Taki's Glory Days as a Tennis Bum

| 13 Aug 2014 | 12:19

    LEMAITRE Game, Set, Paris Match Watching the 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 far as I'm concerned, there's no tournament that's grander than Roland Garros, one of the four Grand Slams of tennis, and by far the hardest to win. (In the slow clay, points last much longer than on fast surfaces like cement or grass.)

    I competed at Roland Garros throughout the late 50s and early 60s, finishing my rather lackluster career in 1965 with a heartbreaking defeat against the top-ranked doubles team of the time. Tennis back then was the loveliest of sports, played mostly by poor boys posing as rich, traveling amateurs. Top players made about $300 per tournament plus expenses. The lower ranks got hospitality and perhaps 50 bucks for our troubles. It was a wonderful life, and my memory of it stretches out like a child's unending summer.

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

    Sportsmanship and good manners were the sine qua non of tennis. The highest honor was to play for one's country in the Davis Cup. The wooden rackets and a slower ball made it possible for "touch" players to compete on an even plane with the big 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 used stealth and cunning.

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

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

    Today's players would call that a sucker's play, the sign of a loser, but Nicky played tennis for the love of the game, and not calling it as he saw it would have been cheating. Nicky and I had Cliff Richey, then number one in America, and Frank Froehling down two sets to one and 4-2 in the fourth in 1965. It was my last match and I was giving it my all. Chasing a wide shot, Richey fell and injured 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 could win 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 that time, with a great upset in the making (doubles were as important as singles back then), our court 13 at Roland Garros was packed. To my delight Emerson, Newcombe, Ken Fletcher, Pietrangeli and Osuna had come courtside and were giving loud support. (This was never done, but in my case, playing my last match and not exactly spoiled by victories, decorum was set aside). When the Texan Richey showed himself unsporting by making a rude remark while shaking hands?"You fucking guys don't belong in the same court"?Osuna went ballistic. Only the American Davis Cup captain, whose name I don't recall, stood between Richey being attacked by the extremely dangerous Mexican. But he apologized and all was forgotten.

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

    The poker game followed the same circuit. All accounts were payable in Venice, where the floating 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. Pietrangeli and Contreras dropped out. Ivo, the poorest player on the circuit, looked pained as hell but did not. He closed his eyes and began to mumble strange Gregorian hymns. 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 hour whispered, "Look." He had four queens. He humbly took the pot, went back to Belgrade and never hit another ball in anger. Later on we heard he bought himself a hotel with the poker moolah.

    I thought about 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

    "Some say that life is the thing, but I prefer reading," a certain dandy once declared, and I would have to agree. Almost any interesting human activity?espionage, bullfighting, pursuing a messy affair of the heart, throwing yourself under a train?is more agreeable to read about than to get mixed up in firsthand. This especially applies to travel. Why expose yourself to the perils of exotic lands or the hideous expense of Provence when you can get the best of either by reading the appropriate books while sunning yourself at the cheap and reposeful Jones Beach?

    This bring us to the dilemma we all face each year around Memorial Day: Should one devote the leisurely summer months to great books or to rubbishy ones? Once the beach blanket is positioned, the sunscreen slapped on, the cigarette lit and the kids dispatched oceanward to frolic in the undertow, ought one to plump for the Austens and Flauberts of yesteryear, or the Steeles and Grishams, the Wolfes and?dread name!?Kurt Andersens of today?

    It is a vexing 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 one that pants for horror, titillation and coarse satire. Which self should be given dominion over the empty, indolent hours of summer?

    I don't know about you, but when I am faced with such a dilemma, my impulse is to consult the judgment of people who are wiser than I, people whom I admire and wish to emulate.

    So I put the question to Martha Stewart. What kind of reading did she prefer during the sultry season?

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

    Pat Buckley, a still loftier arbiter of elegance, sounded a rather different note. "I hate people who claim they spend the summer 'rereading' Dickens, Tolstoy, and so forth," she told me. "I don't believe they've read them in the first place." Mrs. Buckley's own summer syllabus tends to be heavy on history and memoirs, but she admitted that she was not above a little low entertainment. "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 mix of nonfiction, biography and history?larded, of course, with a good deal of trash." What about Great Literature? "My wife is the serious summer reader?Proust, that sort of thing," he told me. "Every once in a while when I get utterly depressed about the conduct of politics today, I do dip into Trollope or Edith Wharton to convince myself that things were just as bad back then."

    One thing that can be said for trashy fiction is that it is dependable, done to formula like a McDonald's or a Holiday Inn, so you do not have to vex too much over what you pack to take to the Hamptons. Serious novels, by contrast, are quite uneven in effect, especially on the bookish. Some years ago, Fay Weldon called Madame 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 Henry James an idiot. I remember my own feeling of relief when, en route to Los Angeles a while back, I abandoned Anna Karenina (after 639 pages!) in favor of the only other reading material at hand, a flight magazine.

    Trashy page-turners are also blessedly free of literary technique, "fine writing," symbolism, stream of consciousness and esoteric allusion. The characters speak with vigor and conviction: "My God!!! He's been disemboweled!!!" or "Yes!!! Give it to me now!!!" (In Robert Ludlum's novels, it always sounds as if Ernest Borgnine is talking.) It is obvious how the plot will come out?the good end happily, the bad unhappily. ("That is what fiction means.") But there 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, extragalactic life forms, Hollywood mating habits and media luxury-brand preferences along the way.

    The case for trash would seem to be overwhelming.

    But there is one maxim not to be overlooked (courtesy of P.J. O'Rourke): "Always read 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 are two motives for reading a book, as Bertrand Russell once observed: one, that you enjoy it; the other, that you can boast about it. (Have you ever noticed how, in Vanity Fair's "Night-Table Reading" sections, the certified airheads of Hollywood are always claiming to be immersed in Marguerite Yourcenar or Italo Calvino?) Unless you summer in very illiterate circles, it is no good boasting that you are in the middle of Cryptonomicon. You would be thought a fool. And even if you are not given to literary braggadocio, it is important to 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. Martha Stewart told me that one of her most horrid memories is of sitting by a pool on St. Bart's years ago and counting 22 copies of Presumed Innocent being read at the same time.

    Having sifted through all these considerations, I have resolved to attempt two literary works this summer.

    The first is The Tale of Genji, by Lady Murasaki. It is, after all, the first novel ever written (excluding The Satyricon, most of which is lost), and I hear it is all the rage among Upper East Side reading circles, and with no fewer than 800 characters it will easily fill the summer. The massive unabridged edition will make an impressive prop if I chance to be a houseguest in someone's oceanfront house. (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 is finally back in print, perhaps thanks to Michael Korda's awesomely good profile of its author in his new memoir. (When The Love Machine was first published in 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 are all "aquiline," the breasts "snowy" and the haunches "silken"? The only sad thing, I hear, is that Susann's hair-raisingly hedonistic characters never enjoy a glimmer of real happiness. I bet I know what they are doing wrong.