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By Raymond Lee | Sunday, August 27, 2023


Who is the best at their best for one match? Tennis historian Raymond Lee on the GOAT for one match: the greatest of all time at the peak of their powers.

Photo credit: Mark Peterson/Corleve

One of the most highly-debated tennis questions is this: Who is best of all time when that champion is playing their best?

If we measure the greatest champions in tennis history at the absolute peak of their powers, then who is the GOAT for one match?

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In recent years some have said Novak Djokovic, some have said Rafael Nadal, and some have said Roger Federer.

Before that, Pete Sampras, Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors.

Further back in the past some have said Lew Hoad, Pancho Gonzalez, Frankie Kovacs, Jack Kramer, Bill Tilden, Arthur Ashe and of course Rod Laver.

Now this conversation can be influenced by the surface a player is playing. Another thing is perhaps the styles of the two players can allow one player to be perhaps more competitive than you may expect.

A good example of a contrast in styles favoring one player is Arthur Ashe against Rod Laver. Ashe was a fantastic player, especially on a fast surface. He was able to beat almost every player in the 1960s and early 1970s except for his nemesis Rod Laver. Ashe lost his first 17 matches to Laver before finally defeating Laver in 1974. Ashe generally played very well but Laver was able to beat him.

Here’s part of a match Ashe played against Borg in the 1975 WCT Finals. Ashe reaches the zone that at that moment Borg could not reach. Borg was not at the level he would be a few years later! With Ashe’s huge serve, volley and powerful groundstrokes sometimes he seemed invincible.

For example, Rafael Nadal, when healthy on red clay may be favored over a Novak Djokovic but on a hard-court Novak Djokovic will generally be favored.

I suppose in many ways this sports discussion is about who is the “perfect tennis player!”

I suppose in theory only the most talented player is the one who can reach the highest possible level.

If memory serves I recall a story in which the famous NFL coach Bill Walsh saw a film of Jerry Rice in college making an incredible play. I believe Walsh said if Rice can do it once there is no reason he cannot do that regularly. Turns out that Walsh in picking Rice for his team, the San Francisco 49ers made the correct choice since Jerry Rice regularly made incredible plays!

To me it’s the same in tennis. Some players are just physically stronger, others are simply superior shotmakers and able to create shots on court opponents cannot.

Historically it seems to me that the one player that the past players chose the most for highest level when they are at their best was Ellsworth Vines! 

It was thought that Ellsworth Vines was the best FOR ONE MATCH when he was “on his game” was invincible, no matter who was playing him.

Ellsworth Vines in action photo credit: Tropical Press Agency

Tales of Ellsworth Vines’ pure power off the serve and groundstrokes are the stuff of legend. What is generally conceded is that he hit the ball so flat off the ground, especially on the forehand, that the ball had to cross the net by a fraction in order to stay in the court. Most who saw that forehand thought it was the hardest hit forehand they had ever seen. To contextualize the power of Vines’ forehand in his day, consider Juan Martin del Potro’s forehand at his peak—and remember Vines was playing with a wood racquet and gut strings. Vines also had a very strong flat backhand.

The same goes for the Ellsworth Vines’ serve which arguably was the hardest hit of any serve in history, at least with a wood racquet. The legend goes that on the last serve of the 1932 Wimbledon, which Vines won over Bunny Austin 6-4 6-2 6-0 that Vines’ serve was hit so hard that Austin did not know which side the tennis ball zipped by him on!

Frankly I find that hard to believe that essentially the serve was almost invisible but I get the point that the serve was so incredibly hard hit that it was a blur, and at least from Bunny Austin’s comments, invisible. Any lightning bolt type serve will be hard to see. You blink and it’s gone. I used to get that feeling with Roscoe Tanner’s serve, especially with how early he hit the ball of the serve, seemingly he hit the ball at times while the ball was still going up!

Power and timing is several of the keys to how tough a player is when he or she is “on” their game but that’s only a part of it. Vines was also very quick, very athletic, had excellent leaping ability and at 6’2.5 inches tall had an excellent height for serve, reach at the net and overhead.

While Vines’ game was based on generally flat strokes, no player can truly hit without spin. Vines could hit with topspin, especially when he was hitting his forehand crosscourt.

To quote the great Jack Kramer on Vines from his wonderful book “The Game.” Hell, when Elly was on, you’d be lucky to get your racket on the ball once you served it.

Later in the paragraph, Elly had shoulder problems himself. But when Vines and Hoad were healthy, and when they were hot, they---and Laver too---could do more with the ball than Budge. Nothing was impossible for any of these three guys when they were on. They thought of something, and then they just went and did it.

To quote Allison Danzig the great tennis writer: Vines at the peak of his form could probably have beaten any player that ever lived. His lightning-bolt service was regarded by some as the best of all. No one hit a forehand flatter or harder or kept the ball so close to the net. He was murderous overhead and a volleyer of the first rank.

Here’s a quote from Paul Metzler’s superb book Tennis Styles and Stylists--Vines was only nineteen when, in 1931, he swept the board in U.S. major tournaments to such effect that his American ranking rose from tenth to first and he became the logical successor to Tilden. The following year he descended upon Wimbledon, laying the opposition waste with his “violent” game, smashing some lobs so hard that the ball bounced from mid-court into the royal box itself. In the quarterfinals he was expected to be well tested by the powerful serving and all-round hard hitting of the Spanish player Enrique Maier. But a strong opponent only caused Vines to hit even harder. He won in quick time, 6-2 6-3 6-2, making the Spanish’s service seem almost innocuous compared to his own. Next he faced Crawford, victor over fourth-seeded Fred Perry, and hist him off the court in so devastating a display that Henri Cochet, watching from the stand, was heard to observe: “Pretty good. Wonderful. Never saw anything like it.”

Later in the book: Austin was allowed to show a little more of his art than Crawford had been, but only a little. Vines began uncertainly, and the score reached 4-all in the first set. Veteran onlookers described the match from then on as the greatest display of intense speed ever seen on a tennis court. Vines swept over Austin like a heavy surf gaining force with each wave. The score was 6-4 6-2 6-0. In his twelve service games Vines served thirty aces, the last one ending the match. The third set took only ten minutes. Some of Vines’ drives beat Austin by half the width of the court.

So how great was Ellsworth Vines overall?

My opinion is Vines was and still is one of the greatest players of all time for pure average level of play.

Those who saw him and who have played him rank him among the greatest ever. Jack Kramer ranks Vines and Budge as the top two with Budge being number one and Vines second.

Vines was excellent on all surfaces as evidenced by his win over Hans Nusslein, who was one of the greatest clay court players in the world in the final of the 1935 French Pro.

Here’s more from Metzler’s book.

Austin did not play badly, he seldom did. He simply could not get his racket effectively to the ball, and some of Vines’ services he did not see.

Here’s a video of Vines crushing the great Henri Cochet in the 1932 US Nationals final which is now called the US Open. Vines wearing the white cap in the video.

Vines is often ranked behind Don Budge because of several things, first is Budge’s excellent accomplishment of winning the Grand Slam in 1938 and second is Budge defeating Vines in their head-to-head tour in 1939 by either a score of 21 matches to 18 or 22 matches to 17.

The problem I find here is that Vines was injured for a good portion of that tour with a pulled stomach muscle. Vines even had to serve underhand at times to Don Budge who was known to have an awesome attacking return much like that of Jimmy Connors or Andre Agassi. Despite the injuries he lost by a fairly slim margin. With all the injuries I suspect if Vines was fairly healthy he may very well have won the first tour.

After years of being the No. 1 professional from 1934 to 1939 Vines grew tired of the long tours. Especially since the game demanded such a strain on his body.

Budge defeated Vines on the second tour 15 to 5. Vines at that time was probably more interested in learning his new passion, which was golf. You could see in the results that he was losing to players that he was beating regularly.

This was the case later with Budge. Budge lost on tour several times to Bobby Riggs who took over as the top player in the Professional Ranks. Budge apparently had suffered a shoulder injury which was incurred while training on an obstacle course while training in the Armed Forces during World War II. This apparently affected Budge’s serve.

Riggs was able to defeat Don Budge after World War II on several tours by 23 to 21 (some sources have it at 24 to 22) after jumping out to a 12 to 2 lead and coasting to a close victory. Then he defeated Budge again 12 to 6 on a tour according to Tom LeCompte’s fine book The Last Sure Thing. The first tour was the important one because it determined who would be the Number One Professional Player.

Riggs had improved his serve and his overall game to the point that according to people like Ellsworth Vines, it may have been more effective than Budge’s serve. Rigg’s first serve was stronger and his kick second serve caused even a player of Budge’s return abilities problems.

Much has been made of Budge’s weakened serve due to the injury being the primary reason for losing the tour to Riggs. Still it doesn’t explain how Riggs was able to ace Budge often in matches. Riggs simply was an improved player!

In 1946 Riggs won 14 tournaments on the Pro Tour to Budge’s 3 and in total points Riggs had 278 points to Budge’s 164. Kovacs won 7 tournaments.

Seems to me that judging from the Tour results in 1946 that Riggs was by far the best player on the Tour.

Point Standings for 1946:

1 Riggs 278

2 Budge 164

3 Kovacs 149

4 Van Horn 143

5 Earn 94

6 Sabin 74

7 Fraunce 68

8 Jossi 60

9 Perry 50

10 Tilden 36

11 March 24

12 Whalen 12

13 Mako, Bert Brown 4

There is almost no doubt Riggs would have battled Budge for No. 1 even if Budge did not have the injury.

Another thing I find interesting is how many said that Ellsworth Vines was an erratic player, meaning that he could be on or off his game at times due to his high-risk style. That almost seemed to imply that he lost more than he should have. Well perhaps that was true but it didn’t seem to show in the won-lost records.

It seems to me that like the Great Rod Laver, Ellsworth Vines would hit himself into form and once he reached that level he was unstoppable.

Here are the won-lost records year by year.

1930 21-5

1931 67-5

1932 59-10

1933 39-9

1934 85-23 Vines turned pro this year and some sources claim he defeated Tilden by 47-26 on tour but Vines in some interviews said the record was incorrect so I will go with 85-23. Very impressive record considering he had turned pro and faced top players like Tilden and Nusslein among others.

1935 74-16

1936 90-13

1937 35-35

1938 53-39 Vines played Fred Perry on tour and defeated him on several tours. It seems clear to me that he was in decline due to physical injuries and mental fatigue.

My best guess is that Vines probably could be somewhat erratic at times during the match but he could raise his game to another level when he was behind to pull out matches. This is generally true of many players like Rod Laver for example. I believe Arthur Ashe said that when Laver was behind he started to hit the ball harder instead of temporizing like some may.

Vines’ won-lost percentages are actually superb during his best years in the amateurs and his years in the Professional Ranks. It’s only the last couple of years in which we see a decline.

So what abilities does a player have to have in order to be considered the best ever when he or she is playing at the top of their game? I think a player has to have a great first strike capacity which means a powerful serve and a powerful return.

For example a player like Jimmy Connors at his peak could often return a great serve outright for a winner. A player like Jack Kramer would have the huge serve plus a variety of different accurate serves. And of course a player has to have great power and mobility.

As I mentioned earlier we have to consider the surface and the different styles of players. Playing Rafael Nadal at his peak on red clay at Roland Garros is different from playing him on an indoor court at the end of the tennis year when he may be worn out. However even Nadal on clay can be somewhat vulnerable to players with great first strike abilities like a Robin Soderling in the 2009 French Open against Nadal when he defeated the almost unbeatable Nadal in 4 sets.

A big serve like Isner which has been in recent years the ultimate first strike weapon can neutralize Rafael Nadal somewhat, even on the red clay of Roland Garros. Vines, like Isner had an overpowering serve.

Juan Martin del Potro also had the great first strike ability with his strong serve and awesome forehand.

Pete Sampras, Pancho Gonzalez, John McEnroe and Jack Kramer would be among those in consideration for playing on a fast court, especially grass. With their huge serve and volley styles they could neutralize even the greatest returners. For one match Gonzalez, Hoad and Kramer would be a worthy choice on any surface for one match when you consider the player with the possibly highest level ever.

John McEnroe is interesting in that, while he did not have the full groundstroking power of players like a Lendl or an Agassi, McEnroe took the ball so early with his incredible reflexes that he reduced the time his opponents had to react. I would see him take huge serves on the rise and in one smooth motion float to the net where he was among the greatest volleyers in tennis history.

John McEnroe’s greatest year was 1984 when he went 82-3 and absolutely bludgeoned his opposition!

I have shown McEnroe’s super match against Jimmy Connors at Wimbledon in 1984 so here is the 1984 US Open Final against Ivan Lendl. While I don’t think McEnroe played as well as at Wimbledon 1984 you get an idea how well John McEnroe could play at his best and how McEnroe could compare to the all-time greats for just a single match.

Lew Hoad has been the one often compared with Ellsworth Vines in terms of the highest level for one match. Hoad had a different style from Vines. While Vines hit a flat ball very powerfully, Hoad was a power player who hit the ball with a lot of spin, often topspin on the rise.

So many players were in awe of the stroking ability of Lew Hoad. He was a man of massive strength. The stories of his strength are astounding! Hoad was able to, like Laver after him to flick shots back with great spin and power, often on the rise. With his great serve and volley, not to mention his excellent mobility, many believe Hoad was, for one match, as great as any player.

Here’s Hoad against Ashley Cooper in the Wimbledon Final in 1957.

The problem with some of the really old videos is that it generally does NOT show clearly the level of play of the player in question. The videos are very poor in general compared to today’s videos or even videos of 50 years ago.

The previous video on Hoad doesn’t truly show his power. Here’s a video that shows at least the great serving power of Gonzalez and Hoad.

The other thing is that we are looking at players who played with a wood racquet compared to the super racquets we have today which can provide much more power and spin.

Another problem is that the rules in serving have changed in that players can jump into the serve when in the past you could not.

To me it’s obvious that the players of the past, given the same equipment, the same rules and time to practice would do quite well nowadays.

For example, Serena Williams at 5’9” tall has served as fast as 128.6 miles per hour or 203.0/km/h. How would Ellsworth Vines who is often acclaimed as the fastest server of all time, at least with a wood racquet at 6’2.5” tall serve today with today’s equipment and training? I would tend to think Vines’ serve would be rather awesome.

What is extremely interesting about Ellsworth Vines is how much he had in common with Lew Hoad and Rod Laver. Vines fractured his left arm when he was working as a lifeguard. So for many years he was mostly using his right arm for lifting and various things. Early tennis pictures show his right arm seemed to be twice the size of his left arm.

This was clearly true also with Rod Laver with his left arm that was much larger than his right arm and Lew Hoad was known for having a massive right arm! It’s fascinating that the three players that many experts in the past mentioned as being the best when playing their best had this trait in common.

No one can really know for certain who the greatest player is when he is playing well but we definitely know that at times players can reach a level where everything seems to flow, and the ball seems to be coming to them at a slower pace.

I’ve seen a lot of players over the years mentioned as being unbeatable when they are playing well.

I’ll mention a few who were never No. 1 in the world but have been thought of for being the best if all were playing their best.

Vijay Amritraj is just one of them. Vijay was a very elegant player who defeated great players like Connors, Laver and Nastase! He was often brilliant in defeating them! Others are players like Henri Leconte, Miloslav Mecir. There are a lot of others of course that I’ve probably forgotten to mention. Another player a bit further back is Richard Norris Williams who played both Tilden and Ellsworth Vines. They were both amazed at Richard Norris Williams level of play when he was playing well.

Some also have mentioned Frank Kovacs. Bobby Riggs mentioned I believe in Ellsworth Vines’ excellent book “Tennis Myth and Method” about how Kovacs crushed Frank Parker 6-0 6-0 6-0. Parker actually won one game in the last set even though Riggs said Parker was triple bageled.

Here’s a quote from Ellsworth Vines’ book Tennis Myth and Method from Bobby Riggs—“Kovacs had incredible groundstrokes. I recall—I can’t remember the tournament (It was the 1950 US Pro) except it was on clay--a match around 1950 in which he blanked Frank Parker 6-0 6-0 6-0…simply not to be believed. It gives you the heights Kovacs could reach when he was hot. I’m certain no one else who ever played the game could have beaten Parker that badly.”

The discussion of the greatest player which he is playing his best has been an interesting discussion for ages.

It’s fun to talk about and while no one can know for sure, the ones who saw Ellsworth Vines at his best looked upon with him awe and many could not imagine anyone playing better.

My thanks to Ellsworth Vines III for his help on this article.

Raymond Lee is a Tennis Now contributing writer and tennis historian who lives in New York. He has written about tennis for decades serving as a contributing writer for Tennis Week Magazine and Check out Raymond Lee's Article: Holy Grail: Why Winning the Calendar Grand Slam is Toughest Task in Sport.


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