Who is the Greatest Tennis Player of All-Time? Federer, Sampras, Riggs? Aspen Hustle – Part One

The La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club has played a large part in our family’s life over the years. My wife Sally, normzplumbing our son Mike and I used to live up the street until we forsook the beauty of the ocean for the lure of the golf courses in the desert. The Club was our home away from home — to play a little tennis, visit with friends, walk the beach or have a glass of wine on the promenade, hoping to see a green flash at the sun’s setting. Developed by a true patron of tennis and tennis players William S. Kellogg, the Club was transformed from its original marina design into a hacienda style resort right on the sand. It sprawls along the beach front, quietly welcoming generations of families who come each summer for their vacations. And during the quiet months it remains its humble self, filled with locals who play on its 16 courts and who still sit on the promenade after a set or two, hoping to see a green flash. The green flash occurs on rare occasions when the sun hits the horizon at the end of a very clear day.

The Beach and Tennis Club is not the grandest of all resorts in the world, but it has a certain something that many of the newer and bigger operations do not possess. Perhaps, it’s soul. It is probably the soul of the Kellogg family that continues to oversea the property. It could be the eons of paint that cover the adobe walls resulting in a color you can’t quite identify. Is it salmon? Is it orange? Is it tan? The rooms are small, but are continually being upgraded. The grounds are kept immaculate with an infinite variety of palm trees swaying in the sea breeze high above the court fences. And there are roses, lots and lots of roses. Nothing significant has changed at the Club for years and probably that’s what makes it so special. My wife can attest to that. She started playing here as a young girl in junior tournaments, then in women’s events and finally in national senior championships, Tennis lesson Singapore winning titles along the way. She is just one of the many champions who have played at the Club through the years. Stoffen, Mako, Budge, Gonzales, Kramer, Bond, Ralston, Olmedo, Bundy-Cheney, Fleitz, Brough, Laver, Emerson, Smith, Lutz, Ramirez, Edberg, Osuna, Pasarell, Roddick, Conners, Segura and a million more.

So it is with great excitement that we have returned to the La Jolla area, correcting the mistake of having left in the first place, and especially on this day returning to the Club to lunch with old friends.

Old friends are not just old, as in this case, but old as in good friends for a long time. Jay Smith the most vociferous of the luncheon attendees greets us with his usual enthusiasm, “Marv, Sally, great to see you. Roger was fantastic yesterday, wasn’t he?! The greatest player I’ve ever seen!” Jay speaks with some authority, a former teaching pro out of Los Angeles, a connoisseur of tennis for many years, a heady competitor himself and now a scratch golfer. “He has everything,” continues Jay. “His serve may not be as big as Roddick’s, tennis class Singapore Pete’s or Pancho’s, but he’s consistent and his placement is superb.” His wife Sheri nods. She lets Jay do most of the talking most of the time. She sits quietly and waits her turn, usually when things quiet down. Learning the game in later life, Sheri herself has become a keen observer of the game.

“Uh huh,” agrees Sheri.

“I’d have to agree too,” adds Mardi Stein, another of our table companions. She has played social tennis at the Club for years and like Sheri, what she lacks in skill she makes up for in dress. These two are perhaps the best dressed players this side of Sharapova.

Mardi’s husband Shel, who is usually as quiet as Sheri, breaks in, “I believe there are 8 critical skills to tennis greatness.” Shel is a fine player and tough competitor. He is intelligent and mindful on and off the court so his opinion counts here. “Most champions possess 3 or 4 of these abilities in spades – a big serve, killer forehand, lethal backhand, aggressive volley, fantastic return, great court coverage, concentration and the ability to win critical points. I think Federer has them all. He is the greatest by default.”

“I wouldn’t disagree,” says a voice from behind me. I turn to see that Jack and Carmen Stone have arrived to join the luncheon party. “He is the best I’ve ever seen,” continues Jack, and Jack has seen a lot of tennis players over the years. He has been a member of the Club for 50 years and still plays a respectable game of doubles. His wife Carmen still turns heads when she enters a room. Her beauty is not just skin deep. She is lovely in every way and shares an interest with Sally in matters of a spiritual nature.

Sally chips in, “He plays in the ethers.”

“What? What are you talking about?” demands Jay.

Sally has a tendency to see things in a different light, even if she is agreeing with everyone, as she was here. “Don’t you see the way he moves around the court? He is absolutely one with the ball. He moves on a different plane, like Michael Jordan did on the basketball court. He is fluid. He is liquid. He is airborne. He is the greatest tennis player of all time. No one comes close!”

Words began to fly, but finally I couldn’t take it anymore. “I strongly disagree!” I volunteered. The table conversation stopped. I continued, “I believe the greatest player is the one who has made the greatest impact on tennis to date and that was Bobby Riggs!”

“Riggs?!” yelled Jay. “He was a hustler. What did he ever do? What have I missed here?”

Now I had to explain myself. Diners at nearby tables were perking up their ears as our discussion became more heated. “First of all he was great – a world champion at the age of 21. He won the singles title at Wimbledon, 3 U.S. titles, played on the Davis Cup Team. He also won Wimbledon doubles and mixed doubles titles. He loved tennis and he too had all the shots and some trick ones not seen today. Yes, he was a hustler, but he was also a tennis promoter. In fact the single biggest tennis event, actually the single biggest athletic event, in history was created by Riggs. The Battle of the Sexes $100,000 Winner-Take-All match against Billie Jean King in 1973, uplifted the awareness of tennis to the level of a major sport. There were 30,000, standing-room only at the Houston Astrodome with another 50 million TV viewers around the world. Not even the 2008 Democratic and Republican Conventions reached 40 million and they were the largest viewed in history Riggs efforts along with Billie Jean King’s did more for women’s lib than all the efforts up to that time. That event helped women break the equal pay and equal everything barrier in many, many fields beyond tennis. Besides all that he was a man in his mid-50’s who could still play at a very high level. Sally and I know this from personal experience because he came to Aspen in 1976 to help us open a fabulous new tennis club called The Tennis Club.


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