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The Greatest Tennis Matches of the Twentieth Century

By Steve Flink Rutledge Books, $24.95 (hardback)

SOME OF the best sports literature is written by fanatics with a facility to transfer their passion to the pages, vividly and with a sense of proportion.

Steve Flink, a New York journalist and broadcaster who has had a lifelong love affair with tennis, is a prime example. "Great tennis," Flink writes, "requires an almost ineffable excellence on court. It emerges from both the observable and the mysterious ... The mystery is in the mind and heart of a player who determines that he or she will not be defeated."

Such players abound in Flink's selection of 30 matches which have thrilled the crowds, a fascinating study from the 1920s to the summer of 1999. The classic encounters include the only contest ever played between the French diva Suzanne Lenglen and the cool American, Helen Wills; the test of wills and skills when the theatrical Bill Tilden duelled with the French maestro Henri Cochet at Wimbledon; the fire and ice of John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg; and the emotional conflict between Steffi Graf and Martina Hingis in the women's singles final at the French Open last June.

Each match is showcased with a prologue and an epilogue. Few readers will turn the pages without feeling that they are sharing momentous times with personalities they are getting to know and to understand.

Flink's tennis century opens in the 1920s because, he reasons, that is when the sport's first "towering figures and fascinating match-ups" emerged. Unsurprisingly, the author is at his best when courtside, describing the dramas from personal experience, as when Borg and McEnroe contested an epic fourth-set tie-break, which finished in McEnroe's favour, 18-16, in the 1980 Wimbledon final.

"Both men were so good with their backs to the wall that the fabric of emotion among the fans was torn by conflicting, changing loyalties. The two contrasting competitors raised the level of play far beyond expectation... Centre Court erupted thunderously. The appreciation was non-partisan. Two valiant young men had fought for a glory both deserved."

The book is a treasure, a work that will be read for pleasure and re- read for reference. "This is not a scholarly history of the game," Flink states, one of the few lines about which he is likely to be taken to task.

John Roberts