by Kait O'Callahan
When it comes to tennis, my father has always waxed lyrical about the ‘good old days’. I’ve heard countless stories about the superiority of the wooden racket, grass courts, and the big personalities of John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors. When Steve Tignor released his book High Strung in May last year, I put it on my ‘potential Christmas presents for Dad’ list. Come Christmas, I was dying to read it myself but begrudgingly wrapped it up and took it home to New Zealand for Dad to open. Within weeks he had devoured it and the book had been sent down to my Aunt for her and her husband to read. From there, High Strung embarked on its second trip across the Tasman Sea to me.
If I didn’t really understand before why my dad becomes so nostalgic over tennis, I do now. Tignor’s book is not just a history of the sport, but a wonderful look into the personalities that dominated the sport through the ‘70s and ‘80s. I found myself laughing out loud at the tirades of Nastase and McEnroe, and read with raised eyebrows about the partying habits of Borg and Vitas. I even shed a tear near the end. Tignor’s book isn’t to be dismissed on the basis that modern tennis is superior. In fact, if, like me, you weren't around to watch the sport back then, I urge you to pick up a copy. It’s a sweet and funny tale of a tennis I never knew.
I contacted Tignor a few days after finishing the book and asked him to answer some questions I came up with whilst reading.
Congratulations on the book, Steve. I was too young to know any of those players in their prime, and it really gave me insight into who the players were, how they played, and why people like my father miss them. When did you come up for the concept for the novel and how long did it take to finish from the initial conception?
In 2007, I wrote a feature for Tennis Magazine about the wild 1977 U.S. Open, the last one held at Forest Hills, when the city was coming apart at the seams. An editor at a publishing company got in touch with me about doing a book around the same time. I suggested the 1977 Open, but he didn’t think it was worthy of an entire book. He wanted something that gave the reader Borg, Mac, Connors, Nastase, Vitas, all the guys from that era. I thought that the 1981 Open, the last tournament of that era, was the right showcase for them.
Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe clearly had very different personalities. Is there anyone in the current era you could compare them too?
Federer and Nadal have both been compared to Borg for different reasons, but neither is at all like McEnroe (a good thing in most people’s minds). I suppose the closest might be Federer and Roddick—cool European, fiery American. Except that McEnroe eventually conquered Borg. Roddick, not so much with Federer.
What about their rivalry? How does it compare to the Federer/Nadal rivalry many consider the greatest ever?
Borg and Mac had a higher profile, especially in the U.S., than Roger and Rafa; they were iconic not just for their tennis but their vivid and contrasting personas—you couldn’t get more perfectly opposed than those two. But Federer and Nadal has been the longer-lasting and more compelling rivalry from a playing standpoint. Borg and McEnroe played each other just 14 times over three years, while Roger and Rafa have already played 27 times over seven years, and there’s more to come.
One way that earlier rivalry was superior, though, was that it was more closely contested. Borg and Mac finished 7-7; Nadal has doubled Federer in wins, 18-9.
Part of what makes High Strung such a good read is that you delve into the personalities of the players. From flaring tempers to wild parties, these guys were far from today’s media trained teetotalling professionals. Do you think we will ever see rebellious, controversial players like Ilie Nastaste or McEnroe again?
I have a hard time imagining it. Those guys were part of the broader culture of their time, which was more rebellious and rambunctious in general. You might say the turmoil of the 1960s found its way to tennis’s staid old lawns in the '70s. For example, there was no such thing as a code of conduct before Ilie Nastase forced tennis’s officials to create one in 1976. There hadn’t been any need for it.
Do you think that is what modern day tennis is missing - a bit of controversy and spark? Has it reverted too much to its gentleman roots?
For a wider audience, I would say yes. I think some friction between the stars, and a “personality” that people who don’t really love tennis could watch anyway, would raise the profile the sport—in the U.S., at least, Serena Williams is still by far the biggest tennis star, as much for her persona as her game. But I think the sport is doing well right now, and you can’t ask for much more at the top of the men’s game at the moment.
I know you’re a big music fan. If High Strung were made into a film, what would be the theme song?
I could hear “Anarchy in the U.K.” by the Sex Pistols playing over the opening credits, and “Straight to Hell” by the Clash playing over the closing credits. Not that I’ve ever thought about it before. Clearly.
And finally, do you ever wish modern tennis would turn off Hawk-Eye, break out the short shorts, and switch to wooden rackets?
Keep Hawk-Eye, play one tournament each year with wood, and don’t even think about short shorts.
Steve Tignor’s High Strung is available from Amazon for $17.15
Photo credit: Mirror