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:
Boris Becker
Pete Sampras
Henri Leconte
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
Patrick Rafter

Fabrice Santoro

Marat Safin

Rafael Nadal

My most fun players to watch play who weren’t so good:

Andrew Illie

Dustin Brown

Jeff Salzenstein

Gianluca Pozzi

My most-boring good players to watch:

Todd Martin
Michael Chang
Ivan Lendl
Aaron Krickstein
Mats Wilander

(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.)
Mac and Borg



  • Scoop Malinowski · December 8, 2011 at 12:31 pm

    Where’s Vince? No, pretty solid read, you nailed in the prime suspects, maybe missing Rios, did you ever see Rios play at his best? Photowoman Alese Pechter said Rios brought the stadium (Key Biscayne) to life when he stepped on the court, ranking him up there with Jimbo as for how he stirred the crowds up. But your list is spot on, maybe Nadal deserves to be in there, Disagree on calling Djokovic’s game boring, I like his speed and his personality comes out in subtle ways, an elongated grunt on a big winner, a small gesture like pulling his ear after a bad miss. Plus the way he moves around the court with speed and elegance is something to marvel about, nobody moves better than him now. Was Ashe that exciting? He was before my time and the few times I’ve seen his matches on Tennis Channel, it’s hard to imagine him to be called one of the most exciting players ever. He seemed almost as robotic as Borg though he did play a super aggressive attacking game.

  • Steve · December 8, 2011 at 2:37 pm

    For me it’s Goran. Can’t tell you how many crazy 5 setters he was in. Now it’s Dolgo.

  • Scoop Malinowski · December 8, 2011 at 3:26 pm

    Goran beating Rafter at Wimbledon was as good as it gets as far as exciting finals, especially the ending with Goran kissing the ball before serving the match points. But aside from some Wimbledon matches with Agassi and Sampras, I can’t remember any of his five setters in other slams. My most exciting players (no order): Dolgopolov, McEnroe, Connors, Hewitt, Rios, Monfils, Capriati winning her first slam was one of the most dramatic moments in WTA history so must give Capriati a mention.

  • Steve · December 8, 2011 at 3:52 pm

    There’s a Mac vs. Wilander Davis Cup match that’s amazing. Exciting may not be the right word for Wilander. Maybe interesting? You can see the wheels turning as he decides what strategy to employ next.
    Agassi vs. Wilander at the French Open was great too.

  • Dan Markowitz · December 8, 2011 at 7:45 pm

    I completely agree that Dolgo is the one player today who I will drop everything to go out and watch play. Scoop, never really saw Rios play live and if I had the chance I think I steered away from him because I thought he was such a —hole. I told you a story of doing a major article on Agassi in 1995, and walking up to Rios in Cincy to see what he could impart on Andre, and he basically said, “I’m not going to answer any questions about another player.”

    You’re right, Ashe was sort of robotic like Borg, but he had a flair to him, and just the fact that he was black, when there were no other black players on tour, added to his mystique.

    I guess the other two players I could mention would be Arazi and Kuerten.

  • Steve · December 8, 2011 at 8:31 pm

    Ah, I almost forgot, Fognini. He seems to thrive in utter chaos. Whether it’s playing in darkness or on one leg. He can also rip ground strokes when you least expect it and has an amazing lob. I also like the way he strides around the court like he owns the place.

  • Scoop Malinowski · December 8, 2011 at 10:06 pm

    True Steve, he became a superstar IMO after that Monfils win at French Open, that was an unbelievable effort, one of the most astonishing wins in years. Fognini will not shy away from trouble either, he has gotten into some heated personal clashes with other players too, which is always interesting.

  • Steve · December 8, 2011 at 10:21 pm

    Scoop, did you ever interview Fognini? Might be a good Profile.

  • Dan Markowitz · December 8, 2011 at 11:16 pm

    Yes, but Fognini is the reason why Djoko didn’t win the Grand Slam. If he hadn’t defaulted, I like Djoko to beat both Fed and Nadal. But Djoko did get the Fed-Nadal knockout at the Open.

  • Scoop Malinowski · December 9, 2011 at 12:36 am

    I sure did and posted it at this site. Got him at US Open two years ago in small interview room 2 with the Davis Cup team officials in the back of the room observing. It was okay, but his English is not very strong and he couldn’t answer everything. I also tried to get him on the media bus going back to NYC the year before and he rejected to do it.

  • Scoop Malinowski · December 9, 2011 at 12:38 am

  • Andrew Miller · December 9, 2011 at 4:21 am

    In person, 1990-2011






    Honorable Mention:





    call me crazy, but Tatiana Golovin was great to watch.




  • Dan Markowitz · December 9, 2011 at 10:42 am


    You mention Spadea, and of course, in my lifetime, his matches were the most fun for me to watch because I felt I had a vested interest. Even before, I wrote “Break Point” with Vince, though, I thought he was a tantalizing player to watch. I remember the first time I saw him play, in the Grandstand against Luis Horna, first round of the 2004 US Open, and there was a seriousness about his work, an intensity. He didn’t play to the crowd at all, but you could see how smart a player he was and of course, the backhand was a beautiful shot.

    Then as I wrote the book with Vince, and saw a lot of his matches, and rooted for him, and then often would dissect the matches with him afterward, I got even more involved in his battles. The match against Safin in the first round of the Open, forget what year now, in Arthur Ashe, where Vince took Marat to five was great.

    But perhaps, the first match I saw him play in 2005, at Indian Wells against Jan Hernych stands out. It went three sets and Vince served for the match in the third, and it was great tennis, on a side court, with Vince pinning Hernych into the backhand corner with his cross-court backhand, but Hernych solving the riddle. I remember after the match, Vince walking off the court and Robert Lansdorp and then Pancho Segura coming up to him and saying different things. And I knew right there, that while Vince wasn’t a great one, he was a player that the top coaches and former players paid attention to because his game struck a fancy in them.

  • Steve · December 9, 2011 at 12:55 pm

    Thanks Scoop!

  • Steve · December 9, 2011 at 12:58 pm

    I had forgotten about that profile. doh.

  • Dan Markowitz · December 9, 2011 at 5:47 pm

    You see, Andrew, calling Tatiana Golovin “exciting” to watch play is a different type of excitement. I mean, yes, she’s exciting to watch play, but maybe not so much because of the way she plays but how sexy she was/is? Using that “excitement” Richter, Kirilenko, Dulko and Wozniaki are exciting to watch play.

    Why did you find Rios exciting to watch?

  • Scoop Malinowski · December 9, 2011 at 9:47 pm

    Vince was good to watch. He always seemed to be the underdog and had a Rocky Balboa quality about him. Though he concealed his passion and emotions on the court you could still tell he was feeling those emotions. I first did a Biofile with Vince in about 2004 and he stood out from the pack in his own way, with his own personality and style. Your book really showed that less successful players are just as interesting and compelling as the top guns. Nice anecdote about Landsdorp and Segura with Vince.

  • Scoop Malinowski · December 9, 2011 at 9:48 pm

    It wasn’t the best Biofile but still somewhat informative. It would probably have been much better if I used a translator.

  • Andrew Miller · December 10, 2011 at 5:44 am

    Dan – Kirilenko makes me want to take Russian lessons. Both a solid player as well as, probably? the WTA’s best looking player?

    Ha Golovin was exciting because of her match against Sharapova in Miami in 2006. I went to the match with my mom and sister and we were a little bit upset by Sharapova and the “hitch” in her forehand – sure it’s nuclear, but it also has a little wrinkle in it and the shrieking wasn’t going well with us. We noticed that even though Golovin was down, she had been competitive all throughout and still had energy to burn, so we started really pulling for her and trying to be a vocal part of the crowd, and all of a sudden it was pretty contagious and we (the crowd) really DID become a force during the Golovin match. That was the most I have ever said “Let’s go Tatiana! Come on Golovin!” in my life, we must have yelled it a few hundred times. Golovin responded beautifully – I seriously believe she heard our yelling and started to play some seriously solid tennis. We cheered every point for her and she was on her way to pulling it out until she twisted her ankle and had to default.

    Here’s what ESPN had said at the time during a live blog:

    “Sharapova hasn’t exactly been a crowd favorite here in Miami, but her favorable rating just hit a new low: She was booed for taking a bathroom break leading 5-4 before Golovin’s serve. Golovin is sitting with a towel over her legs and the crowd is chanting her name. ”

    Here’s what took place in the interview room:

    Q. It seemed like the crowd was rooting for an upset. I never saw a match with you where the crowd was against you, it seemed like.
    MARIA SHARAPOVA: I think the crowd always wants a semifinal to be entertaining. I think at the point where 6-3, 5-1 or 2, I mean, the crowd definitely wants her to come back in. And with those — with that game that we played where it was four matchpoints and she was able to come back, and the quality of the tennis that we played, I mean, definitely you’re going to expect the crowd to start, you know, trying to bring her back.
    Q. What was the situation with the bathroom break?
    MARIA SHARAPOVA: Well, I’ve — I had to go to the bathroom from the beginning of the set, and that was the longest game. I mean, that was like a five-, seven-minute game. I really had to go. In the middle of the sets I had to change, which is absolutely normal.
    Q. Were you surprised by the boos from the crowd at that point?
    MARIA SHARAPOVA: No, it’s part of the sport. It happens everywhere – NBA. I mean, the crowd needs entertainment.

    So yeah, that’s why I thought watching Golovin was exciting. Not only pretty but she played with fire and had some pop in her game. It was fun to root for her.

    As for Rios, sheesh I mean what COULDNT he do with a tennis ball? I watched him in practice and he really made it look like everyone else in the world, no matter how many years on the tour, was a beginner in terms of how they played the game. I know you are a fan of McEnroe – I never saw him play in person (his brother Pat McEnroe yes at the “Tournament of Champions”, Forest Hills, 1990 in NYC). I also saw Vlad Voltchkov play – good player. See – even those tournaments, seeing Javier Sanchez (who did not get to the level of his brother Emilio, let alone Aranxta), you see how good these players are. Solid as a rock.

    So anyhows – yes – Rios did things with a tennis ball I didn’t think were possible. I saw him practice in 2001 and 2002, and both times watching him it was a revelation – I thought this guy is one of the most gifted players to ever hold a racquet.

    McEnroe, Federer, Nadal, Henin. I think Rios belongs there too in terms of what he could do. He had as much talent as anyone. Heck that is why Scoop wrote his book!

  • Dan Markowitz · December 10, 2011 at 12:32 pm

    I liked watching Emilio Sanchez. I remember once in that old Tournament of Champions at Forest Hills he was playing doubles with Lendl against Leconte and someone else and it was very entertaining. The guy was uber good-looking, too. Very manly looking, couldn’t believe that Arantxa was his sister, because, frankly, she wasn’t exactly the best-looking woman, and here was Emilio looking like the king of Spain.

    It’s always fun to get behind a player, particularly an underdog and feel like you were partially responsible for spurring her/him on.

    I think part of the problem with Rios, why I don’t remember marveling over the way he played much, is that besides that Miami match with Agassi, I don’t remember any other big matches he played. I know he got to No. 1 and lost in a slam finals (against Korda I believe), but other than that I can’t remember one other big match he played.

  • Scoop Malinowski · December 10, 2011 at 12:38 pm

    I remember that Golovin match, that was her big moment. Andrew I agree crowd support like that can turn around a match. Dan did it to Safin and for Spadea. Djokovic manipulated the US Open SF stadium to his side after that forehand MP down winner vs Fed earlier this year. Crowd support makes the difference sometimes and it was for Golovin that day with Sharapova but Maria fought through the adversity, she is a great fighter. Rios was exciting because he was just a different player than any other who ever played the game, he played a different game, like Luke Jensen said he was ahead of his time, his time hasn’t come yet. You see everyone else play and practice and it’s neat to see, then you see Rios and it’s a totally different ballgame, on a different level. You explained it nicely in my book Andrew, you really captured his essence from those practice sessions in DC.

  • Thomas Tung · December 12, 2011 at 4:27 am

    I remember Rios playing a 1st round match against Markus Hipfl of Austria once at the 2001 US Open, winning 3-6, 7-5, 6-2, 6-0. It was one heck of a fight; Hipfl was coached by Muster’s former stalwart, Ronnie Leitgeib, and seemed to have taken a page or two out of the old Muster playbook; relentless grinding, trying to set up his big forehand for the kill. Every point, from start to finish, was super intense. Even the last set was much more closely contested than the score would indicate — you’d think they were in the tiebreak, the tension was so thick … after winning, Rios shook hands with Hipfl, and complimented him on his tough, relentless play out there, not giving one inch to him. He then proceeded to toss some of his racquets (including one that he’d broken earlier during the match) and gear to the fans, most of them Chilean. A point that really stood out was when Hipfl hit a dropshot that Rios ran down for a winner; a really great burst of pure speed and balance. My friend Henry, who was courtside, says that Rios was muttering “Fast, fast, fast, fast” as he ran down the ball, but I was courtside, too, and remember Rios saying, “F&ck, F&ck, F&ck, F&ck” …

  • Scoop Malinowski · December 12, 2011 at 2:05 pm

    Sounds like a helluva match, thanks for the report Thomas, what court was it on? I enjoy reading recaps of old forgotten classics like this one. LOl at the mutterings of Rios, given some other anecdotes I’ve heard from ballkids of Rios matches, I’ll take your word for it not Hank’s fast fast fast fast.

  • Dan Markowitz · December 12, 2011 at 11:36 pm

    But was Rios so different or a better player than Coria? They seem to be very similar players. Fast as lightening, maybe Rios had more flair in striking the ball than Coria.

  • Scoop Malinowski · December 13, 2011 at 1:05 am

    He was definitely a more aesthetic player than Rios, more creative and unpredictable, Coria was more like an Agassi or a Davydenko just an incredibly consistent, technically perfect player who could hit all day and night if he had to. Not a lot of artistry to his game, like Rios. Safin said Rios had the talent to win “ten grand slams.” Thomas Johansson said Rios could make you feel like a beginner on the court. Nobody ever said that about Canas, to my recollection.



Find it!

Copyright 2010
To top