Taki's Glory Days as a Tennis Bum

| 17 Feb 2015 | 01:18

    LEMAITRE Game, Set, Paris Match Watchingthe French tennis championships on ESPN all last week sure brought back memories.There is nothing like Paris in May, especially when the sun is out, and as faras I'm concerned, there's no tournament that's grander than Roland Garros, oneof the four Grand Slams of tennis, and by far the hardest to win. (In the slowclay, points last much longer than on fast surfaces like cement or grass.) I competedat Roland Garros throughout the late 50s and early 60s, finishing my ratherlackluster career in 1965 with a heartbreaking defeat against the top-rankeddoubles team of the time. Tennis back then was the loveliest of sports, playedmostly by poor boys posing as rich, traveling amateurs. Top players made about$300 per tournament plus expenses. The lower ranks got hospitality and perhaps50 bucks for our troubles. It was a wonderful life, and my memory of it stretchesout like a child's unending summer.

    First andforemost was the camaraderie involved. We practiced together, gave each othertips, hung out together on and off the court. There were no tie-breaks, no chairsto sit on during changes, no personal coaches, masseurs or gurus. No bathroombreaks were allowed, although in 10 years of playing tournaments I only oncesaw a player request to use the bathroom during play. (One actually never needsto go, as all the fluids are sweated out; today the bathroom break is used strategicallythe moment an opponent hits a hot streak.) Unlike today, players traveled ingroups and stayed at the same hotel. It was one big happy family, describedby the South African Gordon Forbes as a "long line of summers."

    Sportsmanshipand good manners were the sine qua non of tennis. The highest honor was to playfor one's country in the Davis Cup. The wooden rackets and a slower ball madeit possible for "touch" players to compete on an even plane with thebig hitters, and the drop shot and lob were as important as the killing volley.Many a great hitter went down to defeat at the hands of a slow-baller who usedstealth and cunning.

    I traveledwith the great Budge Patty, French and Wimbledon champion in 1950. The othertraveling greats were Roy Emerson-everyone's role model-Drobny, Hoad, Cooper,Fraser, Pietrangeli, Santana and Rod Laver. My close buddies were Nicola Pietrangeliof Italy, French champ in 1959 and 1960, and the Mexican Rafael Osuna, who diedin an airplane crash at the height of his career. My doubles partner was NicoKalogeropoulos, junior Wimbledon and junior Roland Garros champion in 1962.

    Nico, withwhom I still play in veterans tournaments, had the French champion Pierre Darmonon the ropes during the quarterfinals of the French in 1964. It was on CenterCourt. At 30 all, 5-4 down and two-sets-to-one down, Darmon hit an approachshot and came to the net. The linesman called the approach shot out, makingit match point. But Nicky was on top of the ball and saw it clearly brush theline. He corrected the call. Darmon went on to win in five sets, but as Nickyleft the court he got a five-minute ovation for his sportsmanship.

    Today'splayers would call that a sucker's play, the sign of a loser, but Nicky playedtennis for the love of the game, and not calling it as he saw it would havebeen cheating. Nicky and I had Cliff Richey, then number one in America, andFrank Froehling down two sets to one and 4-2 in the fourth in 1965. It was mylast match and I was giving it my all. Chasing a wide shot, Richey fell andinjured himself. The rules back then were flexible. We could have given him a few minutes to recover and then won by retirement. But we figured we couldwin straight up, so we told Richey to take all the time he needed. This he did,and he and Froehling went on to win 6-4 in the fifth.

    By thattime, with a great upset in the making (doubles were as important as singlesback then), our court 13 at Roland Garros was packed. To my delight Emerson,Newcombe, Ken Fletcher, Pietrangeli and Osuna had come courtside and were givingloud support. (This was never done, but in my case, playing my last match andnot exactly spoiled by victories, decorum was set aside). When the Texan Richeyshowed himself unsporting by making a rude remark while shaking hands-"Youfucking guys don't belong in the same court"-Osuna went ballistic. Onlythe American Davis Cup captain, whose name I don't recall, stood between Richeybeing attacked by the extremely dangerous Mexican. But he apologized and allwas forgotten.

    The seasonbegan with the Riviera tournaments in late March. After Cannes and Monte Carlo,Florence, Rome and Paris came the grass courts of England and Wimbledon. Thelast European tournament in July was Venice, after that the big guns going tothe grass circuit in America, the lesser lights remaining for the clay courtsof Switzerland.

    The pokergame followed the same circuit. All accounts were payable in Venice, where thefloating poker game traditionally ended. Pietrangeli, Pancho Contreras of Mexico,Ivo of Yugoslavia, the Italian Beppe Merlo and yours truly were the regulars.On the last day in Venice, I was dealt four 10s and bet the farm. Pietrangeliand Contreras dropped out. Ivo, the poorest player on the circuit, looked painedas hell but did not. He closed his eyes and began to mumble strange Gregorianhymns. I implored him to drop it, and swore I wasn't bluffing. The pot was $5000,a fortune back in 1958, and considered an obscene amount among poor tennis folk.But Ivo kept mumbling with his eyes closed and after what seemed like an hourwhispered, "Look." He had four queens. He humbly took the pot, wentback to Belgrade and never hit another ball in anger. Later on we heard he boughthimself a hotel with the poker moolah.

    I thoughtabout him last week while watching the multimillionaire robots playing in Paris,and wondered if he's all right. Those were the days. Jim Holt THE TIRED HEDONIST My Summer Reading "Somesay that life is the thing, but I prefer reading," a certain dandy oncedeclared, and I would have to agree. Almost any interesting human activity-espionage,bullfighting, pursuing a messy affair of the heart, throwing yourself undera train-is more agreeable to read about than to get mixed up in firsthand. Thisespecially applies to travel. Why expose yourself to the perils of exotic landsor the hideous expense of Provence when you can get the best of either by readingthe appropriate books while sunning yourself at the cheap and reposeful JonesBeach?

    This bringus to the dilemma we all face each year around Memorial Day: Should one devotethe leisurely summer months to great books or to rubbishy ones? Once the beachblanket is positioned, the sunscreen slapped on, the cigarette lit and the kidsdispatched oceanward to frolic in the undertow, ought one to plump for the Austensand Flauberts of yesteryear, or the Steeles and Grishams, the Wolfes and-dreadname!-Kurt Andersens of today?

    It is avexing question for people like us. We are, after all, compounded of two selves:a higher one that aspires to burn with a hard gemlike flame, and a lower onethat pants for horror, titillation and coarse satire. Which self should be givendominion over the empty, indolent hours of summer?

    I don'tknow about you, but when I am faced with such a dilemma, my impulse is to consultthe judgment of people who are wiser than I, people whom I admire and wish toemulate.

    So I putthe question to Martha Stewart. What kind of reading did she prefer during thesultry season?

    "Iprefer great literature," was her unhesitating reply. Did that mean thatshe used the summer to reacquaint herself with classic novels? "Always!"

    Pat Buckley,a still loftier arbiter of elegance, sounded a rather different note. "Ihate people who claim they spend the summer 'rereading' Dickens, Tolstoy,and so forth," she told me. "I don't believe they've read them inthe first place." Mrs. Buckley's own summer syllabus tends to be heavyon history and memoirs, but she admitted that she was not above a little lowentertainment. "You know, my husband writes spy thrillers-what can I say?"

    Felix Rohatyn,our ambassador to France, told me that he'll be going with "my usual mixof nonfiction, biography and history-larded, of course, with a good deal oftrash." What about Great Literature? "My wife is the serious summer reader-Proust, that sort of thing," he told me. "Every once in a whilewhen I get utterly depressed about the conduct of politics today, I do dip intoTrollope or Edith Wharton to convince myself that things were just as bad back then."

    One thingthat can be said for trashy fiction is that it is dependable, done to formulalike a McDonald's or a Holiday Inn, so you do not have to vex too much overwhat you pack to take to the Hamptons. Serious novels, by contrast, are quiteuneven in effect, especially on the bookish. Some years ago, Fay Weldon calledMadame Bovary "a great novel, a classic," then added,"I hate it." Evelyn Waugh thought Proust "a mental defective."The works of Balzac struck Vladimir Nabokov as mere "topical trash."Ralph Waldo Emerson was bored by Jane Austen, and H.L. Mencken deemed HenryJames an idiot. I remember my own feeling of relief when, en route to Los Angelesa while back, I abandoned Anna Karenina (after 639 pages!) in favor ofthe only other reading material at hand, a flight magazine.

    Trashy page-turnersare also blessedly free of literary technique, "fine writing," symbolism,stream of consciousness and esoteric allusion. The characters speak with vigorand conviction: "My God!!! He's been disemboweled!!!" or "Yes!!! Give it to me now!!!" (In Robert Ludlum's novels, it always sounds as ifErnest Borgnine is talking.) It is obvious how the plot will come out-the goodend happily, the bad unhappily. ("That is what fiction means.") Butthere are plenty of naughty bits to keep your attention engaged until the denouement,and you pick up lots of details about nuclear subs, rules of evidence, extragalacticlife forms, Hollywood mating habits and media luxury-brand preferences along the way.

    The casefor trash would seem to be overwhelming.

    But thereis one maxim not to be overlooked (courtesy of P.J. O'Rourke): "Alwaysread stuff that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it."When you succumb to sunstroke after six consecutive hours under the solar rays, do you want to be found clutching Turn of the Century?

    There aretwo motives for reading a book, as Bertrand Russell once observed: one, thatyou enjoy it; the other, that you can boast about it. (Have you ever noticedhow, in Vanity Fair's "Night-Table Reading" sections, the certifiedairheads of Hollywood are always claiming to be immersed in Marguerite Yourcenaror Italo Calvino?) Unless you summer in very illiterate circles, it is no goodboasting that you are in the middle of Cryptonomicon. You would be thoughta fool. And even if you are not given to literary braggadocio, it is importantto remember that summer reading, though in some sense a private act like prayer,is also, like prayer, frequently done in a public or semipublic setting. MarthaStewart told me that one of her most horrid memories is of sitting by a poolon St. Bart's years ago and counting 22 copies of Presumed Innocent beingread at the same time.

    Having siftedthrough all these considerations, I have resolved to attempt two literary worksthis summer.

    The firstis The Tale of Genji, by Lady Murasaki. It is, after all, the first novelever written (excluding The Satyricon, most of which is lost), and Ihear it is all the rage among Upper East Side reading circles, and with no fewerthan 800 characters it will easily fill the summer. The massive unabridged editionwill make an impressive prop if I chance to be a houseguest in someone's oceanfronthouse. (I'd better remember to position the bookmark at least halfway into it before I arrive.) That takes care of high literature.

    As for trash,I'm delighted to discover that Jacqueline Susann's The Love Machine isfinally back in print, perhaps thanks to Michael Korda's awesomely good profileof its author in his new memoir. (When The Love Machine was first publishedin 1969, it edged out Portnoy's Complaint to become the number-one bestseller.)What could be better than a sex-glamour-power fantasy in which the noses areall "aquiline," the breasts "snowy" and the haunches "silken"? The only sad thing, I hear, is that Susann's hair-raisingly hedonistic charactersnever enjoy a glimmer of real happiness. I bet I know what they are doing wrong.