Two world-class athletes smashing a ball at each other at 130 miles per hour with nothing between them but a piddly net and 78 feet of clay? Don’t let those tennis whites fool you: tennis is a blood sport disguised as a gentleman’s game.
With the U.S. Open upon us again, we’ve put together a list of books by and about the sport’s most memorable players. Read on to find out which to pick up and which wins the Bookish Cup.
The Hotheads: John McEnroe versus Jimmy Connors
When tennis phenoms Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic were still but twinkles in their fathers’ eyes, John McEnroe, who published “You Cannot Be Serious” in 2002 and has another memoir coming out in 2014, and Jimmy Connors–who published his, “The Outsider,” last spring–dominated the sport. Anger management was neither man’s skill: both had it out with umps (check out this epic McEnroe tantrum reel) and each other. As far as books go, Connors’s features some bombshell revelations, including that his former fiancé, tennis star Chris Evert, had an abortion during their relationship. If we’re judging by explosiveness, the memoir award goes to Connors for serving up the juicier read.
Winner: “The Outsider,” by Jimmy Connors
The Trailblazers: Billie Jean King versus Arthur Ashe
One of the greatest American sportswomen ever, Billie Jean King–who released her memoir, “Pressure is a Privilege,” in 2008–made history in 1973 by beating former Wimbledon champ (slash unabashed male chauvinist) Bobby Riggs in the infamous “Battle of the Sexes.” While King made strides for gender equality, Arthur Ashe broke barriers by becoming the first African American man ever to claim Wimbledon, U.S. Open and Australian Open titles. Both changed the game for the better, but if we’ve got to pick, the book award goes to Ashe for his memoir “Days of Grace,”which recounts his youth in the segregated South, his triumphs in a sport traditionally dominated by white players and his struggle with AIDS, which claimed his life in 1993.
Winner: “Days of Grace,” by Arthur Ashe
3. The Player
The Playboys: Boris Becker versus Björn Borg
Though they never crossed paths on the court, Borg and Becker both topped the sport’s ranks: Borg clinched 11 Grand Slams in the 1970s and Becker won six in the 1980s. They were also two of the greatest ladies’ men the game has ever seen. In 1999, while married to model Barbara Feltus, Becker had sex with a woman in a nightclub closet and fathered an illegitimate child. Borg, too, made the rounds: “I was this young Swedish guy with long hair…and there were girls everywhere,” he told the U.K.’s Telegraph in 2007. Not to be outdone, he also sired a child out of wedlock, impregnating a 17-year-old he met at a wet t-shirt contest. (Yes, you read that right.) Though Borg hasn’t delivered a memoir, Tennis magazine columnist Steve Tignor looks at his fierce rivalry with McEnroe in his book, “High Strung.” Becker wins this contest for his unapologetic 2005 memoir, “The Player.”
Winner: “The Player,” by Boris Becker
The Comeback Kids: Martina Hingis versus Monica Seles
In the 1990s, Hingis and Seles crushed the opposition with their powerful play. But Seles’s career nearly ended in tragedy: In 1993, she was stabbed by a crazed spectator. In her memoir “Getting a Grip,” she recalls the depression she suffered before returning to the court and winning her final Grand Slam, the Australian Open, in 1996. Hingis, meanwhile, is staging her comeback now: the 32-year-old is competing at the U.S. Open in doubles with her partner Daniela Hantuchova. She hasn’t gotten around to penning a memoir (though you can read about her life in “Martina Hingis,”by Christin Ditchfield)—so this one goes to Seles.
Winner: “Getting a Grip,” by Monica Seles
5. On the Line
When they burst onto the tennis scene in the 1990s, Venus (who boasts seven Grand Slam singles titles) and Serena Williams (who’s won 16, and is currently ranked number one) made an immediate impact. Tall, fast and powerful, they burned through the ranks, often finding themselves face to face at tourneys’ ends (to date they’ve met in eight Grand Slam finals). Both women have released memoirs— “On the Line,” by Serena, and “Come to Win,” by Venus. Another tough call, but for her candid account of rising out of the rough and tumble environs of Compton, Calif. to become a champion and for opening up about what it’s really like to play against her big sister, we’re giving this one to Serena.
Winner: “On the Line,” by Serena Williams
When you look at the lists of all-time greats, these guys are always at the top. In the 1990s and early aughts, Pete Sampras was the man to beat: By the time he retired in 2003, he’d collected 14 Grand Slam singles trophies–a record held until superstar Roger Federer eclipsed it last year (Federer now holds 17). But during Sampras’s reign, bad boy Andre Agassi–who was also making headlines at the time for his marriage to actress Brooke Shields–gave Sampras a run for it, stoking one of the fiercest tennis rivalries ever. In 2009, Sampras released his memoir, “A Champion’s Mind”; Agassi delivered his, “Open,” a year later. Sampras may be the more decorated player, but this point goes to
Agassi for going all the way in his book by coming clean about his failed marriage to Shields, detailing his courtship with his wife, fellow tennis legend Steffi Graf, and—most shockingly—using crystal meth at the height of his career.
Winner: “Open,” by Andre Agassi
And the Bookish Cup goes to… “Open,” by Andre Agassi. Brutally honest and bombshell-filled, “Open” is the rare celebrity memoir that grips you from start to finish. Kudos to Agassi for writing a book as powerful as his baseline game was.