Tony Trabert

Tony Trabert – 70 Years Later…

As sports fans we’re all getting used to the different time lines that are happening in 2020. The NBA, NHL, college and pro football have all had jumbled schedules. In golf they played the U.S. Open in September and the Masters is in November.

In tennis they cancelled Wimbledon but the French Open will conclude today, five months after it’s normal spot on the sports calendar.

I called my friend Tony Trabert to talk about what was going on at Roland Garros in Paris this week and he casually mentioned, “I won that seventy years ago.”

Whoa. “Seventy years ago,” I said to myself. “That’s a big number.”

Trabert turned 90 in August and his Hall of Fame career has been well documented: Instrumental in America’s Davis Cup success and eventually the Davis Cup Captain, Trabert won ten Grand Slam titles, back-to-back French Championships and three of the four Majors in 1955. He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

But an offer and a little help from a fellow Cincinnatian in 1950 really got things started.

Already an accomplished junior player, Trabert won the Ohio state high school singles championships three straight years, He was at the University of Cincinnati when his idol, Bill Talbert called to offer him a chance to play as his doubles partner in Europe that spring and summer.

“Talbert had taken me under his wing when I was twelve,” Trabert recalled. “He saw me swinging at volleys and came out on the court to help.”

Trabert asked both the president of the University of Cincinnati and his parents about going. The school President said, “You’ll learn more in three months there than you would in three months going over books at school.”

Talbert told the national tennis governing body, then the United State Lawn Tennis Association, he was taking the fledgling star, Trabert, to Europe as his doubles partner and asked for some financial assistance.

“They said no,” Trabert recalled with a laugh. “They didn’t think I was going to be any good.”

Talbert was determined. As one of the top players in the world, he had never played in Europe and told Tony he’d figure it out. So Trabert, Talbert and his wife Nancy traveled through Europe in the spring and summer of 1950 playing in all of the big tournaments as doubles partners.

And winning everything.

They flew to Nice and played at Monte Carlo, winning in five sets in the final.

“We played Jaroslav Drobny, a lefthander from Czechoslovakia, and his partner in the final,” Trabert remembered in vivid detail.” He’d kick his serve to my forehand, and I’d never seen that before. I finally figured that out and we won in the fifth set.”

They played in Monte Carlo and won in April. They went on the road and won in Nice, in Rome at the Italian Championships,(where Talbert lost to Drobny in the singles finals) the Paris City Championships, the French, and at Queens Club in London on grass.

The only tournament they didn’t play as doubles partners was at Wimbledon.

Talbert felt that he owed it to his regular doubles partner, Gardnar Mulloy, to play at Wimbledon. Talbert had won the U.S. Championships (now the US Open) with Mulloy four times before 1950. At Wimbledon that year, Talbert and Mulloy lost in the third round. Meanwhile, Trabert and his partner, Budge Patty, the eventual singles champion, made it to the semifinals losing to the eventual champions.

After Wimbledon, they came back to the States and Trabert returned to the University of Cincinnati.

“That was a big jump start,” Trabert said. “By far the most important thing, tennis wise, to happen to me. I saw more silverware in front of me at dinner one night in Europe than we had in our whole house. I learned so much, and not just about tennis. Writing thank you notes, how to dress, all of that.”

“Each tournament gave you something for your travel and per diem,” he added. “When I finally made a little money I told Bill I wanted to repay him. He said just do something nice for another tennis player. Which was typical of Talbert.

Back to the University of Cincinnati in the fall of 1950, Trabert won the NCAA singles championship in ‘51 and played guard on the Bearcat basketball team that played in the NIT at Madison Square Garden that year. The NIT was much bigger than the NCAA’s at the time.

Trabert also beat Talbert for the first time in singles in ‘51 at the Cincinnati International Championships, now known as the Cincinnati Masters.

“I had played him four or five times before that,” Trabert said. “He was better than I was, he was ten years older than me. But he was my idol and it was hard for me to want to beat him. I have a picture of us shaking hands after the first time I beat him and he has the most beautiful smile on his face.”

Drafted by the Navy in 1951 during the Korean War, Trabert reported to Bainbridge, Maryland for boot camp that fall.

“They joked I’d be playing tennis with Admirals soon. I got orders to Norfolk next and found myself hanging off the deck of the aircraft carrier Coral Sea, chipping paint off the sides of the ship.”

Looking around for something different as a Seaman Apprentice, Trabert was offered a job as a quartermaster aboard the ship.

“I figured anything was better than what I was doing,” he explained. “I was on the bridge a lot as the ‘Captains Talker’ on air defense.” He was on the carrier for sixteen months, including a six month cruise in the Mediterranean.

The Coral Sea was deployed to “the Med” in the spring of ’52 so there was a chance Trabert could get some leave and possibly play at the French and Wimbledon once again.

“I got liberty and went to play in the French championships. I won a couple of matches but lost to Felicisimo Ampon from the Philippines in the fourth round. He got everything back.”

Another trip to play at Wimbledon the next month on liberty seemed to be in the plans but it wasn’t to be.

“The Navy department sent a message to the captain that it was OK for me to go play at Wimbledon but the captain turned me down,” he explained. “I was on the bridge and the captain said, ‘I guess you’re mad at me.’ He had already made Admiral. ‘I said, ‘No sir,’. Who was I as just a Seaman to be mad at an Admiral? ‘Nothing to do with you,’ he told me. ‘I just wanted to let them know who was in charge of this ship.’”

The next year Trabert was out of the Navy and playing at Wimbledon. The Admiral contacted him to see if he could get him tickets to the tournament.

“I wish I could but I didn’t have any juice. I couldn’t help him.”

Trabert played singles in three of the four Grand Slam tournaments that year, only missing the Australian Championships. During his stint in the Navy he missed nine of the twelve major tournaments he was eligible for, but finished 1953 with a victory at the US Championships (now the US Open) at Forest Hills. In the next two years he won four of the eight majors, was a semi-finalist in two and a quarterfinalist in another.

His 1955 season is considered one of the best ever in tennis history. After a famous, tight ,Davis Cup victory over the Australians in December of 1954, Trabert stayed to play in the Australian Open three weeks later. A loss to eventual champion Ken Rosewall in the semi-finals was one of the few losses he’d have that year.

“We went to Australia to get acclimated in November,” he recalled. “It was fifty hours of flying to get there. Five, ten hour legs. We stopped off in Hawaii for six hours or so to get gas. Vic (Seixas) and I went and played in an exhibition at the Royal Hawaiian hotel, in Honolulu, jumped in the ocean and got back on the plane.”

Trabert went on to win Wimbledon, the French and the US Championships in ’55 among his eighteen tournament victories.

He helped Rene Lacoste develop what became the ‘T2000’ racket and promote the now famous Lacoste “alligator” logo shirts. In Paris for three years to develop professional tennis in Europe, Asia and Africa, Trabert signed Rod Laver to his first professional contract in 1963. He served as president of the International Tennis Hall of Fame and had more than a three decades long career as a television commentator for CBS here in the US and Channel 9 in Australia.

While equipment has changed the game in the last seventy years, Trabert says the top players of any era could compete against each other. The difference is the depth of the draw.

“Now guys have to be ready to play in the first round,” he said. “When I was playing if you didn’t go to sleep it was hard to lose before the quarterfinals. Now you have to be ready on the first Monday. Players are taller and bigger, better servers. Players come from all over these days. It’s about as international a sport as you can get. It’s great for the game.”

Social Media a Fact of Life in Pro Sports

Walk into the Jaguars locker room during the “media availability” time on any given day and there will be a smattering of players arrayed in front of their lockers in various positions of repose with one thing in common: They’re all on their phones. Not talking on their phones, not texting, but looking at their phones, perusing social media.

“Media availability” happens four times a week for about an hour in the middle of the day, between meetings and around lunch. So it might be the only time the players have to check their phones.

While social media has given fans perceived access to their sports heroes, it’s also given players some ownership over a part of their public image and branding.

“My social media is about who I am not about what I have,” said Defensive Lineman Malik Jackson. “I’m fashion forward, so I post some fashion, some things about the team and some stuff about my family. That’s about it. Instagram is visual and written, that’s why I’m on it.”
We used to joke in the sports department about what goes happens on social media. “I woke up this morning thinking maybe Twitter would be nice today,” my colleague Matt used to say. “But then I got on it and.. . . Nope!”
Since becoming the NBA commissioner in 2014, Adam Silver has encouraged the use of social media league wide. So much so that it’s become an indelible part of the league’s culture.

“Those guys in the NBA, they’ve got a lot of time on their hands,” Jaguars Defensive Lineman Abry Jones said regarding what seems like the constant stream of tweets and post coming from NBA players. “Two hours here, two more there. We don’t have that.”

In 2018, the NBA has already been tweeted about more than any other sports league. The league’s official Twitter account has 27 million followers, 3 million more than the NFL’s. On Instagram, the NBA has 31 million followers, more than the NFL, MLB and the NHL combined. In the NBA, there are 33 players with at least 2 million followers on Instagram. In the NFL, there are nine.

But NFL teams are using social media platforms to expand their reach. The Green Bay Packers have more Twitter followers than the entire population of the Green Bay metropolitan area.

Jalen Ramsey is the most active and followed player on the Jaguars roster. Ramsey has nearly a million social media followers, three-quarters of those on Instagram. He’s created some controversy and has experienced plenty of blowback on social media. So much so that he recently tweeted, “I’m gone from here, y’all gone miss me. I ain’t even trippin lol.”

When asked who that was directed at, Ramsey said, ““Whomever. You have something to say, you have some negativity, I guess the fake fans, the fake … Whoever. Whoever.”

While the Lakers’ LeBron James has 44.5 million followers on Instagram, more than the top 12 NFL players on that platform combined, Sixers Guard J.J. Reddick has none. He deleted all of his accounts recently. He believes he was an addict and it was taking away from his real life.

“It’s a dark place,” he told Bleacher Report. “It’s not a healthy place. It’s not real. It’s not a healthy place for ego. It’s just this cycle of anger and validation and tribalism. It’s scary, man.”

“I encourage players to use social to interact with fans and the community,” said Tad Dickman, the Jaguars Director of Public Relations. “If they’re looking for a restaurant, I’d rather them ask fans on Twitter than just go to Yelp looking for a place to eat.”

At the beginning of the season, Dickman, a 29-year old a social media participant himself, conducts a seminar on social media use, gives the players a handbook outlining the do’s and don’ts and how players can use it to their benefit. While the NFL has a broad social media policy, most of the specifics are set team by team.

No game footage can be used and live streaming is prohibited according to NFL policy. For the Jaguars the rules are pretty basic: No pictures or videos that could harm the team. No pictures from the training room or the locker room.

“Just like missing a meeting or being late, violating the rules could involve discipline,” Dickman responded without elaborating when asked if the players could find themselves in trouble posting on social media.

Like any organization with young employees, the Jaguars warn their players about putting out too much information.

“I don’t want people all up in my business,” Jones said, explaining why he limits his social media use to Instagram and even there, not much. “I like to stay in touch with some friends.”

Most Jaguars players have limited their social media to the Instagram platform. And as Jackson alluded to, it seems that everybody on there owns everything and has a fabulous life going on.

“It’s all fake,” fullback Tommy Bohanon, an Instagram participant said with a laugh. “I like to keep up with some friends. I don’t post much, but I scan through it to see what’s going on.”

Bohanon said the negativity on his accounts isn’t an issue. “I don’t care what anybody outside this (locker) room says. They don’t know what’s going on anyway.”

“I’m just on Instagram, I got rid of the rest,” Offensive Lineman Josh Wells explained.

Any trolls?

“Me, no, not me. But I know guys on the team who really get it all over social (media).”

Which is why some players have self-imposed rules.

Famously, James halted his social media posts during the 2015 NBA Playoffs calling it, “Zero Dark Thirty-23” mode.
“No phones, no social media, I don’t have anything,” James said at the time. “There’s too much nonsense out there. Not during this time. This is when I lock in right now, and I don’t need nothing creeping into my mind that don’t need to be there.”
Golden State’s Steph Curry recently stopped his usual ritual of looking at social media at halftime.

“When everybody is watching your game every night, if you let one ounce of negativity or one terrible comment creep in, especially right before a game or at halftime or something, it’s probably not the best bet,” Curry told the Mercury News.
I asked Head Coach Doug Marrone if he’d ever been on social media, he laughed as he headed to practice.
“Never. No Twitter, no Instagram, no Facebook, nothing. When I’m gone from here nobody will know how to find me!”
Probably a generational thing, but for sure, social media is a fact of life sports teams will have to continue to deal with in the future.

Trabert’s Career Had A Little Of It All

This year’s Wimbledon champion will receive a winners check for about $3 million. When Tony Trabert won the trophy there in 1955 they gave him a 10-pound note.

“Redeemable at Lilly White’s department store in London,” Trabert recalled last week. “But only in the sports section and only on tennis things.”

Working the TPC for CBS Sports in 1982, Trabert met his future wife Vicki and has lived in Ponte Vedra ever since.

“We met on March 20th, 1982, easy to remember. It’s our zip code, 32082.”

I used to reference Tony Trabert in my television career all the time. “No Americans are left at the French Open,” I would say year after year. “Tony Trabert is the last American to win the French in 1955.” That went on until 1989 when Michael Chang ended the 34-year drought. Jim Courier and Andre Agassi are the only other Americans on the list of winners at Roland Garros in the last 63 years.

Of the four Grand Slam tournaments, Trabert won everything. Only the singles in Australia and the doubles at Wimbledon eluded him. He made eleven appearances in Grand Slam finals with ten wins.

Trabert’s post-playing career included 31-years with CBS Sports, more than two decades as an analyst with Channel 9 in Australia and an 12-year stint as the President of the International Tennis Hall of Fame, where he’s also a member. He was number one in the world and was on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

But it’s his Wimbledon victory in 1955 that stands as one of his fondest memories. “There’s such tradition involved, the whole thing wreaks with class. Everything is done beautifully. They’re great with the players, They do everything they possibly can.”

“If you ask any tennis player if you could win any of the grand slams, they’d say Wimbledon,” Trabert said last week. “I first played there in 1950, I was so nervous I could hardly breathe.”

“That was the year Bill Talbert took me to Europe. I was nineteen. We won every tournament we played in. Italian, French. Talbert said he owed it to Gardner Malloy, his regular doubles partner to play with him at Wimbledon. I partnered with Budge Patty. Budge won the singles and we lost in the semi’s in the doubles. One set was 31-29 in the quarterfinals. They wouldn’t let us replace the balls. We got to 20 all and I said to the umpire, “Any chance to replace the balls?” He said, ‘It’s against the rules.’ I asked if we could use the balls we used in the first set. He said no. So I said, “What if I hit these out of the stadium? They got the referee and we used the balls in the first set.

“We only played one match that day instead of two. That was a Thursday. They used to play the men’s singles Friday and the women’s on Saturday.”

“I thought our doubles match killed Patty but he won the singles over Frank Sedgeman in the finals. We played the doubles semi’s after that and he was cooked.

Just five years later, he was a Wimbledon champion. Of course, 1955 was a pretty magical year for Trabert. He won three legs of the Grand Slam, still only one of a handful of players who have done that. It started in late 1954 with a trip to Australia to play in the finals of the Davis Cup.

Getting there was a chore in itself at the time. Trabert and his playing partner Vic Sexias spent fifty hours of flying time just to get Down Under.

“Five, 10-hour legs with a six-hour stop over in Hawaii,” he recalled. “We knew the pro at the Royal Hawaiian, George Peebles so he set up an exhibition there during our stop. Vic and I played, jumped in the ocean, showered and ran back to the airport for the next leg. I think we got $500 each. Of course that was against the rules.”

“The Davis Cup was as big as any of the majors,” Trabert said “They sold 25,500 tickets and told us later they could have sold 50,000.” It was the largest crowd to ever see a tennis match at the time. “Taxi drivers wouldn’t charge us, they just said, Give me a autograph for my daughter. And I hope our guys beat you blokes.”

“The traffic was so bad our captain Bill Talbert got out of the car and told the policeman at the corner we needed to get to the venue. He jumped on his motorcycle and escorted us down the wrong side of the street to get there.”

Winning the Davis Cup was a VERY big deal, but the Australian Championships were just three weeks away in Adelaide. Trabert had been Down Under for several months and said Ken Rosewall just plain beat him in the semi-finals on his way to the title.

The rest of the year belonged to Trabert.

He was the defending champion at the French where he beat Sven Davidson in four sets to claim the title in back to back years. “He beat me 6-2 in the first set so on the changeover I figured I better start doing something different,” he explained.

From there, Wimbledon was just two weeks away.

Sometimes you wonder if the great players remember how they played in the big moments or if it was just a reaction. Trabert, who will be 88 next month, remembers it all in vivid detail.

“My first match on Centre Court was against Tony Mottram, Britain’s #1 player in 1950,” he remembered. “I lost in straight sets. The net looked higher than a backstop. When I got home to Cincinnati my dad asked me ‘What’d you do after match point?’ I said I shook his hand. Then he showed me the paper (The Cincinnati Enquirer) with a picture of me sprawled out on the grass. I didn’t remember that!”

He does remember every moment of match point against Kurt Neilson on the grass at Centre Court Wimbledon, 63 years ago.

“I served and it went in, like we always did then on grass, volleyed to his forehand. He threw up a high defensive lob, I was hoping it would go out but it landed right on the baseline so I hit a forehand to his forehand that he chipped to my backhand. He came charging in and I hit an offensive backhanded lob over his head. He jumped and realized he couldn’t get to it and he walked to the net to shake hands.”

Doing a little research, I went to the Internet to see if there was any video of that. Sure enough, YouTube had match point and it was EXACTLY as he described 63 years later.

Kurt Neilson got to the final in 1953 and lost to Sexias. In ’55 he beat Rosewall to get to the finals.

Trabert explained his midset after winning the semi-finals at Wimbledon in ’55 and expecting to play Rosewall in the finals. The upset changed his preparation.

“I thought ‘I can’t come out cocky,'” he said. “I thought I was the better player. I was mentally preparing for Rosewall. But Neilson beat him and I had to get emotionally ready to play him. I won without losing a set.

“Neilson said later he thought that year he lost to a better player.”

In Singapore more than 40 years later, Tony and Vicki were buying a rug during a round the world trip. When the stepped out of the store the sidewalk “Was packed and was wide like 5th Avenue,” Tony said. “We’re deciding which way to go and Vicki says, ‘Here’s comes a guy you know from tennis!” I look up and here comes Kurt Neilson. One minute earlier or later and we miss them.”

On his way to the All-England title in ’55, Trabert didn’t drop a set. The same happened at Forest Hills for the U.S. Championships later that year.

“When I was at my best years, the draws were so weak, if I just paid attention I’d make it to the quarterfinals. Now you better be ready on Monday, there’s so much depth.”

“A player like Lew Hoad had more ability than I did,” Trabert explained. “But if he had ups and downs, I could get by him. I played at a high level then and maintained that for two weeks.”

He beat Rosewall in the finals for his third Grand Slam of the year.

It didn’t take long for Trabert, also a starter on the University of Cincinnati basketball team, to adjust to playing on the international stage. He played throughout Europe in 1950 with Talbert, a fellow Cincinnatian, as his doubles partner. Trabert was 19-years old. They won every tournament they played, the Italian and the French Opens included.

A following two-year stint in the Navy limited his playing time but didn’t stop him completely from competition. Assigned to the bridge for “Air Defense” on board the aircraft carrier USS Coral Sea in the Mediterranean, Trabert got liberty to go play in the French in 1952. “I lost in straight sets to Felicisimo Ampon from the Philippines. He got everything back. I hadn’t played enough.” Trabert was back in the US in ’53. He won the French in in 54 and 55.

He signed a professional contract with Jack Kramer in January of 1956, ending his eligibility to play in the Grand Slam tournaments. Before the open era of tennis in 1968, only “amateurs” were eligible for the big four.

Add to a successful playing and broadcasting career a five-year stint as Davis Cup captain that included two wins and an encounter with an apartheid protester on center court. He’s met six Presidents and had a famous life in LA where he counted Frank Sinatra, Charlton Heston and John Wayne as his friends. Still, Wimbledon still remains a highlight.

“It’s the world’s stage; it’s a thrill and a half. Such tradition with the ivy on the walls, and everything’s done so precisely. In those days they picked us up in Bentley’s and drove us on the property. They don’t do that anymore,” he said with a laugh.

So does he remember what happened at the end of the match in ’55?

“I went right by the umpire’s stand and accepted the trophy from the Duchess of Kent,” he recalled. Then we walked off.”

Once he turned pro, Trabert played in a barnstorming tour with Pancho Gonzalez, facing each other 101 times. Gonzalez won 74 with Trabert saying Gonzalez’s serve was the big difference.

“We traveled with a canvas court and put it down with block and tackle. We started at Madison Square Garden but we played on ice rinks, high school gyms, you name it. We drove from town to town in two station wagons.”

“In1960 Jack asked me to go to Paris. and promote pro tennis in Europe, Africa and Asia,” Trabert said of his move overseas. “Philippe Chatrerie turned out to be my best friend. He helped set me up in an apartment right next to the Arch. We were there for three years.”

I told Tony I was headed to Paris a couple of summers ago. I’d be stopping over in the “City of Lights” for just a couple of days.

“There’s a restaurant I want you to try,” he said as he walked to the other room to grab some papers. He came back with a calling card and a map to “Le Relaise de Venise.”

“Go to the Arc (de Triomphe) and walk down the Grand Armee on the other side. It’s on a side street. There will be a line, you can’t miss it.”

As usual, Tony was exactly right, so my wife Linda and I found ourselves waiting in line outside the restaurant the first night we were there with people from all over the world. Since there are no choices on the menu, the line goes pretty quickly no matter how long it is. A well-dressed, French matron of the house who clearly had been in charge there a long time seated us.

Taking a chance, I told our waitress that Tony had sent me there and perhaps the hostess knew him during his time in Paris.

Excitedly, our waitress brought the hostess to our table and said, yes, Madame knows Monsieur Trabert. “His was a beautiful victory,” our waitress translated as Madame talked at tableside. “We must have a photo when you’re finished,” she said as she went back to work.

And sure enough, when Linda and I finished, she came outside and we took some pictures together. In a few she was blowing kisses to Tony in dramatic fashion.

Trabert is the one who signed Rod Laver to a pro contract in 1963. He had just won all four Grand Slam tournaments in ’62.

“It was a coup to have Laver after he won the Grand Slam in 1962,” Tony remembers. “But then he couldn’t play in any of the majors for five years. That’s 20 grand slams. He won 11 Grand Slam tournaments and they stopped him in his prime. He missed twenty of those. Who knows where he’d have put the record.”

There’s a lot of talk about trainers and fitness and coaches and different techniques in tennis these days. Trabert admits the game is different, but not so different that he couldn’t have competed at the top level.

“The top 5 players in any era could have competed in any other era,” he said. “Those top players are good enough to adjust. We worked on fitness, sleep, what we ate. All the majors were best of five, with no tiebreaks. And we played singles and doubles. It wasn’t that demanding to win singles and doubles because of the depth of the fields.”

“The difference today?” he added. “Depth, way more good players playing the game today. The equipment, like golf, has changed how they play the game. And the money has changed dramatically.”

“I don’t particularly like how the game is played now. Just stand at the base line and crush it. We had to set a point up.”

Best player ever? Trabert believes the discussion comes down to two guys.

“Hard to say (Rod) Laver’s not the best ever since nobody’s ever done what he did. (Win the Grand Slam). But it’s also hard to say Federer isn’t the best player ever based on what he’s done against very deep fields for a long time.”

Federer and Rafael Nadal remain at the top of the game and Trabert thinks the world of both of them as players and as people.

They’re fantastic for the sport. Great human beings. They represent their countries; their sport and themselves as well as you can do it. They have so many difficult people to beat in any tournament.”

As the Davis Cup Captain, Trabert got to see a generation of tennis players who didn’t match up with his ideas of grace and sportsmanship.

At the time John McEnroe was the “Bad Boy” of tennis but was also the best player in the world. He loved playing Davis Cup, representing his country and teamed with Peter Fleming to form the #1 doubles team in the world.

Everybody says when you play for your country, it’s different. As the team captain, Trabert imparted that to his players in a small speech. Fleming said, “It’s tennis.”

“So we were playing in Mexico and we’re staying right across the street from the venue. The referee sticks his head in our cubicle and says, ‘You ready?’ And Peter says to me ‘I forgot my rackets.’ I said, ‘Welcome to Davis Cup.’ Vitas (Gerualitis) ran across a six-lane highway. I told him ‘Bring every racket you find.'”

“John acted badly enough,” Trabert recalled of his time with McEnroe. “But John was very coachable, He came for the team meetings, always on time. But I couldn’t control him on the court.”

“Part way through the doubles match vs. Mexico. We had won the first two sets 6-4, 6-4,” he explained. ‘Middle of the third set they broke Fleming and McEnroe blew a service game. So I said on the crossover ‘You gonna be pros or you going to mess around. Fleming said, ‘I’m not going to play for a captain like that.’ So I told them I’d default right there. John did enough things on the court that the spectators knew what was happening. We won the doubles and they were raining down seat cushions. We went to the locker room and the officials said you should sit in here for a while, there are some angry people out there. Congoleum, the flooring company was our big sponsor. We flew on their plane. Their president rolled up his American flag and stuck it in his pocket and said to me, ‘I don’t’ sponsor things I’m not proud of.’ And he didn’t.”

“It’s an international sporting event,” Trabert said of the Davis Cup. “You do the right things, you go to the embassy, you represent the country. John asked me later if he was the cause of the problem and I told him, ‘Yes.'”

McEnroe eventually apologized to his captain years later. Trabert’s tenure as the captain lasted for 5 years from 1976-80. The US won it twice in that span.

He’s also the only Davis Cup captain to ever carry his own racket on the court. In 1977 the US was facing South Africa in Newport Beach, California. There were plenty of apartheid protest going on and law enforcement warned Trabert and the team that it was going to spill over onto the match (in Davis Cup they actually call it a ‘tie’).

“They told us to let them do whatever they were going to do but to defend ourselves if necessary,” he recalled. “I took my racket out on the court just in case and sat it next to my chair. We had a policeman on our floor. They checked everybody’s bags.”

As expected, several protesters disrupted the match.

“A guy had oil in a milk carton and threw it on the court. He bounced right up in front of me. He had something in his hand, and was coming right at me. I popped him three times in the ribs before the cops grabbed him.”

I was watching the French Open finals in 1984 when John McEnroe won the first two sets against Ivan Lendl. It looked like he was on his way to victory and end the American’s drought when he missed an overhead and Trabert said in his role as a TV analyst, “I don’t like what I saw there.” Sure enough, McEnroe faltered and Lendl prevailed in five sets.

I asked Tony last week “Are you the oldest living Wimbledon winner?” “Oh no, I’m like 4th or 5th,” Trabert said quickly. “There’s Vic (Seixas), (Bob) Falkenberg, Dick Savitt, and (Frank) Sedgman.” Sharp as ever. And right.

No story about Trabert fails to mention what a gentleman he is. And that’s very true. He’s a sportsman, true to the definition of the word.

“If a guy beats you, shake his hand and wish him luck,” he’s told me time and again. “And don’t get in a smelling contest with a skunk,” is one of his favorite pieces of advice I’ve heeded.”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Federer & Nadal: Tennis’ Past & Future?

Maybe it’s become a niche sport. Outside of the Grand Slam tournaments does anybody pay attention to tennis anymore?

It seems not.

John McEnroe even thanked Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal for what they did for tennis playing their epic, 5-set Wimbledon final on Sunday.

But did it matter?

I certainly hope so.

Despite the numerous disparaging remarks regarding the game of tennis itself, the match was an athletic achievement that is nearly unmatched. Just two weeks ago, fans were lauding Tiger Woods’ effort in the US Open playoff and ratcheted that up another notch when news of his knee problems broke. That was a stunning individual achievement up against adversity and pain. Yes, there was an opponent, but the real opponent for Tiger was the golf course, not Rocco.

In the Wimbledon final, both players had to play offense and defense. They had to endure delays, highs and lows to their own play and they had to weather streaky play by their opponent.

“Maybe the best match I’ve ever seen,” former Wimbledon champ Tony Trabert told me on the phone Sunday night.

“They hit shots that were just unbelievable. Match point against him and Federer just fires one down the line, six inches inside the sideline and six inches inside the baseline. Incredible! Great confidence and execution.”

Trabert won three legs of the Grand Slam and served as the top tennis analyst for CBS and in Australia for more than 30 years. He’s seen a lot of tennis. So to say it’s one of the best ever, that’s something.

When the game went to the “Open Era” in 1968, it changed the competitions, allowing everybody to play. Before that, only “amateurs” were allowed in the big tournaments. McEnroe alluded to that when he talked about his conversation with Bjorn Borg earlier in the day Sunday.

“There’s much more emphasis on the Grand Slam tournament now,” the former Wimbledon champ said. “How many would Rod Laver have won if he had been able to play in all of them? Now it’s open and everybody’s interested.”

The game changed again when steel and wooden rackets were put away in favor of carbon and other materials. The ball was faster and the game became very power-oriented. So much so that finesse was taken out of tennis and replaced with a bunch of bangers. There were some exceptions, Pete Sampras being one, but mostly everybody moved to the baseline and just fired away. That’s because the technology was better than the players.

I think tennis players are underrated when it comes to their athletic ability and specifically their fitness but as athletes they lagged behind the technology that their equipment exhibited. It allowed average, one-dimensional players to be competitive.

In the wooden racket era, top athletes dominated. Trabert, Pancho Gonzalez, Arthur Ashe all used their athletic ability to create and win.

And that’s where tennis is back to.

Federer and Nadal were able to play such a thrilling, close match because for the first time their athletic ability has caught up to the technology. Maybe Nadal even more than Federer, but both certainly qualify. They’re both great tennis players but perhaps they’re even better athletes.

Ivan Lendl probably qualifies as one great athlete who was playing tennis in the last twenty years. Maybe Mal Washington, Patrick Rafter and certainly Boris Becker.

McEnroe would probably admit that he was a tennis player first and an athlete second, at least until later in his career.

But this is a new level for tennis.

Much like in golf where great athletes will choose the sport because of the money making potential as professionals, same thing with tennis.

Federer, and now Nadal are just the beginning.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Proud Americans

It’s a shame Venus was injured and couldn’t perform at the top of her game in the finals at Wimbledon, but in truth, the women’s finals wasn’t about who won and who lost. The Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, are far and away the best female players in the world. Yes Kim Clistjers and Justine Hennen-Hardenne occasionally give them a game, but it’s still not close.

Venus is taller, older and has tremendous speed, while Serena has worked herself into a fitness level perhaps not seen before in women’s tennis. Maybe Martina Navratilova approached it, but never got to the level Serena is at.

Serena won in three sets, taking her second Wimbledon crown and her fifth Grand Slam title in the last six events. But besides the tennis, the fact that two American women are dominating an international sport is impressive in itself.

American men are almost extinct on the international tennis scene. Agassi is aging and Sampras is retiring. Andy Roddick is 20 years old, and might be a force, but not yet. In a time when the question is “Why does everybody hate the Americans?” the Williams sisters are gaining, not retreating in popularity. The ten minutes after their match showed exactly why. Serena was the victor, and graciously acknowledged the crowd’s applause. Then she went and sat by her sister, and chatted her up about the match, and her injury. Like you’re supposed to act after a win! The on court interview conducted by both sisters wasn’t full of me this and me that. It was genial, cordial, thoughtful, and even a little funny.

Both sisters suffered early in their career from the boorish behavior of their father. His training of the two girls to be champions is undeniable. His actions once they reached the top were despicable. Without their father there and their mother present at Centre Court, neither of the sisters was embarrassed by a parent or their siblings, and neither were we. Maybe it’s just the holiday, but I was proud to say, “they’re Americans” after watching that.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Wimbledon

I was at Wimbledon on Friday, seats at Centre Court and the whole bit. Wimbledon is very different than just about any sporting event there is. A cross between the Super Bowl and the Masters. The Super Bowl atmosphere, with people everywhere and a lot of excitement, the Masters feel because of the reverance afforded the event by the spectators and the competitors.

Getting there is pretty easy, just a subway (tube)ride from the center of London and a 15 minute walk to the All-England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. It’s huge! There are two main stadiums, one holding center court, the other houses court one, and there are plans for another to house court 2. What a difference between the center court and court one and everywhere else they play. The two show courts house thousands of spectators, while courts two and three can hold a couple of hundred, max. The rest are like any courts you’d see at a country club. Just lined up side by side with players on every one.

They’ve got plenty of atmosphere at Wimbledon. There’s a long line down the left hand side of the street as you approach the club, and I mean long. Like a mile long, with everybody camping out trying to get one of the daily tickets available. The All-England club reserves some tickets fo rthe general public every day, a really good idea. There’s another line on the right for people waiting to get in in the afternoon when tickets are returned. There are signs all over the club saying to turn your tickets back in when you leave. They collect them, then re-sell them to people standing in the second line after about 4pm. The money goes to charity, another good idea.

I saw three matches at center court, including Greg Rudseski beat Andy Roddick. The English are very vocal in the support of their own, and it was apparent, Rudzeski was feeding off that. Roddick is a good player, but not very patient. Perhaps because he’s just 19 years old. I can see where you can spend all! day there, but if you don’t want to, it’s on the BBC for most of the day.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Where’s McEnroe?

There are a lot of things wrong with tennis. In fact, it seems it has all of the bad things about sports rolled into one. Bratty competitors, overbearing parents, haughty administrators, boring events and too few really good players.

When was the last time you sat and watched a tennis match with more than just a passing interest? Pete Sampras is the best player in the game, and perhaps the best ever but brings nothing else to the court except his game. Right after he won his first U.S. Open, Sampras was in an event called the Dupont All-American Challenge at Amelia Island. I met with him before the event, talked with him for about an hour, did an on-camera interview and left their thinking, “nice guy but boy is he young!” And not just in years. He didn’t know anything about anything! Tennis players are dedicated, drafted even, so young into their sport they don’t have anytime to develop at people. Sampras knew tennis, and that’s about it. Perhaps he’s staying out of the limelight off the court for fear of showing off his lack of knowledge of anything else.

If you get a chance to attend a “up and comer” event, something akin to a satellite tour, you’ll see some tennis, but people watching becomes the main event. Players show up with their “teams” in tow. Trainers, psychologists, coaches and other hangers-on sometimes masquerading as parents. Wow, the parents! Screaming, preening, dealing, anything that might call more attention to themselves. I mean this is a sport where one player’s father was arrested on the grounds and went out and threw himself into traffic, while another has a restraining order against being at an event where his daughter is playing! That’s normal? What happened to “hit the ball hard honey and play your best?” That’s why this is perhaps my all-time favorite conversation in tennis:

“Hi Mom, I’m in the finals,” said Lindsay Davenport to her mother. “That’s wonderful honey, do you want me to come tomorrow?” replied her mother. “Nah, just watch it on television.”

At the time, Davenport was at the U.S. Open in New York. Her mother was in California.

The biggest talk these days in tennis is about Anna Kournikova. Young, blonde and beautiful, almost anybody who doesn’t know anything about tennis still knows who Anna is. Yet, when people see her play, they’re amazed that she’s actually talented! This is not a princess on the court trying to fake it. Kournikova can play some, but plays up this “image thing” to the point of distraction. So she can date two Russian NHL players at the same time. So what! Win something soon and we’ll pay more attention. Which leads me to my second favorite tennis conversation:

“Did you bear down a little harder to try and get off the court quickly in the second set?” I asked Lindsay Davenport after a third round match. Lindsay (Laughing), “Yeah, I was a little behind, and there’s NO WAY I was losing to HER!!”

The opponent was the aforementioned Kournikova. (Can you tell Davenport is my favorite player?)

I know you remember when John McEnroe was the dominant player in men’s tennis. And I know you thought he was a jerk. And he was, even he admits it now. But he cared, played hard and did everything he could to win. Things are so much different now. Tanking, (throwing a match) has reached the point of high art. Appearance fees, far flung events, and under the table deals are such a part of the game the public usually runs for cover except for the Grand Slam events.

There might be hope though. The people who run tennis have finally admitted a problem exists. They’re trying to change the way the ranking system is run. Trying to bring together the best players more often. Trying to make the players understand how they can effect the game in the future.

Andre Agassi has gotten involved in some of the decision making of the game. Perhaps he can bring some normalcy to the situation. Then again, he was married to Brooke Sheilds and is engaged to Steffi Graf. But that’s a whole other story.