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Between The Lines
December 23, 2000 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
 
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Player of the Year, Player of the Decade, Player of the Century

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Ray Bowers

Our calendar's 2000th year, 200th decade, and 20th century A.D. are now ending. We therefore seek a supreme protagonist to represent each of these entities, a superstar and champion whose greatness stands out over all others. The pros and cons in our inquiry have been endless, the margins of decision often narrow. I thank Tennis Server readers for their recent messages, which helped in developing the selections offered here.

PLAYER OF THE YEAR 2000

The quest for Player of the Year began with the male and female stars who finished atop the year-end ATP and WTA computer standings. The men's Number One, Gustavo Kuerten, won five tournaments during the year including the German and French Opens and the year-end Masters Cup at Lisbon. The last victory, on slow indoor courts at Lisbon, lifted Kuerten narrowly ahead the previous leader, U.S. Open winner Marat Safin. Meanwhile Martina Hingis amassed a substantial lead in the WTA points race, attaining superior results in the women's Tier One tournaments and winning the year-end Chase event. For the first time in four years, however, the Swiss Miss did not win a Slam.

Neither Davis nor Fed Cup produced a candidate ahead of the above leaders, though Juan-Carlos Ferrero in defeating Australians Rafter and Hewitt in the Davis Cup final round, also merits honorable mention here.

It seems clear to me that the year's surpassing achievement in pro tennis was by a player not yet mentioned, a player who at age 20 achieved a streak of 36 consecutive match victories in singles without loss. This remarkable run included winning the championships of Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, and the Olympics. This player also won the doubles at both Wimbledon and the Olympics.

This year's Tennis Server Player of the Year is the American superstar Venus Williams.

PLAYER OF THE DECADE 1991-2000

Two champions, one male and one female, dominated the decade 1991-2000. Pete Sampras finished atop the year-end ATP standings six times during the period. No other male player did so more than once. Meanwhile Steffi Graf won the WTA crown four times. Graf won the most singles Slams during the decade, a convenient and telling measure, as shown here:

Graf, 13
Sampras, 12
Seles, 8
Agassi, 6
Hingis, 5

The closest male to Sampras was Andre Agassi, whose main distinction over Pete was his 1999 Garros championship, the premier clay-court event, never won by Sampras. This is a significant edge but, in my opinion, falls well short of Sampras's distinguishing achivement--his seven triumphs at Wimbledon, still the world's most prestigious tournament. Among the women the strongest rival to Steffi was Seles, whose career at its peak was interrupted for several years after her stabbing.

In choosing between Graf and Sampras, I adhered to our defined time frame. The picture would probably change if Graf's success prior to 1991 were factored in, but it seemed to me untenable to consider overall career achievements, as Sampras's career is not yet over.

Our Player of the Decade, therefore, is the superb Pete Sampras. His future candidacy as history's greatest awaits a Garros crown and one or two additional Davis Cup triumphs.

PLAYER OF THE CENTURY

Dozens of excellent candidates came quickly to mind. The foremost consideration was on-court success--Slam championships, classic victories in international Cup play, long years of top performance. I also weighed how the player reflected the game's traditions of sportsmanship and fair play, of grit and perseverance, of esteem for ones opponents, of treating triumph and adversity the same. Finally, I looked for enduring contributions--how his or her role advanced the history, preservation, and growth of the game.

I narrowed the choices by looking first at the three principal eras of the century's tennis history.

BEFORE WORLD WAR II

Tennis became major international sport during the first decades of the new century. All four Slam tournaments reached world stature by the end of the 1920's, producing in 1938 the first Grand Slam, where American Don Budge won the four Slams in the calendar year.

The foremost figure of the period was the lanky American Bill Tilden. Starting at age 27, fresh from a winter's practice to master the overspin backhand, Tilden won two singles matches in every Davis Cup challenge round 1920-1925, carrying his nation to Cup victory all six years. Meanwhile he also captured six consecutive U.S. National championships, and he won Wimbledon in 1920 and 1921, the only times he competed there during these six years.

Big Bill occasionally lost matches thereafter, but he added another U.S. championship in 1929, another Wimbledon in 1930, and though he never won the French (the event was closed to foreigners until 1925) he reached the final in 1927 and 1930. He continued to grow as an international figure as the Davis Cup itself grew, winning a singles match in each of the next five challenge rounds and almost single-handedly contending against the Four Musketeers of France, who won the Cup 1927-1930. Then in 1931 Tilden, age 37, departed for the pros.

Having earlier been a voice within the establishment sometimes sympathetic to pro tennis, as its headliner Tilden infused new life into the idea. In 1934 he faced recent Wimbledon and U.S. champion Ellsworth Vines, 23, in an extended tour. Tilden won the first meeting, in Madison Square Garden, but Vines eventually prevailed, 47 matches to 26. As a boy in about 1939 I watched Tilden play a tight exhibition match against Fred Perry. When Tilden died alone in 1953, he was preparing to compete in yet another U.S. pro championship.

Tilden was mainly a baseliner, capable of shotmaking power, big serving, and solid net play but who preferred to use variety, placement, and spin. Tennis gave this natural actor the arena he needed, which he expanded by offering controversial opinions publicly and developing a flair for writing. His homosexuality was not widely known, though in the late 1940's he was imprisoned twice for several months, once for a morals charges and once for parole violation. His fame during his great years fed the widening of the game in the United States and the popularization of international tennis everywhere.

The leading woman player of the period, narrowly ahead of Suzanne Lenglen, was the strong baseline hitter Helen Wills Moody. The Californian entered 22 Slam tournments in singles 1923-1939, and won 19 of them. She never played in the Australian but in 1928 she became the first to win the French, Wimbledon, and U.S. championships in the same year.

I chose Tilden over Moody, recognizing that the men's international game, including the Davis Cup which was Tilden's main stage, had advanced well beyond the women's in those times.

MID-CENTURY AND BEYOND

Epitomizing the dominance after mid-century of the Australians and of the attacking, net game that they played was Rod Laver. As an amateur, Laver won the Australian championship in 1960, Wimbledon in 1961, all four Slams in 1962. He spent the next five years--prime tennis years from age 24 to age 29--as a touring pro, outside the amateur game of Slams and Davis Cup. He returned to win the first Open Wimbledon in 1968, and he achieved his second Grand Slam the following year, 1969. In his total of eleven career singles Slams, Laver equals Borg and is one behind Emerson, two behind Sampras. Of these leaders, only Laver forfeited years of Slam eligibility in the pro game. As the century's only double Grand Slam champion, and the only male Grand Slam winner of the Open era, Laver stands alone.

Seldom noted is Laver's greatness during his years away from the amateur game, when he and Ken Rosewall as players led in building pro tennis and raising its excellence as a catalyst for Open tennis. The reigning pro champion of the late 1950's had been Richard Gonzalez, who in extended tours defeated successive challenges from amateur champions Trabert, Rosewall, and Hoad. Laver in turning pro rejected an offer to tour one-on-one against Gonzalez in favor of a broader plan that would expand the pro game.

Pro tennis during the 1960's remained shaky financially and included many short-lived events at forgettable locations. As a new pro, Laver early established himself superior to Gonzalez, now 34, but for several years the newcomer struggled to surpass Rosewall. Nearly all the leading pros competed in three prime events--the U.S., the French, and the Wembley (London) pro championships. In 1963, Rosewall swept all three championships, defeating Laver in the final of each. In 1964 and 1965, the two Aussies divided the three events, Laver winning both years at Wembley, Rosewall both years in Paris, and the two splitting the U.S. Pro, held in Longwood, Massachusetts. Other competitors in these events included the likes of Gonzalez, Hoad, Sedgman, Buchholz, Gimeno, and Olmedo.

Then, starting in 1966, Laver would win the U.S. Pro for four straight years, confirming his place as the world's top professional. A milestone came in late summer 1967--the first pro tournament on the courts of Wimbledon. Laver defeated Rosewall in the final of the event, whose cast included Ralston, Gonzalez, and Hoad. All seats at Centre Court were filled for the semis and final. David Gray, writing in World Tennis magazine, observed that although the matches seemed unemotional, "almost clinical," the quality of the tennis was superb, especially the Laver-Rosewall final where "the two greatest masters of the game ...[showed] how good first-class lawn tennis can be on grass." Less than a year later, the pros and amateurs joined in the first Open Wimbledon.

Laver was called Rocket facetiously as a young player, but the nickname stayed with him as a badge of admiration. He was not tall or powerful in general physique, but his body was trim and his left arm was highly developed, enabling him to rip serves and rapier-like groundstrokes. He was not a bludgeoner--one could glimpse a flash of golden arm and wooden racket emitting a rocket of amazing speed and overspin. Laver was extremely quick of foot and dangerous from back court, ever a threat to deliver the nasty forcing shot or clean pass. The energy of his topspin backhand was unknown in top-level tennis to his time, and his example probably helped produce the later generation of baseline topspin artists. But Laver was best as a net attacker, his quickness and muscularity giving him devastating skills in forecourt and a serve-and-volley game probably as brilliant as any in history.

On and off court, Laver was all business, in no way the prima donna. There were no outbursts of ill temper, no theatrics, no intimidating or harassing of umpires, no crude violations of sportsmanship. No champion better epitomized the game's codes and traditions. He answered the call to Davis Cup unfailingly, and joined John Newcombe to win the first Open Davis Cup in 1973, 14 years after Laver's first challenge-round appearance in 1959. He won five Slams in men's doubles.

It is worth noting that until 1968, tournament victories were diminished by the absence of those recent champions recently departed for the pro wars. Thus Laver's 1962 Grand Slam was lessened by the absence of Gonzalez, Rosewall, and Hoad. Comparably, Budge's 1938 Grand Slam was won in the absence of Vines, Perry, and Von Cramm (Von Cramm was imprisoned by the Nazis early in the year). Budge quieted complainers by narrowly defeating Vines and Perry in extended 1939 pro tours, while Laver's superiority after turning pro was a year or so in the making, as sketched above. No such quibble, of course, can be applied to Laver's 1969 Slam.

Laver won no more Slam tournaments after 1969. But he continued winning other events, most remarkably one-on-one challenge matches against the other top pros in different cities for announced big moneys. Laver won the 1970 series, and swept thirteen challengers to repeat in 1971. Though the "contract pros" missed several Slams because of continuing business disputes, the annual contract-pro championships (WCT) produced memorable Laver-Rosewall finals in 1971 and 1972. Rosewall's five-set win in the 1972 final remains a milestone in cementing tennis as a TV sport in America.

Rosewall's own candidacy is almost as strong as Laver's. His movement and stroking were classic, and as a representative of the game on and off the court his qualities equaled Laver's. Rosewall's longevity near the top was remarkable, extending from a Davis Cup conquest as a teenager to the finals of both Wimbledon and the U.S. championships at age 39.

But it was Laver not Rosewall who achieved the Grand Slams, compelling the choice of Laver here.

THE OPEN ERA

The advent of more-powerful rackets of metal and composites increased power at all levels of the game and made net attacking more difficult, a trend accentuated by the demise of grass courts except at Wimbledon. A series of magnificent champions headed the men's game during the period, beginning in the 1970's with Jimmy Connors, who showed that a hard-hitting baseliner could overcome the top net artists on either fast or slow surfaces. The message was again seen in the careers of Borg and Lendl in the 80's. Meanwhile John McEnroe brought a tempestuous nature, but he contributed mightily to the game by his unfailing loyalty to Davis Cup. Edberg and Becker had times of greatness until yielding to the greater stars of the 90's, Agassi and Sampras. Agassi won every Slam at least once, while Sampras captured more Slams than any other male player in history.

The nod among the men goes to Connors, who won eight Slams, three of them in 1974 when his chances for a Grand Slam were stopped by denial of his entry at Garros. He won more tournaments and matches than any modern pro, and he continued to compete to age 39, reaching the U.S. Open semis at that age. He continued to prevail on the senior pro tour until McEnroe, seven years younger, finally overtook him in the late 1990's. In his younger years Connors exuded fire and energy on the court, but often there was also a vulgarity, indeed crudeness, never before seen among great champions. Disappointingly, he sometimes kept aloof from efforts to build the pro game, remaining outside the fledgling ATP, for example, and he generally avoided Davis Cup play.

In several ways it was the women's game that gave a higher substance to the late-century era in tennis. Throughout the period the growth of women in sports parallelled and advanced changes in attitudes toward women worldwide, lending a rationale and purpose to women's pro tennis not seen in the men's game. Most of the time the women's pro wars attracted as much or more general interest as the men's, as the era produced a wealth of superstars among the women, indeed a golden age in women's tennis.

Athleticism and power at the top levels steadily increased. Champions like Margaret Smith Court, Billie Jean Moffitt King, and Martina Navratilova played aggressive, attacking tennis, much like the men. Chris Evert reached new levels of success using mobility and consistent artillery from backcourt. Evert popularized the two-handed backhand, presaging the next few decades in women's tennis. Perhaps hurting her candidacy here, probably unfairly, is my own preference to see tennis evolve as a net-attacking game. Steffi Graf went beyond any predecessor in employing court speed, a pulverizing forehand, and a nastily sliced backhand to destroy her opponents in aggressive backcourt play.

Listed here are the career-total Slam triumphs of the above-mentioned five women in singles + women's doubles. The brief table encapsulates a vast tennis history.

Court, 24 + 19 (Grand Slam in singles, 1970)
Graf, 22 + 1 (Grand Slam in singles, 1988)
Navratilova, 18 + 31
Evert, 18 + 3
King, 12 + 16

It is difficult to pass by the above leader, Margaret Smith Court, who represented Australian tennis as magnificent competitor and sportswoman. Hers was the big game--firm, controlled hitting and dominating play at net. Her Slam singles leadership, however, is somewhat deceiving, as her total includes seven Australian crowns in the earlier 1960's when the international field in that event was quite thin. If we count only Wimbledon, U.S., and Garros singles championships, she ranks fourth. (Graf won 18, Evert 16, Navratilova 15, Court 13, King 11.)

Graf's achievements were magnificent, probably equaling any other player's. But I see her candidacy slightly diminished in two ways. The first, which is probably as much a burden to Graf as an undeserved benefit, stems from the stabbing in 1993 of her foremost rival, Monica Seles. At the time of the attack, Seles had won seven of the last nine Slams, lacking only the 1991 and 1992 Wimbledons (both won by Graf). Seles thus finished Number One in the year-end rankings for both 1991 and 1992. With Seles slow to return after her injury, Graf claimed the top place the next four years, meanwhile adding ten Slams to her total. Second, I was not pleased by Graf's decision a few months after retiring because of physical troubles in 1999, to embark on a barnstorming exhibition tour. Although fans anywhere would surely have enjoyed watching Graf, I believed that building the women's pro game required that the superstars lend their fame and prestige to its events, not playing in lucrative but competing exhibitions.

I have long admired Navratilova's relentless attacking game, her courage in leaving her homeland as a young person, her 31 Slam triumphs in women's doubles, her direct manner and honesty in interviews, her lithe physique after overcoming overweight, her return to the women's tour in doubles in her mid-40's, and her endless generosity to charitable causes. For these reasons, all of which complement and advance the message of her Slam record, above, Navratilova is my choice over the other women and also over Connors as top star of the recent era.

TILDEN, LAVER, OR NAVRATILOVA?

How does one judge the greatnesses of Tilden, Laver, and Navratilova?

Comparing Tilden and Laver is to compare giants of two very different eras. Serve-and-volley tennis was not widely seen in Tilden's time, while Laver raised that style of play to its zenith even as his brilliant return and backcourt game showed how the net attacker would later be answered. Tilden's six-year dominance in the early 1920's including Wimbledon, the U.S. Nationals, and Davis Cup was comparable in its completeness to Laver's hegemony in the years during and either side of his 1969 Grand Slam. Laver adds his top place in the amateur game earlier, Tilden adds his large international role after.

Again, the margin is small, almost imperceptable. His higher standard in personal discipline and in unfailing decency and sportsmanship, in my opinion, gives the edge to the Australian.

Finally, we must choose between Laver and Navratilova. There are no flaws or deficiencies in either candidacy. Both played an attacking kind of tennis, the style I most admire. Their absolute achievements are hard to compare given Laver's absence from Slam and Cup play for some years and the recognition that women's tennis has been characteristically thinner near the top than men's. Navratilova's lesbianism is neither plus nor minus here. It is difficult to choose a woman as the sport's supreme representative, as women's tennis lagged behind the men's game through much of the century. Also slightly favoring the Australian is his country's success as the dominant tennis nation for its size through most of the century and the top nation in absolute terms for two decades. Laver would surely be the easier and more widely accepted choice.

What are the main considerations on behalf of Navratilova, beyond those noted earlier in this essay?

---Her tennis longevity. Her Slam career in singles began in 1973 at age 16, when she reached the final eight at Garros. It ended 21 years later, as Wimbledon finalist in 1994. She finished in the world's top five for 19 consecutive years starting in 1975.

---Her prime years. Twelve of her 18 Slam titles in singles came in 1982-1986 at age 25-29. She finished all five years as Number One in the women's rankings. Her non-calendar-year Grand Slam in singles came amid six consecutive Slam championships 1983-1984, matching Court's best run.

---Her Wimbledon record. She won an all-time leading total of nine Wimbledons.

---Fed Cup role. In 1975 she led Czechoslovakia to the Fed Cup championship. She announced her defection to the United States soon afterwards, became a U.S. citizen in 1981, and regularly played Fed Cup for U.S. thereafter. Her Cup career won-loss record was 20-0 in singles, 16-0 in doubles.

---The quality of her contemporaries. Her career overlapped with many leading stars of modern tennis--King, Goolagong, Evert, Graf. (Court's last year as Number One was 1973.) Against her longest rival, Evert, who was two years older, she won 43 matches to Evert's 37.

---Her ability and achievements in doubles. She won 20 Slams with partner Pam Shriver, including three non-calendar-year Grand Slams. The pair won 10 year-ending Virginia Slims championships.

To my final breath, I shall recall the sizzling volleys and backhands of the Rocket from Queensland, Rod Laver. But I am swayed by Navratilova's essentially equal on-court achievements, together with her role within women's tennis in influencing the attitudes of people worldwide toward women in sports and in society. Raised in Prague, then citizen of the U.S., and now hero to all the world, honored here as Player of the Century is the great Martina Navratilova.

--Ray Bowers

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This column is copyrighted by Ray Bowers, all rights reserved.

Following interesting military and civilian careers, Ray became a regular competitor in the senior divisions, reaching official rank of #1 in the 75 singles in the Mid-Atlantic Section for 2002. He was boys' tennis coach for four years at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Virginia, where the team three times reached the state Final Four. He was named Washington Post All-Metropolitan Coach of the Year in 2003. He is now researching a history of the early pro tennis wars, working mainly at U.S. Library of Congress. A tentative chapter, which appeared on Tennis Server, won a second-place award from U.S. Tennis Writers Association.

Questions and comments about these columns can be directed to Ray by using this form.


 

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