May 2006 -- A 1999 interview –
Only one character on our sport’s swirling stage has been called “Tennis’ Renaissance Man,” “the most controversial figure in the game,” and “the conscience of the tennis world.”
While not the most famous figure in the game, 61-year-old New Yorker Gene Scott is undoubtedly the most eclectic. Scott’s massive resume begins with his privileged, well-to-do background—his grandfather, Dr. Eugene C. Sullivan, headed a small group of scientists at the Corning Glass Works who invented Pyrex—and education at prep schools, Yale and the University of Virginia Law School.
Scott soon made his mark as a Wall Street lawyer and outstanding amateur player, peaking with a No. 11 world ranking in 1965. When tennis entered its revolutionary Open Era in 1968, Scott skillfully and zestfully plunged into this brave new world of bountiful opportunity and challenge.
“I was like a kid in a candy store,” recalls Scott, who became involved in virtually every area of the burgeoning sport. He promoted more than 150 men’s and women’s pro tournaments, including the prestigious Nabisco Masters and, since 1990, the Kremlin Cup; wrote and produced three award-winning documentary films on the U.S. Open; represented world-class players; did TV tennis commentary; co-founded the National Junior Tennis League; had tennis bylines in The New York Times, Sports Illustrated and Esquire; and authored Bjorn Borg: My Life and My Game (which hit No. 5 on the London Times best-seller list), Tennis: Game of Motion and the just-published OPEN!
Scott also was a consultant for companies looking to get involved with tennis; owned a tennis retail outlet; and served on the executive board and as a director-at-large of the USTA, as president of the Eastern Tennis Association and the U.S. International Lawn Tennis Club, and as vice president of the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
A rarity in that he seemingly is not motivated by power, fame or money, Scott treasures the varied experiences these ventures—or rather adventures—have brought him. His motto is: “People either stretch themselves to reach their full potential, or they will make a pact with the status quo.”
These diverse, talent-stretching experiences have broadened Scott’s perspective immeasurably. “I think I’m better off than most people in the business,” he once told Tennis magazine. “I see the game from many different vantage points.”
His “Vantage Point” publisher’s column, in fact, has provoked thought, and occasionally anger, for the past 25 years in Tennis Week, the highly regarded magazine he founded for the serious tennis fan.
In this wide-ranging interview, the inimitable Scott expounds on the great events and issues of tennis with a profundity and passion that reveals why he is a leading tennis authority as well as an invaluable mover and shaker.
You were unbelievably prescient when you played with a metal racket at the 1967 U.S. Championships, and as a young lawyer and part-time tournament player, surprisingly reached the semifinals. What was your thinking back then?
There were three things. I had a little bit of tennis elbow, so I was willing to risk anything. Second, I had not had a stellar record at Forest Hills previously, so the risk was not that great. Third, I had always been pretty experimental. It didn’t really bother me what racket I played with. I could have played with a broom, and the results would have been more or less the same, not great, not bad. Three of us, Billie Jean King, Clark Graebner and I, used the Wilson T2000, and it created a lot of buzz. Billie Jean won the tournament that year, and she could have played with a pogo stick and won. She was the best. So it really didn’t say anything about the racket. But Clark got to the final. About me, you could say that when I was an alleged full-time player, I never got past the round of 16. And all of a sudden, I’m a part-time player, and I reach the semis. So people said: It can’t be him, it must be the racket.
What were your other experiments?
My next experiment was with the Head “snowshoe” racket. I was the only person Head thought was lunatic and experimental enough to try the racket. I was a weekend player again. There was no pro game to speak of. They thought I’d be the only bridge to the recreational player—a guy who was good enough to do OK, but someone who was willing to take a risk and try something new. Arthur Ashe and I were pretty good pals, and he tried it and liked it. And Head dropped me [as an endorser] like a hot potato. They didn’t think [initially] that someone as good as Arthur, someone on the main tour, would try it. It kept on going. The next racket Head put out was the “Red Head,” and I was also the first person ever to use that, and I won the national 35 clay and grass court championships with that. They thought, well, it’ll just be for senior players, and then [world top tenner] Bob Lutz started playing with it. I was having great fun with all these products.
In retrospect, you were quite a pioneer in the evolution of racket technology.
It was an easy place to be a pioneer. Very few people were experimenting, and that’s still pretty much true. Pete Sampras is not going to try a brand new racket because he’s played with one type since he was 12 years old. He’s not apt to jeopardize $3 million a year on tour, $4 million a year off court, to try something new. There weren’t the financial risks at stake when I played. So it was pretty easy to keep current with the new products.
You played in, won and even promoted tournaments on the famous and beloved Eastern grass court circuit. Its almost-total death—aside from the Hall of Fame event in Newport, Rhode Island—and the paving over of American tennis into hardcourts are twin tragedies of the Open Era, in my opinion. Do you agree?
In 1974 I wrote an obituary for grass in Tennis Week, and it will appear in my new book [OPEN!], and I say exactly the same thing. It’s too bad that the way decisions are made in our sport is whimsical. Not a lot of science and research goes into some unbelievably important decisions. For example, the USTA had very little deliberation before deciding to switch from grass to clay for the 1975 U.S. Open. I don’t think it was a bad choice at the time because three majors [Grand Slam tournaments] were played on grass then. But no research was done as to the consequences. The only reason grass was taken out is that Forest Hills’ grass, with a very sandy base, was the worst of all the grass court majors. Finally, the USTA couldn’t take the criticism any longer. Grass should have maintained a small but stylish pocket on the tournament calendar. One of the reasons is that Wimbledon is in jeopardy. In 1989 Wimbledon, because of the ranking system, did not have 12 of the top 25 men players. But it also was equally absurd in the Open Era for grass to occupy three of the four majors.
As it turned out, clay didn’t last long as the surface at the U.S. Open.
The same thing happened in 1977 when they went from Har-Tru [clay] at Forest Hills to Deco Turf II at Flushing Meadow. That decision came about when Slew Hester went around to the top American players and said, “OK, we’re not doing so well, other than Jimmy Connors, on Har-Tru. What surface do you want?” And everyone of them—Ashe, Smith, Connors—said hardcourts. No research was done on that decision, and that was appallingly bad judgment. Because the minute that happened, every major college that had clay and Kalamazoo [the National Junior Championships] that had clay, switched to hardcourts. That’s not good for Joe Average Tennis Player.
As a TV tennis analyst along with Rosie Casals, you played a prominent role in the famous “Battle of the Sexes” extravaganza between women’s libber Billie Jean King and male chauvinist Bobby Riggs. How did that one bizarre but important match help change tennis, the sports world and even America?
It changed America in two ways. First, it changed in that an awful lot of people were brought into the game. That match was beamed into an incredible number of living rooms whose occupants had no interest in tennis heretofore. Second, as a sociological phenomenon, it was one of many forces for change toward equality of the sexes. Bobby Riggs was spouting very comically right until the end that the woman’s place is in the kitchen and the bedroom, not in the boardroom. It was not enough that Billie Jean King just played that match. Her victory proved women were OK, that not only could women compete with men in some ways on the athletic field, but they could win. It gave an awful lot of women bragging rights when people would say they should be seen and not heard, as far as their opinions or their performances. I had a lot of fun working with [commentator] Howard Cosell. I was naturally in Bobby’s corner. [Rosie Casals was the female analyst.] I picked him to win. I got the score [6-4, 6-3, 6-3] right. I just predicted the wrong winner.
The Open Era has proved a bonanza for tennis in many ways, but not necessarily for the Davis Cup, which celebrated its centennial in 1999. You eagerly and proudly played Davis Cup for your country. Why don’t some top players, like Sampras, Chang and Philippoussis, care much about Davis Cup today?
No, I never turned down a Davis Cup assignment, but I never was asked a whole lot. Maybe if I had been ranked No. 1, I would have been a little more picky. Actually, none of the major American players is perfect in that department. Even McEnroe has turned down Davis Cup assignments. For Ham Richardson, the Rhodes Scholar, and Dick Savitt, the Wimbledon champion, and some other terrific players,
Davis Cup wasn’t always in their interest for one reason or another, and they loved playing Davis Cup. Some other issues and priorities came up. The golden rule is that it’s not nice or smart to be judgmental about why Sampras and these guys don’t play. They think differently from a lot of the older generation. It’s profession-driven, whereas 31 or 40 years ago, there was no profession. The player’s attitude then was: I’m going to play. It’s a lark. I love representing my country. And there’s more excitement and fun in Davis Cup than any other tournament, except maybe the Grand Slams.
What constructive ideas do you have to maintain the glorious Davis Cup tradition?
If you want all the great players to participate every year, you have to listen to them. No one has ever spent four hours with Sampras and said, “OK, we know Davis Cup is not high on your agenda, while winning the Grand Slam tournaments and being No. 1 are most important.” Believe me, Sampras would change his mind if Davis Cup counted in the [world] rankings. It’s a sin that Davis Cup and Fed Cup don’t count in the rankings. The governing fathers should look in the mirror and see that they are the ones to blame. The fact that Davis Cup is not part of the tournament commitment [in the new ATP ranking plan for 2000] is asinine. All you have to do is listen to these players to learn this. Another idea is that tennis could play the entire Davis Cup over a two-year period, and Sampras would only play two rounds a year. Or we could reduce the World Group from 16 to 8 countries so we play three rounds a year.
Back in 1970 when the Virginia Slims circuit was founded, Arthur Ashe predicted that a women’s tour “won’t draw flies.” In six of the last seven Grand Slam singles finals, the women have outdrawn the men in American TV ratings. Becker, McEnroe, Lendl and John Lloyd, among others, even say they’d rather watch women’s tennis now. How do you account for this sea change?
Arthur was a great American and a great world citizen, but he was very often wrong in his judgments. One of the beautiful things about Arthur was he kept on admitting that he was wrong and moving on and getting better in his judgments. Obviously, he was wrong about women’s tennis. While it’s true the women’s TV ratings are better here, that’s not true in any country in Europe. They still don’t even want to televise women’s tennis there, even with the apparent resurgence. The reason for women’s increasing popularity is that you can actually watch tennis strategy unfold, and it’s not just crashing and bashing balls. There is definitely an audience, though, for crashing balls back and forth because that’s the real world. Having Sampras and Agassi smack balls back and forth in the  Wimbledon final was very macho. In 90 percent of the world, people want to see the men’s game even in its reduced, viewer-friendly character.
What else makes women players so appealing?
The women’s game is in an incredible position to drive off into the marketing sunset. They’ve got incredible sex appeal, they’re all athletic, they look great. Also, their fitness quotient is growing, even though there are some exceptions. Women do have to respond tactically to what their opponents are doing, whereas the men are reacting, rather than responding. There is a thought process in women’s tennis and it’s beautiful. The dynamism and articulateness of their personalities is another strength. And this is one area where tennis—men and women—has a big edge over other sports. If you listen to the hockey players, or even the golfers, they don’t have any edge to what they’re saying. The hockey players may be great athletes, but their quotes are somewhat uninteresting, and they are uninteresting interviews.
Many tennis lovers believe Tennis Week, which you founded in 1974, is the most authoritative tennis publication in the world. It clearly offers the most comprehensive coverage of tennis politics. Why did you create Tennis Week then?
In the beginning of Open Tennis, we were like kids in a candy store. Opportunity abounded. Almost everything you did, no one else was doing it. In the first four or five years of Open Tennis, I was making a movie a year for CBS, I wrote a book every year for three years, I ran six or seven tournaments a year, I represented athletes, I owned an enormous racket store and had a teaching academy. None of these were great businesses, but they were all pilot programs. We were just throwing these projects up against the wall to see which ones would stick. One of those we thought would stick was Tennis Week. The [major American] magazines then were monthlies, World Tennis and Tennis. Since international tennis then was played every week, we thought we ought to do something that reports on it every week. We thought that even if the magazine lost $50,000 or $60,000 a year, it would be a great advertising vehicle for the projects we were producing. That was the advertising purpose.
What about the editorial purpose?
We found how magazines were normally launched—they did a big reader survey and asked what the readers wanted. We did one and found that the readers wanted to have stories on resorts, equipment and instruction. So I said, “Wait a minute. I don’t want to do that at all.” I wanted to find an audience who knows with what to play, where to play and how to play. That’s the audience I went after. I wanted to talk about not that McEnroe won Wimbledon, but why he won Wimbledon and what it’s like in the trenches.
Has Tennis Week fulfilled all your goals and dreams?
Never will one fulfill all of one’s dreams and goals. The reason I do Tennis Week is that we get an unbelievable amount of psychic income from positive response. However small our audience is—and we think there are maybe 400,000 readers out there—basically we get an incredible amount of positive feedback. Without that, I would have stopped this thing 20 years ago. Our readership cares about these issues, and they’re incredibly grateful there is a publication that satisfies their appetite.
In your heyday you were a serve-and-volleyer. There will always be arguments about which playing styles are more athletic to play and more entertaining to watch. But many former world-class players, coaches and fans criticize pro tennis today for presenting too much power, too little finesse and strategy, and too-short points. Are the critics right?
One of the really hopeful things about tennis—as far as people criticizing it for being too fast—is that the athlete has an incredible ability to adapt. We’ve seen hundreds of examples of this. In one of Chang’s matches against Edberg, there were 18 service breaks when Edberg won. When Agassi won the U.S. Open and Wimbledon, he showed that “if you serve something up to me 1,000 miles an hour, I’m going to knock it down your teeth.” We’ve seen over and over again that our players specifically and our game generally adapted. And I think we’re going through that craziness now. One of the healthy things about the evolution is Bjorn Borg and Ilie Nastase and Jimmy Connors changed the grass court game before my very eyes. We used to have a regular ritual on grass when you practiced. You always had someone at the net. You never had two people in the backcourt, practicing rallying, because you didn’t think it could be done. You thought you had to get to the net and not let the ball bounce. The bounce was so erratic that you didn’t want to hinge the outcome of the match on these crazy bounces. Connors, Borg, Nastase and even Vilas, when he won the Masters on grass in Australia, convinced the world you can rally from the backcourt on grass. So there was a sense of adaptation, and there is one now. But it may not be going fast enough for peoples’ appetites.
What can and should we do to solve this power crisis?
First, there is absolutely no problem with 99.9 percent of tennis. Everyone is having a good time in recreational tennis. All the new products make playing tennis easier, and even the 90-year-old players can hit the ball with pretty good pace. They have much more fun than they did with the wood racket where, when they hit the ball off-center, it would dribble near their feet. And no one has even suggested the game is [getting] too fast for the women on any surface. Maybe in five years it will be, but right now it’s great. The same goes for all the juniors. For all these groups, there’s no power crisis. We just have a tiny group of 300 or 400 men professionals who hit the ball too hard. And even with the men, there’s no problem at the French [Open]. That is the best tennis of all. The solution is very easy. You change the surface. At the U.S. Open it is really easy to slow down the surface. You talk to the people who put the surface in, and you find out there’s never been any discussion about how fast the surface should be. The people in charge are very nice. But David Meehan, the technical guy at the U.S. Tennis Center, shouldn’t be in charge of that. That ought to be a policy decision of the U.S. Open Committee, where the Chairman of the Board of the USTA, after speaking with the board and the research people, comes out with a conclusion about what’s best for the game. That’s never been done. It would be easy to improve the product at Wimbledon, too. With all the wear and tear, they could make the grass a little bit longer and thicker around the baseline. They could start tinkering with the balls, too, like changing the pressure and adding more felt. It’s interesting that if you talk to four scientists, they’ll disagree on whether you add pressure, add weight or do the opposite to slow the ball down. Even the experts don’t know.
You’ve directed the Kremlin Cup for nine years and have become something of an expert on the way Russia works or doesn’t work. Lately the economic plight has become so severe that I read the Kremlin Cup couldn’t afford to bring its tennis courts into Russia. Would you please give us an update on that crisis and talk about the connection between the health and wealth of a nation and the state of tennis in that nation.
That’s a good question. As for the accuracy of that report, Russians are known for predicting disaster when it’s not there. The report about the tournament courts not getting to Russia because they couldn’t afford them is total nonsense. I got the courts there. There are four brand-new Supreme Courts. They were made in America. They paid for them four months ago. They had problems with the duty. We were supposed to have an exemption from the duty. Yeah, Russia is going through a tough economic scenario now. But the Kremlin Cup is not jeopardized by this at all. We’ve lost some sponsors, but it’s peanuts compared to the overall budget. The tournament will go on and prosper. It is true that the tennis environment at the Kremlin Cup and elsewhere does mirror what’s going on in the world, and specifically, what’s going on in Russia. If there is economic plight, there is no reason why the Kremlin Cup shouldn’t suffer. If America is having a tough time, there is no reason Brooks Brothers should prosper. Everyone should pay a sacrificial price. We’re doing it. We lost some glamour sponsors, where the revenue wasn’t important, but the psychology of losing some sponsors was hurtful.
You were making major moves up the USTA hierarchy and were seemingly headed toward the presidency. What ended your progress?
I was what they call a director-at-large. The process by which I was elected was something of a miracle. I was probably the most surprised of all because I thought I was probably too controversial an article to have in the chicken coop. I had a heck of a good time in the two years I was there. While I was disappointed and had hurt feelings for about three weeks after not being re-appointed, it was probably the right thing. While I think they do need more tennis experts on the board, the message I was giving was probably not so popular all the time. It was pretty hard for a volunteer board to be comfortable with me sitting there and taking shots at them inside the room. It’s one thing if they read my criticism in a publication, and they can discard it and say, “Well, there he goes again.” But if I’m in the room they sort of have to deal with me.
If you were USTA president, what specific decisions would you make to advance American tennis?
The question is: What would your crusade be because you only have two years as president to do something? What is your giant thought? Slew Hester had it when he changed [the U.S. Open] from Forest Hills to Flushing Meadow. That was a big deal.The one issue that has been totally ignored and one I would crusade for and spend every dollar of the $174 million USTA budget I could on is the Schools Program (now called USA School Tennis). It would be a home run, in theory, because everyone loves kids and everyone loves education. It’s the real grassroots project. The USTA says its Schools Program touches 5 million kids a year—a figure based on 23,000 high schools and roughly 200 kids in each high school. The numbers are somewhat cosmetic, but there are real numbers there somewhere. You could achieve them if the Schools Program had a major strategy.
What strategy do you recommend for the Schools Program?
You want tennis to be part of the curriculum. You don’t want to send a very nice but low-level administrator to a secondary school think-tank session because that person is going to get handled and ambushed. They’re not going to get anywhere. To make some significant changes in the Schools Program, you’d have to have some major support from major political leaders. David Dinkins [former New York City mayor], a board member of the USTA, could really help here if he uses his influence and tries to get to the school boards and says, “We would like to have tennis be as vital a part of the curriculum as recess.” There was a model in California. Some very bright tennis enthusiast got an edict passed, saying that any new high school that was built, starting from 1970, had to build tennis courts on the premises.
American men stars go in cycles. We had the Connors, Gerulaitis, Tanner, Gottfried, Solomon and Dibbs era in the 1970s and the Sampras, Agassi, Courier and Chang era in the 1990s. Now we have no potential stars on the horizon. Is it too soon to panic? How can the U.S. produce more stars?
All we have to do is look around us and see how the stars are being produced. For years America, along with Australia, had the only program where we had an incredibly big volunteer base and a base of tournaments for people to compete in non-stop. That was our program, plus we have the greatest teaching pros on earth. Australia changed the formula a little bit. They hand-picked some unbelievably great athletes, took them out of high school and put them on the circuit—the Rosewall, Hoad theory. After that European countries—like Sweden, Germany, Spain and Czechoslovakia—started to emulate what Australia was doing. So you didn’t have to have enormous player pools. For example, what Cuba does in other sports, and what Russia did with the Olympics. You had sports schools and you found ways to identify the best athletes and directed them into the sports that needed them. If the goal is to produce champions, the USTA doesn’t have a poor program; it doesn’t have any program. There is no such thing as a Stars Program. It’s not a program. It’s a jumble.
In 1973 you wrote the critically acclaimed book, Tennis: Game of Motion. It covered the sport’s legendary players and most-heralded matches, explained tennis’ cultural history and fascinating intricacies, and contained beautiful photographs. What is your new book about?
It’s called OPEN!, and it’s a celebration and reconsideration of 30 years of the U.S. Open. Besides the written text, it’s got all the complete men’s and women’s singles draws. One of the reasons I wanted to do this is to produce some history on what is Open Tennis. It hasn’t been so very long [a period], but people have already started taking it for granted—thinking well, of course, it’s open. What does closed tennis mean? What happened before? If you ask people under 40 years old what Open Tennis is, they look at you as if you’re crazy. [They wonder] what do you mean by Open Tennis? It’s confusing even to people who were there. For example, in the book I put a draw sheet of 1967, the men and the women, and then put a draw sheet of 1968 men and women. The ironies are just astounding. For example, John Newcombe wins in 1967 as an amateur. In 1968 Arthur Ashe wins the first U.S. Open as an amateur. If you look at the seeds for 1967 and 1968, the first four or five are almost identical. There are some exceptions; Rosewall and Laver aren’t there in 1967. By the way, Rosewall and Laver don’t do so well in that first U.S. Open.
After becoming ATP executive director in 1987, Hamilton Jordan, former White House chief of staff under President Jimmy Carter, commented: “After talking to the players in the last 24 hours, I’ve decided that this is more politics than the politics I’ve been in.” Why has tennis historically had so much political conflict and wrangling that it amazed even a veteran political operative like Jordan?
Most of the other sports had a single governing body, whether it be the PGA or the NFL or NHL or baseball. They all were under one roof, while tennis had a whole community of roofs. The cynical answer to the question “Why doesn’t tennis have a commissioner?” is that not all the entities in tennis would agree to be bound by just one commissioner. That’s because they’ve spent years developing and creating their little province, and they’re not going to give it up unless someone assures them they’re going to be as least as well off. The contrary argument is that [with a commissioner] the overall pie would grow to such great proportions that your piece would become bigger than the small pie whole that you had. Obviously, people there don’t believe that’s true. One of the nice things about having these hundreds of fragmented interests is that you get rewarded for your own efforts. It’s not diluted by someone else. You can take the credit or the blame. The one other difference between tennis and every other sport is that no other sport has an international connection, an international circuit like tennis has. There’s no such thing as an international soccer or golf or basketball circuit. And every country has a different language, currency and political situation. Tennis is trying to go through and make peace with all that. So, to think one leader would be accepted by 200 tennis nations around the world is preposterous. The bad side [now] is the chaos. But the good side is tennis has an extraordinary amount of checks and balances. You don’t have one entity taking over the game and being so arrogant that they’d never listen to [proposals for] potential changes. A commissioner isn’t a panacea anyway. Supposedly the greatest marketing paradigm on earth is the NBA. They have a commissioner and only one group of players in America—and they aren’t playing!
Throughout the past 125 years, tennis has experienced boom and bust periods in different eras and different countries. As we approach the millennium, what makes you optimistic and what makes you pessimistic about tennis’ success and popularity?
The stuff making tennis popular is so obvious, but we do such a bad job of marketing its positives. For example, take its cross-gender assets. The mixed doubles at the U.S. Open and Wimbledon is part of these and other major tournaments. There’s no such thing as a mixed doubles Stanley Cup or mixed doubles Masters or Super Bowl or any of the major professional sports events. There’s no such thing anywhere else as mixed anything. And there is no such thing as a historic base for father-son and mother-daughter [competitions] in any other sport besides tennis. We have men and women playing together as part of the fabric of our sport, but also our kids can play with us. It’s an unbelievable advantage. Tennis is the most family-friendly sport there is. For example, contrast it with golf. How friendly would it be if I told my wife and two kids on Saturday mornings, “So long, dears, I’m leaving at 7 in the morning, and I’ll see you at 7 in the evening”—because at [ages] 2 and 4 they can’t play golf, and my wife would have to look after the kids. That’s unbelievably disagreeable. In tennis, you can have the kids hang around the courts with you, instead of leaving them most of the day. The other great advantage is that you can play tennis forever. I played three team sports at college, and it was impossible to invite 12 hockey players into my living room and play shinny after I got out of college. I played soccer and you can’t invite 22 people over and play on my lawn. The logistics of team sports after you get out of school are impossible. And in tennis you need only one other person. And you can do it until you’re 90. The USTA just created a 90-and-over championships. But we don’t do a very good job of saying how great tennis is.
What makes you pessimistic about tennis’ future?
Tennis, by and large, is not a very good spectator sport. Maybe 10 percent of the 127 matches in the singles draw at the U.S. Open are worth watching, as far as getting really competitive, close, dramatic, where the contrast in styles is evident. That is because doing things by rote and monotony is encouraged in tennis, while genius and variety are most often punished. Stan Smith usually beats Ilie Nastase. Smith is mechanical; he’s got good ambition and concentration, he’s strong, athletic, but he’s not an improviser. And yet he’s going to beat the improviser because tennis usually rewards the steadfast, rather than the artist. So that’s too bad. On the other hand if you’re lucky enough to be at one of those 10 percent of the matches that are real barnburners, then you’ve got the best of all sports as far as drama. You know a finish line is coming, and all of the action and risk-taking is about to climax and then there’s no way out for either athlete. That is incredibly powerful. But watching people rally back and forth is not why tennis was invented. It was built for players, not for spectators.
Are there any silver linings in the clouds for tennis spectators?
We know that in an hour tennis match, the ball is in play for only about 12 minutes. That leaves an awful lot of time to actually have a serious social component or business component to the game. But you go and watch football, basketball, baseball, and hockey in an arena. You can’t talk to your companion for the two hours you’re in the arena because you cannot be heard. It’s too loud. People are screaming. You can’t hear anyone talk. If you try, you end up with a sore throat for a month.
As writers we are told to keep our objectivity and not play favorites. But since you’ve played many roles, besides being a writer, in the tennis world, I would like to ask who your favorite players have been in the past 50 years.
I’ve always liked the artists like Santana. They were the most fun. Santana was this incredible athlete and the man who invented the topspin lob off the backhand. I loved guys who created on the court. Nastase was the same thing. I like the eccentric players. Whitney Reed was definitely one of my favorites. He was ranked No. 1 in the U.S. in the early 1960s. He never won a major championship. He was totally unorthodox, he had a great sense of humor, he looked crazy and he acted crazy. Rafael Osuna proved that you could just be incredibly fast and be a good competitor and win the U.S. Championships. What’s happened today, starting with Becker—and I think it’s terrific—is that the guys are very physical about the game, where they throw themselves all over the court. Becker was the first guy to really do that, and it was effective and courageous and very dramatic.
Who were your favorite women players?
Billie Jean King, because she was the same way, an improviser. She was reckless and threw herself around the court, as much as a woman could. I just loved her athleticism. My generation was just filled with these exquisitely natural lady players. Maria Bueno and Evonne Goolagong were like royalty playing. They had a somewhat cavalier look to their game, like they weren’t really trying, and yet they were so gifted they could produce great stuff from any place on the court. I really like what Chris Evert did in the latter stages of her career. She adapted and hit the ball harder and came to net occasionally. I really like smart players like Seles and Hingis. Seles modernized the game by standing on the baseline and taking the ball so early. Hingis plays such great percentage tennis, just like Bobby Riggs, Jack Kramer and Neale Fraser. In the old days you would have said Seles and Hingis had killer instinct. Today you’d say they’re unbelievably tough competitors and very smart.
Paul Fein, USPTA, is the head pro for the Chicopee (Mass.) Parks and Recreation Department. His tennis articles have appeared in publications in the United States and more than 25 foreign countries.