Tennis Prose



Can Perfect Tennis Be Played?

By Scoop Malinowski

Sports can create the impossible phenomenon of human perfection in the competitive arena. Nadia Comaneci’s 10 at the 1976 Olympics. Heavyweight champion Mike Tyson’s 56-second knockout of previously unbeaten Michael Spinks in 1988. The Don Larsen “perfect game” pitching performance in the Major League Baseball “World Series” game. Usain Bolt’s world record in the Olympic 100 meters final are select examples.

In tennis there have also been a number of extraordinary, masterful matches played where one player exhibits pure magic on the court against a formidable challenger.

While it’s difficult to pinpoint from the huge inventory of so many matches in all the professional tournaments worldwide, I have noticed in my years covering the sport that certain contests have gained particular distinction of being closer to perfection.

While working on “Facing Guillermo Vilas” book, Guillermo Salatino, the renowned journalist of Argentina, revealed to me two very special performances by Vilas: “One of the best matches I ever saw – in Madison Square Garden, Vilas against Connors in the Masters. Vilas won 7-5 in the third. Unbelievable match. I watched this match with Ilie Nastase and Manuel Santana. And Nastase told me, ‘It’s difficult to play better than this.’ But his best match was in Davis Cup against John McEnroe. He was losing 2-4 and beat him 6-4 6-0 5-0. Lost one game. 64 60 61. For me, it was the perfect tennis from Vilas. Impossible to play better than this.”

Former Wimbledon champion Sidney Wood wrote in his book “The Wimbledon Final That Never Was” about an anecdote of Don Budge talking about the finest tennis he ever saw played. “Lew Hoad once administered a forty-minute rout of Pancho Gonzales in a national pro final which prompted Don Budge to say that this was the greatest tennis exhibition he’d ever seen.” It was the year Hoad was one match from winning the Grand Slam in 1956, losing to Ken Rosewall in the final of the US Championships.

Of course, Steffi Graf won a Roland Garros final 60 60 vs Natalia Zverev, which can certainly be considered as a form of perfection, even if the Russian was intimidated and wrecked by nerves of the occasion, Graf still managed to maintain her highest level.

Serena Williams won the 2012 Olympic gold medal final 60 61 vs her arch rival Maria Sharapova.

One match that rarely is discussed but is held in high regard by those who saw it is the 1998 Miami Open final where Marcelo Rios defeated Andre Agassi in three straight sets to clinch the world no. 1 ranking. Brad Gilbert was there live as the coach of Agassi, and had this to say of the Rios performance in my book “Marcelo Rios: The Man We Barely Knew”: “One of the greatest matches I ever saw anybody play against Andre was the final of the ’98 Key Biscayne. Andre played Rios and I was thinking Andre was gonna be pretty straight-forward, just take care of business. And this guy hit angles and he hit shots and he served and played – like, I thought he was destined to win at least five majors the way he was playing. A lot of talent. Andre walked off the court and said to me, ‘Geez, I thought I played okay..’ And he lost – it was best of five final – he lost 5-4-3. I mean, he was never in it. It was an incredible match by Rios. Andre was coming back from his ’97 season. He was playing well, he got to the final of Key Biscayne. He plays well there. But that was an amazing match by Rios.”

Who could forget Lleyton Hewitt’s or Marat Safin’s US Open final destructions of Pete Sampras? Both were two of the finest Grand Slam finals ever played. Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal built their legends with some of their unforgettable Grand Slam final triumphs.

The best tennis ever played… has it been played? Or perhaps have the tennis Gods saved the all time tennis pinnacle of court brilliance for the future, or maybe will it manifest in 2022?

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  • Vijay · January 1, 2022 at 9:29 pm

    Edberg beat someone 60, 60, 60, at Wimbledon once. Canadian chap.

    Sampras mid 90s destroyed Mark Woodford. Woodford was a good singles player then, but Sampras toyed with him the entire match. All I remember was winners from Sampras’ backhand, lots of aces, and some of his leaping dunk-overheads.

    All these great athlestes are capable of perfection, but it’s the perfect confluence of events, both in their private lives, as well as their professional preparation, not to mention the opponent they face, that produces moments of perfection. In any case, it’s why everyone plays. To have that moment, that seems to last forever, where everything is easy, and the opponent is irrelevant. It just gets harder once you’re a pro.

  • Scoop Malinowski · January 2, 2022 at 8:39 am

    Vijay, I was just talking about Edberg’s triple bagel at Wimbledon with a former player, it’s a tripe bagel that is rarely mentioned. He said it was vs Stefan Eriksson. Bruguera also had a TB vs Theirry Champion at Roland Garros one year he won. Federer beat Gaudio and M Zverev by double bagel.

  • Vijay · January 2, 2022 at 3:38 pm

    I remember Edberg’s triple bagel quite vividly. Very few aces by him (though he did hit a few slice serves for ace out wide on the deuce court), lots of volley winners, and also lots of incredible forehand returns of serve. Perhaps he peaked too early in the tournament. After that performance, he was bound to come down to earth.

  • Scoop Malinowski · January 2, 2022 at 6:38 pm

    Here is what the pro told me happened to poor Eriksson after the triple bagel: He lost triple bagel to Stefan Edberg at Wimbledon one year (1987 first round). So after Eriksson lost that match his wife said, “That’s it, from now on you stay home, coach and play bundesliga.” He was in his early twenties and top 100.

  • catherine · January 3, 2022 at 1:40 am

    I don’t think you can have a ‘perfect’ performance in a sport, like tennis, where you have an opponent affecting what happens. Golf perhaps, darts, athletics, activities where you are against the clock. Where measurements can be absolute. IMO.

    Maybe in tennis if you have a pure serve volleyer where the ball is only struck once 🙂 All aces. Has that ever happened ?

  • Scoop Malinowski · January 3, 2022 at 8:16 am

    Catherine, Querrey has the record for ten straight aces. Vs Blake in Indianapolis, using a Prince racquet, he then changed to Babolat for sponsor reasons and his serve is not as good.

  • Vijay · January 3, 2022 at 5:32 pm

    Catherine, that’s precisely the point. In a sport like tennis, the opponent affects so much of the outcome. And yet, every once in a while, you see virtuoso performances like those by Edberg and Sampras I mentioned before (and possibly the ones by Fed Scoop mentioned), where the opponent might as well have not been present. Edberg and Sampras were in complete and total control. Edberg didn’t serve many aces, but was always there for the volley, and made it look like he knew where every ball was going to be hit.

    Same with Sampras. Whatever he tried worked, and it didn’t matter what Woodford did. Sampras had an answer for everything, and made it all seem so effortless.

    This, the feeling of complete and total effortlessness, of making your opponent seem like furniture in your one-man show, is what perfection looks like in tennis. It’s not about serving aces or hitting winners. It’s about complete and absolute control over everything that happens on the court. Bending the game, the ball, it’s flight, everything, to your will. And Edberg and Sampras had that, at least once.

    Now, scores don’t tell you everything. A 6-0 set doesn’t mean total domination. There could have been lots of deuces, and tough games. Likewise, Sampras didn’t win any of his sets 6-0 against Woodford. But it didn’t matter. The points he lost were because he didn’t mind losing them. (And this is probably true for most matches Sampras played. He probably thought a 6-4 set was faster and easier for him than a 6-0 set.)

    Scoop: Any news about what happened to Eriksson? Did he actually quit?

  • Scoop Malinowski · January 3, 2022 at 5:56 pm

    Vijay, you describe perfect tennis better than I can! Sampras was well known for giving away return games. If he was down love thirty in his return game he would tank it. Wilander said in my Facing Sampras book, Pete would do that, tank return games so the opponent could not get into any rhythm. Pete would hold easy. So at 4-4, suddenly Pete would get that lead in the return game and get the break and serve it out. Pete’s scores were usually close and Wilander called it “ugly tennis.” Perfect tennis can be like a matador goring a bull in the bullfight without getting touched, they can make it look easy. But one mistake and it’s tragedy. Tennis is a sort more balanced bull fight. Or sword duel.

  • Vijay · January 3, 2022 at 8:00 pm

    Scoop, Sampras’ approach to sets, as you’ve described, is sometimes called the “Sampras” set. Now, that’s a high-wire act. You need complete confidence in your serve. And in your ability to raise your level when needed.

    Catherine, another way to think about perfection: Inevitability. At their greatest heights, there was a feeling of inevitability to what Edberg or Sampras did (and nowadays, the big three). The outcome seems . . . inevitable, as if preordained by the maestro in charge, the puppet-master, who has seen it all before it comes to pass, as if they are omniscient.

    The greatest works of art, the music of Chopin, the plays of Shakespeare, all have this feeling of inevitability. Everything is as it must be, just so, and it’s perfect.

    Getting a “perfect” score in darts or bowling is not perfection. Nothing about the release, or the moment when the dart of ball leaves the hand, tells you anything about what is going to happen. Same in archery, shooting, etc. And no spectator ever feels the same sense of inevitability. We applaud the outcome, but do you ever go back and fondly recall a virtuoso performance? No, because an almost perfect score looks the same as a perfect score. Or one that is far from it. It’s the outcome that matters, that is all.

    The ability to completely control and tame everything in your universe, or at least in your court or field of play, is unique to a few sports. Maradona in 1986, perhaps? People who play tennis yearn for those few moments when they can control everything. There are a few lucky enough to experience at some point in their lives. And fewer so at the highest levels, on the biggest of stages.

  • Scoop Malinowski · January 3, 2022 at 8:24 pm

    This is turning into a terrific symposium on sporting perfection. I might even suggest it as a part of the next issue of FINAL magazine. I’m working on Facing Novak Djokovic book. Here is what he told me about Djokvic… “Djokovic is the most perfect player in the history of tennis.”

  • Vijay · January 3, 2022 at 11:25 pm

    Scoop: Who said this about Djokovic? You left out the name. Would be hard to argue against.

    Another instance of (near) perfection. McEnroe v Connors, Wimbledon 1984. Yes, there weren’t any bagels, but did Connors really have a chance? Every game, every rally was McEnroe. He dominated the match, probably humiliating Connros, and speeding his demise (from late 90s to early 90s).

    Sadly, McEnroe never reached those heights again. And he was closer to the Grand Slam in 1984 than even Novak was in 2021.

  • catherine · January 4, 2022 at 1:32 am

    Vijay – ‘perfection’ ? I think we’re talking about different things, or ‘perfect’ is a word which is actually meaningless. What you and Scoop are describing is the state of being what used to be called ‘in the zone’ and the spectator feels it too. Several ways of describing that but ‘perfect’ is not the one I’d choose. It’s a matter of semantics really. We’re talking about the manner of doing something as well as the result.

    ‘Perfect’ can’t tell you that. We need the richness of English vocabulary, which I sometimes feel is shrivelling away before our eyes.



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