35TH ANNIVERSARY: Tales of a Lucky Man

0
1868

THIRTY-FIVE YEARS OF FABULOUS EMOTIONS, FREE-FORM ADVENTURES, AND NOT THAT MANY TYPOS

“An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all.” – Oscar Wilde

I was but a boy.

But I was a boy with an idea. And ideas – well, some ideas – have power. Thirty-five years ago, before Roger Federer was born and just as Wimbledon insisted that ball girls would never work on Centre Court, I was unemployed, uncertain – and undaunted. I wanted to publish a tennis magazine.

Silly me – I hadn’t gotten the news that the ’70s tennis boom was dead and done, or that there already was a glut of tennis publications. My dream was to create something different: a regional tennis magazine that was both free (thank you very much) and freethinking (how dare I?); a journal that covered the unending intrigue of international tennis without leaving behind the homespun details of the grassroots game. My vision: create a nuanced magazine that would be a fun yet provocative read with plenty of spunk ‘n’ guts, all of which would be wrapped in compelling storytelling. Its voice would be direct – rather blunt one moment, lyrical the next. There would be few politically correct filters. Simply put, the magazine would explore life through tennis.

Sages snickered, “Forget it – it won’t fly.” In 1980 after the USTA NorCal board voted to work with us, one crusty board member mumbled, “Well, we’ll never see this guy again.” Jake Steinman, the publisher of the well-established City Sports Magazine, informed me that I had “a 98% chance of failing.”

Of course. After all, I was a nobody. My first office was in a cramped garret in Emeryville, CA. My first desk was my creaky kitchen table. My dilapidated Datsun had a dent the size of Denmark. My invitation to play at Wimbledon had mysteriously gotten lost in the mail. I gained gravitas through my specialty, winning tournaments that sounded impressive – until you checked them out. I won the Super Bowl Tennis Classic and would become the California Open Pro-Am Mixed Doubles champion.

Even back in those Stone Age days, before personal computers, Facebook likes and troublesome tweets, birthing a magazine was for senseless dreamers who didn’t mind dancing with humiliation. After all, on the dance floor of life, humiliation taps publishers on the shoulder and cuts in with a staccato regularity (Yikes, I had to stop the presses on the first issue to correct a hefty typo on the cover.)

But there were triumphs, too. Generous investors stepped up. The USTA NorCal signed on as an ally and I sold the back cover to Adidas for two years (they stayed for nine). Newfound friends like Dick Wright, Charlie Hoeveler, Dick Gould, Pete Herb and Barry MacKay welcomed the new kid on the block.

Yes, I experienced more rejection than a club finalist with a wimpy second serve. But, along with my spunky young staff of four, I soldiered on. Alas, in publishing you need the grit of an infantryman, the perspective of a general, the detachment of a Buddhist monk and the wit of a stand-up.

I liked to remind myself that the Italian journalist Gianni Clerici said, “The greatest vulgarity is a lack of a sense of humor.” Laughter was our rejuvenating tonic. But that didn’t stop us from pivoting to engage the provocative issues of the day. We relished launching fearless, cut-to-the-chase questions. When we asked John McEnroe to explain his claim that, “People just come here to get me pissed off,” he bristled, “I would prefer as long as I live on this earth that you never ask me that question again.” We did.

We didn’t hesitate to lobby for changes, either. Something had to be done about American junior tennis, which was faltering. Then we insisted, “How dare you call that US Open stadium of yours the USTA Stadium? What about our hero – Arthur Ashe?”

At our core, we’re storytellers. We love to reveal character, explore nuance and muse on emotions. The tales of the game took us from leafy clubs in Moraga to leaky hockey arenas in Zimbabwe; from cracked courts in Soweto to village lawns in Fiji, packed with gleeful kids. Atop a mountain in Bali we talked tennis with a gap-toothed hermit with a twinkle in his eye. We found ourselves lost in a massive Spanish Olympic stadium with 27,000 Davis Cup fans shrieking for some hunky unknown teen – a kid named Rafa who had thunder in his forehand.

From the outset in 1981, when our beloved first issue rolled off a cranky old San Francisco press, we probed the wonders of tennis. Interviews were our specialty – from conversations with “The Joker” Jack Nicholson to the “Djoker” Novak Djokovic. There were celebrity chats with Johnny Carson at Wimbledon and Robert Redford in Napa Valley. We strolled hand in hand with the late comedian George Burns in Tahoe, walked arm in arm down a US Open corridor with Paul McCartney and chatted with Aretha. Another pretty good singer, Barbra Streisand, told us that Agassi was “a zen master.” We spoke with fellows from other sports, too, like Tiger, Tyson, Michael Jordan, Beckham, Sugar Ray, Lance Armstrong, and Jack Nicklaus.

Oh, well, the nasty sportscaster Howard Cosell snapped at us – that was a badge of honor. So, too, was talking with tennis immortals. Greta Garbo-like recluse Helen Wills Moody opened up. We slurped a strawberry milkshake with Don Budge. Jack Kramer shared his endless wisdom. Pete Sampras revealed his truth in a Tampa hotel, and Jimmy Connors let it all hang out while getting a massage in an Atlanta arena.

We concocted an imaginary interview with the founder of tennis, Major Walter Clopton Wingfield, and had our imagination stretched by Yannick Noah. The brooding humanist asked, “Who’s saying, ‘Let’s all make this a little bit quieter?’ Who’s there to lead us and say, ‘Okay, let’s just have some peace. How about enjoying each other’s differences?’ All I hear is how different we are.”

Still, we managed to dance atop a beer hall table during Munich’s Octoberfest, then sobered up enough to barrel down an autobahn in Boris Becker’s Mercedes, as the German revealed that his mother was a Jew who’d survived a Hitler labor camp.

Speaking of war, we reverently walked the beach at Normandy on a D-Day dawn, and in Hiroshima we flashed on the most mind-boggling sports commentary we’ve ever heard: when Jantzen’s Bart Blout was asked what, in light of the events of 1984, was his biggest concern for the sporting goods industry, he replied, “Nuclear war. The rest is just a game.”

A year later, South African Kevin Curren had a more explosive message. After a tough US Open loss, he suggested, “They should drop an A-bomb on this place.”

But the USTA doesn’t have their fingers on the nuclear button. Others do – or want to. We spoke to President Jimmy Carter, who conceded that his wife Rosalynn was the best tennis player in their family. George Bush Sr. (who once left the keys to the nuclear arsenal on a tennis court) sent us a handwritten White House note thanking us for the scouting report we published on his “kinder, gentler” tennis game. When we interviewed Bill Clinton next to Wimbledon’s Royal Box, the president of the United States actually asked us about a physical education bill that was before Congress. At the US Open, his wife (I think her name is Hillary), spoke of the mixed doubles trophy she’d won, and, in Paris, daughter Chelsea chatted with us about the Northern California mid-peninsula (the home of her alma mater, Stanford) and policies in the Middle East (that hotbed of strife.)

When we walked with Donald Trump on his LA golf course, The Donald claimed that Serena had been intimidated by Maria Sharapova’s supermodel looks, and that Maria had gorgeous shoulders. Newt Gingrich, who ran for President in 2012, claimed tennis was “more Republican [than Democratic] because there’s no distribution…It actually requires merit.”

What we know is this: we’re lucky. We’ve published more think pieces then we can think of and we’ve interviewed almost every major figure in the game.

Some were bitter. Jimmy Connors told us he was happiest when he was as far away from tennis as possible. In contrast, we’re happiest when we’re as close as possible to the game – whether playing with Andy Roddick’s slobbering bulldog in his Austin riverfront house, hopping behind McEnroe on his mighty motorcycle at his SoHo art gallery, asking one-on-one questions of Serena, talking tactics with her coach Patrick Mouratoglou in Wimbledon’s buzzy Tea Room, or engaging Mr. Wonderful – Roger Federer – on an Indian Wells patio.

In tennis, the landscape is always shifting – from the Happy Slam in hassle-free Melbourne to Indian Wells’ gorgeous tournament to the intimate Bullring at the French Open. There’s nothing like the New York roar of Ashe Stadium or Wimbledon’s Centre Court, when just hours after the final I sit in solitary silence sensing the gallant and gracious ghosts of the game. And then there’s tennis’ poignant arc of change. This game’s narrative always informs – the sport continually reinvents itself.

Frosted flake Andre becomes sage Agassi. The men’s game  evolves from the swaggering uber-characters of Mac, Borg, Jimbo, and Vitas to a Lendl-led Euro surge with Becker and Stefan Edberg to the ascendence of America’s Fab Four – Sampras, Agassi, Courier and Chang – and finally to the Golden Era of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray. All the while, there’s been a confounding mix of calm and chaos. Before this tumultuous season, with its gambling scandals, fallen idols and “down on your knees” sexist shocks, there was no more problematic stretch in tennis than 1993 and 1994. There was Jana Novotna’s astounding collapse in the Wimbledon final, the way-too-soon deaths of Ashe and Gerulaitis, and the horrific stabbing of Monica Seles. Then our sport was stabbed in the back, when a gotcha Sports Illustrated cover asked, “Is Tennis Dying?”

Far from it. Rather, birth, reemergence and renewal are the lifeblood of this game. In 1994, just 7.8 miles from my home, I was dumbfounded at the Oakland Coliseum as I witnessed a 14-year-old black waif, Venus Williams, cut through all the white-hot hype and bravely stride on court for the first time. Deep in the shadows, her all-but-ignored little sister Serena peered out in wonder, while their father gleefully informed skeptics that his babies would forge a revolution and become No.1 and No. 2. Sorry, Joe Namath, Williams’ boast became the No. 1 sports prediction of all time.

Then again, women’s tennis, more than any other sport, has always been about transformation. Critics dug trashing it. In 1985 McEnroe claimed, “Women have no business getting anywhere near what we’re getting. Their level…is a zillion years below that of the men. That is the simple honest fact of the matter.” First-wave feminist Billie Jean King had other ideas. The push-back was hefty – the roar was mighty. A leading promoter, Raymond Moore, just lost his job after 31 ill-considered words, and fourth-wave feminists now assert that the towels at tournaments should have gender-free colors.

But that’s dramatic, dicey, wonderful tennis. With its international, individualistic, one-on-one qualities that stretch over a lifetime, it’s played from Bali to Brooklyn, under timeless English sunsets, and amidst New York’s frenzy. All the while it showcases saucy Shakesperean twists. Sure, it’s just a game. But with uncanny regularity, it reveals character and reflects life itself – with all its messy delights.

For me, it’s the most compelling sport there is.

I’m not sure which sentiment more truly captures my bliss. On the one hand, Steffi Graf said, “Tennis is my life. I have need of the fabulous emotions it gives me.” Then again, artist Ai Weiwei confided, “Expressing oneself is like a drug, I am so addicted.”

The boy who long ago had a simple idea has crafted a 35-year journey of wonder. I have been astounded by the fury of Connors and uplifted by the grace of Federer. I have immersed myself in the poetry of McEnroe volleys and been inspired by the humility of Nadal. Billie Jean has taught me her truths.

Who knew?

Most love affairs don’t last 35 years.

Mine has. I’m a lucky man.