LET BUD INTO HEAVEN: AN OPEN LETTER TO ST. PETER

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By Gene Scott, Gladys Heldman, Alison Danzig and Barry Lorge (with a little help from Bill Simons)

It was just another quiet day in heaven. Harps sounded, breezes blew gentle.

Then – so to speak – all hell broke out.

You see, word had spread like wildfire – “Bud’s coming, Bud’s coming.” Translation: after 86 glorious years, 2.25 million miles of travel, 36,261 matches, 12,818 articles, 3,107 broadcasts and 246 “Breakfasts at Wimbledon,” it was finally game, set and match for tennis’ mad, merry and completely marvelous chronicler, Bud Collins.

All the tennis greats in heaven stopped in their tracks.

The great French madame Suzanne Lenglen actually put down her half-drunk glass of cognac. Bobby Riggs cashed in his poker chips. Vitas Gerulaitis stepped out of heaven’s hippest disco, and Arthur Ashe took off his glasses and stopped reading “Ulysses.” All the while, America’s “Big Bill” Tilden was thrilled. “Now, at last, Bud will be here,” he said. “I’m so tired of being stuck with this dreadful ‘Big Bill’ nickname. In a flash Bud will be able to concoct a new one. No one has more clever phrases than that guy. He called Steffi Graf ‘Fraulein Forehand.’ He’s got to be able to come up with something for me.”

“Not so fast, Bill,” called out the always realistic Jack Kramer. “Remember, St. Peter is big into golf. It’s hard for a tennis guy to even get through the gates up here.”

“Exactly right,” chimed in Ashe. “Plus,” he revealed, “just this morning, when we were having coffee, St. Peter asked me what the BBC meant when they said Bud was ‘the shrinking violet of Boston, who was about as reticent as a charging rhinoceros.'”

Ashe continued, warning, “That could be a big problem for Bud. We’ve got to quickly get together a committee of the greatest tennis wordsmiths up here to draft a letter to give to Pete to make sure he opens those pearly gates for Bud.”

“Great idea,” said Kramer.

Fortunately, Tennis Week’s Gene Scott, World Tennis Magazine founder Gladys Heldman, the New York Times’ Allison Danzig and Tennis Magazine editor Barry Lorge were playing doubles together, and they happily stopped to draft this open letter to St. Peter.”

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Dear Saint Peter,

Every sport has folks who lead – who transcend their game. Arthur Ashe – who fought for racial justice, AIDS awareness and education – and dynamo feminist Billie Jean King transcended tennis.

So did Bud Collins.

Every group, said Gandhi, has to have a journal and storytellers. And Bud Collins – on air or on paper – was our greatest storyteller. Bald head, inventive (though at times a tad corny) quips, backstory knowledge and deep love – Bud was a singular pioneer. The game’s nomadic pied piper delighted millions across the globe. He had the blue-sky glee of baseball’s Ernie Banks, the encyclopedic wisdom of an Oxford don and the enthusiasm of a giddy teen scoring a first-round win. Most knew him for his memorable “Breakfast at Wimbledon” broadcasts. But his passport had stamps from Bhutan and Vietnam, Zimbabwe and New Zealand.

A kid from Ohio – Arthur was his real name – he was shot at while a war correspondent in ‘Nam and then became a sports writer who covered the Boston Red Sox and the New England Patriots, and told the tale of Muhammad Ali, punch by punch.  But his breakthrough came when he convinced his Boston Globe bosses that they should hire a full-time tennis writer. Soon after, he picked up a mic for PBS (when the deep-think network actually had weekly tennis broadcasts) and CBS, which covered the US Nationals from Forest Hills.

After that the Boston globetrotter seemed to climb every tennis hill and explore every valley. He wasn’t afraid to point out the game’s shortcomings, and he wasn’t afraid to wear the wild, crazy-quilt pants that a demonic Boston tailor once fashioned for him. They quickly became his unmistakable trademark. Not surprisingly, before one interview, Pam Shriver pleaded, “Can’t you turn off those pants?”

But Bud couldn’t turn off his pants or his passion. For more than five decades, he shared his love of tennis, people and wordplay. His religion was simple – describe the game, spread the good news.

Sometimes he did so with a stunning simplicity. In 2002, after Anna Kournikova lost in the first round at all four Slams, he said she achieved the “Grand Slop.” In 2006 he observed that the monkey was off Roger Federer’s back – “Rafael Nadal has grown into a gorilla.”

In fact, Collins didn’t hesitate to criticize the monkey business in tennis. He couldn’t stand fakers, and anyone, like Marcelo Rios, who merely went through the motions. He even dared to criticize the considerable Pete Sampras for not giving enough. “Those who make the most owe the most,” wrote Bud. “[They] need to wave their sport’s flag…Sampras doesn’t.”

Bud was an old-school yet zany traditionalist. After all, the guy won a national championship in bare feet and still managed to get an endorsement contract from K-Swiss Shoes. As a college coach, he mentored anarchist Abbie Hoffman, he relished the subtlety of the game when it was played with wooden rackets, and he bristled at the lack of finesse in the modern era.

He bemoaned the fact that, unlike other sports, there wasn’t really an in-your-face tennis press corps that could keep the game honest. He mocked the USTA when they forced writers to submit to FBI background checks.

But, more than anything, he loved to put things into perspective. He suggested that tennis without Serena and Venus would be “like Boston without Pedro Martinez, Paris bereft of the Eiffel Tower…and ‘Gone With the Wind’ minus Scarlett.” He wrote that Aussie Evonne Goolagong competed “as though she were a kid playing in a meadow, her naturalness beaming her humanity.” As for young Martina Hingis, he noted that she has “the wistful waifliness of Oliver Twist, disguising the extraordinary tennis mind of a jaded long-timer. Intriguing to behold, she has figured out the puzzles of the rectangle, the alteration of pace and angles, something that most phenoms never do.”

What Bud always did was bring an infectious zeal to our game – fun-loving and inclusive. For years, he hosted “The Fuzzy Ball,” an annual tennis party at his Brookline house. No wonder the British sage John Barrett said that Bud was “a refreshing breath of fresh air in our troubled lives.” It’s hardly surprising that Bud once described a Chris Evert-Martina Navratilova match in South Carolina as “the match of the century – well, at least for this week.”

Some critics weren’t completely enthralled with his upbeat enthusiasm. A snooty British writer said he wasn’t sure whether Bud was “calling a tennis match or giving birth.”

The truth is that Collins gave birth to tennis journalism as we now know it. Vince Sculley was a blessing for baseball. Howard Cosell was critical for boxing. Dick Vitale boosted collegiate hoops. But, more than any other media guy, Bud empowered his sport.  His first love was the written word. He was an adept observer with an inventive, quirky style. All the while, on TV he could enliven the most boring one-sided blowout from Zimbabwe. His court-side interviews were charming, disarming and authoritative. Yet, for all his knowledge and accomplishment, his greatest asset was his heart and giving nature.

Never mind that he endured a divorce and then incredibly survived the back-to-back passing of a dear companion and his wife, due to brain tumors. He  never gave the public a clue. Instead, he cheerfully tutored generations of tennis journalists and shared his vast grasp of minute details of the game, like Fred Perry’s play in the 1935 Wimbledon semi.

To broadcaster Mary Carillo, “You needed to know just one thing. No one made tennis or television more fun than that kind man.” No wonder writers and fans alike are eternally grateful to the elfin pioneer with a twinkle who, for so long, brought to life the game we love. If any media figure belongs in tennis, it’s Bud – “our Bud.”

Yours In Tennis,

Gene Scott – Tennis Week

Gladys Heldman – World Tennis

Allison Danzig – The New York Times

Barry Lorge – Tennis Magazine

Photo by Anita Ruthling Klaussen

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