Andre Agassi, 1991

By Scott Ostler, published in THE NATIONAL, March 1991

LAS VEGAS- So I’m driving a white, $500,000 Lamborghini Countach, which is basically a jet engine with turn signals, weaving through heavy traffic near the Strip, trying to catch another motorist who has requested a drive-by autograph from the guy riding shotgun with me, trying to be cool while hoping not to pop the clutch and send us rocketing into the fountain at Caesars Palace, and idly wondering if I’m being conned.

My passenger, the owner of the Lamborghini, is Andre Agassi, Mr. Rock ‘n’ Roll Tennis. Public opinion on Agassi seems divided into two camps – tennis insiders, who see Agassi as an overrated phony with bad manners, and tennis outsiders, who see Agassi as an overrated phony with bad manners.

Agassi is aware of the criticism. He is aware that, to an extent, he has earned it. He has launched a campaign to make himself more accessible to the press and lovable to the public.

I have taken my shots at Agassi in print, had roaring good fun at his expense because it seemed like the right thing to do. But a tennis promoter I know has pleaded with me, “If you just meet Andre, get to know him…”

Sounds like a crazy idea, but I phone Agassi’s agent and request an interview. The agent phones back and says Andre will do an interview, but there is a catch. The agent says, “Andre wants to know if, instead of just talking for an hour or so, you two can get together and spend some quality time.”

This is not an unusual request in the world of athlete-media relations; this is a freakish and bizarre request. Most famous sports figures define quality time as any time spent away from the media – the farther away, the higher the quality.

Paranoia sets in. Am I allowing myself to be used as a PR tool, a dupe in a plot to fix Agassi’s bad name so he can sell more sneakers and cameras?

Or could it be that he really is a decent fellow who wants the world to see the side of him that isn’t about tanking, taunting, ducking, and spitting?

You be the judge. For the record, though, I spent about seven hours with Agassi in this, his hometown, and here are some of the things he did not do:

* Curse,

* Gossip or badmouth anyone in any significant way, not even to call anyone a bozo.

* Fail to open a door for anyone, man or woman.

* Fail to drive courteously and safely.

* Refuse an autograph request.

* Bleach, tease, comb or fuss with his famous hair, or otherwise primp or pose.

* Play loud music on his car stereo, except for one quick demonstration.

* Leer at babes.

* Act even remotely angry, impatient, bored, spoiled, or – as we used to say in high school – stuck up.

Still, the day wasn’t a complete washout.

“If youdon’t mind, I’d like to take you my favorite place for breakfast,” Agassi says.

We hop into his Jeep and drive to the outskirts of town, to a truck-stop diner just off the interstate. He parks near the sea of 18-wheelers. At the diner entrance, a trucker does a groggy double-take as the kid with a diamond earring, long fluffy hair and Levi’s shorts politely holds open the door.

Sure, this restaurant could be part of the con. But the people who work here know Andre, a couple of them come out of the kitchen to exchange pleasantries. Nobody asks for an autograph.

“To me, this is real life,” Agassi says. “It’s not people making you believe you’re something special.”

He says that’s a problem. “I always do my best to remind myself what reality is. You have to fight so hard to keep a grip on it, to deal with the fact that you are never lacking in friends, that there’s always someone around who makes you feel like you’re special. You can forget that loneliness is a reality, but in my world, loneliness comes in a different way.

“You’re never sure, if your money was gone, how many people would still care. One thing I worry about is motives. I put people on stage. The few people really close to me, I don’t question them, but the others are guilty until proven innocent…”

Girls, for instance. They dig Andre. But is it for his money and fame, or for himself? Some girls send him photos of themselves naked. Some try and weasel into his hotel rooms. Before Andre enters a hotel room, his burly weight-training coach goes in first and checks under the beds and in the closets.

Until recently Agassi went steady with one girl for about two years.

“I’m not exclusive anymore,” he says, “but I hang out with a limited amount of people.”

Female-wise, his main friend these days is a BYU student whom Agassi doesn’t have to put on trial, which is a big relief.

“I’ve known her since I was 8,” Agassi says, “but I’m going to run out of girls like that pretty soon.”

Speaking of motives, I mention to Agassi that people might be skeptical of his new glasnost with the media, see it as a slick image-repair campaign.

“I’m flattered that they would think I’m that smart,” Agassi says. “I’m hoping my sincerity shows through that.”

Referring to a writer from THE NATIONAL who has been critical of Agassi, he says, “My goal is not to change the ideas about me. I don’t want to change the [John] Feinsteins of the world. I just don’t want to become like people, who in the midst of surviving pressure, stop telling their story. We all have pressure in our daily lives; we can’t let the pressure beat us.”

The closest Agassi has come to tap-dancing is when he talks about the pancake house incident. In a Florida restaurant one night last December, sportswriter Barry Lorge overheard Andre and his brother Phil seemingly plotting to fake an injury so Andre could skip a tournament.

“Philly and I were talking about taking steps as alternatives, not as strategies,” Andre says. “I was injured, and we were discussing ways to make that known as soon as possible, and it came off as some kind of conspiracy. I was really trying to make the right decisions.”

The flapjack flap was the sledgehammer that broke the camel’s back. Tennis magazine named Agassi Twit of the Year, and called him the Milli Vanilli of tennis.

And yet, there are the fans. At tournaments, the fans seem to enjoy the Andre show.

“Walking onto the court in San Francisco, I was reluctant to see how the crowd would respond,” Andre says. “I was relieved to see that [past misdeeds] were either water under the bridge, or were not taken seriously in the first place… Every time I step onto the court and people are in the stands, I’m flattered.”

Say this about Andre Agassi: He can drive down the street in one of his seven gleaming cars, fans honking and staring and waving, the world at his feet and be aware that he is one lucky dude.

“My father always says I was born with a horseshoe up my ass,” Agassi says with a laugh. (OK, one curse word in seven hours.) “Things have worked out well for me.”

We stop at his parents’ home, where Andre lives when he’s in Las Vegas, and we tour the garage. He owns three Porsches, the Jeep, the Lamborghini, a Ferrari Testarossa and a special-edition Corvette that will blow the doors off your standard wimpy ‘Vette. Andre is curretnly showroom-drooling over something called a Vector, a high-performance space vehicle capable of 240 mph.

He loves to give cars as gifts. He has given cars to his two sisters, his trainer, his coach. He gave a Porsche to brother Phil, a Range Rover to mom and Cadillacs to his dad, Mike Agassi. Alas, Mike Agassi still struggles with the adjustment from smaller cars to the heavy Motown metal. He has crashed two Cads and is currently nursing No. 3.

“The one thing I’d miss if I didn’t have money,” Andre says, with innocent sincerity, “would be not being able to buy my dad a new Cadillac when he totals one.”

Andre shows me his Porsche S4 GT 172 and says, “This is a real practical car, even for a family.”

Family of two, max.

The Lamborghini is practical, too, now that there is a Lamborghini mechanic in Las Vegas and Agassi doesn’t have to ship the car to Los Angeles on a flatbed truck every time it needs a fan belt.

The cars, Andre admits, are an indulgence. They are his reward for a boyhood donated to tennis, for being yanked out of school in the middle of the eighth grade and packed off to Florida, “moving away from home at 13 to a tennis academy that was like a military school.”

Andre’s agent, Bill Shelton of International Management Group, hates to see his client spend so much money on cars, but Shelton shrugs and says, “They really are his only vice.”

Andre cranks up the monster stereo system in the Ferrari. From the power and volume, I’m guessing that the Ferrari’s motor has been removed to make room for the speakers. The garage shakes but does not collapse, since the song he’s playing is mellow rock. No heavy metal for this boy.

“I’m into lyrics,” he says. “James Taylor, people like that.”

Andre Agassi, the perpetrator of Rock ‘n’ Roll Tennis, is an easy-listening kind of guy? It’s true. When Barry Manilow played Vegas, Andre went to see the show. Two nights in a row.

His parents’ home is a nice suburban layout but far from palatial. Andre uses his bedroom only for storage, he sleeps on a coach in the den. His alarm clock is a giant cockatoo named Fred.

“I want to buy a big, new couch,” says Mike Agassi, spreading his arms in the living room, “so Andre can sleep here, watch TV.”

The backyard is dominated by a tennis court, where Mike gives free lessons to nine local kids, and a giant TV satellite spy dish. Satellite feeds of sports events omit the commercials, allowing Mike to eavesdrop on announcers as they chit-chat during the breaks.

Mary Carillo hates me,” Andre says, matter-of-factly.

Adds Mike Agassi, “When she is not on (live) TV, she is very obnoxious.”

“{Jimmy} Connors is very bad {anti-Andre},” Andre says. “Cliff Drysdale is good, {Fred} Stolle and {Roscoe} Tanner are good, and Barry McKay.”

High on the list of the criticisms of Agassi is the feeling that he has done more product endorsing than big-tournament winning. “Major scores through minor feats,” is how Bud Collins puts it.

Agassi never has played the Australian Open, and he has snubbed Wimbledon the last three summers because it didn’t, uh, fit his schedule. This is like the Giants skipping the Super Bowl to rest up for the exhibition season, and it has done Agassi’s image no good.

The rumor is that Agassi almost surely will play Wimbledon this summer, but he doesn’t want to make a definite public commitment yet.

“If I go, I’m going over there with high hopes,” he says. “The thought of being there makes me nervous. I’m really excited.”

Andre says he wants me to meet his trainer, Gil Reyes, who lives nearby.

“Which car should we take?” Agassi asks.

I pick the Lamborghini, and we cruise the two miles to Reyes’s house. The trip takes approximately 14 seconds.

Agassi and Gil Reyes – Andre calls him Gilly – work out in Reyes’s garage in their quest to produce the first tennis player to hit a ball so hard it vaporizes. Most top tennis players are dedicated conditioners, but Agassi probably works harder than any of them on sheer power. He works on flexibility and endurance, but power is a major component of the overall plan.

When Agassi weighed 150 pounds, he already hit the ball harder than anyone in tennis. In 14 months with Reyes, Agassi has added 27 pounds of granite, and grown two inches to an even 6 foot.

“To give you an idea,” Andre says, “when I started, I bench-pressed 135 pounds. Now I do five reps with 250 pounds. And the biggest improvement has been my legs. I lost to [Boris] Becker in ’89 in three sets. He overpowered me. Last year I beat him in three sets. We’re even now in strength; we compete on ability.”

Some critics say Andre is too strong, overmuscled. His record this season would indicate some fine-tuning is needed, but Agassi and Reyes believe the work they do in the garage is correct and vital.

Bouncing around the garage demonstrating the sophisticated equipment, Andre and Gilly are like Hans and Franz of “Saturday Night Live,” brothers dedicated to a grand quest and geeked up on the pumpatude of it all.

Andre has great affection for the members of his inner council – Gilly, Philly, Billy, Nick and Dad.

Billy is Bill Shelton, Andre’s agent at IMG. Philly is Andre’s brother, personal manager and constant traveling companion. Nick is Nick Bollettieri, Andre’s coach for the last seven years. It’s a close-knit group. You prick one, they all bleed, and at times this has been Team Tourniquet.

There is a camera convention in town and Agassi has agreed to stop by the Canon exhibit to sign some autographs. In the Canon TV commercials, Andre says, “Image is everything.”

“People want to tie that [slogan] in with my philosophy of life,” Andre says, driving over to the show. “It’s [Canon’s] slogan, not my philosophy.”

The Rebel image, though, does seem to fit. Agassi’s Nike shoe commercials also play to the basic theme- Andre as James Dean with a tennis racket. He talks of getting kicked out of the Bollettieri Academy several times for refusing to cut his hair, for failing to conform. That hasn’t changed. When he visited the White House last year to meet George and Barbara Bush, Andre showed up in a sweatsuit and sneakers.

Nor is tennis etiquette his strong suit. He is the bad boy of the sport, no question, and the gods of tennis have sent down the perfect antagonist in Pete Sampras. These two are yin and yang, Wally Cleaver and Eddie Haskel, at least on the surface.

Never mind that Agassi is a Christian who doesn’t drink, do drugs or even go to R-rated movies. Image is everything. When Sampras beat Agassi in the U.S Open final last year, it was a clear-cut case of good kicking evil’s butt.

“There probably are a lot of people who would have been disappointed if I’d beated Sampras,” Agsasi says nonchalantly. “It seems like Petey reaps the benfit of the controversy I start… He is capable of a broader fan base, but people know where I’m coming from and they know what I’m feeling. It’s like a good song, I won’t cheat you on the lyrics, I’ll give you your money’s worth. It would be too easy for me not too say a lot, not act up on the court, but the whole point is not just to survive.”

Sampras has taken subtle shots, through the media, at Agassi’s off-beatness, but Agassi says, “Petey’s really harmless, I don’t think he’s very vindictive.”

The autograph-signing goes smoothly. Agassi charms the Canon VIPs. He is still wearing the shorts, walking shoes with the laces untied, and a plain cotton shirt.

“Those wonderful legs,” sighs a woman standing in the autograph line.

Driving away from the convention center, Agassi talks about people he admires.

“I’m a big fan of [Wayne] Gretzky,” he says. “I love Jack Nicholson. I like the interest he creates, the mystique, what people would give to find out what he’s really like. That’s neat when you can carry that kind of charisma.

“Old George Bush has really won his place with me, too. The way he’s handled all this, the example he’s set for this country, has been awesome.”

We drive out to a golf course that Las Vegas hotel baron Steve Wynn has carved out of the desert for himself and a few select pals. It is a golfer’s Eden, with waterfalls and lakes, hills and trees. Some days you can play an entire round without seeing another foursome.

Agassi commandeers an electric cart and gives a high-speed tour of the course, nearly crashing into an outcropping of boulders as he drives blindly over the crest of a steep hill. Then he picks up his clubs and a bag of “range” balls – brand-new Titleists – and heads for the practice tee.

Agassi is a weekend golfer, never had a lesson. He plays lefthanded, though he’s a rightie in tennis. He pulls out a 3-wood and, on this chilly late afternoon, without so much as a warmup swing or a waggle or a tee, slams about 20 dandy drives down the middle, all well over 200 yards. Two or three veer off course, but even on those he makes solid contact. The swing is smooth, the distance impressive. Rock ‘n’ Roll golf.

It’s time to head to the airport, and he offers to let me drive the Lamborghini.

“That’s good,” he says as I merge cautiously onto the freeway, trying to ease the car out of third gear, “you’re going 90.”

He talks about what the 1991 model Andre Agassi will be like.

“I’ve made a commitment to get out more, to talk more,” he says. “Other than that, no difference. I’ll go out there and play some fun tennis, some hard tennis. I just want to add something to tennis. I have fun being me on the court.”

At a stoplight, a car pulls up next to the Lamborghini and the driver motions for an autograph. Agassi laughs and shrugs. The light turns green. Impulsively, Andre rips a page out of my notebook and signs his name.

“See if you can catch up with that guy,” he says.

If all this has been an act, it ‘s a real good one. Very convincing. The impression is that if Agassi can eliminate the more childish stuff- the spitting, the tanking, the taunting- what would be left would be an exceptional athlete with personality, charisma and style, and Tennis magazine would have to find itself a new Twit of the Year.

Agassi drops me off at the airport. As he roars away, six of seven people stop and stare, just like people always did in the last scene of “The Lone Ranger” TV show, when they would stand at the outskirts of town and watch the Lone Ranger gallop into the sunset on his white horse, and wonder what he was really like.

Arthur Ashe, Wimbledon 1975

From Love Thirty, three decades of champions by Rex Bellamy

The achievements of Arthur Robert Ashe – known as ‘Bones’ when he was a skinny boy and as ‘The Shadow’ when he became a skinny celebrity – are remarkable not least because of the social and racial context in which he achieved them. His blood lines were mixed but essentially he was a black who came close to dominating a white world. In that complicated and controversial area Ashe was a pioneer of enduring influence: as he was in the organization of professionals as a corporate force, as a central figure in the game’s administrative evolution, and as a driving force behind revisions of the rules of play. In addition to all that he found time for a diversity of business ventures and social and charitable work. Like a stone cast into a pond, Ashe made a splash that sent ripples – often, waves – in every direction. Consequently his historic status was more important than his playing record suggests, distinguished though that was.

Descended from West African slaves, Ashe was brought up in a legally segregated community (a parallel of sorts with the South African politics into which he later dipped his toes) and learned to live with the racial distinctions. His mothe was frail and died when he was six years old. So Ashe and his brother Johnny were mainly brought up by his father, who policed and othewise tended a ‘black’ public park in which Ashe played his first tennis. The local tennis clubs and tournalents were no-go areas for anyone of Ashe’s pigmentation. His development had two main causes, other than his ability and character. One was the proximity of a black physician and tennis coach, Dr Walter Johnson, from Lynchburg. Ashe first went there when he was 10. Johnson had much to do with the grooming of the first black American to achieve international renown in tennis: Althea Gibson, who won the Wimbledon, United States and French championships in the 1950s.
Now, he did the same for Ashe, though Johnson’s son Bobby undertook most of the actual coaching. Dr Johnson and Ashe’s father also taught the teenager to ride the punches of racial prejudice and injustice and acquire the disciplined composure, the outward serenity, the dignity, with which he conducted himself. It must have helped, too, that the Ashe brothers joined their father on fishing and deer-hunting expeditions that taught them to wait patiently, with brains in gear, and endure frustration. The other main cause for Ashe’s advance was his liking and aptitude for study. He went to high school at St Louis and moved on to the University of California in Los Angeles, where he was plunged into the seaching fires of collegiate coaching and competition.

In those days tennis had yet to gain acceptance as a full-time competitive sport and the more talented Americans tended to complete their college commitments before joining the world tour and finding out just how good they were. Ashe was 22 years old, and already an established Davis Cup player with some heartening results behind him, when he went to Australia for the 1965-66 season and consolidated a growing reputation: first in the state tournaments and then in the Australian championships. He was runner-up to Roy Emerson that year and the next, but the wreckage his awesome serving left in its wake included Tony Roche, Fred Stolle and John Newcombe. Ashe had arrived. He was ready to play a starring role. It turned out to be both historic and bizarre.

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Vitas Gerulaitis

Excerpt of Jimmy Connors‘ autobiography The Outsider:

A friend remembered

Vitas Gerulaitis was 17 and I was 19 when we first met, after he met the Riordan circuit.
We hung out a lot together through the 70s and 80s. When I won the US Open in 1978, I went out for a celebration dinner at Maxwell’s Plum in Manhattan. Vitas drove up and parked right in front of the restaurant, and let me tell you, he was hard to miss: Vitas was the only guy around tennis – or around most places – who drove a yellow Rolls Royce. He got out of the car with two cute young girls who couldn’t have been a day over 18, waltzed in, and sat down to congratulate me. He was the only one who did that. He was all class.

What the public saw was the real Vitas: the dazzling smile, the free-spirited guitar-playing rocker, the over-the-top playboy lifestyle. Yet he was also one of the most decent guys I’ve ever known, and everyone liked him.
Although he had his own crowd that included Borg and Mac, Vitas and I were close, and it was a no-bullshit friendship. It was an open secret that Vitas had a big problem with cocaine, and it led to his retirement from the game at the end of 1985.
Without the discipline of tennis to hold him in check, Vitas’ habit intensified dramatically. It’s the reason I asked him in 1989 to travel with me to Europe for five months. I might not have been his closest buddy, but you don’t abandon people when the going gets tough. As much as I hated drugs, we were buddies throughout the good, the bad and the ugly of it all.

My friend Vitas was only 40 years old when he died. He was very close to his mom and his sister, he was a good son and brother and always looked after his family. Patti and I went to his funeral, at St Dominic, in Oyster Bay, Long Island, and joined 500 other people – including Mac, Borg, Billie Jean King, Tony Trabert, Jack Kramer, Bill Talbert, Fred Stolle, and Mary Carillo – to mourn our friend. Out if respect for Vitas, the governor closed the Long Island Expressway when they took his casket from the church to the cemetery.

Vitas brought a lot to tennis – not just his athletic style of play but also his rock-star sex appeal, which added a new dimension to the tour. He was a wild and flamboyant but also a great champion, winning the Australian Open in 1977 and reaching the finals of the French Open and the US Open. He was a Davis Cup participant and winner of 25 Grand Prix tournaments.
Is any of that recognized by the tennis establishment? No. Vitas had a Hall of Fame career, but apparently he didn’t have a Hall of Virtue career, but who does? It shouldn’t be the case but his outstanding record and major contribution to the sport have, sadly, been overshadowed by his issues off the court.
I miss him.”

Excerpt of Ilie Nastase‘s autobiography Mr Nastase:

“I remember being in a hurry to beat my first round opponent, the Venezuelan Velasco (6-0 6-2 6-0), because I had to rush off to meet Dominique at the airport that afternoon as she had flown in from Brussels.
My second round match against Roger Taylor was much tougher, and it all came down to 5th set tie-break. This was the third year that tie-breaks had been used, and at Forest Hills they played a sudden death, a nine-point version where the first player to get to five points won. This, together with the terrible grass courts where bad bounces were the nom, meant that the whole thing became a whole lottery. I won that tie-break 5-1, but it had been a narrow escape, especially since I had initially led the match by two sets to love, only to let Taylor draw back level to two sets all.

After that major scare, my path through to the final of the US Open was a lot easier. In successive rounds, I beat a lefthander from France, Patrice Dominguez, the South African doubles specialist Bob Hewitt, then Fred Stolle, who had earlier got rid of Newcombe in my half of the draw, and finally, Tom Gorman, against who I had a very good record.

In the final, I was due to meet Arthur Ashe, who had won the title back in 68 and who, as a player, possessed both power and finesse.
The all-white rule had been abandoned at Forest Hills that year, so I picked out a pale blue Fred Perry shirt and white shorts. I loved being able to do that. No more daily shirt washing. For the rest of my career, I would always play my singles matches in a new outfit and would use the older clothes for the doubles or the practice. Later on, when I signed with adidas, in 1975, I used to have enormous boxes of clothes in my house in France, one box for shirts, one for shorts, one for shoes, and so on. I think I was the first player to do that. […]

The grass courts favored my game, and their softness made my drop shots bounce very low, like in water, as Ashe said afterwards. I didn’t think that I was going to win, but I knew I could. I was thinking that getting to the final was not enough, but I knew that match was going to be difficult, because this was on grass and I was playing Ashe who was good on grass. If I had been playing him on clay, it would have been peanuts for me. I was quick and I remember getting some unbelievable balls back.

I recall one point in particular: at Forest Hills the Centre Court was actually three courts side by side. The one you played the final on was the middle one. This meant you could un wide on both sides. On this particular point, Arthur came to the net and played a cross-court volley onto my backhand but so far away that I had to run onto the next court to get it. I ran into the doubles lines on that court, hit the ball ound the net, and put it in the corner. I did that because I knew intuitively he was going to hit it there, so I started running in advance, ten metes onto the other court. That point stuck in my memory because it was so fantastic, and it gave me and the crowd such pleasure. […]

Ashe broke me at the start of the 5th set but, instead of crumbling, I immediately broke him back. I felt strong, mentally and physically, and carried on playing in the same risky way I always do, but at that stage everything was working. I broke him again to lead 4-2, then, keeping my nerve, finally took the set 6-3 and the US Open title with it. At the end I remember jumping around like a madman for something like five minutes, because I was so unbelievably happy to have won. I never thought I could win such a big tournament on grass because I still didn’t feel comfortable on the stuff, so to win against somebody as good as Arthur, and in such a tight match, that felt great. It also felt like justice was done, after Wimbledon. That’s what it was: vindication.”

Wimbledon champion Ann Jones

From Love Thirty, three decades of champions, by Rex Bellamy – published in 1990

Adrianne Shirley Jones, an exemplary strategist and tactician whose tennis always made sense, had no big shot and was too down-to-earth to present an overtly striking personality. Consequently, as Billie Jean King asserted, Jones was the most underrated woman player of the 1960s – except by those who had to play her or had the expertise to fully appreciate what she was doing. The record speaks for itself. Up to a point, anyway. The Wightman Cup figures obscure the fact that, of all the women who represented Britain most often in the annual contest with the United Stats, Jones had much the best win-loss record in singles and was matched only by Christine Truman in doubles. She went to the top of the heap in Britain at a time when domestic competition was uncommonly distinguished: because her career overlapped those of Mortimer and Truman, Shirley Blommer, and Virginia Wade, all of whom won Grand Slam singes championships.

Tennis was the second sport in which Jones achieved worldwide distinction. Her parents were international table tennis playes and it was in this game that Jones, like Fred Perry before her, first made headlines. She played for the senior England team at the age of 15 (no other girl has achieved so much so soon) and later contested five world championship finals: one in singles and four in doubles. In 1957 Jones was runner-up in all three events. Table tennis sharpened her reactions, taught her the value of spin, and made her a tough competitor who could instantly identify the points that most mattered. The negative side of it was her tendency to lose, however narrowly, the big finals. That planted a seed of self-doubt often evident in her tennis. True, she won the first Grand Slam singles final she reached, in Paris in 1961. But after that Jones repeatedly had cause to suspect that she would usually be found wanting during the last sprint to the tape.

She played her first tennis tournament in 1952, at the age of 13, basically as a summer relaxation, and in the following year competed for the first time in the british junior championships on the shale courts at Wimbledon. In those early years she was simply playing a form of table tennis adapted to a tennis court. But the outdoor game began to assume more importance when she won the British junior title two years running, in 1954 and 1955. On her way to that second title she was reduced to tears by an opponent who lobbed everything. Jones was so distracted that she wanted to quit but was talked into battling on. The irony is that, years later, the soporific precision of her lightweight tennis was to have a similarly maddening effect on a legion of opponents who played well, worked themselves into the ground, and emerged with headaches and maybe one or two games.

In 1956 Jones competed in the Wimbledon championships for the first time. She was still dividing her year between table tennis in winter and tennis in summer, but the outdoor game was no longer merely a recreation. She was beginning to grow away from table tennis, partly because international tennis provided a far more comfortable life style. And in 1958, unseeded, she beat Maria Bueno to reach the Wimbledon semi-finals for the first time. Demonstrably, she was good enough to close the book on a gratifying table tennis career and travel the world more or less full-time as a tennis player, in the last decade of ‘shamateurism’.

In 1961 there was evidence of her maturing versatility when she won the French singles championship on slow clay and advanced to the United States final on the rather bizarre grass courts of Forest Hills. Then came the ‘mixed’ summerof 1962 in which she reached her first Wimbledon final, in the company of Dennis Ralston and promptly married an old friend, Pip Jones. This gave her off-court life stability and a new set of priorities: and as a player she was benefiting from the friendship and advice of the great Maureen Connolly. But the ultimate break-through was still some way ahead and from 1964 onwards Jones had to deal with nagging problems that arose from a slipped disc and affected her neck and the shoulder of her racket arm. It may or may not be relevant that although table tennis had in many ways been an admirable preparation for her tennis career, Jones had almost reached physical maturity by the time her body and her technique had to cope with the persistent stress of services, overheads and volleys.

Towards the end of 1966 Jones briefly considered retirement but Pip encouraged her to carry on: a specially designed programme of exercises did much to sort out the neck and shoulder trouble. At the age of 29 she acquired fresh momentum from the advent of open competition. Jones was not to know it at the time but this provided a basis for the finest tennis of her career. In April of 1968, the first month of the Open era, Jones (guaranted at least $25,000 a year for two years) was among four women to sign contracts with George MacCall‘s professional group. The others were Billie Jean King, Rosie Casals and Françoise Durr.

Durr was witty, charming, and smart – and delightfully Gallic. She gripped the racket with her forefinger pointed down the shaft, but her wildly unorthodox game was a joke that had to be taken seriously. When serving she waved her back leg in the air as if she did not know what to do with it. Her sliced backhand often took her down on one knee, with her bum almost touching the court. Virginia Wade suggested:

Playing with her is like being on a Saturday morning children’s show. I love to watch her hitting crazy winners with her mongrel set of strokes

But Wade rated Durr as an outstanding doubles player; and the record confirms that opinion.

Durr’s angled volleys were a prime feature of her game. Technically, her tennis was a smack in the eye for the purists. But the important thing was where she put the ball, not the way she did it. Her wits were sharp, her ball control sound. And she spiced the already piquant dish with sun-glasses, hair-ribbons, bightly busy dresses, shrieks and self-admonitory comments, and a habit of banging herself on the head with her racket. In short, Durr was a bundle of fun – and a far better played than she looked.

King and Casals were close friends. Durr enlivened the off-court hours of the Jones. But the four new professionals got on well together and also with the six men in the MacCall group, Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, Richard Gonzales, Roy Emerson, Fred Stolle and Andres Gimeno. For Jones the match-player, the benefits of living and working in such distinguished company were exciting: not least the chance to practise with the men and learn from them. Most of all, she learned to play a more attacking game. That could never be the bedrock of her tennis but at least she could now use the serve-and-volley stuff more often and with more confidence. In any case she had reached a phase of her career in which the baseline style was no long, in itself, sufficiently gratifying. She was readier to take a few risks and go for winners.

It all came together at Wimbledon in 1969 when Jones became the first left-hander to win the women’s championship. In her last two matches she came back from a set down to beat Margaret Court and King in turn. The 10-12 6-3 6-2 win over Court demanded the finest tennis of her career and an outstanding feature was the persistence and confidence in which Jones attacked. That was her 14th consecutive Wimbledon. She had been runner-up in 1967 and had made six other advances to the semi-finals. Now she wom not merely one title, but two, sharing the mixed championship with Stolle. It was enough. Jones was a BBC commentator when she returned to Wimbledon in 1970. She has since combined that role with coaching the young, captaining British teams, refereeing, helping to run the women’s international circuit, and (most important of all) bringing up three children.

Jones had immense powers of concentration. She was shrewd and sound and stubbornly patient. She knew exactly what she could and could not do and, just as important, was remarkably cute in appraising her opponents and making the appropriate stategic and tactical adjustments in her own game. Jones never missed a trick. While respecting the odds and eschewing risk, she could usually come up with something special in critical rallies. Lacking raw power, she became adept at flawlessly controlled tactical manoeuvres incorporating a wealth of variations. Spin, a useful legacy from table tennis, was always a feature.
The forehand, looped o hit with sidespin, was her best shot. She was particularly effective in driving her opponents back with a looped forehand or a top-spun lob, thus opening up the court for the gently terminal nudge of a drop-shot. Her chipped backhand was secure but seldom a threat, though occasionally she indulged her sense of fun by taking the ball early and putting top-spin on a full-blooded drive. Mostly, her approach shots (like her services) were not penetrating enough to justify more than sporadic demonstrations of her sure touch on the volley.
Jones was, and remains, a witty and wise raconteuse with a refreshingly direct manner.

Right after his semifinal win against Tsonga at the 2010 Australian Open, Federer had joked that Britain had been searching for a male Grand Slam champion for about 150,000 years. In fact it’s “only” 75 years: Fred Perry was the last to win a Slam in 1936 (he won Wimbledon and US Open that year).

Fred Perry statue at Wimbledon:

Fred Perry statue

The last British woman to win a Slam is Virginia Wade: Wimbledon in 1977. Not only was 1977 the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Wimbledon Championships, but it was also the 25th year of the reign (the Silver Jubilee) of Queen Elizabeth II.

Virginia Wade was born July 10, 1945 in Bournemouth, England, where her father was vicar of Holy Trinity Church. The family moved to South Africa in 1946, before Virginia was 1. After finding a racquet while cleaning out a closet at age 9, she played tennis “every single minute I wasn’t obliged to do something else.”
When Virginia was 15 the family moved back to England. By age 16 Virginia was considered the most promising junior player in England, and she qualified to play in the Championships at Wimbledon. She continued to play at Wimbledon every year through 1987–26 years in all.
Virginia won 55 pro singles titles, including 3 Grand Slam tourneys (1968 US Open, 1972 Australian Open, 1977 Wimbledon).
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