On a hot Labor Day afternoon in 1940, I played Carl Earn in the men's singles finals of the Santa Monica City Championships while Groucho Marx, my father, looked on from the grandstand. Groucho had come not only to root for me, but also to award the trophies after the match.
I lost quite handily. During the award ceremonies my father walked onto center court, licking an ice cream cone and carrying three more. He gave a cone to both women finalists and handed me the third. As my opponent waited for his reward, Groucho said to him with an absolutely straight face, "You don't get any ice cream because you beat my son."
Groucho may have been a comedian, but when I was a ranking tennis player, in the late 1930s and early 1940s, he was as wise and dedicated a "tennis father" as Papa Lenglen, Jimmy Evert and John McEnroe Sr.
He cheered when I won and was deeply analytical of my game when I lost. "Listen, schlemiel," he would say, "you have to stop trying to kill the ball on your approach shots. Put the ball away on the volley." Or "Listen, schlemiel, you're missing too many first serves." If he thought I had let a bad call upset me unduly, causing me to make a fool of myself, he would upbraid me. "Listen, sonny boy, bad calls even themselves up. So don't be a Sarah Bernhardt. Don't ever let me see you cursing or throwing your racket again. Just remember: Whom the gods destroy, they first make mad."
As a tennis father, Groucho knew what he was talking about. He had been a tennis fan since he was a young man. He had learned to play on the public courts in Manhattan's Central Park. Self-taught, he was never much better than a "C" player himself, but when we were living on Long Island in the '20s, he never missed an opportunity to go to Forest Hills and watch his favorite players—Tilden, Johnston, Wills, Lacoste, Vines, Doeg, Shields, Allison and Perry. He wanted me to follow in their footsteps.
Groucho first stuck a racket in my hand when I was 8, and by the time I was 13 I was pretty good. I could beat not only all the kids my age at the Beverly Hills Tennis Club but also most of the grown-ups. Now that I look back on it, that wasn't much of an accomplishment. The club's membership roster was loaded with stars: Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Taylor, Nelson Eddy, Frederic March, Laurence Olivier, Harpo and Zeppo Marx, Constance Bennett, Charles Farrell, Janet Gaynor, Gilbert Roland and Errol Flynn. But except for the latter two, they were all average hackers on the court. My father was impressed with my progress, however—especially when Ellsworth Vines told him after rallying with me one afternoon that he thought I had the makings of a champion.
"What should he do to get better?" asked Groucho.
"Just make him play in all the junior tournaments," advised Vines. "Even if he loses in the first round, he needs tournament experience."
Cocky kid that I was, I thought it presumptuous of Vines even to suggest that I might lose in the first round against kids my age. But not only did I lose in the first round of the first tournament I entered, the score was a humiliating 6-1, 6-0. It was little comfort to learn that my opponent, James Wade, was the top 15-and-under player in the United States. Moreover, there were dozens of other talented teenagers playing junior tennis in Southern California. Polished players such as Bobby Riggs and Frank Kovacs were fighting it out every week in the 18-and-under events. The draws in my category were filled with the names of youngsters I'd never heard of—Ted Schroeder, Ted Olewine, Welby Van Horn—but all were capable of beating me as badly as Wade had. Another youngster my father and I had never heard of until we saw his name in a newspaper schedule the night before I was to play him was Jack Kramer.
"Probably a nobody," I said to Father.