Splendor on the Grass

What makes a great tennis match great? I started asking myself this question while I was putting together a review of “A Terrible Splendor,” a new book hooked on a 1937 Davis Cup contest between Don Budge of the USA and Baron Gottfried von Cramm, representing Nazi Germany. The author, Marshall Jon Fisher, describes it as “the greatest tennis match ever played,” and with some justification. Budge won it in five dramatic sets—a heartbreaker for Cramm, a true gentleman and a homosexual who soon found himself at the mercy of Nazi authorities. Was it the greatest match of all time? Tennis legend Bill Tilden thought it was at the time, but there’s been a great deal of tennis since then, and the game has changed considerably. Being a sports fan, and this being the sports fan’s prerogative, I decided to make a list of greatest matches of my own, all from the modern era. My criteria, which I naturally violated, were as follows:

-Great players performing brilliantly
-An edge-of-the-seat, see-saw battle
-A grand stage with something important at stake
-An energized crowd
-Some kind of subtext that adds tension to the proceedings

With that, here are my Five Greatest Matches of All Time (Plus 2):

1: Borg d. McEnroe, 1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7 (16-18), 8-6, Wimbledon, 1980
The ultimate. A contrast of artistry, strategy, and personality played out over five sets for the sport’s most hallowed trophy. For a long time I thought Mac a bratty nuisance, and he was, but as a New Yorker I now find it impossible not to love him, as he is a microcosm of what makes this city great: its aggressive, abrasive, arrogant, creative, dirty, self-destructive, flat-out brilliance. And Borg was pretty good, too.

2: Nadal d. Federer, 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (7-5), 6-7 (8-6), 9-7, Wimbeldon, 2008
It is a testament to the genius of Borg-Mac ’80 that this classic is not in my top slot. While that first match was defined by its artistry, Nadal and Federer shall be remembered (at least by me) for power and force of will.

3: Evert d. Navratilova, 6-3, 6-7, 7-5, French Open, 1985
The consensus choice as the finest match in one of the greatest rivalries in sport. As a Navratilova fan, it hurts to choose this over her 1981 Australian final win. Let the record show Martina was the superior player.

4: Agassi d. Blake, 3-6, 3-6, 6-3, 6-3, 7-6 (8-6), US Open, 2005
A controversial choice, but a truly extraordinary match under the lights at Armstrong Stadium, the ultimate venue, now sadly replaced. Sampras may have been a greater champion, but in terms of creativity, showmanship, and guts, Agassi is unmatched, perhaps by anyone in tennis history. Blake, with his own fan contingent, was an equally compelling story. It says a great deal that, after perhaps only Derek Jeter and Muhammad Ali, Agassi remains the most beloved sports figure in New York.

5: Connors d. Krickstein, 3–6, 7–6 (8-6), 1–6, 6–3, 7–6 (6-4), US Open, 1991
The old man did it, his fist pump and banana-yellow racket forever etched in the minds of American tennis fans. This was an epic match, and Krickstein, a nice Jewish boy with a killer forehand, was a darling of the New York crowd. It was Connors’s 39th birthday.

HM: King d. Riggs, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3, “Battle of the Sexes,” 1973
Can you really make any kind of greatest tennis list without BJK? This may not have been a terrific match, but none has ever been more important, both for tennis and the culture at large. My mother still crows about this match, and rightly.

HM2: S. Williams d. V. Williams, 7-6 (8-6), 7-6 (7-5), US Open 2008
As a NY partisan, I choose this over the Wimbledon final won by Venus a few months prior. The sisters catch way too much heat in the tennis press. I think they’re great, and vastly preferable to the cookie-cutter robots that are so prevalent.

Yes, it’s highly subjective. Feel free to share your favorites in the comments.

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