The Five Most Exciting Players I’ve Seen In My Lifetime
I’ve seen a lot of exciting players play. I remember watching Arthur Ashe, and while he was conservative in demeanor and appearance, certainly early in his career (he did have his later period where he grew his Afro out and wore a beaded necklace), he had a pretty flashy game. He liked to spank his forehand and backhand and rush the net.
Of course, there was Nastase when I was a kid going to Forest Hills. The Romanian wore his black silky hair pretty long and had a beautiful wife–maybe she was the first wife the tennis media paid attention to?–and Ilie was the master of the flick shots and was very graceful in the way he slid on the clay of Forest Hills.
Vilas was about as manly a guy as I could imagine as a kid. He seemed to be busting out of his outfit and he had the long hair like Borg, but played a much more physical game. And then there was Gerulaitis, who I got to see play at Wimbledon in 1982, streaking to the net off his flat, slice shots and making daring volleys.
But my top 5 in descending order are:
5. Yannick Noah–There was a visceral feel of excitement that followed Noah. He was big, black and beautiful and spoke with a French accent. I know France now has Tsonga and Monfils, and they are very exciting in their own ways, but Noah paved the way for these two gents, and he was better-looking and a better athlete than both. Of course, he also won a slam. Noah had deficiencies in his game. He didn’t come over his backhand well. He wasn’t a great serve and volleyer for a man his size and agility, but what he didn’t have in game, he made up for it in panache.
4. Andre Agassi–When Agassi came on the scene in the late-80’s he was a force/freak of nature. He wore colorful shirts and denim shorts and absolutely clocked his forehand. He didn’t strap his hair down with a headband the way Borg or Vilas did, but let his fly behind him as he ran. The first time he beat Connors at the Open in 1988 (where someone in the crowd called out the classic line to Connors, “He’s a punk, you’re a legend.”) Agassi absolutely blitzed him. Nobody was flashier/glitzier–it was absolutely perfect he was from Las Vegas–then/since or now.
3. Jimmy Connors–I could really put Jimmy as No. 1. I wasn’t even a fan of Jimmy’s game, but there”ll never be another Jimmy. Roddick and Harrison are just poor successors to Jimmy’s gutsy/sizzling/street brawl game. Connors was drawn up out of Central Casting. The East St. Louis flash, taught by Mom and Two-Mom, played the game like a girl, but what a girl! When he left Illinois at 16, where’d he go? Of course, LA where he was taught by a little Ecuadorian, Pancho Segura. Who was his first pro match played with? None other than with Pancho Gonzalez as his doubles partner at the Open. He had the body of a rock star, the purest backhand I’ve ever seen, and he had some of the best verbal lines and banter with the crowd in the history of the game. Even if you saw him play in his forties in his own senior tour, toying with the likes of Borg, Vilas and at first, Johnny Mac, you couldn’t help but be awed.
2. Roger Federer–the young Federer, I’m talking about. Something has gone out of this older version, even though he’s still wondrous to watch. But the younger version, moved so beautiful and had a panache and rebellious air to him. The shots flowed off his racket. He played for the love of the game more, it seemed, then to be the best. His face, with the squished features, looked prize-fighter-ish and he seemed to have a Buddha-calm. The forehand was the most beautiful shot the game has ever seen. The arched-back serve (Spadea said he tossed at 11:30 on his serve, an anomaly) and the silky hands. Possibly, the perfect player, but he lacked a certain gravitas or animal instinct to him.
1. John McEnroe–No one played the game like Johnny Mac, Mac the Knife, McBrat. The racquet was an extension of his arm, an artistic wand and his palette was filled with outrageous touches, flicks, half-volleys, minimalistic massages and top-of-the-bounce punches off his groundies and a corkscrew serve like no other. He was a New Yorker, such an anomaly for a pro tennis player, but he played the game like a hoopster with a bravado, sneer and in-your-face brilliance. At first, pleasantly plump and then weedy-thin, his matches were a combination of great tennis-drama-and psychological mayhem. Anyone who watches his 1984 Mac-Connors semifinals, I think would have to agree that the tennis was thrilling, raw, immediate and thoroughly-entertaining. It was like these guys weren’t playing a tennis match but were fighting for their lives. The crowds today don’t get nearly as into the match and the skills and personalities of the players the way they did with a Mac-Connors knife fight. It’s like watching West Side Story compared to the remake of “How To Succeed In Business” on Broadway today with the Harry Potter young’un. Nadal-Djoko was high-level tennis this year in the final, but on an excitement level, the style of play and the dynamic between the opponents, it was second-rate to Mac-Connors
I can’t think of any match up today that nearly rivals a match like this. They played at such a pleasingly-fast pace (no excessive towel-wiping, three-and-four-ball examinations before serve or dribbling the ball or picking at their butts a million times, no injury time-out’s, just good ol’ in-your-face verbal brawls at times) and charged the net and hit searing shots rather than egregious spinners. I know a lot of people who saw those great McEnroe matches with Connors and Borg and even Lendl that prefer them to Nadal-Fed or Fed-Djoko today. Johnny Mac, he was inimitable in style and personality. A Grigor Dimitrov never was ever to mime his game the way Fed’s has been today.
My runner-up most exciting players are in no apparent order:
My most fun players to watch play who weren’t so good:
My most-boring good players to watch:
(Btw, in this match, John Newcombe, doing commentary with Tony Trabert and Pat Summeral says the classic line, “I got a feeling we’re going to be calling a Mark Kratzman semi final someday here at the Open, too.” Kratzman had beaten Becker in the Open junior final in ’84 and also won Wimby juniors, but so many top juniors, was mostly a bust as a pro.)