The Most Intriguing “What ifs?” in Tennis History

The tennis world offers its own thought — and argument —provoking hypotheticals about its leading characters and history-changing events. We’ll never know what might have happened if only... But let’s enter an alternate universe and have fun speculating

At 16, Seles became the youngest champion in French Open history in 1990, upsetting reigning queen Steffi Graf.   -  Getty Images

“Time and time again the destinies of mankind seem to have hinged on some quite fortuitous event or unpredictable decision.” – John Canning

The “what ifs?” in history present us with fascinating and fanciful hypotheticals. It’s intriguing to imagine how different the world would be if Napoleon had triumphed in Waterloo. Or if Russia hadn’t meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

The tennis world offers its own thought — and argument —provoking hypotheticals about its leading characters and history-changing events. We’ll never know what might have happened if only... But let’s enter an alternate universe and have fun speculating.

What if Monica Seles had never been stabbed?

“I used to wish that life was like a fairytale,” begins the 1996 autobiography of Monica Seles. It concludes: “Nothing is ever like you think it is going to be. If I’ve learned anything over the past few years, that’s it.”

The giggly, fast-talking ingénue from what was then Yugoslavia moved to America at 13 to pursue her tennis dream. At 16, Seles became the youngest champion in French Open history, upsetting reigning queen Steffi Graf. At 17, she became the youngest ever to rank No. 1 and win $1 million. At 19, this seemingly unstoppable prodigy had already racked up eight Grand Slam singles titles.

Then, in an instant, her brilliant career, her fun-loving self, and tennis history itself took a tragic turn. During a match changeover at a Hamburg tournament on April 30, 1993, a deranged German fan of Graf’s leaped from the stands and stabbed Seles in the back.

Her fairytale life ended with that one stroke. Although her physical wound healed within weeks, the traumatised Seles sank into a deep depression that sidelined her for 27 months. Her father’s cancer diagnosis only worsened her trauma. Late-night junk food binges to escape her demons sabotaged the six hours of training she put in every day. “My dad was getting worse and I didn’t know how to handle my emotions,” Seles confided in her inspiring 2009 book, Getting A Grip: On My Body, My Mind, My Self. “They were too painful to confront, so I ate more.”

When she returned to the pro tour, Seles was not only 25 pounds overweight, but as a result, prone to injury. Sadly, she never regained her greatness.

The sport’s worst on-court tragedy sparked a two-part debate for aficionados. How great would Seles have become in the tennis pantheon if fate hadn’t been so cruel? Would Seles have taken over in her super rivalry against the legendary Graf?

Graf led 10-5 in head-to-head matches, but only by 6-4 before the stabbing. That edge included three wins before Seles, three and a half years younger, captured her first major at the 1990 French Open. At Grand Slam events, their rivalry was even closer with Graf ahead 6-4 overall, but tied 3-3 before Seles was stabbed. Not surprisingly, the supremely athletic Graf racked up 11 of her 22 major titles after the attack on Seles, while Seles won just one.

Both historians and fans disagree about these unanswerable questions. Seles loyalists point out that this terrific competitor — “She would crawl over broken glass to win,” praised Ion Tiriac, a former Romanian Davis Cupper — had won their last duel before the attack on Seles in the 1993 Australian Open final and had the momentum to seize the rivalry with her overpowering, two-handed groundstrokes.

Admirers of the “Fraulein Forehand” counter that Graf had also suffered the slings and arrows of misfortune. They contend just as adamantly that had Graf not been sidelined so often by injuries and illnesses and traumatised by her father’s highly publicised affair with a call girl in 1990, she also would have grabbed many more major titles.

What if Open Tennis, which began in 1968, had arrived 35 years earlier?

Since the first small pro tennis tour in 1926, all the premier tournaments allowed only amateur players, while many of the best were professional players. Imagine if today’s champions Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Maria Sharapova, and Serena Williams were banned from the Grand Slams, Masters and Premier Mandatory events, and the Davis and Fed Cups. But that’s the way big-time tennis was until Open Tennis forever changed the game in 1968, mostly for the better.

Despite the hypocrisy of “shamateurism ”— where marquee amateur players pocketed lucrative under-the-table payments for much more than the unenforceable rules for expenses allowed — repeated efforts to overthrow the status quo failed. “The terrible thing is that professional tennis should have taken over in the 1930s,” wrote pro star and promoter Jack Kramer in his 1979 memoir, The Game. “There was some genuine agitation for an open game amongst the tennis federations as early as 1930 — had the USLTA [United States Lawn Tennis Association] been on the ball and worked for open tennis, it might well have become a reality 50 years ago, but the motion failed by a hair, and so the pros began picking off the best amateur heroes.”

When Open Tennis finally did become a reality, the sport boomed. The transformation brought record crowds, a surge of corporate sponsors, tournament entrepreneurs, opportunistic player agents, undreamed-of prize money, burgeoning endorsement contracts and television contracts, the birth of year-round men’s and women’s pro circuits, and a dramatic growth in tennis worldwide.

Sadly, for many champions, Open Tennis arrived too late. The record books don’t show that superstar Pancho Gonzalez missed Grand Slam events and the Davis Cup for 18 years (1950−67), while Australian luminaries Rod Laver, Lew Hoad, and Ken Rosewall also lost many of their prime years.

One can only guess how many of the most prestigious titles they, and other banned pro stars, might have captured had they been eligible. And how much more popular tennis could have become so many decades earlier.

What if Andre Agassi had applied himself throughout his entire career?

This is just one of several “what ifs?” that come to mind about the complex and charismatic Andre Agassi. His career was blessed and cursed by multiple turning points, roads taken and not taken. What if his angry, abusive father hadn’t forced him to hit a million tennis balls a year when he was a boy? What if teenaged Andre hadn’t endured a “Lord of the Flies” environment at the Bollettieri Tennis Academy? What if he hadn’t serendipitously met Gil Reyes, a physical trainer who became a father figure and beloved friend? What if he hadn’t won the 1992 Wimbledon that dispelled the “image is everything” reputation that had haunted him or the 1999 French Open that turned his floundering career around? What if Agassi hadn’t had a love-hate relationship with tennis until late in his career? Or what if he hadn’t courted and married his true love, Steffi Graf?

So many tough questions and so few satisfying answers.

All told, Agassi captured eight Grand Slam titles and an Olympic gold medal during a 20-year career. Could he have achieved much more during a roller-coaster career that hit rock bottom after he began taking drugs and suffered from depression? Of course. For starters, he won the Australian Open four times, yet he didn’t even play the tournament for 11 years.

Perhaps we should shed no tears for Agassi because for him the game of life was always more important than the game of tennis. He experienced an extraordinary evolution from a teenage punk who tanked matches to a highly respected elder statesman on the tour who delivered an eloquent and poignant farewell speech at the 2006 US Open. Agassi also became a renowned philanthropist who created a successful college preparatory school for disadvantaged students and penned a revealing, wise, and self-critical autobiography, OPEN.

On his bittersweet evolution, Agassi confided: “Am I glad I went through it? Absolutely. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. And I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.”

What if doubles stars Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes had not split up two years after their spectacular success in 1999?

Imagine a young doubles team reaching all four Grand Slam finals, winning Wimbledon and the French Open, then not playing together regularly for the next two years, and after that breaking up as a team. This hard-to-believe scenario actually happened to two mild-mannered Indians after their brilliant 1999 campaign.

If only Paes and Bhupathi had swallowed their pride and gotten along. They — and not Bob and Mike Bryan — might have won a men’s team record 16 Grand Slam titles and achieved tennis immortality.   -  Getty Images

 

Paradoxically, the duo just couldn’t stand prosperity. In 2000, Leander Paes partnered Sebastien Lareau at the Australian Open and Jan Siemerink for the French Open, losing in the first round both times. Paes, a dynamic volleyer, reunited with Mahesh Bhupathi, an exceptional serve returner, for the US Open, but fell in the first round again. The duo had a disappointing second-round exit to Australians Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. In a short-lived resurgence, Paes and Bhupathi captured the French Open in 2001, though they suffered first-round exits at the other three majors.

Except when they represented India in Davis Cup and the Olympics, they infrequently played doubles together. Their 2008−11 part-time reunion yielded only modest results when they won three events and reached the 2011 Australian Open final.

Paes, still active at 44, has won five more Grand Slam men’s doubles and nine mixed doubles titles with various partners. Bhupathi, who retired last year, was less successful, taking only one more major in men’s doubles but eight more in mixed. Unbelievably, Paes has partnered a record 117 players and Bhupathi 85 in their futile quests to find a highly successful, long-term marriage.

Ever since their sensational 1999 season, the two prideful giants of Indian tennis have feuded to their, and their country’s, detriment. Most recently, they clashed when Davis Cup captain Bhupathi chose Rohan Bopanna over the declining Paes to play doubles for the April 2017 tie against Uzbekistan. As N. Sudarshan wrote in Sportstar magazine, “But for almost three decades since then [1987 when India last reached the Davis Cup final], the sport has seen scant improvement and has been dominated by the singular issue of a clash of egos between two individuals.”

If only Paes and Bhupathi had swallowed their pride and gotten along. They—and not Bob and Mike Bryan — might have won a men’s team record 16 Grand Slam titles and achieved tennis immortality.

What if John McEnroe had not choked against Ivan Lendl in the 1984 French Open final?

John McEnroe had captured five Grand Slam singles titles but never the French Open. Ivan Lendl had lost all four of his previous major finals, and wanted nothing more than to silence his many critics by finally breaking through. Going into the Paris final, the brash New Yorker had won 42 straight matches and had beaten the dour Czech five straight times.

After dominating the first two sets with wicked lefty serves and dazzling volleys and leading 2-0 in the third set, the controversial American seemed poised for victory. But he had slept terribly the night before, agitated by a phone call from an ex-girlfriend. When a headset that a courtside NBC cameraman removed started blaring, the already edgy McEnroe lost his concentration and the game. Then he lost his cool on the changeover and screamed into the headset. It ultimately cost him the set and the championship.

Even though McEnroe led again, 4-2, 40-30 on his serve in the fourth set, his loss of emotional control and Lendl’s penetrating groundstrokes and superior stamina on that hot afternoon reversed the momentum. The relentless grinder eventually outlasted the flawed genius 3-6, 2-6, 6-4, 7-5, 7-5.

While McEnroe never captured another major after 1984, the comeback victory ignited Lendl’s career. “It feels great to finally start answering different questions,” said Lendl when asked how he felt after finally winning a Grand Slam title. After shedding his “bridesmaid” reputation, an unleashed Lendl grabbed seven more major titles and ranked No. 1 for four of the next five years.

McEnroe went on to win his third Wimbledon and fourth US Open that year, but the defeat against hated rival Lendl torments him to this day. In his candid autobiography, You Cannot Be Serious, McEnroe confided, “But he didn’t beat me. I beat myself. Lendl got his first major, and I took his title, Choker-in-Chief, away from home…. It was the worst loss of my life, a devastating defeat: Sometimes it still keeps me up at nights.”

What if a freak accident hadn’t ended the career of teen queen Maureen Connolly?

Any athlete nicknamed for a battleship must be a powerhouse. “Little Mo”, a reference to the big guns of the famous battleship “Missouri” or “Big Mo,” fired booming, unerring groundstrokes to devastate opponents during her short but sensational career.

Connolly won the U.S. title at 16 in 1951 and then remained undefeated at Grand Slam events and lost only five matches elsewhere. The compact 5'4", 120-pound Californian shot down distinguished champions, such as Doris Hart, Louise Brough, Margaret Osborne duPont, and Shirley Fry during her meteoric reign. She grabbed nine major titles, including three each at Wimbledon and Forest Hills, dropping only one set in those finals. In 1953, Connolly became the first woman to win the Grand Slam, the most treasured feat in tennis.

Her supremacy ended, much like that of Seles, with a tragic suddenness. In July 1954, she was riding a Tennessee Walking Horse named Colonel Merryboy, a gift from hometown admirers. Her mount, frightened by an approaching truck, slammed into the truck, crushing Connolly’s right leg. “I knew immediately I’d never play again,” she recalled.

Billie Jean King once said that Connolly might have smashed all records had it not been for the heartbreaking accident. Who could argue with that?

What if there were no Jimmy Connors to create mass appeal?

Connors was “the greatest male player, bar none, in the two and a half decades since the Open Era began in 1968,” wrote the late Arthur Ashe in his 1993 book Days of Grace. “No player lasted longer as a major attraction or so thoroughly captured the admiration and sympathy of the public for the same length of time.”

That charitable assessment was a far cry from the one in 1975 when Ashe confided, “I swear, every time I passed Jimmy Connors in the locker room, it took all my willpower not to punch him in the mouth.”

In truth, for the first half of Connors’ compelling career, he had earned a front-row seat in the rogues’ gallery of tennis.

E. Digby Baltzell, in his acclaimed 1995 book, Sporting Gentleman: Men’s Tennis from the Age of Honor to the Cult of the Superstar, accurately concluded:

“While Connors’s continual clowning, use of obscene language and obscene body gestures, and his general rudeness have alienated most traditional devotees, they have pleased the bored and boisterous new fans who have always been more interested in incidents and confrontations than in the fine points of tennis.”

By 1984, the ageing Connors had somewhat mellowed, winning over crowds with quips instead of alienating them with vulgarity, while the irascible John McEnroe became the bad actor fans loved to hate. “I don’t know that I changed all that much,” said unrepentant Connors. “They just found somebody worse.”

Whether sports fans loved or hated Connors, they were fascinated with the fist-pumping brash basher from Bellevue, Illinois, for 20 years. On his 39th birthday, before a roaring crowd at the 1991 US Open, ultimate warrior Jimbo had nearly completed a stunning, 4-hour, 42-minute comeback against Aaron Krickstein, 15 years his junior. Before starting the fifth set tiebreaker, the exhausted Connors turned toward a television camera and shouted, “That’s why they came! That’s what they want!”

They sure did.

What if Ivan Lendl had not coached Andy Murray?

Ivan Lendl was hardly the first “celebrity coach” to transform a talented, but frustrated contender into a Grand Slam champion. In fact, 33 years ago Lendl, who’d lost his first four major finals, needed the technical and tactical acumen of former Australian star Tony Roche to capture the French Open.

Within an 11-month period, after Ivan Lendl came on board as Andy Murray’s coach, perennial world No. 4 Murray caught fire and won Wimbledon, the US Open, and an Olympic gold medal.   -  AP

 

History repeated itself in 2012. This time Andy Murray, also defeated in his first four major finals, asked Lendl to help him break through. Within an 11-month period, perennial world No. 4 Murray caught fire and won Wimbledon, the US Open, and an Olympic gold medal.

With his mission accomplished, Lendl resigned in March 2014. Murray seemed stunned and saddened by the development, confiding, “He was a big part of my life…. I was gutted, but I still think the guy is great.”

Murray regressed after his spectacular success. His on-court tantrums eventually induced coach Amelie Mauresmo, who called them “unsettling,” to quit in May 2016 after two years. Lendl rejoined Murray’s team in early June 2016 and worked his magic again. He persuaded Murray to play more aggressively and to minimize his negative, energy-draining rants at his Player’s Box.

Presto. The 29-year-old Brit won eight of 10 tournaments, including Wimbledon, the Olympics and ATP Finals, racked up a 53-3 record, and finished with his first year-end No. 1 ranking. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I have had the best two years of my career with him,” said Murray.

What if Bill Tilden, the sport’s first superstar, had not been gay?

Throughout the 1920s Bill Tilden’s mystique had grown to legendary proportions. He won seven U.S. championships, starred in the Davis Cup at a time of great nationalistic pride, and held the No. 1 ranking for six years. An inveterate showman, Tilden often intentionally fell far behind in the score, then would launch a spectacular comeback as cries of “Tilden’s in trouble!” spread excitedly through the stands. Then, of course, the great master would heroically prevail.

Bill Tilden conjured up an abundance of adjectives: egotistical, opinionated, temperamental, controversial, witty, scrupulous, arrogant, wilful, and enigmatic.   -  Getty Images

 

“Big Bill” conjured up an abundance of adjectives: egotistical, opinionated, temperamental, controversial, witty, scrupulous, arrogant, wilful, and enigmatic. Most of all, though, he was a magnetic figure of sport’s “Golden Age” in the larger-than-life mold of Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, and Red Grange.

Unlike these 1920s macho heterosexual heroes, Tilden was gay in a cruelly homophobic society. His effeminate mannerisms and penchant for relationships with boys worried the establishment of a sport known for its effete origins. Near the end of his tragic life, Tilden was jailed for several months for molesting minors in 1947 and 1949.

In his 1989 book, My Life With The Pros, legendary journalist Bud Collins recalled that his first newspaper boss was among those afflicted with what Collins called the Tilden Turnoff: “‘What kind of a game can it be if the best player of all time was a fag,’ was a comment I heard many times across my first fifteen years in Boston. My belief is that the disgrace of Big Bill Tilden had a profoundly negative effect on the development of the game in America for a long time, perhaps two decades.”

What if Richard Williams hadn’t said to his wife, Oracene, “Let’s make two kids, put them in tennis, and they’ll be superstars”—creating champions Venus and Serena and what ESPN analyst Pam Shriver called “the greatest story in tennis history”?

There would have been no ballyhooed pro debut for 14-year-old Venus on Oct. 31, 1994, at an Oakland tournament. Dispelling any scepticism about her super-hyped mystique, the “ghetto Cinderella” from crime-ridden Compton, California, led world No. 2 Arantxa Sanchez Vicario 6-2, 3-1 before bowing.

There would have been no teen queen Serena. With an even more impressive start, she upset four top-10 foes in her first 16 matches, a WTA Tour record. At the 1999 US Open, precocious 17-year-old Serena defeated Kim Clijsters, Conchita Martínez, Monica Seles, defending champion Lindsay Davenport, and world No. 1 Martina Hingis to become the second African-American woman after Althea Gibson in 1958 to win a Grand Slam singles tournament.

There would have been no revolutionising of women’s tennis with their unique combination of blazing foot speed and overwhelming power. Serena boasted the best serve in tennis history, and with a 206 km/h (128 mph) serve in 2007, Venus set a serve speed record in a main draw that stood until 2014.

There wouldn’t have been these memorable controversies. Think of Richard Williams playing the “race card” with false accusations and hyperbole, the Indian Wells crowd booing Serena before the 2001 final because of Venus’s last-minute semifinal withdrawal, and Serena’s disgraceful behaviour at the 2009 and 2011 US Opens. Think of the justifiable criticism for their unpatriotically skipping the Fed Cup with rare exceptions, and their playing so few tournaments annually.

There would not have been these and many other colourful, provocative, and inspiring quotes.

· “What’s love got to do with it? I don’t have time to come along slowly; we both want to be No. 1,” Serena quipped about her sibling rivalry in 1997.

· “I’m an actress, I’m a model and an athlete. I put athlete third on my list,” crowed then No. 1 Serena in 2003.

· “If you can keep playing tennis when somebody is shooting a gun down the street, that’s concentration,” recalled Serena about her childhood.

· “My first job is big sister and I take that very seriously,” noted Venus.

· “You have to believe in yourself when no one else does. That’s what makes you a winner,” advised Venus.

There would have been no Venus, the Tour’s elder stateswoman, to successfully lead the fight for equal prize money at Wimbledon and to denounce the United Arab Emirates’ refusal to allow Israeli player Shahar Peer a visa to enter the Dubai tournament in 2009.

There would have been no plethora of all-time records, set mainly by Serena. Her Open Era record of 23 Grand Slam singles titles, includes seven in nine finals against Venus. Together, they were an amazing 14-0 in Grand Slam doubles finals from 1999 to 2016 and earned a record three Olympic gold medals in doubles.

And in 2018, there may or may not be a dramatic last hurrah by fiercely competitive 35-year-old Serena if she returns to the Tour after having a baby in October. “That’s a challenge that sounds right up her alley to me,” said Shriver.

If there aren’t enough retrospective and prospective “what ifs?” to explore and imagine, here are 12 more:

What if Swedish superstar Bjorn Borg, who won six French Open and five Wimbledon titles, hadn’t retired prematurely at age 26?

What if renowned French administrator and ITF President Philippe Chatrier had not masterminded the successful movement to return tennis to the Olympics Games as a medal sport in 1988 after a 64-year hiatus?

What if the entertaining serve-and-volley style of play—exemplified by John McEnroe, Margaret Court, Martina Navratilova, and Pete Sampras—had not died (with a few exceptions) in world-class tennis this decade?

What if the two world wars had not interrupted, hurt, or ended the careers of top players like Anthony Wilding (killed in combat), Joe Hunt (died in a fighter plane crash), Baron Gottfried von Cramm (imprisoned by the Gestapo), Alice Marble, and Don Budge — and also set tennis back 10-20 years in devastated countries in Europe and Asia?

What if the talented black athletes aged 10 to 14 in central and west Africa were discovered, recruited, and given scholarships to attend elite tennis academies and national training centers in Europe and the United States? (Hint: Read Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We’re Afraid to Talk about It by Jon Entine.)

What if former champion Bobby Riggs, then a 57-year-old male chauvinist, had beaten world No. 1 Billie Jean King in their ballyhooed 1973 “Battle of the Sexes” match?

What if World Tennis and Tennis Week, the two most authoritative and influential tennis magazines in the world, had not died in 1991 and 2005, respectively?

What if standout Eastern European players, like East German Thomas Emmrich, had been allowed to play outside their countries and test their skills against players of non-Warsaw Pact nations in the 1960s and 1970s?

What if 7-foot NBA star Dirk Nowitzki, a leading junior player in Germany, had not switched from tennis to basketball at 15 because he was too tall?

What if we hadn’t been blessed with visionary pioneers and courageous leaders Billie Jean King, Arthur Ashe, Gladys Heldman, Jack Kramer, Philippe Chatrier, and Herman David before and during the crucial formative years of Open Tennis?

What if, like the United States, every country in the world offered Tennis Channel and its eclectic and expert coverage, led by Mary Carillo, Jim Courier, Paul Annacone, and Martina Navratilova, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week?

What if extreme weather events and air pollution increasingly force the cancellation of tennis tournaments and recreational play?