Sunday, May 8, 2011

Book Review: “High Strung” by Stephen Tignor

I believe that books about tennis’ history are best written from the perspective of some significant passage of time. This was one of the problems I had with Jon Wertheim’s “Strokes of Genius” and “Venus Envy”. Both books were written so closely to the events they represented that there was nothing to be gained by reading them. The definitive book on the Williams Sisters has not yet been written. It cannot be written for another 20 or 30 years. You need for time to pass, for the dust to be somewhat settled, before you can take lens and attempt to make meaningful interpretations of history.

From this perspective, Stephen Tignor has gotten it just right. In his book “High Strung” – a title that invokes far more John McEnroe (Superbrat) than the central figure of his main rival, Bjorn Borg (the Ice Borg) – Tignor writes about that period in tennis when the sport went from amateur to pro, when the tradition of the stately All England Lawn Tennis Club clashed with the crassness of the American money-makers. And from a distance of some 30 years, Tignor can look back and attempt to make sense of the summer of 1981 when Bjorn Borg walked away from tennis at the top of his game.

“High Strung” is well-written. It grabs your attention with the image of the hunky blonde blue-eyed Swede being treated like a celebrity as gaggles of British school girls swarm over him rock star style. The book ends however with little insight into what made Bjorn walk away from it all at the height of his form.

Was it the loss to McEnroe that summer of 1981 at the US Open? Was it Borg’s inability to win the US Open after countless tries? Was it his lack of a country and a home? Did he come to feel imprisoned by his own icy coolness and feel the urge for freedom that led to his divorcing his longstanding coach (Lennart Bergelin) and supportive spouse (Mariana Simonescu) who had both been there all along? Tignor suggests each of these in turn but never concludes definitively. Perhaps Borg himself has not arrived at the conclusive explanation.

There is a promising psychological aspect of this book that is often mentioned but not adequately developed. This is not necessarily a criticism, as Tignor, as far as I am aware, is not trained in this field. But the psychological insight into what motivated some of the players in this passion play is exactly what would have made this book a better read. Or perhaps that says more about my interest than the book’s intent.

Although the title references the rivalry between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe, in truth the book mentions in some detail all of the top players from that era of tennis’ history. We meet Pancho Gonzalez, Vitas Gerulitis, Ivan Lendl, Roscoe Tanner, Arthur Ashe, and Jimmy Connors, even Chris Evert and Mary Carillo – all of whom played tennis during that chaotic period when the sport first went pro.

Along the way we catch glimpses of Aaron Krickstein (who never got his due), Andre Agassi, Boris Becker, and Pete Sampras – the young upstarts who would powerfully wrench the game away from the likes of John McEnroe, fully embracing the promise of technology and changing the game to its current emphasis on big serves and even bigger forehands.

But this book is about the men from that middle period, between the time when tennis players traveled the country in groups, playing tennis for exhibition far more than sport, and the period when tennis first became profitable and made early millionaires of the likes of Borg and McEnroe. The book beautifully captures the transition from the group camaradie of roving bands of players, to the individualistic narcissism that is so familiar today.

But it is also about the contrasting styles of that era of tennis, from McEnroe’s touch and finesse to Borg’s monotonous powerful baseline back-wall. It is about the end of the era of wooden tennis rackets.  And I loved the opportunity to be a fly on the wall.

If you are at all interested in tennis’ history, this book is a must read. There is just enough of a dash of gossip to keep even non-tennis fans interested in the private lives of these players. And while we do not get blow-by-blow accounts of the Wimbledon and US Open matches of 1980 and 1981, we get enough of a feel for how these men played that we can see first the white then the yellow balls going across the net, moving from one era of tennis history into another.


 About the Author:
Stephen Tignor is the Executive Editor of Tennis magazine. He writes a daily blog on Tennis.com, where he has written about the sport for the past twelve years. He lives in New York City.

About the Book:
Title: HIGH STRUNG: Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, and the Untold Story of Tennis’s Fiercest Rivalry
Authors: Stephen Tignor
Publisher: Harper
Format: Hardcover; 256 pages; Retail Price: $20.99; ISBN: 978-0-06-200984-5
Publication Date: May 17, 2011

1 comment:

Kim at TennisFixation said...

Very nice review - makes me want to read this book ASAP but my review copy hasn't arrived yet!!!