One-sided matches in tennis, or any sport, are rarely interesting to watch. So why the widespread delight among tennis watchers over Roger Federer's demolition jobs on Andy Roddick and Mark Phillippousis to win Wimbledon last year? Or his stellar play as he crushed Andre Agassi to win the Grand Slam Cup in November, capping a week of sensational play?
Simple: because Federer played incandescent tennis, in some ways tennis reminiscent of years gone by. And when you're watching incandescence, the steamrolling doesn't matter. Ask a tennis junkie to pick ten favourite matches from the last couple of decades, and I will bet at least one, maybe two, matches like that -- one-way all the way -- will make her list.
Well, one certainly makes my list. (None of Federer's, though they are close).
That's because of what went into that match. Tot it up. Two players who are, at the time, clearly the best in the world and playing that way, playing their best against each other. Two players with completely contrasting styles of play. Not just in the way they approach the game, but also in how they look while playing. One is all brutal power; solid, heavy shots hit with great strength from anywhere on the court; an admirably efficient, muscular game, but with not a thing elegant or attractive in it. The other has power too, but also grace and finesse; gazelle to his opponent's bull, he seems not so much to run about the court as to glide swiftly.
And when the gazelle wins -- not just wins, but pounds the bull into submission -- and you've seen it happen, you know you've watched something special indeed. Tennis at its sublime and athletic best; tennis of a quality, style and elan that players reach only once or twice in a lifetime. And because one of the two has reached it this day, you don't mind, don't even notice, that their match turns into a one-sided rout.
So it was when Stefan Edberg faced off against Jim Courier in the final of the 1991 US Open. Courier made a name for himself with his dedication, work ethic and consistency -- these were things in him that any player should admire and emulate. But admirable as those qualities were, he had possibly the world's ugliest strokes: in particular, a forehand that looked like a baseball batter's wild swing at a pitch. Yet you knew he could stand there all day and belt that ugly thing out, time after numbing time, a metronome with a Head Pro. Truly, Courier was a clubber. World-class, but a clubber.
Edberg, on entirely the other hand, defined tennis elegance. It began with his serve, a thing of beauty. Not a lot of speed in it, but the man could kick it, angle it, swing it, and all with the same smooth, handsome action. Just as smooth, he would follow it in to the net, moving effortlessly into place to put away the volley. He had a silken quality to his game that,
when he was on, made him not just the best player in the world to watch, but the best player, period. The extraordinary thing was, his elegance had everything to do with the levels he could reach. When he played like that, you would back Edberg to beat anyone among his contemporaries, and many either side of him as well.
That day in New York, Courier came up against that Edberg. Courier had had a splendid tournament, and must have known he was playing close to his best tennis. Only, that day it was not good enough by several miles. Edberg touched perfection right away, and, astonishingly, got better as the match went on. The sign of that -- though of course by then Courier was probably demoralized too -- was the score in the third set: 6-0.
Yes, three quick sets, 6-2, 6-4, and an exclamation point 6-0. Edberg dominated from the opening shots. He served magnificently, returned better, prowled the court, camped at the net and let not one pounded Courier special get past that sweetly angled racket. In fact I almost like to think Courier wasn't actually demoralized at the end. When you're losing to such artistry, maybe it doesn't hurt so much.
Courier had his revenge -- he beat Edberg in the next two Australian Open finals -- but that did not lessen the lustre of this Edberg performance, this Edberg masterclass. And though Edberg stayed at the top of the game for a few more years -- he defended that US Open title in 1992, playing several stirring matches on the way -- he never reached this height again.
The 1991 mangling of Courier saw a great player at his peak. Edberg himself considers it his best match. Nobody in tennis could have stayed with him that day; certainly nobody in tennis could have beaten him. Hell, nobody in tennis could play this gorgeous, scintillant tennis.
Every now and then, tennis sees a performance like that. In 2003, Federer turned in a few. He may not yet be in Edberg's class, but Federer's game is so attractive because it is a throwback to times when elegance, finesse and grace had a place in tennis.
One of those times, of course, came when the most exquisite artist of them all roamed the courts. The 1984 Wimbledon final saw John McEnroe at the sort of peak Edberg climbed in 1991. In that match, he was similarly destructive -- elegant and breathtakingly creative, therefore destructive -- of Jimmy Connors. Two years earlier, Connors had ground out a fizzing,
contentious, blood-and-glory five-set title victory over McEnroe. But this time, there would be no repeat. Three quick sets, all sweet timing and velvet wrists, and Connors was left to wonder what whispering beast had trampled him into the lush grass.
Connors, oddly enough, figures in another of the kind of matches I'm writing about, again at the Wimbledon final. This was 1975. Across the net was Arthur Ashe, and again, this was a Connors loss.
Using strokes struck so hard you feared for the ball, yet struck with demonic accuracy, Connors had dominated Wimbledon, and tennis, for two years. So in 1975, only a fool would have bet against Connors defending his 1974 Wimbledon title. In 1975, Ashe was that fool.
Ashe had decided a few things that year: he was the best player without a Wimbledon title and it was time to win, he had figured out the way to beat Connors, and he was going to do both. With fierce, single-minded concentration, he played a game foreign to his own feared power, a game that had Connors befuddled. All caress, placement and touch, Ashe ran
through the first two sets, 6-1, 6-1.
Still, this was Wimbledon, this was Connors. Pumping his fists in fury, flinging everything into his shots, Connors willed himself back into the match, taking the third set 7-5 and charging to a 3-0 lead in the fourth. But this day, Ashe could not, would not, be denied. He kept knocking, stuck firmly to his game plan, then suddenly swept past his man, closing out the
fourth, and the match, 6-4.
As the writer Richard Evans observed, Ashe managed to 'dismantle the powerfully welded structure of Connors' game as a skilled engineer might defuse a bomb.' What's left to say?
And curiously, Ashe-Connors '75 brings us full circle to Edberg-Courier '91. For one thing, it was Ashe who identified the moment of the '91 match, the point that summed it all up: one more fine Courier shot that got him just nowhere. With Edberg serving at 4-4, 15-30 in the second set, Courier had a small opening. In The New York Times, Ashe wrote:
Edberg spun in a second serve to Courier's two-handed backhand, which
he nailed crosscourt. From knee-high level, Edberg deftly side-spun a
backhand volley just inside Courier's forehand sideline for a clean
winner. Courier just smiled the smile of resignation. ... It was [his]
last stand. He didn't win another game.
For another thing, that 1991 US Open will forever be remembered not for Edberg's lights-out display in the final, but for Connors. At 39, an age when other stars begin fading from the veteran's circuit, Jimbo made a run to the semifinals. On the way, he pulled out two five-set, old-time, come-from-behind, four-and-a-half hour, rip-roaring wins, over Patrick ('the other') McEnroe and Aaron Krickstein, both well over a decade younger. In the semis, Connors ran into Courier, whose blistering firepower proved too much to handle. Still, it was indisputably Connors' tournament. Edberg only laid on the icing.
And yet, perhaps that's the way to best remember that match. Icing.