Tennis week"—the week of a tournament at any of the old eastern clubs—is usually the high point of the summer social season. Some of Newport's most festive debuts, for example, are scheduled for the time of the Casino Invitational. A house party at Southampton gains in prestige if the date falls during the Meadow Club tournament. All along the eastern circuit, hostesses are apt to plan their most elaborate soirees for the time when the tennis players are on hand. As the players move along the tournament route, like strolling minstrels visiting courts, the doors of the summer houses swing open, the orchestras strike up that peculiarly thin music reminiscent of expensive hotels, and the terraces light up to full lantern power.
The players themselves are the lions of this society. The game is their cachet, admitting them to places they might never reach with their other credentials. The circuit is a fantastic kind of melting pot, where a young man whose parents speak broken English and who has never worn a tie at dinner might find himself seated with the daughter of an ambassador or a Supreme Court justice—and possibly near His Excellency or Mr. Justice himself. All you had to do was recognize that there were some obligations on the guest's side, too.
My introduction to the eastern circuit came in July 1938, at the Merion Cricket Club in Haverford, Pa. I had qualified for the National Intercollegiate Championships (I was now a junior at the University of Cincinnati), and though this tournament wasn't one of the events on the eastern circuit proper, it had been a gateway to it for a good many ambitious college players in the past. I was hoping it would be the same for me. And Merion provided a handsome vista of what tennis really had to offer.
Along with the collegians who made up most of the crowd at the matches, there were also a number of adult members, their guests and tennis officials on hand, out of perennial custom, to look over the new crop of college talent. They were in the position of unpaid scouts, keeping their eyes open for the "hungry" tennis player—the boy who not only had the skill to win but also the driving need to win, because nothing else would satisfy him.
I heard that one of these visitors, a man named Winchester, was on the tournament committee of the Baltimore Country Club, where the Maryland State Championships were to be held the following week. I ambushed him in the clubhouse one day, introduced myself, and asked if he could arrange to get my name into the field at Baltimore. I had done well enough in the Intercollegiate to feel I could take a chance on going further.
He looked me over analytically. " Talbert. I saw you against that Chicago fellow, didn't I? Fourth round?" He appeared to be measuring me against some invisible standard. "We've got a pretty full draw, but let me see what I can do."
A little later, out of the corner of my eye I caught him nodding in my direction while talking with one of the Merion club officials. Eventually, he came over and told me, in a friendly way, "We've got room for you in our tournament, Talbert. About arrangements, I guess we can put you up with some of the other boys at one of the Johns Hopkins dormitories. There's a cafeteria not too far away where you can take your meals."
That was a genteel way of letting me know that I wasn't important enough to expect accommodations at the club itself, to say nothing of a hotel in town. But it was fine with me, and at the end of the week at Merion, I hopped a bus for Baltimore.
The day I was eliminated from the tournament at Baltimore, Mr. Winchester came around to offer his sympathies.
"You fellows were up against a tough pair," he said. " Mulloy has been playing well this season."