Let Us Now Praise Famous Heroes

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kingGames inspire. Heroics crowd sports. The waves of triumph we see before us on the field move our spirit. Images of perseverance, tales of emergence inspire.

Sports challenge character as much as develop it. Athletes — in or out of the arena —model life and problem-solving with grit or grace. They teach. So heroes emerge. Draped in fantasy, wrapped in mystique, they emerge, warts and all, to ignite the collective imagination.

But, sadly, we live in an era in which one-dimensional or fallen heroes litter the landscape. The singular Michael Jordan brought a breathless athleticism, a ferocity of will and pricey sneakers to kill for — but what else? Then again, his contemporary, NBA star Charles Barkley, informed us (with sufficient candor and cynicism), “I’m no role model.” The images of the best pitcher of our era, Roger Clemens, and the greatest home run hitter ever, Barry Bonds, were shattered by steroids while our greatest golfer fell from grace, overnight becoming an almost pathetic Tiger trapped in a cage of his own making. Say it isn’t so!

Heroes span the globe and, according to Brit Terrance Blacker, “you can tell a lot about a country by its sporting heroes. The Germans like theirs to be truculent but effective (soccer’s Franz Michael, racer Michael Schumacher, tennis’ Boris Becker), the French prefer zany individualism (soccer’s Zinedine Zidane, Henri Leconte); while Americans tend toward characters (Muhammad Ali, Jordan, John McEnroe) who are complex and controversial. We [Brits] seem to go for nicely brought up bores, dead-eyed, even-tempered men who can be depended upon to say nothing remotely interesting…[and] have a required level of blandness…heroes with a dreary sincerity and perfect teeth who remain the sort of boys that are a credit to their country.”

If anyone might reflect on the curious role of heroes, why not Billie Jean King, who contended that our heroes are burdened both by a kind of stuck-in-adolescence, Peter Pan principle and a certain fog of celebrity?

“It’s really impossible for athletes to grow up. On the one hand, you’re a child, still playing a game. But on the other hand, you’re a superhuman hero that everyone dreams of being. No wonder we have such a hard time understanding who we are.”

Not surprisingly, many voices have long cautioned about empowering heroes.

Century’s ago, Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “The youth, intoxicated with his admiration of a hero, fails to see, that it is only a projection of his own soul, which he admires.” Psychotherapist Sheldon Kopp unsparingly observed, “There are no great men. If you have a hero, look again — you have diminished yourself in some way.”

Maria Sharapova might agree. Unlike her WTA sisterhood, many of whom plastered their walls with posters of the greats of the sport and modeled their games after their idols, the Russian never drank the Kool-Aid. “I’ve never really met anyone that I was star-struck about,” said Sharapova. “Growing up, I idolized a certain part of someone’s game, but I never thought that someone was so good that I wanted to be like them.” Maria even has a hard time coming to grips with her own fame and doesn’t understand why someone would want her autograph.

“I’ve always had a difficult time accepting it when kids tell me they want to be just like me,” she said. “Not only is it a bit overwhelming and a shock, it’s kind of strange. I say to them, ‘You should want to be better than me or anyone else.'”

Yet the human species, which has evolved from ancient tribes that battled storm and plague, beast and rival, appears to be hardwired to embrace myth and legend, awesome avatars and benevolent superheroes, strong, righteous and bigger than ourselves, figures who will provide safety and take us to a world with justice. The sentiment has lingered long: A great man shall lead us.

Thinkers and philosophers alike have offered their takes. “The history of the world is but the biography of great men,” Thomas Carlye contended.

“Man is a rope,” added Fredrich Nietzsche. “Tied between beast and overman — a rope over an abyss…What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end.”

Billie Jean provides an important distinction: “We always have people we admire who’ve helped us through the years to be inspired. I had mine. My mom, dad and brother and Reverend Bob Richards. I had four teachers. These were people who influenced me. There were turning points in my life because of them. There was a belief-in-myself and a positive, inspirational direction. But if you have to live through them, then you’re in trouble. And I didn’t live through them. They inspired me.”

Tennis is far from the biggest sport, yet it’s uncanny. The game is so well suited to produce heroes. Indeed, hero worship is the mothers’ milk of this endeavor, where the individual quickly comes into focus with a hefty dose of microscopic clarity. The cycle is as regular as it is familiar. Time and again, eager but ordinary kids with extraordinary athletic talents begin the perilous journey. Bright, unstained prospects, they venture forth to stand before the throng without helmet or bulky uniform or the support and safety of team, coach or organization. Facing just one other foe in a sport that each week spits out a torrent of losers and provides no economic guarantees, we see players evolve from being naïve and bright-eyed ‘the-world’s-my-oyster’ wannabes to weathered, seen-it-all and sometimes washed up vets, who have entered one too many draw hoping to sniff, one last time, the intoxicating scent of victory.

This game is a test like few others, a bruising exercise that continually demands growth on all fronts and challenges then reveals character.

So, even if you put aside mother dearest Kim Clijsters and tennis’ three most charismatic stars — the graceful Roger Federer, with his beauty, accomplishment and longevity; Rafael Nadal, with three Slam titles last year, his primal ferocity and ability to overcome injury and family turmoil; and Serena Williams, with her out-of-the-ghetto backstory and penchant for diva drama — the sport over the past couple of seasons has delivered a dizzying array of heroic performances.

John Isner, 6-foot-9, holds serve with military regularity, an unrelenting power drone, as he soldiers to a 70-68 win against a fabulous (and heroic) French foil, Nicolas Mahut, in a singular marathon which is greeted, not once, but twice by dusk: survival, stamina, will.

Mardy Fish, exhausted, playing in a blood stained shirt in thin air in an aging bullring 8,500 feet up in the Colombian mountains, staggers yet still gains three Davis Cup victories.

Andy Roddick, who hadn’t won a major in eight years. But in ’09 on our greatest stage, Wimbledon’s Centre Court, he took The Mighty Federer to 16-14-in-the-fifth before finally relinquishing. Rarely has there been a more heroic loss.

Francesca Schiavone — a small, aging, battle-tested Italian vet — unleashed a bold, inventive assault in the French Open final, where her go-for-it “brave ball” devastated the favored Sam Stosur. Fearless!

Heroes greet us in many ways. Young, old, famous, obscure — they surprise and delight. Their grit, beauty, charisma, intelligence, devotion and ultimately their courage defies the senses.

Sometimes heroism is greeted with proper pomp and appreciation. Huge celebrations from Argentina and Chile to Croatia and Pakistan have embraced triumphant demigods (Juan Martin Del Potro, Marcelo Rios, Goran Ivanisevic, Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi.) But in ’95 when Pete Sampras returned from his draining three-match Davis Cup triumph in Moscow, all he got was a free round of golf in Augusta.

Sometimes the acts of our heroes are straight from the book. Roddick helped save lives in a Roman fire. Quick-thinking Patty Fendick saved the life of the stricken Debbie Graham.

Sometimes mere survival or not so simple longevity inspires. Corina Morariu overcame leukemia. Jennifer Capriati put her demons aside long enough to win three Slams. James Blake excelled despite his broken neck, paralysis and the death of his dad. And, of course, Monica Seles‘ poignant return after her stabbing touched many. The deeds and dignity of Rod Laver inspired both McEnroe and Sampras. Still we embrace enfants terrible, like Mac and Connors, who’ve seen the light and become knowing elders. We sympathize with those who have overcome abuse from within their own clans like Mary Pierce, Jelena Dokic and Mirjana Lucic. Sometimes we admire players more for their will than the outcome — think Tim Henman. Or we are moved by their backstories: Anna Kournikova emerges from a chilly Moscow basement apartment; Martina Navratilova escaped the cold night of communism and Venus and Serena Williams‘ grandparents (we’re told) were sharecroppers.

Tennis heroes are but distant cousins of “real” heroes — achievers, thinkers, warriors, peacemakers, first-responders and the salt of the earth — the legends and saints of our lives. But tennis heroes, like real ones, are also flawed, contradictory and nuanced. We know them, but they are mysteries. They appear, then vanish and ultimately they lift us. They more than hint of hope, imagination and possibilities.

Of course, on court, performance is at the core of heroism. Federer, Nadal, Sampras, Steffi Graf are idols to many. The poet tells us “Each man stands with his face in the light of his own drawn sword. Ready to do what a hero can.”

But Arthur Ashe gave us a different perspective: “True heroism,” he claimed, “is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost.”

How curious then that tennis – in some ways a rather narrow, vain (“get your ego in place or get out”) sport which suffers from a measure of greed and shallow indifference — has managed to produce such a stunning array of provocative role models and beloved heroes — game changing figures who have transformed the landscape. The raw, courageous Althea Gibson — a kind of combination of Jackie Robinson and Rosa Parks — shattered the conceits of an all-white game. Ashe, so dignified, nuanced and wise, fought racism, apartheid, AIDS and ignorance. Billie Jean King helped alter a sport and all of American life in countless ways. Andre Agassi continues to raise millions for kids. Andrea Jaeger became a nun and has devoted her life to cancer victims. And there is no other story in sports quite like the ‘from-bullets-to-backhands’ tale of those Williams gals.

All this from a minimalist sport with a net, a racket, a yellow ball and a simple rectangle.

How astounding, how heroic.

THE HERO LIST

What’s a hero? Do they differ from role models or notable achievers? What fibers make a heroic cloth: courage, selflessness, integrity, achievement, longevity, tenacity, willingness to take risks, wisdom, grace, beauty or a certain magic? And who are the heroes of our day? Who’s to say? Such a subjective call.  Here’s our call (including our co-leaders). What’s yours?

1 BILLIE JEAN KING

Inspired, longstanding and feisty Joan of Arc (who was the force behind the creation of the women’s tour, the Battle of the Sexes and World TeamTennis) is the most tireless battler in all of sports for equal opportunity. When it comes to the font of inspiration — Billie Jean’s got the tonic.

1 ARTHUR ASHE

Short life, long legacy. Dignity, courage, commitment, smarts and a great backhand. Tennis’ greatest ambassador was at home in both the inner city as in the inner sanctum of a corporate boardroom. His friend Bill Bradley recalled that Ashe “was not loud, he did not boast. He thought before he spoke. Like a good poet, he used silence to his advantage. He held back until he was ready…His best smiles showed no teeth.” Still, be careful not to tame or canonize Ashe. For all his refinement, Ashe could be fierce and confrontational, whether fighting AIDS, ignorance, illiteracy or launching a “dizzying offensive against racism and apartheid.” As Ashe left South Africa in ’73, the freedom fighter Don Matera slipped him a crumpled envelope that read:

“I listened deeply

when you spoke

About the step-by-step evolution

Of a gradual harvest…

And I loved you, brother —

Not for your quiet philosophy

But for the rage in your soul,

Trained to be rebuked or summoned.”

3 ANDRE AGASSI

He grew up imbued with his father’s simple philosophy: “Put a blister on the other guy’s brain.” Then, kicking and screaming, he was shipped in seventh grade to a tennis factory. A few painful years later, seemingly not much more than “a forehand and haircut” he drank, smoked pot and began to unleash enough of a snit-driven rebellion to go on to become the game’s foremost frosted flake. Yet, always magnetic, charismatic and vulnerable, Vegas’ Zen Master-in-waiting always had both the uncanny ability to attract inspired friends, mentors and lovers as well as the redemptive ability to observe, pivot and grow — the survivor becomes the seeker. Embracing contradictions he transcended his boyish “image is everything” bravado and became a reflective sage of sorts. Yes, he still suffers inexplicable unforced errors. But what other athlete has evolved so much, shared so much, given so much back to kids and delivered a more poignant farewell speech?

4 ALTHEA GIBSON

In 1950, when African-American Althea Gibson was being banned from tournaments, the great champion Alice Marble wrote, “If tennis is a game for ladies and gentlemen, it’s also time we acted a little more like gentlepeople and less like sanctimonious hypocrites…If we truly believe in sportsmanship then Miss Gibson deserves to play.” A fearless, no frills and at times ferocious pioneer, Gibson brought color to a pale game. But not without incident. In ’57, when she went out to defend her U.S. national title at Forrest Hills, she was greeted with a banner that read: “GO BACK TO THE COTTON PLANTATION, NIGGER.” Gibson smiled and quipped, “Someone can’t spell cotton.” Bud Collins noted that Gibson “suffered the insults…the slights, indifference and subtle hostility with little sympathy…[yet] knew that if she didn’t make it, or offended one of the starchy clubbies who ran the game, it might make it difficult for those who yearned to follow.”

5 ROGER FEDERER There’s reason that a recent poll voted him the top male sports role model in the world. Swiss precision, balletic grace, sheer beauty and considerable power, the guy’s reached greater heights than Heidi and he’s still up there by the summit. The face of today’s game, on-court and off, he navigates at the top with ease and balance. Sure he has a dash of Federerian ‘tude, but, his class, love of excellence and almost yogic calm has shaped the game.

6 THE WILLIAMS SISTERS

It was the greatest prediction in sports history. Richard Williams said his young, untested daughters would someday be Nos. 1 and 2. And the rest is history. No wonder there’s plenty of giggle ‘n fluff in those girls. But despite their diva sensibility and many a perplexing controversy, Serena and Venus have picked their spots: Protesting in their way injustices from California to South Carolina, making school and inner-city appearances, opening African academies, fighting for equal prize money, raising funds for AIDS research and objecting to the treatment of Shahar Peer in Dubai. Sure, there’s a certain whiplash when the Williamses switch from their ferocious on-court tenacity to their off-court love of red carpets, glitterati, pet projects and la-di-da whimsy. But, truth be told, their bold ‘n brash (“we did it our way”) success, their top-of-the-heap rankings, their 20 Slam singles titles, their surprising longevity and against-the-grain spunk in itself has inspired millions – from Auckland to Oakland.

7 JACK KRAMER

When “Big Jake” — the slim son of a railroad worker — passed in ’09, we wondered what it would take to replace the legend, who set the table for Open tennis; that one-time rebel who became a tireless impresario and mover and shaker. We suggested the formula would go like this: Take 10 heaping cups of pure, raw unadulterated Samprasesque athletic genius, mix in a generous portion of aw-shucks Jimmy Stewart-style Americana, add a bountiful dash of Trump-like enterprise, a pinch of old-school patriarchal noblesse oblige, some Bobby Riggs-like delight in risk-taking, Billie Jean’s love of the battle, John McEnroe’s penchant for getting involved in everything, a dose of Aussie-style social aplomb and an unflinching devotion to his five-son family and — voila! — you’d have it — another Mr. Tennis.

8 MARTINA NAVRATILOVA

Okay, she wasn’t able to summit Mt. Kilimanjaro, but few have reached such lofty heights on and off the court. As a player, she got little of the adoration that went Chrissie’s way, but the unstoppable, indomitable Martina N., who won a combined 59 Slam titles, marched on. Never bowing to the status quo, she’s fought for titles, gay rights, animal rights, the environment and a cure for cancer.

9 YANNICK NOAH

The charismatic, free-thinking ’83 French Open champ brought humanity, joy and spontaneity to a game that some said had succumbed to (“pass the rulebook”) control freaks and the soul-deadening, often artless quest for victory at any cost. Coach, rock icon, traveler and world citizen, Noah looked at the bigger picture and asked, “Who’s saying let’s make all this a little bit quieter? Who’s there to lead us and say, ‘Okay, let’s just have a peace. How about enjoying each other’s differences?’ All I hear is how different we are.”

10 ANDREA JAEGER

The world’s former No. 2 player went from habitually hitting groundies to donning a habit as a nun who gives to kids with cancer.

11 MONICA SELES

On a tragic Hamburg day, a mad man stepped onto our sport’s modest stage to rob tennis of answers, to steal destiny. Now, of course, we’ll never know if Seles’ stabbing in ’93 prevented the then dominant 19-year old from becoming the greatest of all time. Still, her courageous comeback inspired millions, while leaving her with a hint of melancholy she revealed as she reflected on the big picture. “It’s just sad,” she notes. “Sometimes you wonder about the whole state of the world and where human beings are going. It’s really mind-boggling what we do to each other. I really believe we are all the same, and I hope the consciousness level of the entire world will come to that. But it is hard to see that.”

12 JOHN McENROE

“Answer the question.” Can we call Mac a hero? “You cannot be serious!” his critics might bark. But his backers would quickly note his sublime touch on court and behind the mike. The best senior player in history has been a ubiquitous presence since his greatest-match-of-all-time battle with Borg in ’80. Opinionated, twitchy, bigger than life and still implosive after all these years, he’s an endlessly entertaining, savvy, quite giving and at times self-deprecating figure. Mac may have ample demons, but few others love the game and speak out to improve it more than the inventive, long-lasting New Yorker, with his wondrous corkscrew serve and sneer-and-volley legacy.

13 JIMMY CONNORS

Has anyone ever played the game with more passion than this irascible showman? Who knows? But surely his over-the top, vein-popping, crude yet uplifting run to the ’91 U.S. Open semis (when he was 39) was a happening for the ages. Hips swiveling, arms churning, fingers pointing — he mesmerized a rabid crowd with his singular Jimboesque theatrics. Here was Muhammed Ali taunting a fallen foe, Mick Jagger prancing across the stage. Connors said he tried for his whole career “to get tennis crowds to sound like football crowds. For those 11 days it happened …I was in the eye of the hurricane and everybody was getting caught in the wind around me.” His operatic tour de force amped the Open up to another stratosphere.

14 BJORN BORG

On clay or grass — it didn’t matter – the angelic assassin popularized the modern European game. Here was a longhaired rock star with topspin. His dazzling movement, beauty, focus and quiet amidst the clatter brought a rare commodity —Nordic charisma.

15 CHRIS EVERT

From ice maiden to “Our Chrissie,” the most beloved player of our era delivered beauty, grace, dignity, saucy wit, steely two-handed tenacity, longevity, generosity and an unshakable (eat your heart out, Mr. Federer) consistency. She won 125 straight clay-court matches and reached the semis of 34 straight Slams. “Chris was always a sunny day,” noted Ted Tinling. No wonder she became the first tennis player to appear on a Wheaties box and a Paraguayan stamp.

16 ANNA KOURNIKOVA

She never won a singles tourney and may, at times, have suffered from a “peel me a grape” self-absorption, but the darling of the internet kick-started the Russian Revolution and has tweaked many millions of young hearts.

17 STEFFI GRAF

Armed with the best groundstroke of all time (her whiplash forehand), she became perhaps the best singles player ever. Tall, thin, stately and tough, yet somehow fragile, she was all business on court. Yet she battled injuries, a problematic dad, perennial shyness and the specter of a crazed fan who stabbed her prime foe. Like a couple of other thin Euro beauties before her — Princess Di and Audrey Hepburn —she worked hard for war victims. In a recent survey, she was voted the top female sports role model in the world and she’s been said to be the most feared player, man or woman, of the Open era.

18 THE AUSSIES

What other guy has won more Slams with so little fuss than Rod Laver? With two Grand Slams, The Rocket is the epitome in deeds and demeanor of quiet dignity. But he is one of just many storied Down Under champs. From Hoad, Rosewall, Emmo, Roche and Stolle to Newk and Rafter, the Aussies provided a bounty of classic skills and g’day cheer. But now without an Aussie guy in the top 50, is “bloke ball” as endangered a species as the Banded Hare Wallaby? And BTW, how about that graceful Aussie mom, Evonne Goolagong, who gave new meaning to the notion of the walkabout, as she came from the aboriginal outback to Centre Court.

19 PETE SAMPRAS

What’s so boring about a superstar with near Federerian athletic grace, 14 Slams and highlight reels brimming with dramatic, heart-wrenching wins from Melbourne to Moscow?

20 MICHAEL CHANG

Nixon opened China to the world. Chang opened China to tennis and proved you don’t have to be 6-foot-6 to win. Inch for inch, did the deeply religious battler have the biggest heart in men’s tennis?

21 THE INDO-PAK EXPRESS

Never mind that a lot of folks get antsy when they see Muslims on their flights. Or that Pakistani Asiam-Ul-Haq Qureshi is detained every time he enters the U.S. Never mind that his homeland and that of his Indian partner, Rohan Bopanna, have been at each other’s throats for decades, or that the sole purpose of tennis is said to be to simply hit the ball over the net. More than any other duo, the Indo-Pak Express has come to the court with a social agenda, a call for peace. Their slogan is “Stop War, Start Tennis” and their message echoes Rodney King. If the two of them – a Muslim who likes bland food and a Hindu who likes spicy fare – can get along, why can’t everyone? Obviously, they concede, there are fundamentalist extremists in Pakistan. But there are extremists everywhere, and the vast majority of Pakistanis are loving, caring people. After reaching the Wimbledon quarters and the U.S. Open final, the duo was embraced by throngs at home, won peace awards and, Qureshi, who also worked for flood relief, became the first Pakastani athlete to become a U.N. Goodwill Ambassador. The Bryan Bros., who derailed the Indo-Pak Express in the USO final (and also contributed to flood relief), said that Qureshi and Bopanna’s effort was “a lot more important than [us] winning the U.S. Open.”

22 RAFA NADAL

We’re still waiting for the anatomical proof, but it’s said that this guy’s biceps have biceps. The bold-and-bulging Admiral of the Spanish Armada brings bristling ferocity and disarming humility; a (what can I improve today) dedication and a boyish innocence. Plus, senor, he could become the greatest of all time, no? (See feature.)

23 BORIS BECKER

Bounding, bouncing, bold and oh-so blond, our sport’s last great break-out male teenage star, sparked a post-Borg tennis boom in Europe. Here was a German kid who was actually embraced in England. Plus, the 17-year old boy (whose mother was a Jew who was sent to a labor camp in WWII) became the greatest German hero since Hitler.

24 ANDY RODDICK

Hey, this guy should get some kind of prize for so consistently battling his butt off, for finishing in the top 10 year after brutal year and for enlivening the sometimes ho-hum tennis scene with a wry, unsparing humor. The Texan who dismisses himself as the “the best bad player of all time” takes self-deprecation to the [Austin City] limit, noting that “[Federer] is an artist. I hit the crap out of the ball.” Okay, in this era of the Federer-Nadal duopoly, he has “only” won one Slam, but his macho mojo has been the inspired heart and soul of Yankee tennis for a decade. As much as his awesome serve is the foundation of his game, his charitable foundation is the expression of his considerable service.

25 MARIA SHARAPOVA

Tennis’ prime cover girl (but no, we haven’t had her on our cover since May) seamlessly combines high fashion flair, a hefty Big Babe game and considerable charity work relating to Chernobyl. (But will her career be derailed by some dicey rotator cuff luck?)

26 BUD COLLINS

Few have adored the game with more effect. The popularizer’s pioneering zeal, encyclopedic knowledge, generosity, shameless wordplay and pants helped bring the game to generations. No Bud? No breakfast at Wimbledon.

27 MARY CARILLO

Anyone who can turn a deadly-dull, second-round blowout into must-see-TV is okay by us. The sassy wordsmith — you know, the broad they couldn’t chase out of broadcasting – cracked many a glass ceiling. A bright Big Babe — candid and unafraid — her breezy staccato commentary consistently echoes her ethos: “No matter how cynical you are, it’s hard to keep up.”

28 THE BRYAN CLAN

The pride of a three-generation family, brothers Bob and Mike are the face of doubles. Attached at the hip, personable, fun and giving, they’re leaving the record book in the dust. Three questions: Will Bob’s marriage impact their fabled synchronicity? Will they win 100 titles? Where would doubles be without them?

29 NICK BOLLETTIERI

Yes, he’s one heck of a self-promoting barker, but what other person (or federation, for that matter) has ever created such a cross-generational mecca for talent (Agassi, Courier, Seles, Becker, Sharapova, Pierce, Jankovic, Haas, Williams, et al)? So just how committed to tennis is this workaholic, ex-paratrooper? Well, when one of his eight wives laid down the law and gave him the ultimatum – it’s either me or Agassi – Bollettieri chose Andre.

30 TIM HENMAN

You’re the singular sporting hero of a nation, they name a hill after you at Wimbledon and you’re paid to peddle soap. Unfortunately, you’re also an easy target. Psychologists dismiss you as “the human equivalent of beige.” Sociologists say you have “that comfortable middle-class look…[and] don’t have the stomach for a fight.” Linguists claim, “The most depressing words in the English language are ‘Come on, Tim,'” biologists argue that you have “emotionally disemboweled” the nation. Headlines scream, “No Pressure Timbo, but Choke and We’ll Never Forgive You.” Even when the head of your fan club was asked if she found you fascinating, she responded, “No, I find Agassi fascinating.” No wonder Tiger Tim was defensive, confiding, “I’m not a robot and a boring idiot.” No kidding. The guy somehow survived the most over-hyped, giddy-to-the-max expectations of any tennis nation anywhere.

31 JAMES BLAKE

Never mind a broken neck, facial paralysis and the death of his beloved mentor/dad, the pride of the J-Block blasted on with his fierce forehand and often unbending will.

32 SHAHAR PEER

The Israeli soldiers on despite once being banned in Dubai. “She’s so brave,” said Venus. “She’s got so much character. I can’t imagine playing so well with this kind of circumstance.” Peer also led 10,000 protester/mourners in Poland’s March of the Living, which each year honors those lost in the Holocaust.

33 DAVIS CUP

The Davis Cup seems to spew out heroes faster than a 145 mph Isner heater to the body. Americans McEnroe, Courier and Blake come to mind. And beyond our borders, Serbia’s Victor Troicki recently replicated the once-in-a-lifetime triumphs of little known Davis Cup heroes like France’s Nicolas Escude (who all but single-handedly took down the Aussies in ’01), Russia’s Dmitri Tursunov (whose dramatic 17-15-in-the-fifth win over Roddick sealed a semifinal win for the Russians in ’06) and Dudi Sela (whose pair of five-set upsets led the underdog Israelis to an unlikely win in an Empty Swedish arena in ’09).

34 TENNIS PARENTS

Pushy or pleasant — behind most every star there’s a committed mom or dad. Pam Shriver gave us our No. 1 commentary on parents. She said, “My favorite parent is Lindsay Davenport’s dad. I’ve never seen him.”

35 COACH!

Whether it be Annacone or Uncle Toni, Tom Stow, Harry Hopman, Vic Braden, Dennis Van Der Meer, Robert Lansdorp, Tim Gallwey, the Gulliksons or the Stefankis, coaches known just in the neighborhood or around the world have shaped the sport.

36 DICK GOULD

For decades, the game-changing Stanford coach dominated college tennis with integrity and innovation while touching the lives of scores of players from the Mayers and the McEnroes to the Bryans. Hey, Hall of Fame, here’s your man.

37 BRAD PARKS

Bouncing back from a skiing accident when he was 18, the Hall of Famer created wheelchair tennis, which brings recreation and meaning to thousands and a million-dollar circuit to elite players like Esther Vergeer, who has won more than 400 matches in a row and is the game’s most dominant player.

38 THE SUPPORT

SYSTEM Whether it’s volunteers running a junior tournament or making key decisions in sacrosanct board rooms, whether it’s umps and linesman enduring ridicule and unfathomable urological torture with barely a wiggle, or fitness fanatics, spiritual gurus and all those savvy agents – tennis would be lost without all of the quiet heroes who boost the game.

39 GUGA KUERTEN

He’s been called “a human slinky.” Some compared him to Picasso. But it was Yannick Noah who best expressed Guga’s gift, saying that the beloved Brazilian “has this look in his eyes. There’s love there. It’s almost religious. He’s not like, ‘I win, I’m the best.’ It’s not an ego trip. It’s ‘Oh my God, I won. I’m so happy for my people.'”

40 GENE SCOTT

Through Tennis Week, the preppy watchdog brought an unfiltered (“I ain’t dumbing it down”) journalism. His writing – literate and grand – delighted in a sense of whimsy. Pretense, hypocrisy and greed suffered from the withering stroke of his pen.

41 THE MERCHANT MEN

Who are the driving forces behind a game that invites initiative and rewards vision? They’re marketing mavens, sneaker salesman, club owners and boom-or-bust entrepreneurs like Alan Schwartz, Jim Baugh, Phil Knight, Peter Burwash, Donald Dell, Mark McCormack, John Muir, Dave Haggerty and the Babolats. They are imaginative innovators, like old Major Wingfield, who invented modern tennis, racket and fashion whizzes like Ted Tinling, Rene LaCoste and Howard Head or groundbreakers like Jimmy (“thanks for the tiebreak”) Van Allen and Dr. Paul (“Hawkeye”) Hawkens. Or they are promoters like Charlie Pasarell, Barry MacKay, Butch Buchholz, Arlen Kantarian, Slew Hester, Phillipe Chatrier, Gladys Heldman, Joseph Cullman and Ion Tiriac who have nurtured tournaments that have brought immeasurable pleasure.

42 GORAN IVANISEVIC It’s no Djok(ovic), with withering humor and an imposing serve, Goran became the beloved pioneer of Balkan tennis.

43 SANIA MIRZA

A Muslim Indian pounding forehand winners in a short dress has drawn the ire of haters and the admiration of aspiring Asian women.

44 CORINA MORARIU

The leukemia survivor told us that sports help “you develop skills that serve you in all of life – work ethic, mental toughness, managing emotions, enduring physical and emotional pain, and handling adversity. I drew on all these things while fighting my cancer. I just had a different opponent.”

45 JOHN ISNER AND NICOLAS MAHUT

Isner won their astounding marathon, but was his fabulous French foil the greatest loser in tennis history? If ever there has been a match where there shouldn’t have been a loser, this was it.

46 THE PANCHOS

Trialblazers Pancho Gonzalez (wondrous serve) and Pancho Segura (two-handed groundies off both sides) brought great strokes and competitive fire with a Latin flair.

47 DODO

If tennis is the sport of a lifetime, how about Californian Dodo Cheney? The 94-year-old daughter of Slam champions has won an estimated 380 gold balls.

48 MANSOOR BAHRAMI If it is true, as broadcaster Gianni Clerici says, that “a lack of a sense of humor is the greatest vulgarity,” then kudos to the Victor Borge of our game.

49 DICK WILLIAMS

His legs were almost amputated, but the Titanic survivor emerged from the icy ocean to twice win the U.S. Nationals.

50 THE UNKNOWN HER

The bone-tired mom who drives her prospect at 5 a.m.; the dad who hits 1,000 balls a day to upgrade his kid’s backhand; the uncle who teaches that character, not victories, are the key; the real estate broker who volunteers to tutor math to an inner-city group; the club owner who leaves his facility open late even though it costs him: so many — from elite pros to rarely celebrated volunteers — use this great sport to help and empower others.

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