By Allen Fox, Ph.D. c 2013, all rights reserved
Of course we can never actually see what would happen if the two greatest British players of all time faced off on court, but we can compare the attributes and weaknesses of each and hypothesize as to the outcome.
HOW GOOD WERE THE OLDER PLAYERS: First, however, we need to respond to the common notion that modern players are simply much better than the old boys, great as they may have been in their time. After all, the comparative numbers in all the other sports have substantially improved; there are more good athletes in tennis now; modern players are bigger and stronger; tennis strategies have evolved; and the old guys just don’t look very good when we see them play on video tape. These are tough arguments, but not conclusive.
First, most of the older champions were about Federer’s height, and they were great athletes as well. Perry’s famous rival, Ellsworth Vines, for example, was 6’2 1/2” tall, attended USC on a basketball scholarship, played semi-pro baseball, and after tennis became a pro golfer, winning two tournaments on tour and being twice ranked among the top 10 money winners. Perry himself was 6’ tall and a superb athlete, winning the world table tennis championship before becoming a world-class tennis player. Pancho Gonzales, who dominated the tennis world in the late 1950’s, would compare favorably as an athlete with anyone in today’s game. He was 6’4”, quick and agile as a cat, and had great hands. He played a murderous serve and volley game, yet he told me that when he played an aging Don Budge (who was about 40 years old) the only way he could beat him was to stay back on his serve and run him until he got tired. Budge himself was 6’1 ½“ and an extraordinary athlete, playing semi-pro basketball, as did his long-term doubles partner, Gene Mako.
COMPARING OVERLAPPING CAREERS: And culling the overlapping careers of the players over the years you can deduce that their levels of play must have all been somewhat comparable. Murray’s coach, Ivan Lendl, is a good starting point. He was one of the originators of today’s power baseline style. At 6’2” and superbly conditioned, he hammered down the competition with his big serve and forehand. If not dominant, he would certainly have been a serious contender at the top of today’s game. Yet he was beaten twice in the finals of the US Open by Jimmy Connors, who was in his 30’s and well past his prime. This suggests that Connors would also have been competitive today. And when Jimmy was asked about great players, the first name on his lips was Pancho Gonzales, who, at the age of 43, beat a then 19 year-old Connors in the finals of the Los Angeles pro tournament. Asked later how good Gonzales was in his prime, Jimmy could only reply, “He must have been unbelievable.” So we have to assume Pancho could have threatened any of today’s players, and it is but a short jump to put Budge, Vines, and Perry in the same class as well. Thus it is by no means outlandish to question who would win between Perry and Murray if they played today with comparable equipment.
PERRY AND MURRAY STYLES OF PLAY: Their differing styles of play would have made the match particularly interesting. (A Wimbledon final would have been an appropriate venue and occasion, don’t you think?) Perry was aggressive. He was extraordinarily quick and agile and was the best conditioned player of his day, reputed to be tireless, and he had a great record of 5th set victories. Perry had the finest running forehand in memory, snapped with his wrist like a ping pong shot, and often played on the rise and followed to net, where his volley and overhead were deadly. Jack Kramer called him a “physical freak” because nobody else could be taught to hit a forehand in this way. His serve was not overwhelmingly powerful, but like Federer’s, it was extremely accurate and deceptive, so he got his share of aces. But he used it mainly to get control of the point and bring his attacking game to bear. If he had a weakness, it was on his backhand side, where he was consistent and accurate rather than aggressive.
Murray, on the other hand, has historically been defensive minded, using his great conditioning, speed, anticipation and court coverage to wear down opponents. Lately, however, at the urging of his last half-dozen coaches, he has finally started to mix in more offense. Murray has a balanced game, with the ability to attack or defend with both backhand and forehand. He also has excellent hands, fine touch, and a well-controlled volley, so he is always a threat with the drop-shot and at the net. At 6’3” Murray has quite a dangerous (but streaky) first serve, and his only weakness would be on his second serve, which at times lacks velocity and depth.
How do their games match up? A faster surface (like grass or carpet) would have favored Perry’s attacking game. A slower surface (like clay or slow concrete) would have helped Murray. Their court coverage and endurance were equivalent – both extraordinarily quick and fit. Their serves were, on balance, also equivalent. However, Murray had the better backhand and Perry had the better forehand.
The match would have been one of maneuver and movement. Perry would have traded baseline strokes with Murray looking for an opportunity to strike with a forehand and follow up with a net attack, much the way Federer does today against Djokovic. He also would have occasionally attacked the net off of Murray’s weaker second serve. Murray, on the other hand, would have tried to get into backhand to backhand rallies, in order to force an error or get a short ball so he could hit a groundstroke winner. He would also have used his powerful first serve to get free points.
MENTALLY: In the mental match, Perry would have had the edge. His actions on and off the court reflected his flamboyant, exuberant, roguish personality. He partied with Errol Flynn and dated countless Hollywood actresses and starlets, among them Jean Harlow and Marlene Dietrich. He was supremely confident, arrogant and, according to Kramer, “selfish and egotistical.” (In fairness, his daughter said he had a “heart of gold.”)
He was also ruthless in his single-minded ambition and gamesmanship, annoying opponents by making offensive remarks and repeatedly crying out, “Very clevah” whenever they played an especially good shot. (Murray would not have handled this well.) Perry liked action and taking chances, but not rules. These traits did not make him an ideal marriage partner, as his four wives would have attested, but they did give him the nerve to go for risky shots under pressure and make them. In tennis, unlike most other major sports, the points have different values, and winning the “big points’ are crucial, a substantial advantage for Perry.
Murray couldn’t be more different. He is soft-spoken, shy, less confident, and a percentage player, on and off the court. (Unlike Perry, he has had a stable relationship with the same young lady for many years.) In the past he has had a tendency to blame others when things are not going well, even berating his coaches in the stands during matches. This is generally a sign of insecurity, a problem most of us face at one level or another, but for Murray it has been deadly as it has, on occasion, lead to breakdown and defeat. His early 2011 record is an example. After losing in the Australian final to Djokovic in straight sets, he proceeded to lose in the first round of the next three tournaments, all in straight sets, two of them to qualifiers. Unfortunately for Perry, Murray has gotten a lot better in this area since Lendl took over as coach. (Not only is he older and wiser, but a glance at Lendl’s dour, threatening visage would have dissipated any latent urge to scold his coach.)
In terms of will, fortitude, and concentration, they are close. With a father in the “trades” and a leftist to boot, Perry was an outsider in the tennis culture of the 1930’s and felt the need to claw his way up with a ferocious will to win. He would not have quit in a long match until the medics were forced to come on court and carry him off. But Murray is a dogged competitor as well. Today’s game consists of brutal, protracted, base-line body punching, and Murray proved his mettle in last year’s US Open final, beating Djokovic in 5 sets by running him into the ground. So there is little to choose from here between the two.
IN SUMMARY, I would hate to bet on who would win. But if a gun were held to my head, I would, with hesitation, have to say, “Murray.” When it comes down to it, I can picture Murray’s advantage in backhand to backhand rallies being decisive. Murray hits that shot too hard and to consistently well for Perry to escape this exchange. This would make it very difficult for Perry to bring his great attacking forehand into play, so Murray, in my opinion, would control the majority of the points. But it would be a great match between two great players, and I would love to have the television rights.