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Steve Flink: Best Ever Debate Reframed By Tennis Channel

3/25/2012 11:00:00 PM

To view the Top 100 List click here

by Steve Flink

Who among us doesn’t relish animated discussions about the best ever in any sport? It is an absorbing exercise of the mind, a chance to make an informed judgment on the relative skills and records of the greatest ever to play a particular game, and an opportunity to suspend time and envision how the finest players would have fared against each other in some kind of imaginary time warp. Debates about the towering figures in any sport—and where they belong on the ladder of history—have always been simultaneously compelling and maddening; everyone who takes a stance is convinced that he or she must be on the right side of the argument, and yet no one can be demonstrably proven wrong.

Tennis Channel admirably stirred the embers of debate this past week when they ran a compelling five part series on the “100 Greatest of All-Time” in our sport. They went to a panel of worldwide experts in the game and had us do our separate rankings on the hundred greatest tennis players ever to lift a racket. The challenge of making those selections was compounded, however, because we were asked to rank the men and women combined in one list. To the best of my knowledge, no one has ever attempted to do a comparative evaluation of the men and women together.

The task was so arduous and fascinating that I spent days on end determining my top 100. Undoubtedly, the many others who served on the ranking panel labored just as long as I did. I am sure there were a considerable number of people involved in the process who shared my view that Tennis Channel could have stuck with the traditional concept of separating the men from the women. I felt that the top 100 should have been a countdown of the 50 best men and the 50 best women, side by side, show after show. They still would have had the top 100 tennis players of all time housed under one television roof, but that way we would have been judging Rod Laver against Roger Federer, rather than sizing up where Laver belonged in comparison to Steffi Graf, or how Federer’s record and career measured up versus Martina Navratilova.

From my standpoint, that would have been the most sensible way to go: to rank the men and women separately, yet still make it a top 100 list. After all, we can picture Pete Sampras playing Rafael Nadal, or Bjorn Borg facing Novak Djokovic. We can wonder how Chris Evert would fare against Maria Sharapova, or assess how Serena Williams might have gone about playing Margaret Court. We can make judgments on where these men’s and women’s competitors stand historically, based on their records in the majors and Davis/Fed Cup, on their longevity, on their range of achievements. It may not be easy to judge the relative merits of great players from different generations, but it has been done.

Tennis Channel stepped out of the box, travelled into unchartered territory, and asked the game’s authorities to think along different lines. In the end, the results were remarkable. In the final tally, 62 men and 38 women made the top 100. That is a considerable difference. And yet, in the all-important top ten, the scales were balanced evenly: five men and five women made the grade. Roger Federer finished at No. 1, Rod Laver came in at No. 2, Steffi Graf was stationed at No. 3, Martina Navratilova garnered the No. 4 spot, Sampras stood at No. 5, with Nadal (No. 6), Borg (No. 7), Margaret Court (No. 8), Chris Evert (No. 9) and Billie Jean King (No. 10) rounding out the esteemed top ten.

That is a very distinguished collection of formidable players at the top. None of those estimable people could legitimately be labeled as unworthy of top ten status. They are all prodigious champions. It is a sterling cast of dynamic individuals and accomplished competitors, encompassing different eras. In turn, it is fittingly diversified in terms of nationalities. In that top ten, there are two Australians (Laver and Court), four Americans (King, Evert, Sampras and Navratilova), one Swede (Borg), one Spaniard (Nadal), one German (Graf), and one Swiss (Federer). Navratilova, of course, grew up in Czechoslovakia before becoming an American citizen in the early 1980’s.

If I have one qualm about the top ten, it is this: eight of the players are products of the “Open Era” that commenced in 1968, while King and Court are crossover competitors who started winning majors earlier in the sixties during their amateur days, and then played on magnificently into the following decade, especially in the early-to-mid seventies. I wish that some of the game’s standouts from earlier eras had been represented in that top ten. On my list, I had the same top five in a different order, with Federer at No. 1, Graf at No. 2, Sampras at No. 3, Laver at No. 4, and Navratilova at No. 5. But I put Evert at No. 6, Jack Kramer at No. 7, Helen Wills Moody Roark at No. 8, Bill Tilden at No. 9, and Court at No. 10. Kramer was “Mr. Tennis”, winning three majors in 1946 and 1947, then dominating pro tennis for five years.

Wills Moody took her 19 singles majors between 1923 and 1938 and was almost invincible. She was ranked No. 29 by the overall panel, which strikes me as much too low. Tilden captured his ten majors between 1921 and 1930 and was a master of stroke production and a tactical wizard. He finished—probably unfairly—at No. 16 on the Tennis Channel list.

I believe that an all-time list of great male and female players should include the giants of the twenties, thirties, forties and fifties in the upper regions of the top ten, but many of the other voters clearly disagreed. In my view, the two primary injustices among the panel concerned the status of Kramer and Pancho Gonzales. Kramer was ranked No. 34 while Gonzales is No. 35. As I pointed out, I had Kramer on my list among the top ten, and Gonzales at No. 16. That is a big disparity. The guess here is that a good many voters saw that Gonzales won only two Grand Slam singles events while Kramer collected three, and they did not recognize that both men were gigantic achievers in pro tennis when they were barred from the Grand Slam events during the heart of their primes. Both would have taken at least ten more majors had they been eligible to compete at those events during their salad days. I was sorry to see them relegated to their spots in the mid-thirties. Having either one of them outside the top 20 is baffling to me.

Another surprise was Arthur Ashe at No. 28. I was one of his most ardent admirers, and I watched many Ashe matches at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open as a young reporter in the making across the late sixties and on through the seventies. Ashe was heroic, larger than the game in many ways, cerebral and dignified, a man of considerable stature. He won the first U.S. Open in 1968 with style and panache, took the Australian Open a couple of years later, and won Wimbledon majestically with a strategic masterpiece against Jimmy Connors in the 1975 final. He was a great tennis player, and an even more impressive man. But how he ended up ahead of Kramer, Gonzales, Lew Hoad (No. 32), John Newcombe (No. 31) and Tony Trabert (No. 50) is beyond me. I ranked Ashe at No. 51, which I believed was a more accurate reflection of where he belonged among the great men and women of history. Perhaps in the case of Ashe—and Billie Jean King as well—others put more stock than I did in the “intangibles” that was considered a part of our criteria. These two icons transcended tennis.

I could list a few more grievances, including the omission of Nancy Richey, the unwavering Texan who made it to No. 2 in the world, spent 16 years among the American top ten, and secured two major singles titles. She surely deserved a home in the top 100.

And yet, the fact remains this was an entirely worthwhile endeavor. None of us looks at rankings the same way; there is always ample room for disagreement, and many tough judgment calls to make. The nature of all ranking lists done by human beings is that they are made to be disputed and sometimes disparaged by other judges. Tennis Channel understood that central point, but they are to be commended for their audacity and for being so innovative in creating a unique concept. The rankings have thoroughly captured the imagination of the tennis public. Every night last week from March 19-23, the station aired their top 100 with one hour shows. On the first evening, the players ranked No. 100 down to No. 71 were unveiled. The next night, they covered No. 70 to No. 41. With sixty players having been revealed, the last two nights were stirring. On the penultimate evening, the group from No. 20 down to No. 11 was featured, and what a scintillating cast that was: Ken Rosewall at No. 20, Monica Seles No. 19, Ivan Lendl No. 18, Roy Emerson No. 17, Bill Tilden No. 16, Jimmy Connors No. 15, Serena Williams No. 14, John McEnroe No. 13, Andre Agassi No. 12, and Don Budge at No. 11.

That led us to the Friday evening show, and the dramatic rundown of the top ten, all the way from King to Evert to Court, Borg to Nadal to Sampras, Navratilova to Graf to Laver, and right on to the top with Mr. Federer. I have friends who believe Graf should have been accorded the honor of being No. 1. Others think Laver deserved preeminence, while some favored Sampras or Navratilova for the top spot. That is what made it all so enjoyable. Every member of that top five was an authentic candidate for No. 1. In the end, Federer’s record took him past the others and justifiably to the very top. Is that debatable? Of course it is, but Federer’s numbers are so extraordinary that the view here is he fully deserves the distinction. I believe that even those who did not place him at No. 1 would agree that he is—at the very least—worthy of strong consideration.

Across those five entertaining evenings as we watched the countdown of the top 100 of all time, the viewers had five excellent hosts to guide us through the windows of tennis history. The first host was the redoubtable Jack Nicklaus, arguably the greatest golfer of all time. Renowned football player Jerry Rice took over the role the following night. Next up were track star Carl Lewis, and then basketball standout Lisa Leslie. On the last evening of the series, Wayne Gretzky—perhaps the best hockey player ever—was a first rate host.

In the final analysis, the top 100 extravaganza was a sparkling celebration of the sport’s most accomplished individuals. It was a time to reflect on the greatness of champions who enriched tennis not simply by showing up but by enduring. It was five appealing nights to examine many of the foremost individuals ever to play tennis. Arguments among fans and players about the concept will linger, but the view here is that the Tennis Channel Top 100 of All Time was a major triumph for all of us.