book review: high praise for 'high strung'



For our review of High Strung, TSF takes a rare dive into the serious, introspective world that sometimes the tennis world can inspire. Enjoy. -NM

It’s not the fault of Jimmy Connors or Vitas Gerulaitis that they were left off the cover and out of the title of High Strung: Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, and the Untold Story of Tennis’s Fiercest Rivalry, written by Stephen Tignor of Tennis magazine. For Connors and Gerulaitis will never have the Bjorn Borg-John McEnroe rivalry to their names, and that is nothing they can change, but it doesn’t make them any less instrumental in the story of tennis’ most storied few years.

Many in tennis do pin the 1980 final — and the season that went along with it — as the best that tennis has ever seen. The Mac-Borg tiebreaker is often referred to as the gold standard for drama and quality, and that McEnroe won that breaker 18-16 only to lose the fifth set made it that much more of a legend. “This is terrible,” Tignor writes Borg said to himself after the breaker. “I’m going to lose.”

TSF Vault: John McEnroe | Bjorn Borg

But the climax of that match (Borg won, BTW: 8-6 in the fifth) was as unexpected as the twists and turns that Tignor takes the reader through in High Strung. He puts out the 1980 final as the book’s first offering, and at my initial reading, I feared that the book wouldn’t have much to build on from there. But it’s there that Tignor weaves in the stories of Connors and Gerulaitis (and eventually makes a fearsome twosome actually a foursome) along with a host of other eccentric characters.

High Strung is bold in its claims about tennis’ shifting landscape, especially from the amateur era (pre Open tennis, before 1968) and that which came after. Tignor puts as much (if not more) weight on the arrival of the oversized racquet, the technology that stole the game from the Mac-Borg era and passed it along first to Ivan Lendl and then to Boris Becker, Andre Agassi and to the baseline-bashing game we know today.

More Tignor: His Tennis.com “Concrete Elbow” blog

What Tignor does so beautifully (and makes the book so compelling) is tieing in both history in a factual sense with that of juicy detail, quotes and I-didn’t-know-that kind of research. It’s obvious he spent a good amount of time with a tape recorder sitting down with everyone he could possibly get an interview with, but that he then states that “[n]o account of [Ilie Nastase] would be complete without at least a partial list of his more memorable antics” and then goes on to list such antics (pp. 129 to 131 if you’re a thumbing in a B&N), makes the read both fascinating and snappy.

I’m no tennis historian. Actually, I’m 25, pay somewhat close attention to the goings on on tour but can better recount that Matthew Perry was in Jennifer Capriati‘s box during the 2003 U.S. Open than tell you about the career of Bill Tilden. Yet, with that said, this book not only held my attention, but I felt pretty dang enriched by it. Even (dare I say it?) entertained. From Borg’s rocky marriage to McEnroe’s family life to the upbringing of Connors to the rise of Lendl to the death of Gerulaitis, Tignor does his duty in roping in the reader.

That last note — the death of Gerulaitis — is the last inclusion in the Epilogue, in which Tignor gives a Six Feet Under sort of wrap up of the post-1981 lives of these tennis players slash rock stars. I won’t go into too much detail about how the writer unfolds such events, but I will say that on a smelly, Uptown-bound 1 train in New York, I missed my stop because I was so wrapped up in his telling of what happened — and crying.

Suffice to say, I highly recommend picking up High Strung.

Buy: High Strung on Amazon for $16.79 (used from $13.50 and up).

(Image provided by Harper Publishing)