Here is a quick look at some of my favorite tennis articles ever written. You may want to bookmark this one and read one per month. I am listing them chronologically from oldest to most recent.
1. Raised by Women to Conquer Men by Frank Deford
Sports Illustrated 28 August 1978
This is a must read. It gives a lot of insight into the psyche of Jimmy Connors. Love or hate Jimbo, it is worth knowing more about what drove him on the tennis court. This article is so good I considered not returning a friend’s copy of SI that contained a reprint of it in 1994 so that I could re-read the article whenever I liked. My conscience won out, but thanks to the web and free archives I can read it at my leisure.
2. On Guard And Quite In Control by Gary Smith
Sports Illustrated 28 April 1986
Another great look inside the mind of a champion. This time Ivan Lendl comes into more full relief.
3. The String Theory by David Foster Wallace
Esquire July 1996
A look at the preternatural skills and self-discipline required to be a journeyman on the tennis tour. I remember first reading this in 1996 and thinking Wallace nailed what is interesting about playing and watching tennis. His writing style is pretty unique and hyper-detailed.
4. Coming into Focus by Gary Smith
Sports Illustrated 17 July 2006
Agassi was never my favorite player to watch. I can’t think of more than 5 matches in which I pulled for him to win. In the late 80′s and early 90′s my favorite players were Boris Becker, Jimmy Connors and Jim Courier. Not pulling for Agassi did not mean I did not come to appreciate his tremendous vision, his longevity and his off court work. This article really was Open before Agassi released Open.
5. Roger Federer as Religious Experience by David Forster Wallace
New York Times 20 August 2006
The question of transcendence being raised by a gifted writer and focusing on my favorite player, Roger Federer, is an ideal read for me. I have often maintained that Federer is the closest to the Platonic form of a tennis player we are likely to see. Some people love that about him and others like a more visceral version of tennis. Federer’s critics dislike the nearly transcendent quality of his tennis rather than deny it.
128 players and 6 single elimination matches later to get to this point and form should not hold so neatly should it? At Wimbledon and now the US Open we are treated to a #1 versus #2 showdown. In 2006 through 2008 we got these matches between Federer and Nadal in Paris and London. The 2009 Australian Open also featured the ‘Fedal’ final. A new duo is in town and New York is the stage for round 2 of #1 vs. #2 in 2011. Not only is it #1 versus #2, but it is a re-match of the 2010 final and the underdog is the defending champion. This match-up is a fitting and exciting end to a somewhat bizarre 2 weeks.
Rafael Nadal has had an easier ride through this draw than Novak Djokovic even if Rafa had to play three consecutive days before today’s break. He has also taken on a modern day warrior persona since his tilt with the USTA. The final being on Monday is proof that his quest was not Quixotic. Nole went 5 sets with Federer in what had to be a mentally taxing effort. His toe got dinged up vs. Tipsarevic. I think Rafa has more momentum.
These two guys know each other’s games quite well. Last year I felt that Novak played well enough in the first 3 sets minus his serve to beat Rafa. Since fixing his serve, he’s beaten Rafa 5 consecutive times. Novak is able to pressure Rafa’s serve with deep low returns as well as take his backhand up the line to bother Rafa. Rafa can adjust and try to serve bigger or bang his forehand down the line. Adjusting is tricky business though as even elite players have preferred tendencies that provide a comfort zone. If Nole serves well, I think the match-up favors him. Especially since his speed allows for him to go from defense to offense and win some long slogging points that Nadal normally dominates.
Can anyone beat Nadal 6 straight times? If Nole does, more power to him, but numerically that is hard to do against someone as strong as Rafa.
Can Rafa re-exert himself in a rivalry that has turned against him like none has in the past?
I think Novak Djokovic will win in 4 competitive sets. His return of serve versus Rafa’s serve is a comparative advantage that will take its toll over time. If Rafa serves huge or Nole struggles serving, the match could tilt the other way. Given how poorly I predicted the women’s final between Serena Williams and Sam Stosur, this prediction should make Nadal fans smile.
Running Commentary – S. Stosur vs. S. Williams
Serena seems to be showing some bad body language. As if to say, I should not be playing this poorly. Fact is for 5 games her power has been matched. No need to feign shock just dig in (if I was Serena’s coach).
Mac saying she is not moving well and looks low on energy. Enberg talking about injuries. More bad body language at falling behind 2-4, 0-40. Now 5-2 Stosur 8 straight points. I know a set is never won or lost until it is over, but the first set should be in Storsur’s column.
10 straight points for Stosur 5-2, 30-0. Make it 11 and 3 set points for Stosur. Serena bounces her racket. Forehand winner 12 straight points 6-2 Stosur! I never saw this coming.
Serena breaks the string of points. Can the new set bring a new reality for both players? 15-30 Stosur is in a good place. Sam is using power and topspin to lower risks of errors. 15-40 Forehand winner from Stosur to earn two break points. (15 out of 16 points!) Ace from Serena to stem the momentum. Deuce and Serena seems animated. Stsour still breaks serve. Momentum is with the Aussie for now.
Serena quickly to 3 break points. Amazing point to get to 15-40, now 30-40. Serena digs deep to level the 2nd set 1-1. Fans are jumping on to Serena’s bandwagon.
Serena is on a mini-roll 1-1, 40-0. Forehand winner from Stosur, but Serena holds easily and seems dialed into the match. 6-2, 1-2 Stosur leads.
This game seems huge. If Stosur holds, maybe Serena’s momentum and anger subside. If Serena jumps to a 3-1, this could be a quick set. 15-30 Serena seems to have the momentum. 15-40 off of a weak slice. Ace for 30-40. Deuce. A hold here would change the tone of the match yet again. Slices and a big forehand, is Stosur channeling Steffi? Ad Stosur. Deuce. Stosur’s forehand appears to have more placement options than Serena’s. Williams needs to address every ball she can to Stosur’s backhand. Ad Stosur. Ace for 2-2.
Williams with a quick hold. Stosur leads 6-2, 2-3. 30-15. Stosur maybe plays an out ball rather than challenge. 30-30. 40-30. Stosur is not rolling as she was to end the first set, but if she keeps holding the pressure will swing back to Serena. 3-3 after a drop shot and forehand winning pass. Serena’s “Don’t get in my way” quote after the 2009 mess seems like a bad idea. 6-2, 3-3.
6-2, 3-3 30-30 huge point right here. Defense and use of slices and top spin save Stosur. 30-40 (break point). The Steffi slice draws an error. 6-2, 4-3. Shock.
Routine hold – 6-2, 5-3????
Forehand error from Serena. 15-30. Backhand error 15-40 double match point. 30-40 both players played it safe. Big serve and forehand – deuce. Huge forehand return and huge forehand winner from Stosur for match point #3. Second serve, Stosur steps around and cracks a forehand for a return winner. 6-2, 6-3 … wow! To end the match on two winners after Serena saved two match points is impressive as well.
I am not calling this NC State over Houston, but who saw this coming?
Samantha Stosur versus Serena Williams
Both players are among the most powerful on the women’s tour. Stosur beat Serena at the 2010 French Open. I can give a lot of reasons to try to make this sound like a close match on paper, but to be honest Serena Williams looks like a heavy favorite. Here is a more formal look at the match:
Each player is among the top 5 servers in the WTA. I think Serena gets the edge as hitting big serves under pressure is an area in which Williams has a wealth of experience.
Serena has been vulnerable here in the past. I think she has gotten herself into good shape since Wimbledon ended. Stosur is also quite fit. I doubt either player loses due to lack of conditioning.
Stosur can match Serena’s power here. However, I think Serena is a more natural mover and that combination of power and court coverage gives and edge to Serena.
Sam Stosur has the power and fitness to play with Serena. If Stosur comes out loose and looking to enjoy a great opportunity, the Aussie can win. She still might lose if she plays in this manner. Serena has typically played extremely well under pressure. Stosur looked tight at the 2010 French Open. I think if Stosur learns from how loose and joyful Francesca Schiavone was in their French Open final, she can push Serena and maybe pull the upset. If Stosur plays a nervous first set, the match is likely over before it even starts.
Serena Williams has at least an 80% chance of winning today.
Novak Djokovic just completing a 2 sets to love comeback in the US Open semifinal makes writing this a bit surreal. I think comebacks from 2 sets down are one of the most unique events in all of the sporting world. Jimmy Connors turned the momentum of one such comeback into an indelible memory for all tennis fans.
1991 and Early Magic
Prior to the US Open, Jimmy Connors had already put forth an interesting set of results in 1991. He won a 5 set match at the French Open versus Ronald Agenor and then lost a 5 set tilt with Michael Chang. At Wimbledon, Jimmy beat Aaron Krickstein before losing to Derrick Rostagno. In both Paris and London, Connors reached the round of 32. Not bad for a 38 year old man coming back from one year off due to wrist surgery.
My Memories of Jimmy’s US Open Run
Jimmy Connors drew the 1991 Australian Open semifinalist Patrick McEnroe in the first round. This was not an ideal draw, and the seeds in Jimmy’s quarter of the draw were Karel Novacek, Andre Agassi, Petr Korda and Boris Becker. Connors was slated to possibly face the 10th seeded Novacek in the 3rd round.
Connors d. Patrick McEnroe 4-6, 6-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-4
The first two sets saw similar players scrap on the court. Connors came up short in two close sets and looked to be in serious trouble. My parents insisted I needed sleep before school in the morning when the second set ended. I told my parents, “I’m going to be upset if I wake up and Jimmy has come back to win.” My parents won the argument. Sure enough sometime in my sleeping hours, my older brother woke me up to tell me Connors had won. This has to be the most famous come from behind match in US Open history. Also, Agassi and Korda lost in the first round.
Connors d. Michiel Schapers 6-2, 6-3, 6-2
I vowed to watch this night match from start to finish no matter what time school came the next day. Fortunately, this was a one sided affair. The crowd was strongly behind Connors before the match began, and Schapers did not have the game to trouble Jimmy. This match felt like a victory lap. An easy night match victory had me excited to see where this run was headed. The electricity from the crowd, even on television during a one-sided match, was captivating.
Connors d. Karel Novacek 6-1, 6-4, 6-3
Jimmy facing the #10 seed and a daytime match had me worried. How would Jimmy handle the heat and a top 10 seed? Instead, he made Novacek look bad. Jimmy bested the heat and Novacek with ease. Plus, #1 seed Boris Becker was beaten in the 3rd round. I started thinking Connors could reach the semifinal round because Connors had handled Krickstein so easily at Wimbledon just 2 months earlier.
Connors d. Aaron Krickstein 3-6, 7-6, 1-6, 6-2, 7-6
Krickstein put forth a great effort at the 1991 US Open himself. He beat Andre Agassi in straight sets to open the tournament. He had also reached the US Open quarterfinal round in 1988 and 1990 and reached the semifinal round in 1989. He had a habit of digging deep and winning long matches in New York. Krickstein was one of my favorite players to watch at the US Open because he always seemed to pull off a win or push a top guy to the limit. Still, I was firmly in the Connors camp.
Any thoughts of an easy Labor Day win evaporated in the first set. Krickstein looked cool, he was hitting his forehand well, and he was riding momentum from his first round drubbing of Andre Agassi. I recall the second set being a back and forth affair. The tiebreaker in the second set was full of tension. Both guys had chances, but a controversial exchange with the umpire fueled Connors as he won the set and leveled the match. In 1990, John McEnroe had been defaulted from the Australian Open for an outburst over officiating. During the exchange, I was concerned that Connors might get defaulted. Connors avoided certain magic words, but I was a bit surprised that no warnings were issued. Krickstein and Connors made short work of the 3rd and 4th sets with each taking one set in a one-sided manner.
Connors seemed to rest in the 3rd, but opened the 5th set by coming to the net a little too predictably and fell behind. Jimmy came back from 2-5 down to force a 5th set tiebreaker. I remember my adrenaline flowing from just watching the 5th set and was amazed at how well Connors kept his nerve to finish the match. The love affair with the crowd was at what seemed to be a maximum level. It did not hurt that it was both Labor Day and Jimmy’s 39th birthday.
Connors d. Paul Haarhuis 4-6, 7-6, 6-4, 6-2
Connors was facing a player who had posted big wins at the US Open over John McEnroe in 1989 and #1 seed Boris Becker earlier at the 1991 event. I remember Haarhuis playing John McEnroe in 1989 with shoes that were falling apart due to having no sponsorship deal. 2 years later he entered his match with Connors as the favorite to reach a Grand Slam semifinal. Haarhuis had a big forehand, a strong serve and more firepower than Krickstein or Patrick McEnroe. For most of 2 sets, it looked like Connors was just up against too much firepower.
The entire match shifted on a single point. Connors threw up 4 lobs and then hit a screaming backhand winner on the full run to level the second set. I as a tennis player and fan feel privileged to have watched that point as it happened. The love affair between Jimmy Connors and the crowd indeed topped even the conclusion of the Krickstein match. Connors took control of the match and reached a Grand Slam semifinal at the age of 39.
Jim Courier d. Connors 6-3, 6-3, 6-2
The 4th seed and reigning French Open champion was the wrong type of player for a 39 year old to beat. Courier had more power than Haarhuis. He was more consistent than Krickstein. He was as fit as any man on tour. He also liked to grind and fight. I remember an early point in the match in which Connors seemingly had the point won with a lob and Courier ran the lob down and took the point. Connors had very few options in how to attack a player 18 years younger than him playing as well as Courier was. Courier would reach higher places in 1992 and 1993, but Courier was playing incredibly well in 1991 and had not dropped a set in reaching his first US Open final (Stefan Edberg changed that factoid by demolishing Courier in the final).
I felt sad at the result, but also felt that Jimbo had won every match in which he had a realistic chance to win. As much as Edberg owned Courier in the final, I think the contrast in match-ups between Connors and Edberg might have given Jimmy a chance to make his return of serve and passing shots a factor had he drawn the Swede in the semifinal round. Courier was too consistent and did not give Jimmy any sort of a target.
This of course was not the end of Jimmy capturing some imagination in New York. Jimmy won a straight sets first round match in 1992 on his 40th birthday. He also stormed through the first set and took a break lead in the 2nd set before succumbing to Ivan Lendl in the 1992 2nd round. I am glad I saw those two night matches in 1992. Jimmy Connors helped get me into playing and following tennis and few athletes in any sport have been able to make the crowd react the way Jimmy did.
It has been 20 years since his magical run and a lot of memorable things have happened in New York. Pete Sampras overcame illness in 1996 and won as a going away gift in 2002. Roger Federer won 5 consecutive titles. Patrick Rafter, Lleyton Hewitt and Rafa Nadal were warriors in their title runs. Andy Roddick won from two sets down in the 2003 semifinal before taking the title. Andre Agassi had a lot of moments. Marat Safin and Stefan Edberg put on jaw dropping displays in one-sided final victories. Still, nothing has recaptured the imagination of the live crowd the way Jimmy Connors did in 1991.