The two top American tennis players of the 70s and 80s, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe, were Irish-American lefties who were cheaters. Brad Gilbert doesn't say this in his classic guide to the mental side of winning tennis matches, but it isn't a far-fetched inference from some of the war stories he tells.
Gilbert's book, Winning Ugly, published in 1993, has been thoroughly absorbed into the minds of most players and coaches. Obviously, the game has changed since the early 1990s, but a lot of what Gilbert says about smart tennis is still relevant.
Here’s an example.
“The two most common mistakes recreational players make are: They don’t think about what they’re doing. They do it too fast.”
Winning Ugly is a great book on two levels. It's full of stories about Gilbert's experiences with the pros of his era who, besides Connors and McEnroe, included Ivan Lendl, Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg, Michael Chang and Bjorn Borg. So it is a great read even for those tennis players who aren't looking for advice on how to win more sets.
The second level the book succeeds on is as a dispenser of tactical and strategic advice about winning matches. It's only natural that Gilbert use his matchups with his contemporaries to illustrate points he's making about playing smart.
On the cheating issue, certainly there is a lot of gray area in determining where gamesmanship ends and actual cheating begins. When Gilbert tells the story in Winning Ugly about his match with Connors in which the author wins match point, is standing at the net ready to shake hands, but ends up losing the match, it's hard not to draw the conclusion that Connors cheated him.
What happened was Connors protested the "in" call on Gilbert's last shot, got it overruled and went on to win the match. But even for Jimmy Connors, it took a lot of histrionics to reverse a match point call. If any readers want to try this in their club tournament, they should be advised that Connors really had to throw a convincing fit, complete with snot coming out of his nose. Be prepared to sit by yourself at the post-tournament dinner, if you borrow this tactic.
As for McEnroe's manipulation of matches, Gilbert asks the same question that so many players who competed against McEnroe ask: Did he ever stage one of his outbursts when he was ahead? The implied answer is rarely, if ever. But Gilbert isn't calling anybody a cheater, that's my interruption. So what if tennis does sometimes resemble pro wrestling? When Marat Safin dropped his shorts at the French Open in 2004, that's the kind of moment You Tube is made for, right?
The other thing that the tennis history part of the book has going for it is that Gilbert and his co-author Steve Jamison are hilarious. Not only is the prose in the book light-hearted, the authors give credit where credit is due to some of the book's subjects.
In one anecdote, Gilbert describes the way McEnroe won a match on a chilly night in Los Angeles. At 3-3 in the third set, McEnroe argued about a call and basically stopped the match for 10 minutes. When the match resumed, Gilbert tried to take his time, although he had started to get cold in the 45-degree weather. He got a warning for delay of play. McEnroe had just shut down the match for 10 minutes, but because Gilbert toweled off between points too slowly, he got hit with a warning. Gilbert freaked out and lost the match. Later, in the locker room, McEnroe said, "Brad, you've got to be more careful about delaying the game like that. In this weather, I could have caught a cold."
Anyway, beyond stories like this, Gilbert also supplies a ton of useful tips on getting the most out of a player’s game. The great thing is that unlike a lot of tennis advice, Gilbert’s points are as useful for recreational players as for pros.
Never mind McEnroe's morality, Gilbert uses his matches with the New Yorker to illustrate one perennial problem for us righties when facing a lefty serving us wide in the ad court. Gilbert says the receiver should stand as far to the left as he can, in the alley or even past the alley, to make the lefty server beat him by changing his serving pattern to go down the middle. Gilbert argues, as he does with a lot of his advice, that even if the lefty server can adjust, the receiver is controlling that part of the match.
As my friend, Stan, said as we discussed Gilbert's book at the East River Park courts, the idea that Gilbert was such a weak player that he had to use his "smarts" to win matches is a little exaggerated. You don't get to a career-high ranking of number four without a lot of talent. Then again, Gilbert's Grand Slam results aren’t inspiring. For a career that lasted from 1982-1995, he only got to the quarters of Slams twice.
Still, as we know, he has become one of the game's leading coaches (Andre Agassi, Andy Murray, Andy Roddick, among others) and a popular TV analyst. And the same sense of humor that makes Winning Ugly such a delight is also evident in Gilbert's commentary.
Some years ago, he said he considered Wimbledon a warm-up, as far as sharpening his analytic skills, for a big, Northern California junior tournament that his son Zach was playing in.
Gilbert also gives a shout-out to local pro, Fritz Buehning, associate academy director at the John McEnroe Tennis Academy at Randall's Island, as he tells the story of a loss to the New Jersey native Buehning that inspired Gilbert to start to approach his matches more analytically.
So, yes, there is a reason Winning Ugly is a classic. Buy it to get some help in maximizing the potential of your game, but read it a second and third time for its hilarious takes on tennis history from one of the game’s brightest commentators.