Category Archives: Tennis History

Bill Tilden, the brilliant tennis player who dominated the game in the 1920’s, did live in New York, he had rooms at the Algonquin don’t you know, but the New Yorker is also the name of the venerable magazine which is eighty years old this year. The Complete New Yorker, an eight DVD set of every issue from 1925, the first year, to February 14, 2005, has just been released. I pre-ordered it from amazon.com so I could get my hands on it as soon as possible. Who needs the library any more? I can open the search menu and research to my heart’s content.

John K. Winkler wrote a profile of Bill Tilden in the September 18, 1926 issue. The article is an interesting comment on the mores of the time and the writing style as well as tennis history. Tilden, thirty-three at the time, had won six straight US singles championships and led the US to six consecutive Davis Cup victories and was about to lead it to a seventh.

Winkler interviews Tilden in his room at the Algonquin as he is preparing to shift his focus away from tennis and into writing plays and performing in them. Winkler bemoans the situation with a slightly overblown but certainly literary lament, “Soon (would I could drown the very thought) the rhythm and the beauty of his startling flashes of speed, Wagnerian service aces, and heart-halting rallies may be permanently submerged.”

Winkler surely knew that Tilden was gay, it was openly known in tennis circles though not by the public. Homosexuality was not an open subject in the 1920’s and Winkler uses code words and characterizations typical of the attempt to broach the subject without really broaching it. He describes Tilden as “Intimate with none, ” an “acetylene-eyed solitary”, and “a lone antagonist of destiny.” There was truth to the characterization. Tilden had been orphaned at an early age and raised by a maiden, it was important to point out, aunt. And he had developed his exceptional tennis game without the benefit of ever having a lesson from a professional tennis instructor.

But this is also how you describe a gay man or woman. They can’t be intimate with anyone because they’re not allowed to be. Before she came out, Rosie O’Donnell appeared in a magazine as a single mother who prized self-sufficiency even though she has a partner who plays a large role in her childrens’ lives. You’d never know that Jodie Foster has ever had sex in her life. She is eternally un-partnered.

On the other hand, Winkler refers to writer Samuel Merwin as Tilden’s “most constant companion”, see what I mean by code words, and denotes the time of year by calling it “the fag end of July.” He was either having fun with us there or I’ve been reading too much literary theory.

… Winkler refers to writer Samuel Merwin as Tilden’s “most constant companion”, see what I mean by code words, and denotes the time of year by calling it “the fag end of July.”

Tilden changed his mind about shifting his vocation to the theater. A loss to protégée Vinnie Richards stoked his competitiveness enough to switch his focus back to tennis though he continued to write plays and appear on stage and in movies throughout his life.

Tilden was the Roger Federer of his day. He had a powerful serve he could use on critical points. He spun an array of tactical strategies using slices, powerful strokes, lobs and drops shots to undo his opponent. He loved neutralizing big servers with highly angled returns and passing shots. When he lost the top third of his middle finger on his racket hand to an infection, he remade his game to play more aggressively so he could shorten the rallies.

Unlike Federer but typical of a performer, he was also a drama queen. Tilden was flamboyant on the court and opponents suspected that he threw opening sets to make the match more entertaining and give the audience what it paid for.

At the end of the article, Tilden explains that we would rather give lessons to promising junior players free of change than join the professional tennis circuit and make a lot of money. The grand slam tournaments were limited to amateur players at the time. Winkler points out that Tilden sometimes chose to play doubles in important tournaments with junior players.

Tilden changed his mind and turned professional in 1931. His interest in junior boys prefigured troubles to come. In 1946 he was arrested for having sex with a teenage male prostitute and served seven months in jail. He was arrested again in 1949 on the same charge and spent ten months in jail.

It’s a statement of his brilliance as a tennis player that even after serving two jail terms on morals charges, he was voted the top tennis player of the first half of the century soon after he was released from jail for a second time.

Average Rating: 4.6 out of 5 based on 204 user reviews.

A lot of comparisons have been made between Andre Agassi’s run in this year’s US Open at age 35 and Jimmy Connors run to the semifinals in 1991 at age 39. It’s not just the age thing. Jimmy Connors had always been respected as a tennis player but he was hardly a beloved sports figure. Crass and outright unsportsmanlike behavior could not be ignored.

I always knew that Connors had wiped out a ball mark on a clay court before the umpire could come down out of his chair and look at the mark. But I didn’t know that Connors’ ball had made the mark. This meant that he had to run all the way over to his opponent’s side of the net to erase it. The linesperson had called the ball in but Connors probably knew that he had hit it wide and he wanted to make sure the call was not overturned.

Connors was at the end of a long career in 1991. He’d survived a history of legal tussles with the tennis establishment and a host of injuries to fight and scrap his way through tough matches to get to the semis. New York loves a fighter and an entertainer and this was the final crowning of the tough American champion from the rough town of East St. Louis, Illinois.

Agassi’s struggles have been personal but no less dramatic. He survived an image problem and a confidence problem to become one of only five players to win all four grand slams. He transformed himself from a punk to a wise elder and the 2005 Open was a love-fest in celebration of Andre.

There is, however, a major difference between Connors’ era and the current version of the men’s professional tennis tour. Most of the players seem to like each other. Connors and John McEnroe respected each other but they certainly didn’t like each other and they didn’t pass time chitchatting in the locker room. You didn’t hear anything like the mutual admiration club between James Blake and Agassi after their late night, five set thriller in the this year’s semis. “I know if I were in the stands, I’d be cheering for him to. Because he’s a great champion in every sense of the word, ” said Blake of Agassi.

McEnroe interviewed Roger Federer in a Manhattan sidewalk café during the Open. Federer tweaked McEnroe about the sour relations between players during McEnroe’s time on the tour. McEnroe asked Federer how he managed to remain so calm under the pressure of maintaining the number one ranking and winning grand slams. Federer replied: “I was too anxious to win. And I said, every guy who had a game which I couldn’t beat, I thought, ‘This guy is an idiot.’ And then when I became number one, I was beating the guys, I started to understand. Well, it’s not about how they play or whatever. It’s how they are in person. And in the locker room I really feel like we get along very well.”

That’s an interesting statement. It’s a repudiation of much that McEnroe stood for. Federer is not concerned about his opponents, except tactically. He not only respects them but he’s figured out that it’s not about them.

Of course, Federer doesn’t have to play against Ilie Nastase. McEnroe and Nastase once played a match at the Open in which Nastase behaved so badly that the chair umpire defaulted him. The tournament director, keeping in mind that the stars are more important than the umpire, defaulted the chair umpire and allowed the match to continue so that McEnroe could win it honestly.

Federer doesn’t throw a tantrum with the hope of unsettling his opponent if the match is not going his way. Neither does Blake, Agassi or any current player except maybe Lleyton Hewitt or Guillermo Coria.

It’s not a popular sport, at least not in the U.S. Does this mean that we need tennis players who act like professional wrestlers before people will tune in or turn up at tournaments?

This is an unusually harmonious time in professional tennis. The doubles players are unhappy because the ATP is trying to phase them out but there isn’t a rogue group of players trying to start up their own league and very few players get defaulted. I’d like to say that this is a good thing except that tennis continues to be mired in a long slump. It’s not a popular sport, at least not in the U.S. Does this mean that we need tennis players who act like professional wrestlers before people will tune in or turn up at tournaments?

Golf has the most similar fan base to tennis meaning that it fights for the same advertisers. But look at the golf tour. Its popularity is at an all time high. Put Tiger Woods on television on a Sunday afternoon within striking distance of the leader and you’re guaranteed a good rating. Yet there’s nothing controversial about Tiger Woods’ behavior. He has a temper but he’s hardly crass. He probably doesn’t say much to Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh in the locker room but he also doesn’t run over and kick their balls off the fairway. He’s not even a good interview. Ever since a journalist printed his off color comments in a GQ article early in his career, Woods has kept his personality under wraps.

So we don’t need Hulk Hogan or Goldberg to pick up a tennis racket. But we could use an honest-to-God rivalry and it would help if one of the rivals was a colorful American.

Meanwhile, we’ll have to be satisfied with soaking up the love and watching exemplary tennis. Could be worse.

Average Rating: 4.9 out of 5 based on 203 user reviews.

Late one night I was driving around Hancock Park completely lost when I took an illegal u-turn and found my car pointed at a tennis court I’d never seen before. I thought I knew all the tennis courts in town. Next to the court was an old vine covered building. It looked like there might be one or two courts at most. Turns out that I had discovered the Los Angeles Tennis Club, an institution with great importance in the west coast tennis world. It has sixteen courts, not two, and a membership costs $12, 000 up front.

Back when tennis was a totally white bread upper class sport and tennis players were amateurs, the LATC was the place for the chosen to play. Jews and other outsiders had to play cross-town at the Beverly Hills Tennis Club. The coach at Beverly Hills was tennis great Pancho Segura, a superbly talented brown-skinned Ecuadorian.

Jimmy Connors grew up in East St. Louis, Illinois. His mother and grandmother raised him to have a chip on his shoulder. He was from the wrong side of the tracks and anyone who dared to step between him and victory was taking away his God-give right to the American dream. Never mind that his grandfather had been the mayor of East St. Louis and his mother had been a successful tennis player.

In his book, Jimmy Connors Save My Life, Joel Drucker recounts a story from Connors’ juniors career. An opponent was concerned because he’d heard that Connors cheated on line calls. He decided to wait until Connors actually cheated before he called a linesman. While he was warming up for the match he heard Connors’ mother ask Jimmy, “We hear this guy cheats. Do you want me to get a linesman?”

Connors’ mother chose a coach for her son who had an outsider status she could relate to: Pancho Segura.

We know where Jimmy Connors learned to win tennis matches by any means necessary but what is Lleyton Hewitt’s excuse? His parents seem to be perfectly nice people. They don’t run onto the court after a match like Maria Sharapova’s father, they haven’t been banned from tournaments like Jelena Dokic’s father, they don’t hold up signs during the match or make incendiary comments to the press like Richard Williams. What is Lleyton’s problem?

He applauds his opponent’s errors, plays to his fanatical fans and ignores his opponent, he celebrates with the lawnmower and he flashes the vicht. Opponents have spat at him and tried to drill him on the fly with their serve. Even a gracious competitor like Andy Roddick took an illegally long clothing break in a grand slam semifinal to piss Hewitt off.

Didn’t work. He’s a runt. He’s the kid who is too small and slams and smashes his way to the top to prove everyone wrong. He has the same attitude as Connors: there is my crew and there is everyone else. And everyone else is the enemy.

He is supremely combative, fighting drives him. Here is a guy who was the youngest man to reach the number one ranking, at age 20, dropped all the way back to a ranking of seventeen and recreated his game to get back to a solid number two. Before, he had to spin his serve wide to find an ace. Now he regularly busts aces down the middle. The only player in the top ten with more aces is Andy Roddick. He used to be allergic to the net. Now he attacks regularly.

Let’s see how he gets into it with Guillermo Coria of Argentina in the 2005 Davis Cup quarterfinal in Sydney, Australia.

It starts out innocently enough. Serving at 1-1, 15-0, Hewitt hits a running passing shot down the line and lets out his first “come aaaaawn”. Coria applauds the shot. Coria is pissed off but not at Hewitt. The Aussies have laid down a grass court on top of the Har Tru court and it’s damp so Coria is slipping. He also probably doesn’t appreciate the drug paraphernalia on the t-shirts worn by Hewitt’s Fanatics, a reference to the suspiciously high number of drug tests by South American players, including Coria.

Hewitt is making a lot of errors and loses his serve in the fifth game. He may be feeling pressure because he’s the only good Aussie player. His teammate, Wayne Arthurs, is not likely to beat Davide Nalbandian. Sad to say, given its illustrious history, Australia has only two players in the top 100.

Serving at 5-4, 0-15, Coria hits a ball into the net and Hewitt comes out with another “come awn”. Applauding an opponent’s error, uh oh, the battle begins. Hewitt wins the game to get the break back and the set goes to a tiebreaker. At 4-4 in the tiebreaker, Hewitt approaches with an inside out forehand then hits a deep volley that forces Coria to put up a lob. Hewitt tracks down the lob and hits a passing shot down the line but Coria hits a beautiful slicing volley beyond Hewitt’s reach. Coria immediately turns to the Argentinians in the crowd with a fist pump and a primal yell. No doubt to annoy Hewitt. Coria is a fighter, a willing combatant.

Hewitt wins the next two points then hits an inside out forehand that Coria can’t return. The little guy has won the first set and here comes the lawnmower, the next maneuver in Hewitt’s arsenal. Coria is disgusted, he was up a break and had four break points to go up 5-2 and has nothing to show for it.

The battle escalates early in the second set when Hewitt gets a break point in the first game with a beautiful drop volley and breaks out the vicht. In the second game, Coria gets a break point off his own on a cross court volley and celebrates by mimicking the lawn mower. Hewitt wins both games. He serves well, attacks frequently and hits only one unforced error to win the second set 6-1.

Even with his newfound attacking style, Hewitt is still not the kind of player to force the issue. He plays the same relentless game no matter what the score. This is a good thing if he’s down, it means he never gives up. But it also means that he doesn’t have another gear. He’s up two sets, he should be tightening the noose. Instead, inexplicably, he can barely get the ball over the net. The crowd goes to sleep, there is a lull in the battle. Coria cranks up his game and takes back a set, 6-1.

I think I’m getting the picture here. If no-one is lobbing grenades at Hewitt, he falls asleep.

Coria should know by now. The more combative the match, the better Hewitt plays.

In the fourth set, the players are even at 2-2 when Hewitt shouts out another “come awn” at a Coria error. On the next point, Hewitt mimics swinging at a Coria ball that is long. Coria doesn’t appreciate it and they have words. Doesn’t he know he’d be much better off if he doesn’t feed Hewitt any more ammunition?

If there is any doubt that Hewitt thrives on adversity, it is erased by watching the best game of the match. With Hewitt serving up a break at 3-2, 15-0, he hits a winning drop volley then stands at the net and salutes with the vicht again. Coria wins the next point with a lob that lands just inside the line then does his own vicht. At 40-30, Coria hits a great return down the line. Hewitt barely gets it back to Coria who hits drop volley. Hewitt reaches the ball and pops it up to Coria who smashes the ball right at Hewitt.

Coria exults and turns to the baseline before realizing that he should turn back towards Hewitt and put his hand up to apologize. We are not convinced. Hewitt then serves an ace wide, dismisses Coria with an upturned hand and tells him to f-off. Coria should know by now. The more combative the match, the better Hewitt plays. Hewitt wins the game and goes on to win the fourth set and match 7-6 (5), 6-1, 1-6, 6-2.

You can see why most of the tennis world calls Hewitt a jerk. Don’t look for him to mellow out any time soon, though. Like Connors, he derives a great deal of motivation from pretending that the world is against him. It’s driven him to a number one ranking and a very good Davis Cup record. Why stop now?

Average Rating: 4.5 out of 5 based on 171 user reviews.


We’re in the quarterfinals and Maria Sharapova has been steamrolling through the draw at Wimbledon. Only one player has taken four games from her in a set. Her opponent today, Nadia Petrova, is the second. They are at 4-4 in the first set and Petrova is facing a break point, the first of the match.

Petrova got this far by playing aggressively and using slice approach shots to counteract Sharapova’s metronomically powerful ground strokes. The laws of physics require conservation of momentum. In other words, the harder you hit the ball at a power player, the harder they hit it back at you. If Petrova can change speeds and throw in a few junk balls, she not only reduces Sharapova’s power, she can throw off Sharapova’s rhythm and mess up her metronome.

Petrova saves the first break point with a good serve then wins the game and goes up 5-4 with two unforced errors from Sharapova. Sharapova then starts her service game with two aces.

A curious thing has been happening with Sharapova’s serve in this tournament. She’s won 99% (!) of her service games. This would be a record if it held up throughout the tournament. It’s curious because women don’t usually have a serve like Andy Roddick or Joachim Johansson that separates them from the other players and gives them a decided advantage in their service games. It’s even more curious because Sharapova is not a big server. She regularly serves in the low nineties, sometimes in the low 100’s and even uncorked a 75 mph second serve today. On top of that, she seldom serves and volleys and hasn’t been going to the net unless it would be silly not to.

It may be that she’s taken a little off her first serve and is focusing on placement instead. If she’s not playing aggressively and doesn’t have an overwhelming serve, she has to put pressure on her opponent exclusively from the baseline. It’s both a testament to her consistency that she’s been able to do that through four rounds here and a weakness that gives her opponents hope.

Petrova gets an ace of her own to go up 6-5 then Sharapova forces a tiebreaker when Petrova hits the return of a 79 mph second serve beyond the baseline. Maybe Maria is hypnotizing her opponents with that slow twister.

Confidence doesn’t just pop up one day and bite you in the behind. You have to fight through five setters and rain delays and great expectations to develop the confidence that allows you to stick with your strategy through heartbreaking losses and disappointing play.

In the tiebreaker, Sharapova signs an aggression pact with Petrova and hits two approach shots. Sharapova gets a set point at 6-4 with a good serve down the middle but Petrova gets out of it with an approach shot of her own. Petrova has never won a tournament before and she has a chance to take the first set from last year’s champion in a grand slam. She HAS to take advantage of the opportunity.

But she doesn’t. She evens the tiebreaker at 6-6 with an ace but Sharapova plays the big points as a top ten player should: she forces Petrova into an error with a forehand down the line then hits a clean winner with a forehand cross court.

Petrova looks a little out of sync at the beginning of the second set. She loses her serve in the second game. She shows sign of life with a return and volley in the fifth game but Sharapova serves two aces to keep the momentum. That’s what veterans do. Petrova is not playing with the combination of aggressive play and change of pace that kept her even with Sharapova in the first set. Sharapova breaks her again to win the second set and take the match, 7-6 (6), 6-3.

Surely Petrova was discouraged to lose the first set after getting to 6-6, but why did she abandon a strategy that was working? Did she lose her confidence?

The answer lies in the match between Venus Williams and Mary Pierce. Venus trounces Pierce in the first set, 6-0, but here we are at the end of the second set and we have a tiebreaker.

Pierce is thirty years old and Venus has two Wimbledon titles. They’ve both suffered a lot of personal turmoil. They’ve both survived the brutal British Press. They are veterans. Confidence doesn’t just pop up one day and bite you in the behind. You have to fight through five setters and rain delays and great expectations to develop the confidence that allows you to stick with your strategy through heartbreaking losses and disappointing play.

Petrova doesn’t have that yet. Pierce does.

The second set is as good as the first set was terrible. In the tiebreaker, Venus and Pierce slug the ball as hard as they can and run each other deep into the corners. Pierce gets her first set point at 6-4 then hits two forehands into the net. Venus gets a match point at 7-6 after Pierce runs her wide to set up the open court but sends the backhand volley long. Pierce gets a second and third set point. On this last set point, Venus hits a deep inside out forehand and Pierce gets a bad bounce. Venus gets another match point at 11-10 after hitting a lob off a Pierce floater followed by a winning volley. Pierce hits a backhand long at Venus finally wins it, 6-0, 7-6 (10).

Tell me now, didn’t you expect Venus to fade away and go into interior design fulltime while Serena hung in there just long enough to get to some grand slam finals and win a few of them? Didn’t you expect Lindsay Davenport to be long gone after a series of cortisone shots and a discouraging finals loss? Instead, Venus is into the semis, Davenport has beaten Clijsters twice in a row and Serena has disrespected a grand slam by showing up with an injury and no match preparation.

Things are not always what you think they are.

Average Rating: 4.8 out of 5 based on 151 user reviews.

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Average Rating: 4.6 out of 5 based on 221 user reviews.