On Tennis: Three Books Worth Reading

One of the most beautiful tennis tournaments in the world, Roland Garros, is under way, so if you, like me, feel that your intake of tennis can reach even bigger highs during this time, here are three books about tennis that can deepen your understanding of, interest in and love for the game.

Björn Borg and the Super-Swedes: Stefan Edberg, Mats Wilander and the Golden Era of Tennis, by Mats Holm and Ulf Roosvald

What is great about Mats Holm and Ulf Roosvald’s book is that not only does it tell the story of three great tennis players, Björn Borg, Mats Wilander and Stefan Edberg, but it puts it in the social, cultural and world context of those times, and into a perspective that deepens and enriches the reader’s understanding of that tennis era and the love for the sport. I finally have a clear, complex picture of Borg, who defied analysis, as nobody was able to figure out how he won six French Open and five straight Wimbledon titles (by the time he was 25). His game was perplexing, as if each point was the last, winning the public’s admiration with the way he accomplished everything on his own, playing a game that was fun yet so difficult, and then stopped, at just 26 (after the previous year had won his sixth French title and reached the finals at Wimbledon and US Open) because the joy was not there anymore – his energy had run out because he had already given it all.

He was the first tennis player in the modern era to be able to switch from the slow clay of Paris to the speedy grass courts of London with almost seamless transition. Enygmatic, committed, but never obsessive, Borg was the man who changed tennis, inspiring a generation and a nation (and the likes of Mats Wilander and Stefan Edberg) – his use of the double-handed backhand shot had never been seen before, and was to change the way tennis was played from then on. I didn’t get to watch him play. Borg won his last Grand Slam tournament in 1981, the year I was born. But, in time, as my fascination with tennis grew, I wanted to learn everything about all the greats of the game. This book has filled in many gaps.
“My composure was something I learned. I’d built it up for many years. It was a front. I cursed and raised hell on the court when I was young. I cheated, yelled, threw rackets. I still had all those emotions inside me my entire career, but I’d decided not to show them. To never become annoyed. If I could keep my anger over missed shots and incorrectly called shots inside me, I’d become invincible. It was as if the calm built up my strength from within and gave me new opportunities. Not even when I missed a shot would I stand there like other players do and follow through in the air the shot I just missed. As if they’be forgotten how to play. You can’t do that. Never in my life.”

However captivating the incursion into Borg’s career was, it was the Mats Wilander part that was the highlight of the book for me. I didn’t get to watch him play either, as I was still too little when he was at the height of his career, but for many years now I have been following Mats’ tennis analysis and comments. I have a huge admiration for him. For the fact that his love for tennis has not waned down, for the way just listening to him always reinforces my love for the game, and for the active way he is still participating in the game – “Wilander on Wheels” is a project he co-founded with tennis player Cameron Lickle and which involves them traveling around North America and giving tennis lessons to recreational players of all ages.

And, now, reading the book I feel I got to know him better as a player, too. He, too, is one of the greats. He won three of the four Grand Slam singles events in 1988. He won seven Grand Slam titles (including three Roland Garros trophies), and although he never won the Wimbledon, Wilander twice won the Australian Open when that tournament was still played on grass. A clay court specialist with a tactical mind who could also win on grass. This makes the Swedish player one of only six men (along with Jimmy Connors, Andre Agassi, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic) to have won Grand Slam singles titles on grass courts, hard courts, and clay courts. And he won the French Open at his first attempt in 1982 (Nadal would be the only other player who would achieve that), the year after Borg had won his last. In the first round, Wilander played against Ivan Lendl, his first five-set match ever. He went on to win the title. He was 17 years old (Nadal was 19 when he won his).

And there is his sportsmanship. During the 1982 French Open tournament, at the end of the semifinal against José Luis Clerc, Wilander requested replay of the match ball as he did not want to win the game due to a questionable referee decision. Mats was the kind of tennis player whom his opponents sang praisies to because of his sportsmanship. “I have one thing to add,” said John Fitzgerald in 1983, after he lost to Wilander, “our sport has fallen from grace a bit during the last few years. I really hope that Mats Wilander will be our next champion. With his honesty and his sportsmanlike behavior, he’s the man who despite his youth can give tennis its magic back.”

One of the most beautiful portrayals of Mats Wilander in the book is this: He was self-confident, but always thought he could improve himself. A philosophy to conduct your life by.
“When I played minitennis with my friends, we’d ask each other: ‘Who are you?’ And we’d say ‘I’m Connors’ or ‘I’m Nastase’, and then we’d play like them, too. Hit flat forehands like Connors or attack the net like Nastase, not many people know this, but I continued to do the same thing when I got older, too, in fact my whole career. I tried to copy Peter McNamara’s sliced backhand, or Nastase’s serve, or Lendl’s forehand, or even Edberg’s serve many years later… If you teach yourself the game in this way, you’ll probably become a strategist and analyst, like me. That’s where I got my passion for the game, I’m good at imitating, but I’ve never thought that my tennis is particularly sharp, really. I’m good at the game, but not at hitting shots. That’s why I always searched for a better technique, and I always looked at other players.”

”Martina & Chrissie: The Greatest Rivalry in the History of Sports” | Classiq Journal

Unstoppable: My Life So Far, by Maria Sharapova

I have finally read Maria Sharapova’s autobiography, something I had stubbornly refused to do after my first adverse reaction to Sharapova’s suspension after she was tested positive at the 2016 Australian Open. I have in the meanwhile realised I owned it to her and to my love for tennis to read the whole story, especially that I had always admired her hard work, perseverence, belief in herself, always raising the bar higher for herself. As far as that Australian Open incident, the book has offered me a new perspective.

But what I want to talk about is something else. The book is a life story, one that everyone can read, whether you are a tennis fan or not, and one that children can learn from – that was in fact the main reason why I was so outraged back in 2016, because I had always regarded Sharapova as a role model for children and I was angry that she had let them down. This book is a journey through great hardships and great success. It is about endurance, determination, concentration, iron will, never giving up, going back up again and again after you fall. It is about hard work, hard work, hard work, about about never expecting anything to be handed to you. It teaches you that, in life, it is given too much importance to saying yes, when in fact the difference is made by the moments when you say no, and I couldn’t agree more with that. It teaches you that you learn more from losing than from winning. And that victory and success can mess with your head and get you further away from the game and from what really matters. It teaches you that you have to know yourself really well and have solid values instilled in you from early on so that, even if you are strayed from your course in life, you will have the strength to get back on it.

Martina & Chrissie: The Greatest Rivalry in the History of Sports, by Phil Bildner, with illustrations by Brett Helquist

I will be honest. Only after I had ordered Martina & Chrissie, did I realise it is a children’s book. But the fact is I wasn’t disappointed in the end and it was great fun when it arrived and my four year old son asked whom it was for. So I said it was for him, a book about tennis. “Then give it to me,” he said. He didn’t even want to wait for me to read it to him. He started to leaf through it and “read” the story himself, with the help of the illustrations (one of the reasons the book had appealed to me in the first place, besides its title, was that I thought the illustrated cover was such a cool choice for a dual biography about tennis). It is a nice children’s book, teaching kids about two of the greatest tennis players of all time and how one of the greatest rivalries in sports made the two of them, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, not only better tennis players, but also good friends.

Further reading on tennis:

Open: Life Lessons from Andre Agassi. A slice of life. Just like a tennis match.

Clay, the Hallowed Red Dirt. Roland-Garros was always the toughest tournament to dominate for any length of time.

A Sporting Life: Fair Play. By respecting the rules, you respect the others. (A beautiful Fair Play illustration is available here.)

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