By Joel Drucker
The alpha and omega of understanding tennis is a firm grasp of what takes place between the lines. This is not to be taken lightly.Witness or hear of any tennis match, scrounge to find a cogent, thorough report of what happened and you will often be quite frustrated. When exactly was the pivotal breakpoint? What shots made the difference? Was he serving with a 4-1 lead? Who began serving in the decisive set? More pointedly, what tactics and decisions really dictated the flow of the match?
No one is better at answering all of these questions than Steve Flink. His new book, The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time
dives into the depths of 31 matches. From Bill Tilden to Rafael Nadal, Don Budge to Bjorn Borg, Helen Wills to Serena Williams, Flink dissects the tale of these matches with the precision of a Shakespeare scholar picking apart Hamlet. In casting his eye on the familiar with such depth – the Sampras serve, the Evert groundstrokes, the Budge backhand – Flink brings these subjects to life with exceptional richness and clarity.
“The burden was set for Sampras to renegotiate his authority,” writes Flink in his account of the 2001 US Open quarterfinal between Sampras and Andre Agassi. “Serving at 4-4, 40-30, he stuck with his pattern of attack, serving-and-volleying. He seemed set to make another deep and effective first volley, but surprisingly missed it long. The miscue allowed Agassi back to deuce. Sampras swiftly made amends, sending an ace up the middle at 127 miles per hour to get a second game point.”
Each match becomes its own drama, Flink tearing thousands of points out of the pages of history into living, breathing uncertainty. Justine Henin, repeatedly backed up the wall in her ’03 US Open semifinal against Jennifer Capriati. Budge, making a tactical change when down late in the fifth set of a ’37 Davis Cup match. Margaret Court and Billie Jean King, staggering through a Wimbledon final won by the visually-boggling score of 14-12, 11-9. Arthur Ashe, at last finding fulfillment with an upset win over Jimmy Connors in the 1975 Wimbledon final.
But this book offers much more than 31 discreet recounted tales (and another 30 honorable mentions recounted in a powerful compressed form). Each match story includes a prologue and epilogue that adds exceptional depth to understanding the strands connecting each player’s game and persona. Heading into that ’75 Wimbledon final, Ashe “had never fully explored or expanded his talent because his mind too frequently was far away from the confines of the court.” Maria Bueno “was at her core an artist. A fluid shotmaker who often played points spontaneously, she took great pleasure in being inventive and bold.” In the epilogue to the 1980 Borg-McEnroe Wimbledon final, Flink writes that McEnroe, “was not as comfortable occupying the lofty terrain of the best player in the world.”
Flink’s comprehensive view of tennis history creates a cumulative weight. In the course of reading each prologue, matchtale and epilogue, what emerges is an historic tapestry, a monumental mural akin to those that take up massive wall space in a museum. These are the tales of titans, in grand venues, on high stakes occasions, all amplified by clean, direct and powerful prose. Rarely will you encounter tennis history from such a global vantage point.
Nor will you absorb it with such intimacy. What Flink has captured in these pages is the telling moment, the subtle gesture and, most of all, this being tennis, the singular point. From the third-set tiebreaker of the 1976 US Open final between Jimmy Connors and Borg: “After fighting off four set points, Connors was level at 9-9 in the lengthy playoff. From behind the baseline, he sent a searing backhand crosscourt for a clean winner.”
It’s tempting to view Flink’s knowledge of the game as encyclopedic. But that hardly does this book justice. An encyclopedia is often built on data, on sheer volumes of information recounted in a rather clinical, detached fashion. Even the last two chapters are more than a numeric tally but instead a distinct bonus: Flink’s thoughts on the best strokes and his ranking of the greatest players in tennis history, covering everything from groundstrokes to mental toughness. Immerse yourself in any of these tales – for this book needn’t be read cover-to-cover – and you will find the heart and soul of our sport.
Joel Drucker has been involved with Tennis Channel since it hit the airwaves in 2003, initially as co-producer of the interview show “Center Court.” Subsequently he has been involved in dozens of the network’s activities, including work as story editor at all the Grand Slams and the production of numerous TC events