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By Richard Pagliaro | Friday, July 28, 2017

Steve Flink

"It’s intoxicating and so inspiring to watch two great players at their best, no time limits, never knowing quite what’s going to happen, the one-on-one aspect which I love," said Hall of Famer Steve Flink.

Photo credit: Kate Whitney Lucey/ITHF

Before Google even existed, tennis media was empowered by its own search engine.

Steve Flink.

Watch: Muguruza Talks Wimbledon

In the pre-internet era, frenzied colleagues writing on deadline consulted Flink to confirm stats countless times, while champions conducting press conferences deferred to the nation’s preeminent tennis historian correcting unforced errors in their own records.

“Steve would also be at my press conferences. It wouldn't be uncommon for him to interrupt and correct me when I had not described something accurately in my record,” Hall of Famer Chrissie Evert said introducing her friend of 44 years for his induction into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

“When I did not know one of my stats, trust me when I say that, that was very frequent, my eyes always darted right to him. His instant recall of matches over a long period of time was much, much better than my own.”

He is a human tennis data base whose insight has provided perspective, nuance and texture to tennis' most pulsating matches for decades. The man who has spent nearly a half-century chronicling the game and its history became a part of history last Saturday.

Flink was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame, joining former world No. 1 players Andy Roddick, Kim Clijsters, wheelchair champion Monique Kalkman-van den Bosch and the late Vic Braden, an accomplished tennis player, coach, writer and sports scientist, who was also Flink's Tennis Week Magazine colleague, in the distinguished Class of 2017.  

The author of The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time has written the narratives for the most compelling major matches you've ever seen.

The perpetually tan and endlessly energetic writer began his career as a number cruncher.

Flink's near photographic memory for tennis scores and statistics rearned him his start as a statistician for ABC, NBC and CBS broadcasts.

His total recall of the ebbs and flows of matches he's seen throughout the decade can be as mind-blowing as the Matrix when you hear him jump into a middle of a match played 40 years ago and deliver a play-by-play of a pivotal point.  Flink attended his first Grand Slams at the 1965 Wimbledon and US Championships and has embedded thousands of matches in his mind he's able to recall as if he tapping into an internal YouTube channel.  

The New Yorker has watched, covered and interviewed virtually every elite Grand Slam champion ranging from the man who mastered the first Grand Slam, Don Budge, to Grand Slam king Roger Federer. 

An unerring and diligent baseliner at Stetson University, Flink was inducted into the Eastern Tennis Hall of Fame in 2010.

As a teenage tennis junkie, Flink grew up revering the game through the pages of his "tennis bible" World Tennis Magazine. Eventually, he joined the staff of World Tennis where he served as columnist and an editor from 1974-1991, while also covering Grand Slams for CBS Radio.

The man who covers tournaments dressed as sharply as a visiting professor at Cambridge, has written more than 2,500 tennis essays. He served as columnist for two of American tennis' most influential publications—World Tennis and Tennis Week—including writing for nearly every issue the New York-based Tennis Week Magazine produced after he joined its staff in 1992.

Flink's tactical acumen is so highly regarded he was once offered a coaching job by a prominent player.

These days, Flink writes a column for Tennis Channel and is a frequent contributor on radio and television as well.

When he's not watching or writing about tennis, the father of two spends his spare time working out, playing tennis or managing his beloved New York Yankees from the couch of his suburban New York home.

We caught up with the man nicknamed “Sir Steve” by friend and former Tennis Channel colleague Brad Falkner for this interview.

The tennis historian, journalist and broadcaster discusses the Grand Slam record he believes will never be broken, identifies the most underrated champion in history, shares his favorite players to watch, assesses how history will rank the iconic rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal and reveals the one champion whose best is better than the GOAT.

Tennis Now: You opened your Hall of Fame speech with the essential three Bs of speech giving: be brief, be bright, be gone. What are your three essential rules for good writing?

Steve Flink: Clarity. Organization because if you wander in your story and you don't bring it together coherently you're going to lose the reader as you know very well yourself as a writer. It's got to be precisely put together. And then I think avoiding word repetition is something my father taught me from a very young age. Do not use the same adjectives over and over again. And try to come through with a very strong beginning, middle and end.

So those are three rules I would say. The last thing, Richard, which you know, is in this era of writing on computers and laptops: Keep editing. Just edit until you can’t do it anymore. Because editing is writing. You’re cleaning it up and cleaning it up and changing words and taking a few things out and adding a few things in. That’s so much easier to do in our day and age than it was for those of us who grew up with a type writer. Because you were going to have to keep putting that paper back in and taking it out and marking it up with a pen and back in again. Here, you have the ability to move the paragraphs around and most importantly to just read, re-read and just keep cutting and adding until you’re satisfied in the end that you’ve got the finished product.

TN: You’ve joined your friend and colleague Bud Collins in the Hall of Fame. How did Bud influence your perspective on the sport, on writing, on broadcasting. You were both very good players too. How often did you play with and against Bud? How did those matches go?

Steve Flink: I think his influence was more by example. Our styles were different. When I read Bud I don't think he influenced my writing at all, frankly, because I could never write like that—that’s uniquely Bud Collins. So when I would work behind the scenes with him starting in 1972, I would work with him in the TV booth, but also help him out when he was doing his Boston Globe column later. I loved reading him. I found him very entertaining, but there were other writers who I could relate to more both in and out of tennis.

It was more that I was inspired by Bud's prestige, by his love of the game, by what he showed me how to go about things than necessarily his personal style rubbing off on me.

We did play. We played a lot of times. It was funny. I’d get nervous against him and I would start double faulting. I remember playing doubles against him once at Queen’s Club and double faulting a lot. And Bud gave me a great line, he said, “Just remember what Hazel Wightman said: you can’t double fault if you get your first serve in.”

He played barefoot. He was far better than people realized. Much, much better than people realized. He made a joke of it. He would always be self-deprecating. But he really could volley. I watched Bud once with (John) Newcombe when we were doing the NBC stuff in ’77 and Newcombe was a commentator. There was a long break in the schedule on the middle Sunday when they didn’t play of course.

John got out and hit some with Bud and he’s blasting forehands and Bud’s out there picking volleys off at net with no problem at all. I mean, he was a very good player. He didn’t have great groundstrokes, but he controlled the ball well from the back of the court and then he’d work his way in. He had great feel on the volley and a good kick serve. So I never beat him. I’d lose 4 and 4. It would be respectable, but I couldn’t beat him.

TN: You were a lead writer for two of the most influential American magazines World Tennis and Tennis Week. In your speech, you credited World Tennis publisher Gladys Heldman and Tennis Week publisher Gene Scott for influencing the sport as outside the box thinkers. They were two completely different personalities. What qualities did they share that made them unique and strong voices as agents of change?

Steve Flink: When I started at World Tennis, Gladys was not in the office. I was hired by Ron Bookman, the editor, and Ron was terrific guiding me in terms of writing and professionalism—all of it. And Gladys I only talked to her on phone from time-to-time. Later, I got to know her very well because that's when I’d coordinate with her on her monthly instructional piece that she’d still do in the ‘80s and ‘90s. And that’s when we became very close friends. It was inspiring for me because I’d grown up reading her editorials. You notice in the speech I mentioned Gladys and Gene’s editorials. That was the common ground they had.

They both were so gutsy and they weren't afraid to criticize people that they knew quite well, knowing that there might be some bruised egos. But they had the credibility to do it and I thought they were really similar in that vein. Gladys’ editorials in World Tennis in the ‘50s and ‘60s and Gene’s editorials in Tennis Week starting in the ‘70s were important. People paid attention whether they agreed or not. I think they did urge people to think out of the box. So I think they were two very gutsy individuals and unique in their way. They had that similarity in their approach. And they didn’t write those editorials recklessly, as you know. It was thoughtful and probing and sometimes, in her case, she’d write some very positive editorials lauding people. I think they provided a really crucial service to the game by what they did with that platform.

TN: Did you and Gene ever bang heads? He would sometimes say “Come on, you can write that story in your sleep, do this one instead.” Did you and Gene ever clash editorially or philosophically?

Steve Flink: Yes, we did. An example was the 60th anniversary of Don Budge’s Grand Slam in ’98. So I go to the editor Heather (Holland) because I wouldn’t always go right to Gene. Usually they’d run it by Gene and then we’d move on. So I said I want to write on Don Budge. Then they called me back and said Gene doesn’t want you to do it.

So I called him and he used the line you just cited: “Oh, come on you can do that story in your sleep.” I said: “Gene, that may be true, but what about the reader? Doesn’t the reader matter? I believe I can do it better than anyone else because of my background and being a historian.” So I was going to provide the right treatment for the readers and the readers were going to enjoy it because how much longer was Don Budge going to be alive? How could we ignore that story? And then he buckled. That was one of the few times he did.

TN: How did he buckle?

Steve Flink: He didn’t say you’re right, but he said: “Okay, you can do it.” He gave in. And what he would do to ease his own mind that he hadn’t really given in, he’d say “I know you need a breather, so that’s fine.” (laughs). It was his way of saying “I’ll let you do it.”

The other one was (chair umpire) Frank Hammond. I wanted to do an interview near the end of Frank’s life and Gene was saying the same thing “you can do it in your sleep.” Ironically, here he was paying Frank’s medical bills and doing really noble things on Frank’s behalf, to help him out privately, but he didn’t want me to do it because he thought it was too easy. And I used the same argument and it was the same kind of thing where he was like “Okay, I know you need a little bit of a break this week so fine go ahead and do that one.”

Gene was very funny about that stuff. I guess my biggest disagreement with him—and Richard I admired the fact he wanted to squeeze everything he could out of us—was I felt strongly that there could be stories written that could be positive about the sport. He, as you know, would use the phrase “hard hitting.” He wanted tough stories. But I would argue with him that there are positive stories that have value as well. That it didn’t always have to be a negative slant.

I know the story that he liked the most that I wrote was I did a story once on Donald Dell. That was when a lot of people were leaving Donald’s firm, including his brother, he’d had a falling out with his brother. And he liked that story because I interviewed dozens of people and worked really hard on that story. I didn’t take great pleasure in it because I knew it hurt Donald but I just did the best job I could and I tried my best to give Donald his say.

Gene tended to like those kind of stories more than anything laudatory. But I felt there were plenty of times that I wrote laudatory stories—as did other writers—that would connect with the reader in the same way. That had the same value. So we disagreed on that. But obviously I admired him so much, especially his intelligence and his perspective on the game and also the opportunity that he was giving us to have this platform in his publication. Because all the insiders in the sport read it. That was more so true with Gladys and World Tennis. To me, that was the bible.

Gene and Gladys were entirely different personalities, but they really did share this responsibility to speak out and they each knew everybody and they knew they were going to hurt people’s feelings from time to time with what they said. But they both provided an essential service to the game with the way they wrote their editorials. They were required reading.

TN: Billie Jean King once told me she felt Martina Hingis winning Wimbledon doubles with Sukova at age 15 to become the youngest Grand Slam champion in the Open Era is an undervalued record that will not be broken in our lifetimes because of the age-eligibility rule.

For you, what is the most underappreciated major record and what record will stand the test of time like Chrissie Evert’s 13 consecutive years with a major or Rod Laver winning Grand Slams as an amateur and as a pro or any of Roger Federer’s Grand Slam records?

Steve Flink: I rode back on the bus, the press-player van, to the Gloucester Hotel after Martina won the doubles that year. She was such a nice kid. I remember her reaction to it. Billie Jean has a point. Although I think, as you know, we all tend to ignore doubles a little bit, not as a spectacle, but historically. And even more so now with the top players not participating.

Chris Evert, Steve Flink

TN: Right. And Billie Jean wasn’t suggesting it was the greatest record of all time. She was saying here’s a record that is something you’ll probably never see happen again in your life.

Steve Flink: She’s right. Billie Jean is right about that. The interesting thing is Martina is probably going to go on winning major doubles titles for at least about another five years. So she may end up setting a record for longevity in doubles—deservedly so.

Underrated records… tough to say. I do think the most incredible record to me is Chrissie’s 13 years in a row (winning a Grand Slam title). I don’t think that will be touched. Rafa made it to 10, which was great. Steffi came relatively close, but I don’t think anyone will touch that record. Because you just can’t (do it) with injuries. Look what happened to Roger in 2013. Somewhere along the line you’re going to have that year where you’re just not physically and mentally capable of it. Chrissie kept that going.

Jimmy Connors winning the US Open on three different surfaces is a very underrated record. To do it on grass, Har-Tru and hard court was remarkable. That record I don’t think is talked about enough.

TN: If you could pick any two players—one man and one woman—to watch play at the peak of their powers who would you pick? Not necessarily the greatest players but two players who you just loved watching be it for their style or spirit or court sense or personality or entertainment value?

Steve Flink: For sheer style grace and elegance, I would go back and watch Rosewall. Because I thought that Rosewall’s slice backhand and the footwork were exceptional and I just I loved watching him play. And the fact that he didn’t have a big serve meant he was always strategically setting up the points. He could serve-and-volley. He learned that in the pros and became a good serve-and-volleyer, but he was not a powerhouse. It was always a strategic lesson watching him play. Also, he was just such a gentleman. The most humble champion I’ve ever met by far.

In fact, the day the Hall of Fame made the announcement on court this year, he came by my desk that morning to congratulate me. He’s really a great guy. I loved watching Rosewall.

If there is one player I would always want to watch who was the ultimate professional and to me far more exciting as a competitor than given credit, it would be Pete Sampras. Because I think that he wore that label of boring. But there was nothing boring about him. I thought he approached it the right way. And he was demonstrative often enough with a fist to spur himself on. I could watch him serve through a lifetime. There was nothing like watching Pete Sampras serve. I loved watching his running forehand and I thought he brought a lot of quiet passion to the table.

Woman player, I would say Maria Bueno was sheer grace as was Evonne Goolagong. For grace and elegance in that respect, different eras, they were terrific. Chrissie Evert because I loved the ball control and the precision. The way she would map out a match in her mind and figure out how to beat these people who were trying to overpower her or trying to attack her with the serve and volley. The way Evert went all the way from beating a Margaret Court in 1970 to beating Monica in 1989, she dealt with a lot of different styles and different generations and I always loved to watch her play.

The other one would be Arthur Ashe because he had you on the edge of your seat. You never knew what he was going to do next. He was so explosive, but he was great to watch. The emotion came through. He was electrifying. He didn’t show emotion—in that sense he was more like Sampras or Chrissie—he didn’t give anything away. But his game was so dynamic. He had this spectacular backhand groundstroke and backhand volley and beautiful serve and I loved watching him. Ashe matches were always gripping because there were a lot of ebbs and flows like the Tom Okker US Open final in ’68 that went the distance. For me, Ashe was really compelling to watch.

TN: Many of the iconic Aussie Hall of Famers have advocated for Lew Hoad as an all-time elite champion. Carole Graebner used to tell us Pancho Gonzalez’s level of play was never fully appreciated because he couldn’t play Slams after going pro. She said Gonzalez had all the tools—the big serve, the physicality, the ferocity, the tactical awareness, the athleticism—to be a major champion in any era with any equipment. Are there any champions that you feel have either been overlooked historically or who underachieved generationally? Players like Mecir or Safin or Rios?

Steve Flink: Mecir disappointed me because I thought he was so gifted and if he’d worked harder it could have been different. I’m sorry we didn’t see him win some majors because he was a joy to watch.

I think Carole’s right about Gonzalez. Part of the problem is too much of it was in the pro years, the lost in the wilderness years. By the time the Open Era came, he’s playing the famous Wimbledon match against Charlie Pasarell, but he’s 41 years old at Wimbledon ’69 when he saved the seven match points and came back from two sets down to beat Charlie.

Gonzalez was very underrated because he was a ferocious competitor and he, like Sampras, had a beautiful serve to watch. Mechanically, it was perfect. I didn’t think there was any style of play he couldn’t handle. He could deal with Rosewall and Laver. He could handle the young Americans coming up early in the Open Era. His longevity was very impressive.

For me, both Rosewall and Gonzalez are very underrated because too much of their greatest tennis was during the pro years.

Safin and Rios are quite similar. You’re dealing with a couple of flaky personalities. I think the sad part of Safin was he convinced himself when he played that brilliant match against Sampras in the 2000 US Open final—he blitzed him in straight sets—that he would never play that well again. He said it after the match. He repeated it many times in those next couple of years: “I’ll never play that way again.” Which I think was the totally wrong attitude. He was a young guy. He should have been thinking: If I can play that well now, imagine what I’m going to do when I get better. And he should have realized that he had a tremendous backhand, great serve, moved well for a big guy. Safin had pretty much the whole package. He could have improved his volley more than he did.

Still, from the baseline he was great. He had a terrific serve. Safin should have been winning multiple majors. Thankfully, we got one more out of him in 2005 when he had that match point recovery against Federer in the Australian Open semifinals and then beat Hewitt in the finals. That was nice that he finally got a second one. Marat, with his game, his physique, his ability, we should have been looking at five or six majors.

Rios, we should have been looking at winning three or four majors. But he was just a dark personality. I don’t know why he got caught up in so many negative things and complaining. He created problems for himself. Safin put up the mental roadblock that he could never replicate what he did against Sampras. And Rios just always got in his own way.

Here, he had that beautiful left-handed game and just such fine feel and so many gifts from the baseline. Think of when he destroyed Agassi in Miami and got to number one there. There should have been a lot more of that from him. Agassi couldn’t read Rios at all and that was true of a lot of people who played Rios. His two-hander was deceptive, he could hold the ball on the strings a long time. His serve was tricky like Rafa’s has been at times. I think those two (Safin and Rios) were definitely a waste. I put Safin and Rios in the same bottle.

TN: On the Roger and Rafa rivalry, what would it mean if they met at the US Open for the first time and potentially with number one on the line. If they both stay healthy and play until 38 or 39 who wins the most majors?

Steve Flink: I hope for the sake of the game we get that match at the US Open. If you think about it, how close could we have been? People forget two years running, we were on the edge of Roger vs. Rafa at the US Open because in the semifinals you had Djokovic saving two matches points in both 2010 and 2011 against Federer with Rafa making the final. So we were so close, it would have been fantastic to see them do it back then.

I think in 2010, Rafa was on his way to winning his third major in a row. Rafa was playing too well then and he would have beaten Roger. And I think he probably would have beaten him in 2011. I don’t know what to anticipate if they play in this year’s Open. Because Roger’s had the three wins over Rafa this season. Maybe they meet before the Open, maybe they don’t. I think it would have been a good thing for Nadal to play Federer at Wimbledon because he’d come off such a good run on the clay and winning the French Open. I think his confidence had returned and he would have been very dangerous even on the Centre Court. We didn’t get to see it. It was jarring for Rafa to lose the Muller match.

All I hope is that it will be a final if we get it at the US Open—that they can get to one and two in the world before then and that would ensure we wouldn’t have to see them meet in the semis. I think it could be a great match. I honestly feel Nadal has elevated his game considerably even from where it was in Australia and Miami to how he started playing on the clay to how he played the first three rounds of Wimbledon before he stumbled. It was all there. He was crushing the forehand, stepping inside the court, very aggressive. He was playing the way he should play on fast courts. I think it was tough deal to have to play Muller on court number one. I think by the Open Rafa will be peaking again and Roger I’m sure will still be playing well and I think we could get a blockbuster.

It could be something more like Australia. I wouldn’t expect it to be at all like Indian Wells or Miami where Federer was in peak form in Indian Wells and Rafa played one of his worst matches. And Rafa looked tight to me in Miami and Roger played another really good match. He did not lose his serve in either of those matches and I can’t see that continuing in a best-of-five match at the US Open. We could have something very similar to Australia if they meet at the US Open—another five-set classic.

TN: If Rafa wins the US Open this year, can he catch Roger in all-time Grand Slams assuming they both stay healthy and keep playing for a few years? Do you regard Roger as the GOAT?

Steve Flink: I don't think he can catch him. If he had won Australia… I think that will be a critical loss in terms of the numbers. Because it was such a big difference to suddenly go down four (majors) again instead of it being two. And then he got it back to three again and then Roger wins Wimbledon. I just don't see how he can overtake him because I think Roger will probably win one or two more in this period.

You have Djokovic out for the year. You have Murray hurting. You have Nishikori always hurt. You have Raonic half the time hurt and then the rest of the time putting in perplexing performances like he did against Federer at Wimbledon. I thought he played a terrible match and Roger played beautifully. I just mean I’m looking at these guys you’d think would be top of the line challengers, who might be competing for the top. It will take Zverev some time, but I think he’ll get there.

In the meantime, Roger’s got a window. And as far as Rafa catching him, I expect Rafa to win more majors too, but I don’t know how many more. No, I don’t think he’ll catch him.

TN: Is Roger Federer the greatest of all time in your mind?

Steve Flink: On record he is. I honestly believe if you look at it from the perspective of Sampras’ serve, his game, his temperament—all of it—the fact he would take all that time away from Roger, the fact that he’d be smothering the net on Rafa and make him pay the price for being too far behind the baseline and just imposing himself against Djokovic as well, I honestly think Pete at his best, on hard or grass, would beat any of those guys.

But on record, on sheer versatility, Roger has it (Greatest Of All Time title). It’s hard to deny him on his record and the consistency over a long period of time and playing this type of tennis again now as he approaches the age of 36. It’s hard to deny Roger the honor.

I felt as soon as Roger won the French Open, he deserved the (GOAT) label for sure because you’ve got to base it more on the records. But when it comes to how would it play out on the court in big matches, I think the numbers and records are going to show Sampras was a better big-match player, he was tougher on the big occasions. Sampras never lost a Wimbledon final.

The weakness in Roger's record is he'll never catch Rafa in the head-to-head overall. We’ll see what happens when Djokovic returns, but Djokovic, at this point, is ahead in the rivalry. So that’s important. Some might say: well that’s unfair, they’re so much younger. But that’s too bad. That’s the price you pay. It’s like you can’t say it’s unfortunate to Andy Roddick that he lost four major finals to Roger—that’s just the price you pay—you have to beat the people you came up against.

If you’re going to be performing at this level as long as Roger has and you’re still beating everybody else, there can’t be excuses. That’s a clear hole in his record: the problems he’s had head-to-head against both Nadal and Djokovic. But I think he’s compensated for it by winning his eighth Wimbledon and 19 majors and the incredible level of consistency he’s shown. And also suffering so few bad losses in his career. So I give Roger credit on all those counts.

The string of Grand Slam semifinals shows the level of excellence Roger has delivered over the years. But then the flip side is his head-to-head against Nadal and Djokovic and would he have beaten Sampras at the peak of their powers at Wimbledon or the US Open?

I don’t think so. I think Sampras would have had the edge. Pete was also just more committed to serving-and-volleying. He kept coming forward. He kept coming at you. Frankly, I think he was a better volleyer. I think Roger has improved significantly, but I still think Sampras was a better volleyer overall.

Having said that, Roger could win three majors this year. I think it could come down to Roger and Rafa at the Open. And if Nadal has a Muller-type loss in New York, the potential is Federer could sweep through the tournament again. You have the likes of a Kyrgios, who could be so dangerous for him, but he can’t stay healthy. He’s got serious physical issues and also sometimes he doesn’t seem to care enough.

TN: F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote: "Here's to alcohol, the rose-colored glasses of life." You’ve spent a lifetime in the sport, has tennis been more intoxicant or informative in your life?

Steve Flink: It’s a combination of both. It’s a great quote. To me, tennis is both. Because it’s intoxicating and so inspiring to watch two great players at their best, no time limits, never knowing quite what’s going to happen, the one-on-one aspect which I love. And it’s informative because you're just watching history unfold. I would say it’s definitely a deep blend of the two for me.


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