20 players who rocked the world

Published by Richard Llewelyn Evans

Andre Agassi had a reputation both on and off the court. Photo: Getty Images
While some tennis players are remembered as legends of the court, others have names that transcend the sport.

Rocket serves, acrobatics and sublime volleys may enchant the tennis fan but the game’s wider appeal owes much to the high profile players who have influenced tennis far beyond the baseline.

John McEnroe

Seven majors and a grouchy panache that kept crowds, and officials, perennially on the edge of their seats. ‘Superbrat’ polarised the populace and establishment in equal measure and brought wider awareness of tennis to an all-time high. His “you cannot be serious” line has become an everyday fabric of modern society and officiating was never as slack again. A brilliant and incisive commentary box presence today, everyone knows the name ‘McEnroe’.

Andrea Jaeger

The somewhat stocky and sour faced 15-year-old who blubbed her way on court to the ladies Wimbledon final in 1983 left the game a few years later, her body broken for purpose at tennis’ highest table. But Andrea had a higher calling and gave away her millions to run a Colorado charity to give terminally ill children a chance to play tennis, ride a horse or go rafting once medicine was no longer working. Her Sliver Lining Foundation raised millions and millions and Andrea even became a nun to offer another level of care. “The best story ever,” said John McEnroe.

Vitus Gerulaitis

A Lithuanian born New Yorker who quite literally lived the rock star lifestyle and died tragically young too. Vitus was the disco king of the ‘70s, the guitar player, the cool guy all the other players wanted to be and resident of Studio 54. The Andy Warhol of tennis. Drugs were there but he died from carbon monoxide poisoning aged just 40. He could play too, reaching world No.3 in the world and winning an Australian men’s title in 1977.

Boris Becker

Unseeded and Wimbledon champion at 17, the man-boy struck an extraordinary figure. Boris was imposing and a free serve for getting tennis into the main news as well as sports pages. One of the few names to far transcend the game, he became a star fascination in the UK media for some time and allegedly fathered a child in a restaurant broom cupboard in central London. He had one of the first high profile, inter-racial marriages. A colossus.

Ion Tiriac

A bear like, moustachioed capitalist from communist Romania, Tiriac was best known as the doubles side kick to his more glamorous countryman Ilie Nastase. Once he stopped playing though, Tiriac more than stepped up, to first coach Ilie Nastase, Guillermo Vilas and Marat Safin before managing Becker. He then hit the big time when he set up his own bank, Banca Tiriac of course, to become his country’s first ever official billionaire. Tiriac also gave us blue clay at the Madrid Open (he runs it) a couple of years ago.

Billie Jean King

Feisty and as focused off-court as on, King continues to be remarkable. A pioneer for equal prize money (eventuating at the 1973 US Open) she saw off Bobby Riggs in the infamous Battle of the Sexes (also ’73) to advance the cause of sexual equality. The USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center was renamed in her honour and Life magazine called her “one of 100 most important Americans of the 20th century”. Awesome.

Fred Perry

Notable for a rock star life that included flings with Hollywood star leading ladies Marlene Dietrich and Jean Harlow plus a rumoured dalliance with Bette Davies. Perry was a world champion in table tennis before eight tennis Grand Slams. His name has endured down the generations via an eponymous and best selling clothing line, the iconic Fred Perry shirt particularly embraced by skinheads and Northern Soul enthusiasts.

Mike Davies

A journeyman Welsh pro who once reached the Wimbledon doubles final, Davies was plucked from tennis obscurity by Texan oil heir Lamar Hunt to head up the World Championship Tennis (WCT) in 1968. It was an inspired move as Davies turned out to be a marketing genius, introducing network television coverage, coloured balls and clothing and chairs and enlarged breaks between points to allow for paying TV commercials. Mr Pragmatic who shaped the game as we know it today.

Frank Sedgman

The Victorian serve and volley maestro stirred a near national crisis when he stepped onto a plane to California on New Year’s Eve in 1952, Davis Cup from beating the USA newly in the locker. Professional riches on Jack Kramer’s pro circuit called and Sedgman set out to provide for his family as a priority over amateur glory and the call of his country. Sir Norman Brookes never spoke to him again but hard work and shrewd investing, in petrol stations and flavoured ‘Sedgie straws’ made the one time pariah a millionaire. A trail blazer.

Anna Kournikova

Despite never winning a WTA singles title, Kournikova ended her career with $USD 3.5 million on-court earnings. But estimates of the off-court fortune for the Florida-based Russian hover around $50 million and more. Commercials and endorsements based solely on her looks may have set back women’s equality a number of years – notably her ‘only the ball should bounce’ sport bra advert – but she cannily blazed a trail for Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams to exploit. Still only 33 years old.

Cliff Drysdale

The South African best known today as the voice of tennis on ESPN was a decent player in his day, reaching the US Championships (Open precursor) final in 1965. But his influence really shone when as the inaugural president of the players union he drove the Wimbledon boycott in 1973 and established the ATP as the driving force of the men’s game. We weren’t looking for a fight he said but the power struggle was won and the path of tennis altered forever.

Bjorn Borg

There were stars before Borg but none quite like the Swede who brought pop star hysteria to Wimbledon for his 1973 debut and became an icon who was bigger than tennis when he drifted into retirement in his mid-20s. We never quite knew him but the ice Swede was the definition of cool and brought awareness of, and interest in, the game to a whole new level. His back of the class presence for the past 30 years has maintained the mystery. Donnay racquet, Fila shirt, a legend.

Martina Navratilova

The greatest ever? Quite possibly and while fans of Chrissie, Steffi, Margaret and Serena may disagree it’s difficult to nominate another female player as having a bigger hold on tennis. She brought being gay in sport to the discussion table and made fitness a boom industry at all levels of tennis. A profile so high that when she speaks on politics, being a vegetarian, animal rights and charity work with underprivileged children, everyone listens. To be universally known by her first name only says it all.

Andre Agassi

A charisma so all encompassing that even Wimbledon officialdom embraced the gaudy showbiz kid from Vegas from the off. His ‘image is everything’ commercialism was an own goal and his revelations that he wore a toupee stunned more than admissions of drug taking but the riches of Croesus followed nonetheless. It’s what he did with them that raises him to the heroic. His work in helping at risk children and giving them an education is immense and he has put in his own money – estimates range around $40 million – where his actions are. We could all learn from Andre.

Yannick Noah

A brilliant, albeit rangy and inconsistent player, Noah found his way to the heart of his nation when he took home the French Open and Davis Cup. But his longer lasting profile comes now from his music – Yannick’s Saga Africa caught the national mood and he has sold millions of records and produced 12 albums to-date. An 80,000 crowd for one of his concert at France’s Stade de Paris in 2010 put tennis in the shade.

Serena Williams
For some time Serena was one half of the Williams sisters but Venus’ on court decline has been matched by an irrepressible rise of Serena as a one woman industry spanning her own fashion designs – a white trench coat at Wimbledon in 2008 sticks particularly in the mind – to swimsuits and promotions for headphones and much, much more. She has won more prize money ($USD 75 million) than any other female player and while Maria Sharapova makes more off court, Serena has a force and story that elevates her, currently, as the dominant female athlete of any sport.

Renee Richards
An astonishing tale. Renee came from an upper middle class Jewish family in New York and captained the men’s tennis team at Yale before qualifying as a doctor. It was a gender change though that brought her into the spotlight and the refusal of the US Open to accept her into the women’s draw. The decision was later overturned in the courts and Richards played for several years as a woman despite being in her early 40s. She later coached Martina Navratilova to Wimbledon success before settling into a career as a leading ophthalmologist.

Jack Kramer
“Keep away from our kids, Kramer. We didn’t groom them for you,” was the scurrilous headline in a UK tabloid when former champion Kramer (pictured with Arthur Ashe, right) visited Wimbledon in 1958. It was a cack handed compliment borne of fear and small minds. An enormous character, Kramer had lured the world’s best amateur players (Sedgman, Ken Rosewall, Pancho Gonzalez) to his pro circuit for over a decade with a business nous and flair second to none and was the slow burning catalyst for open tennis. A later founder of the ATP. A giant.

Arthur Ashe
That the principal court at the home of the US Open carries his name is testament to Ashe’s legacy. A very good, if not exceptional player, Ashe was an erudite and accessible face of civil rights and equality in America and South Africa during the late 1960s and ’70s. One of the first high profile figures to raise awareness and understanding of AIDS prior to his early death in 1993, his decency bestrode him always.

Evonne Goolagong
An extraordinary career saw Goolagong, who hailed from a small outback community in NSW, play in 18 Grand Slam singles finals, winning seven and picking up an Australian of the Year award in 1971. “It’s something I’ve always wanted –to be known as an Australian. When I was younger I was always referred to as an Aboriginal tennis player,” she said. Her work since as a sports ambassador for Indigenous communities has helped raise opportunity for Indigenous children to take up tennis.

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