Imagine you came across a tennis record book from an alternate reality, one in which certain events never happened. I’ve often wondered how different today’s records might appear as a result. What if f Bjorn Borg had never retired at 26 and began to play with modern racquets? What if ‘open’ tennis had begun in 1960 rather than 1968? Here, I suggest four incidents that I feel had a profound effect on the game’s future.
At the peak of her powers in 1993, Monica Seles was amassing grand slam trophies on a regular basis, was world number one and largely enjoying domination over the mighty Steffi Graf. Her pugnacious game was never too easy on the eye or ear, but the original queen of ‘screechers’ was a relentlessly accurate baseliner who looked set to demolish opponents for some time to come. This all came to a shuddering stop with the terrifying swish of a blade at a tournament in Hamburg in 1993. The deranged spectator responsible for the potentially lethal assault derailed what looked likely to be one of the greatest female tennis careers of all. Although Seles eventually recovered and returned to the game, she was never quite the same force again despite winning one more major title. The skills were still there but it seemed that something intangible had been left behind on that terrible day in Hamburg.
It seems likely, despite her already impressive collection of nine, that she would have won many more majors, including a first Wimbledon title. Graf’s career total of 22 major titles would likely have been reduced by four or five and her rivalry with Seles could have become comparable to that of Evert and Navratilova.
For a period of time in the ‘swinging sixties’ Rodney ‘the Rocket’ Laver, the greatest player of his era and one of the greatest of all time was not welcome through the doors of the big four. Having chosen to earn a living in the professional ranks, winning many professional titles, Laver was effectively disqualified from contributing further to the record books as we read them today. Amateurism, such as it was during these changing times, had become a lingering façade which finally crumbled with Wimbledon becoming the first major to hold an ‘open’ tournament in 1968. Rod Laver won the Wimbledon singles title as an amateur in 1961 and 1962. On his return after professional exile, he won the first open Wimbledon in 1968 and repeated the feat in 1969. It is almost impossible to imagine that he wouldn’t have won many more majors between the years of 1963-67. My guess is that the grand slam record books would look significantly different today
‘Little Mo’s’ achievement of 9 major singles titles, including a calendar grand slam in 1953 sets her apart as one of the greatest women ever to play the game. Her grand slam was achieved for the loss of one set. Hers was a deadly game from the baseline, very much a one handed prototype of Chris Evert and Tracey Austin in later generations. She won virtually every time she stepped onto a court. Unfortunately, in 1954, a horse riding accident crushed her right leg, ending her tennis career for good. She was barely out of her teens and not even in her prime. Some will rightly say that she achieved more in her short sporting career than most do in a lifetime, but it is hard not to imagine the limitless records she could have set. Had she played until her early 30s her career would have juxtaposed with the likes of Althea Gibson and Maria Bueno whilst encroaching on the eras of Margaret Smith and Billie Jean Moffitt (Court and King). Such dream encounters were never meant to be.
Had Bjorn Borg not departed the world of tennis when arguably at his physical peak, Pete Sampras might have been chasing the Swede’s grand slam record instead of Roy Emerson’s. Emotionally exhausted at age 26, having enjoyed incredible success at Roland Garros and Wimbledon (six and five wins respectively), the incomparable Swede wrote finis to a remarkable career. But there was always a nagging feeling that, with a healthy break and renewed appetite, Borg might have grown and lived with the new wave of players up to the late 80s, possibly adding the elusive US Open crown to his resume as well as an Australian title (it was still played on grass at the time of his retirement) and, who knows, even another Wimbledon or French title. McEnroe was in the ascendancy at this time so it’s unlikely Borg would have regained his number one status but it is feasible to imagine him holding his own with the still developing Lendl, Edberg and Wilander as well as Connors and other players of his own era.
The first real ‘pop star’ of the game who attracted an army of teen admirers and huge commercial revenue to tennis truly did leave us wondering how much more he might have achieved in the prime of life. Perhaps a clue to the reason for his departure was the expression on his face as he walked up to receive his runners up plate at Wimbledon 81. It almost seemed to be saying ‘I don’t do second’.