Make us your homepage


Steve Flink: A Pair of First Rate Tennis Books Hit the Market

5/4/2011 1:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

Tennis books devoted to history are not released all that frequently these days and yet two shining brand new ones have just come out from a pair of the sport’s preeminent writers. Within days, I received copies of Matt Cronin’s “Epic” (“John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg and The Greatest Tennis Season Ever”) and Steve Tignor’s “High Strung” (“Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe and the Untold Story of Tennis’s Fiercest Rivalry”). Cronin and Tignor are journalists of the highest order. Both men hail from the United States, know the game inside out, cover it year round, and fully appreciate the players who currently set the pace. Yet Tignor and Cronin are journalists with a keen sense of history, scribes who recognize the indispensable contributions of  former champions, writers of deep knowledge and sharp insights who know how to balance the past with the present as they observe a game that is ever evolving and redefining itself.

Where to start? Clearly, Tignor and Cronin must be lauded considerably for their extraordinary efforts. Both books are excellent and absorbing, capturing the essence of a golden era in tennis, keeping the reader enticed from beginning to end, reminding many of us of a time when we were young, the game was exploding with personalities and conflicts, and intrigue seemed to be looming around every corner. As the titles of the two books convey, there is a striking thematic similarity in the subject matter. Unavoidably, the two writers touch on a lot of the same background and biographical points surrounding the well documented careers of the quietly mysterious Swede and the highly charged American. They inform their readers with some of the same quotes and anecdotes from the likes of Borg and McEnroe during their younger days, while adding a wealth of new material they have dug out ably on their own. They travel through similar territory and make judgments on the players that are, by and large, alike.

But the fact remains that there are some fundamental differences as well. Cronin’s book revolves almost entirely around the classic and monumental Wimbledon final played by Borg and McEnroe in 1980, a contest that has more than stood the test of time, an almost ineffable battle of wills and contrasting styles that has lingered permanently in our minds ever since. The framework for his book is very effective. He gives the reader small chunks from the seminal moment when Borg and McEnroe staged their glorious encounter 31 years ago on the Centre Court, but then takes us through their lives and careers that led them to their magical showdown for the ages.

That template works to the hilt. We keep yearning for more about the day Borg and McEnroe pushed each other nearly beyond their limits to a mystical athletic station across a riveting afternoon on the grass at the All England Club. Cronin never allows us to lose focus on that match or moment, but in alternate chapters the essential stories surrounding the Swede and the New Yorker are told with clarity and force. Along with many of us who celebrate tennis nowadays, Cronin is enthralled with the current brigade of top players.

As Cronin explains in his introduction to “Epic” as he reflects on the centerpiece match of his book, “Some thirty years later as I write this. I’m thinking about how many people of my generation have come up to me to ask whether I miss tennis’s old days, when great rivalries were compelling and you could really relate to the personalities. While I understand this train of thought, I’m so involved with the modern game and with its often thrilling personalities and various styles that I’m usually a bit taken aback by that perspective. But what I will say—and I’ve covered plenty of amazing summers of tennis since 1992—is that no two men have ever offered such a stark and invigorating contrast as McEnroe and Borg, which is why, to so many folks who lived through that brilliant summer, those two stand alone. When it comes to conjuring up memories of what made tennis so inviting to people who grew up in the 1960’s, 1970’s and 1980’s, it’s the classic clashes of the New Yorker and the Swede that first come to mind.”

Cronin swiftly puts the great contest between Borg and McEnroe at the sport’s most prestigious tournament in perspective, writing, “On this cool, rainy July day, Borg vs. McEnroe… will explode into a unique rivalry with heavyweight implications in the style of Ali vs. Frazier, Chamberlain vs. Russell and Nicklaus vs. Palmer. It matters a great deal in 1980, in large part because of the dramatic tennis played between fierce competitors and polar opposites, but also because the world needs a diversion from increasing chaos. It is McEnroe, defending American pride wounded by the seemingly unending hostage crisis in Iran and an Olympic boycott against the Soviet Union, against Borg, an island of stability in a Europe fraying at the edges as the Soviet Empire begins to crumble.”

We move through Borg’s youth. Cronin writes of the Swede’s mixed emotions about sacrificing so much as a kid, “Borg reveled in his success, but at times regretted the loss of a normal teenage life, which perhaps was the reason he retired so prematurely and eventually went off the boil. He said there were occasions when he thought he was practicing too much and wasn’t having the same type of fun as his friends, who were having a blast going out dancing. {As Borg said] ‘there were times when I hated tennis. I would tell myself I’m stopping now and I’m going to be like my friends. I want to go out and have fun.’ But that sentiment never lasted long, because he loved tennis too much. So he kept grinding, ignoring the sea, the sun, the beach and all the things he would speak fondly of later.”

Addressing McEnroe’s junior days as a 16-year-old in New York, Cronin writes, “By the time he was sixteen, McEnroe was attending the exclusive Trinity School in Manhattan, where he did well in math and other subjects. Mac took a long subway and bus ride into the city by himself that averaged an hour each way. He got a close look at humanity on those subway rides, from the poor to the rich, from the crazy to the sane. He recalls being mugged once, but it was nothing serious, and like any smart athlete without a death wish, he managed to run away from his attacker.”

Cronin describes a poster of Borg hanging on McEnroe’s bedroom wall in “Epic”, and then adds, “ While their childhoods were dissimilar, he was attracted to the Swede’s class, the sleek way he moved, how he held his chin up high, how he was almost never fazed. McEnroe wanted to be seen as a regal character, too, one who was holding up trophies, one who was praised by knowledgeable commentators, one who made the girls swoon. In short, he wanted to be cool, and for tennis to be cool, too. If he could be just a little more like Borg, maybe he too would have the world at his feet.”

Cronin is always building drama in “Epic”, block by block, sentence by sentence, paragraph to paragraph. He has a knack for understanding the larger picture, as he did so well in explaining the way the Borg-McEnroe rivalry developed in different parts of the world en route to their renowned appointment in 1980. He tells the story—as does Tignor in “ High Strung”—of McEnroe edging Borg in a third set tie-break at New Orleans in 1979 on a day when McEnroe lost his composure at 5-5 in the final set. Borg called his opponent up to the net and told him to relax because they were having a great match. McEnroe felt Borg had gone well out of his way to demonstrate his respect, and appreciated the gesture. But as Cronin writes of battles like that one in out of the way places, “ The Borg-Mac rivalry began to take off in smaller venues, where they continued to feel each other out like boxing sparring partners, similar to former heavyweight champs Larry Holmes and Muhammad Ali, who had once battered each other in small gyms.”

“Epic” is a story that travels swiftly and alluringly, devoid of dull material, filled with top of the line reporting. Always Cronin comes back to the big match, but not before using those alternate chapters to flesh out the central characters in his book.  The rich insights of the ultimate mental guru Dr. Allen Fox, the keen reflections of Dr. Jim Loehr, and the penetrating observations of former players Gene and Sandy Mayer among many others are invaluable in allowing Cronin to color his manuscript with brightness and depth. For example, Sandy Mayer—a former McEnroe rival—is outspokenly critical and arguably excessively judgmental of McEnroe. Mayer recollects a doubles match he and his brother played against McEnroe and Fleming at a WCT event at Forest Hills.

Mayer was convinced McEnroe stalled and he called him on it. Mayer tells Cronin, “It was cheating, but the game didn’t enforce the rules. The fact that he now makes money on TV off his bad-boy image and saying he was somewhat sorry is a testament to today’s world, because he was a flat-out cheat.”

Gene Mayer allows those who turn the pages of “Epic” to comprehend what it was really like for a leading player of his time to step on a court with Borg and McEnroe. He reached a career high of No. 4 in the world, and ended 1980 in that position. He conveys to Cronin, “Against McEnroe, I made sure to stand in as close as I could on my returns and make sure that he didn’t have an easy first volley. Once he started to control the net, you were out of the point. I had to go for my returns more. Against Borg, I really had to push myself, because for me, I liked to play four or five balls to establish myself before trying to close points out. Against Borg I had to make sure not to give him easy mistakes, which he lived on, but keep my balls deep or to angles. I really had to focus on not giving him anything easy, or he would dominate me. He rarely missed.”

Dr. Loehr and more so Dr. Fox get inside the psyches of Borg and McEnroe with striking authority. Assessing McEnroe’s volatility, Loehr says, “The task is to learn to get rid of the chemicals that are associated with rage, so he would take more time, as opposed to others who would usually rush. He would walk back and forth. But very rarely did he attack himself. He was always fighting an enemy outside. Most athletes fight themselves, so he almost never had to fight two enemies. He always projected to a linesman or a ball boy or whatever”. The incomparable Allen Fox—former top ten American player and coach at Pepperdine—does an outstanding job of clarifying the mentalities of estimable players like Borg and McEnroe and Jimmy Connors. As Fox—the author of a new and important book called “Winning the Mental Match”, puts it, “They love their friends and are very loyal to them and they don’t like their enemies—they don’t like their enemies a lot. It’s very useful on court because the other guys are trying to wrestle you down. The great players have enough inside to be able to keep fighting because they don’t want to yield.”

Meanwhile, Cronin sprinkles “Epic” with some fascinating quotes from McEnroe. McEnroe had won the jewel of all tie-breaks 18-16 to bring about a fifth set, saving five match points in that sequence after casting aside two match points when Borg served for the match in the tenth game of that suspenseful fourth set. He bowed 1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7 (16-18), 8-6, and says, “Part of why I lost to Borg was if I knew I could get to a fifth set breaker, I think I could pull it out. But there’s no fifth set tiebreaker at Wimbledon. I wasn’t getting the job done on his serve. He was serving so big and holding easily. Whatever he had inside himself was beyond anything I could imagine.”

As soon as I finished reading Cronin’s estimable “Epic” last weekend, I wasted no time shifting to Tignor’s lyrical “High Strung”. Tignor—Senior Writer and former Executive Editor of Tennis Magazine—is as elegant and esteemed a writer as we have in tennis. What makes his book so enjoyable is his understated yet immensely appealing style. He never seems to be trying too hard to impress his audience; rather, he brings his words and thoughts across smoothly, naturally and easily. He stays completely clear of hyperbole and his narrative flows as effortlessly as a Sampras serve or a Federer forehand.

To be sure, his book does cover a lot of the same ground as Cronin’s, but his timeframe and emphasis differs in important ways. Cronin weaves his story largely around that 1980 Wimbledon final, adding some chapters at the end about the Borg-McEnroe five set final later that summer at the U.S. Open. Cronin casts a wide net with the thoroughness of his rundowns on the respective careers of the Swede and the American, and he often reminds the reader of the way world events were shaping up during that span. “Epic” focuses on these two men, the rivalry, and that spectacular 1980 season.

Tignor in “High Strung” spends the first 60 pages of his 235 page book essentially about the blockbuster on Centre Court in 1980, but thereafter he deliberately branches out more and his journey sweeps on through 1981 and even beyond. That allows him to write longer accounts about other standout performers from that stirring stretch, most notably James Scott Connors. But he also provides enlightening and highly entertaining prose on the likes of Ilie Nastase, Vitas Gerulaitis and Ivan Lendl, men who shaped their time in entirely different ways. It is not that “Epic” ignored Connors and company, but Cronin was not looking to explore individuals other than Borg and McEnroe with the same degree of depth.

From the opening sentence of his soaring book, Tignor captures us inescapably. He writes, “In the minds of most tennis fans, when Bjorn Borg took his first rolling, measured strides onto Centre Court for the 1980 Wimbledon final, he might have been stepping down from the clouds. The myth of the divine Swede had been growing in London since 1973, when he’d made his debut as a 17-year-old. That year, Borg’s wavy blond hair and shy, smooth-cheeked smile earned him the nickname Teen Angel. They also earned him the attention of hordes of shrieking, hopping, giggling, weeping and uncontrollably aggressive English schoolgirls. After his first match, 300 of them attacked Borg and dragged him to the ground. Thus began a phenomenon previously unseen on the lawns of the All England Club, one that would take a variety of forms over the ensuing years: the ‘Borgasm.’”

Early on, he brilliantly describes McEnroe’s game as a young player. “At 18, McEnroe hadn’t yet filled in the canvas, but the artist’s line in his game was unmistakable. The high school soccer standout mixed lightening forays to the net with feathery, caressed drop shots and lobs, all with the insouciance of the born improviser. Like Borg, McEnroe stood the textbook on its head. He didn’t bend his knees much, he didn’t turn and get his weight into the ball, he didn’t switch his grip for different shots, and he barely took a backswing.”

Tignor got to the essential Borg with similar precision in “High Strung”, writing, “By relying on physical superiority and relentless accuracy, Borg carried the game to one extreme. New, heavier balls had been introduced to the sport in the late 1960’s, which slowed the pace of play and made his style more viable. From there, Borg set about making the game itself heavier.”

The pearls keep coming, including this one after Borg has withstood an astonishing stand from McEnroe in that 1980 final. Tignor writes, “That Borg didn’t lose after blowing seven match points would be remembered as one of tennis’s signature shows of mental fortitude, and the final proof of his immortality as a player.”

Midway through the book, Tignor makes us look at Connors in a way we may have never quite seen him before. He writes, “The professional era that he helped usher in would, for the first time, make tennis a potential career path for millions. But the game was about more than money for Connors. It was about caring about something. Connors obviously wasn’t the first tennis player to care about success. But the old gentleman’s code, which had been followed all the way into the 1970’s by lean and upstanding Americans such as Arthur Ashe and Stan Smith, mandated coolness and grace under pressure. Connors never played it cool; he made his desire palpable. He communicated it in the way he launched himself, wet Raggedy Andy hair flopping around his head, into his fierce two-handed backhand. He communicated it in the way he swiveled his hips and raised his shoulders and strutted from one side of the court to the other between points. Jimmy Connors played with his back up.”

Anyone who followed tennis even remotely back in the seventies and early eighties remembers Ilie Nastase for the central tennis figure he was at that time. Tignor makes certain in “High Strung” to devote a section to the Romanian and his multi-faceted impact on the game, pro and con. He writes,  “As Nastase arrived in New York for the 1981 U.S. Open, the years, the rants, the flights, the fame, the sex, the round-the-world chase after the next buck—all had left him a shell of his former self. The man who had been the first number one on the ATP computer rankings eight years earlier had drifted down to an inconsequential number 78. He had been dropped by his agency, IMG. He hadn’t reached the final of a Grand Slam in five years, hadn’t won one in nine. In fact, he hadn’t won a tournament of any sort since 1977, and at the start of 1981 he was barred from playing Davis Cup for Romania. The wins may have stopped, but not the antics.”

Although Vitas Gerulaitis captured only one major—over a depleted field at the 1977 Australian Open—and never quite fulfilled the bright promise of his early days, he was an enormously popular player across the late seventies and on into the eighties. Tignor wisely gave Gerulaitis his due in “High Strung”, writing, “Like Nastase and Borg, Gerulaitis had spent much of the 1970’s living and playing hard. As a new decade dawned, the candle he had burned at both ends had begun to burn back. Part of this was the inevitable aging process. At 27, Gerulaitis discovered that he couldn’t maintain his legendary, round-the-clock Broadway Vitas pace and still expect to hold it together on the court.”

And then, in the latter stages of his book, Tignor addressed the undeniable impact of Ivan Lendl in the shaping of the modern game back in the early eighties. He correctly lauds Lendl for how he transformed the sport in many ways with the explosiveness of his power game, and the sheer brute force and potency of his ground game, particularly off the forehand side. As Tignor puts it in “High Strung”, “No player would symbolize this shift [toward power] more than Lendl. He was an early adopter of the open-throated, midsize racket, having been perhaps the only player in history who could handle the sledgehammer manufactured by Austrian racquet maker Kneissl and later by Lendl’s sponsor Adidas. The game he played with that racket, which was based around a heavy serve and powerful ground strokes, is the one played today by the vast majority of pros. Borg had become a champion by getting one more ball back into the court than his opponents. McEnroe won by attacking the net. Lendl broke down the divide between those two styles. He attacked, like McEnroe, but he did it from the back of the court, like Borg.”

I’d like to share one last bit of Tignor wisdom from “High Strung” that demonstrates both the agility of his mind and the clarity of his judgment. Writing about the 4PM starting time for the U.S. Open men’s final, he asserts, “The schedule has an underappreciated upside. The long wait through the day, the massive, mingling audience in the stadium and the orange sun that has just begun its afternoon descent, all combine to create a shootout-at-dusk atmosphere. On the grass inside the theater of Centre Court at Wimbledon, tennis players could be actors on a stage. The performances of each are duly appreciated. On the cement at Flushing Meadows, they’re in tennis’s version of a rumble. As day turns to night and the lights go on, the drama turns to spectacle.”

Sitting at my computer, wrapping up this column, I feel fortunate. In the past week, I devoured two remarkably good books on a game that surpasses all others. Matt Cronin’s “Epic” demonstrates that his journalistic instincts and uncanny feel for the game are what have carried him to a place at an elite table as one of the sport’s best reporters.  Moreover, he knows the game’s nuances exceedingly well. As he wrote in “Epic”, “The balls of 1980 did not bounce as high as those of today and did not penetrate the courts as much. To give the white pellets an eye-bursting ride, the competitors have to swing super hard and meet the ball in the center of their small wooden racket heads. There is no space-age graphite or superspin-producing strings like those that dominate the twenty-first century, when players can half-frame a ball swinging as hard as they can from ten feet off the court and still find a corner. With the weaker wooden rackets and more vulnerable and unpredictable gut strings of 1980, hitting in the small sweet spot and telling your arm to control the ball was mandatory. The technology didn’t do it for you.”

Given the fundamental truth of what Cronin is saying, that makes it all the more admirable that Borg and McEnroe could have played such an enduringly significant match back in 1980 at the shrine of the sport. That moment of consequence in tennis history is captured brilliantly by Cronin in “Epic”. He should be deeply admired for a job exceedingly well done with “Epic”, as should Tignor for his scholarly “High Strung”. Tignor has long impressed me with the quality of his magazine work. In that shorter form, he has been exemplary and inquisitive craftsman. But in “High Strung”, he has produced his best work yet, a book of substance, style, and sensitivity, and a joyous read. Each of these gifted writers has given fans a chance to savor a time when tennis seemed to always be in the forefront of the public imagination.

Steve Flink Archive | Email Steve