal meaning to me than the 1982 Wimbledon final starring John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors.
For a good deal of my teens, I lived and died whenever Connors took to the court. In September 1978, two weeks before I started college, Connors on consecutive days beat McEnroe and Bjorn Borg to win the US Open. It was the 11th time Connors had played a Grand Slam singles final. But over the precise duration of my years in college, not once did Connors go that far, a series of frustrating Slam runs that included three losses apiece to Borg and McEnroe.
In the summer of 1982, two weeks after my graduation, Connors at last made it to another major final. Over the course of four hours and 16 minutes, it was agony and ecstasy as Connors sought to win a second Wimbledon versus a younger, fiery lefthander who’d overtaken him. There were numerous shifts in momentum, a few potentially fatal ebbs caused by Connors serving 13 double-faults (Jimbo at last seeking to beef up his delivery) and, through it all, the eternally combative tussle of Connors’ great return versus McEnroe’s fantastic serve-volley attack. In the end, it proved as thrilling and redemptive as any tennis match I’ve ever seen.
1975 Wimbledon Final: Ashe vs. Connors
1996 Australian Open Final: Becker vs. Michael Chang
2003 US Open Final: Roddick vs. Juan Carlos Ferrero
1982 Wimbledon Final: Connors vs. McEnroe
1995 Australian Open Final: Agassi vs. Sampras
1991 Australian Open Final: Becker vs. Ivan Lendl
2000 Wimbledon Final: Sampras vs. Rafter
1995 Australian Open Quarterfinal: Sampras vs. Courier
2001 Wimbledon Final: Ivanisevic vs. Rafter
2002 US Open Final: Sampras vs. Agassi
2017 Australian Open Final: Federer vs. Rafael Nadal