There are two weeks a year when I miss covering tennis. Actually, I should say there’s one fortnight a year that I miss covering tennis. That’s the way Wimbledon is referred to in Great Britain as in, “the Wimbledon fortnight is underway…”
I covered tennis for the Washington Post and The National Sports Daily for seven years. I continued to cover it part-time for various magazines after the National folded in 1991 for another 10 years. Now, I show up once a year – usually for a day, no more than two – at the U.S. Open and wish I could feel about matches being played on the outside courts the way I once did.
I used to love wandering the grounds at all the Grand Slams – Australia, the French, Wimbledon and the Open – looking for stories about unknown players that I could write. Just like golf, there are plenty of untold stories sitting there if you know where to go to look for them.
Back then, I knew where to look, just as I think I do in golf nowadays. Now, I wouldn’t have a clue. I know who the stars are and I have some idea about players on the fringes, but if you asked me who the 50th-ranked player in the world is – men or women – I’d have no clue.
Tennis was a special sport for me to cover because it was the one sport my parents truly enjoyed playing and watching. I still have little kid memories of riding the subway with my mom to Forest Hills to watch weekday matches in what were then the U.S. Tennis Championships – before the sport went Open (as in pros could play) in 1968. I remember going with a friend on a Monday afternoon – when the final of that first U.S. Open was delayed a day because of rain – and seeing Arthur Ashe beat Tom Okker in five sets. Okker won the $14,000 first prize because Ashe, then a lieutenant in the Army, was still an amateur. I remember the chair umpire saying, “Game, set, match, lieutenant Ashe.”
Still gives me a chill, especially since Arthur later became a good friend.
So when I first got a chance to cover tennis at The Post, it was a huge thrill. All through college and then in my early days at the paper, I wanted to grow up to be Barry Lorge. Barry was the Post’s tennis writer and he was nothing short of great. I followed him as he traveled the world and thought the coolest thing EVER would be to someday cover what Bud Collins always called “The Old World Triple” — the Italian, the French and Wimbledon.
Eventually, I realized that dream. I backed Barry up writing sidebars at the Open for several years. The first time was in 1980 when John McEnroe beat Bjorn Borg in a five set final and I sat alone with McEnroe in the locker room while he talked sadly about being in his hometown and feeling as if the entire crowd was against him.
“Do you think there’s any chance – any chance at all – that one person would be pulling for me if the match was being played in Sweden?” he asked plaintively.
Because John had been so emotional and eloquent, Lorge talked the desk into giving me more space and that was the start of a lengthy friendship with McEnroe.
When Barry left the paper in 1984 to become the sports editor/columnist in San Diego (giving the paper a remarkable 1-2 columnist punch along with Tom Cushman, who passed away this week) I succeeded him as the tennis writer.
Which began a love/hate relationship with the sport.
I loved getting to go to all four Grand Slams and getting to know a lot of players – some famous, some not-so-famous. All had a story to tell. I still remember my first day at Wimbledon in 1985. It was, of course, raining.
At 6:48 p.m. John McEnroe and Peter McNamara walked onto center court for the traditional champion’s opening match that was to have started at 2 o’clock. I was sitting about 10 rows up in the stands in the media seating area between Bud Collins and Lesley Visser. I was so excited I was almost hyper-ventilating.
“Bud,” I hissed as the two men warmed up. “Who is the chair umpire?”
At that moment, the man’s name seemed incredibly important. I also though that if I spoke aloud — thus, the hissing – I might be removed. Bud, who had covered Wimbledon about 30 times by then and had been doing it on TV since it had gone Open, wasn’t nearly as excited.
“I recognize him,” he said, “as someone I don’t know.”
McEnroe and McNamara played six games to 3 – all before McEnroe called out tournament referee Alan Mills and told him in no uncertain terms (John always speaks in no uncertain terms) — that the court was unplayable. Mills sent them home while Ivan Lendl and Mel Purcell kept playing. When Lendl won the match just before 9 o’clock and realized he and Purcell were the only ones playing, he went ballistic.
Which gave me something to write about.
What I hated about covering tennis was the appalling lack of access we had to the athletes. Back then, the U.S. Open was the only event in the sport – not the Slams, the entire sport – where the media was allowed in the locker room to talk to players. That’s why I was able to talk to McEnroe at length in 1980. And others as the years went by.
But the players and their agents were constantly complaining, even though only a handful of us ever went in there to try to do our jobs. I remember getting into an argument once with the immortal Dan Goldie who I was trying to write a sidebar on after he had (remarkably) won a first round match. Goldie was a D.C. local so a few paragraphs on him for The Post would have been worthwhile—until, after slow-playing me and acting as if he was McEnroe, Connors or Borg—he yelled at me, “You don’t even belong in the locker room!”
To which I replied, “No Dan, YOU don’t belong in the locker room.”
I didn’t write the sidebar.
Nowadays, the locker room access is long gone and it’s even a battle to walk into the players dining area. The same has always been true at Wimbledon, only more so.
When I was president of the U.S. Tennis Writers Association in 1989 and 1990, I was occasionally invited to the morning meeting of the tournament committee. This was a courtesy that had been extended to the British press for years. Finally, at the insistence of the great Ted Tinling, international writers (including Americans) were invited.
The meetings were straight out of a BBC send-up. Everyone sat around drinking sherry at 9 o’clock in the morning and talking about how well everything was going.
One morning, Barry Wetherill, chairman of the media committee and an extremely nice man, turned to me and said, “John, all well with you chaps?”
Emboldened by my (third) sherry I said something like, “Well, Barry, we really could use more access to the players.”
I instantly heard choking sounds coming from around the table as if I’d said, ‘the heck with the queen.’
“More access?” Barry said pleasantly. “How so?”
“Well, for one thing, the nine-minute limit on press conferences makes it very hard to get much done. For another thing, the British media has access to the tea room (AKA the dining area) and we don’t. And, for another, it would be nice to have locker room access the way we do in New York.”
By now I thought I heard cries of ‘Off with his head!’
Stunned, Barry looked at Ted Tinling, who by then was the club’s media consultant.
“Ted, you can’t possibly agree with any of this can you?”
“I only agree with ALL OF IT!” Ted screamed. (Ted always screamed). “These people aren’t bloody royalty; they’re tennis players! Period!”
We did get limited tea room access after that and the moderators became slightly more flexible at press conferences. But the only time I ever saw the inside of a Wimbledon locker room was when Buzzer (yes, Buzzer because his older brother had called him, ‘my little Buzzer,’ when they were kids) Hadingham, then the chairman of the club, was kind enough to give me a tour one day before the start of The Championships in 1990 when I was working on Hard Courts, my one and only (non-fiction) tennis book.
Still, those were wonderful days. I loved strolling the outside courts in search of a story; I got chills on the afternoons of the finals when the players would stop and bow to the Royal Box and I loved the (then) wordless awards ceremonies. I hung out with Bud and Lesley and Mary Carillo and Pete Alfano and it was all great.
The only one in that group at Wimbledon this week is Mary. A lot has changed there but it is still Wimbledon and it is still unique. My old pal, the Duke of Kent, who I met that first day in 1985 (I showed him how to use a computer) is still around too. I can hear the NBC Wimbledon music in my head as I write this and I still get a chill.
And feel just a little bit sad that I’m not there. As the chairman always says at the Wimbledon ball when he stands to give his opening toast, “(To) the Queen!”
John Feinstein’s most recent non-fiction book, ‘The Legends Club,–Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Valvano and an Epic College Basketball Rivalry,” spent a total of eight months on the New York Times bestseller lists. His new book, “The First Major,–The Inside Story of the 2016 Ryder Cup,”—can be pre-ordered now online. It will be published in October. His next kids mystery—“Backfield Boys,’ due out in late August can also be pre-ordered. He is also the author of the Edgar Allan Poe Award winning kids mystery, “Last Shot.”