SI Vault
James Murray
September 07, 1959
He was everybody's hero last year when he won the Davis Cup for the U.S., but at Forest Hills the brilliant, moody Peruvian frustrated tennis fans with his erratic play
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
September 07, 1959

Olmedo: The Enigma Of Tennis

He was everybody's hero last year when he won the Davis Cup for the U.S., but at Forest Hills the brilliant, moody Peruvian frustrated tennis fans with his erratic play

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4

But this does not explain why. Tennis has been good to Alex Olmedo, goes the refrain. Therefore, he owes it a top performance every time he goes to the court.

To understand why Olmedo apparently doesn't think so, it is necessary to go back to 1953 when Olmedo was a simple, sunny youngster from Arequipa, Peru, the son of a quondam groundskeeper and coach, who had become, at the age of 17, the best tennis player in Peru. The head of the Peruvian tennis association, Jorge Harten, knew this was not enough, and he imported the U.S. teacher, Stanley Singer, to demonstrate the finer points to the gifted youngster and other Lima hopefuls.

Olmedo, at that time, had appeared briefly on the international scene, bowing out in his first match in the U.S. Nationals at Forest Hills in 1951 (to Jacque Grigry, 6-4, 6-0, 6-1). But it did not take Singer long to realize the boy's rare talent.

It became imperative to get Olmedo to the U.S., to Los Angeles, before his game could atrophy in a welter of inferior competition. A collection of $700 was taken up, Peru promised to send their student $75 a month, and in early 1954 Olmedo headed for Los Angeles and tennis destiny.

There was no question then of delivering this uncut diamond directly to the fussy, fanatical entrepreneur of amateur tennis in southern California, Perry T. Jones himself. The non-English-speaking, shy and frightened Olmedo was not ready for Jones when he arrived hot and dusty in the depot in Los Angeles in February 1954. A more fitting mentor in the person of a public-park tennis-shop proprietor, Joe Cianci, was the man who met, clothed, fed and befriended the semiwaif who had had to pay a Mexican in El Paso to write out the wire to Los Angeles about his arrival.

Cianci put Alex in night school, gave him a job in the tennis shop when the Peruvian government later stopped its subsidies, coached the youngster in what tennis he knew and encouraged pros like Pancho Segura to take an interest in him. He also schooled him in the realities of tennis in southern California, Perry T. Jones presiding. "When I take you to Mr. Jones," instructed Cianci urgently through an interpreter, "no matter what happens, no matter how mad you get, smile, dammit, smile—all the time! Hear?"

It would be nice—for the movie rights—to be able to report that Cianci and his young ward walked into the sunset of life still fast friends. But Cianci does not even speak to Olmedo any more. "I found the kid an apartment, fed him scrambled eggs in the morning, treated him like a son. He gives the appearance he's a swell kid, but you can't rely on him," growls Cianci bitterly today. Olmedo bows his head at the charge but does not return the serve. "Joe thinks I do not give him enough credit. The truth is I worked for him in his shop—I strung rackets and made malts and hamburgers for the customers."

Cianci tried manfully to get his charge in the hands of Jones. But Jones has a rigidly enforced rule that his junior tournaments, for which Olmedo was eligible agewise, are open only to youngsters attending regular classes in school. Says Cianci: "I think Mr. Jones was also mad because Alex had not come up here through him. Anyway, he used to scream at me that Olmedo would never play at the Los Angeles Tennis Club as long as he had anything to say about it. But then, one day, he says to me, 'I just can't be mean to that boy—that cute little smile. I'm going to help him.' "

At that time, as it happened, Czar Jones was fast losing his grip on his little world of amateur tennis. Under his system of interlocking programs and foundations, southern Californians historically had won a staggering total of 446 national championships, 39 Wimbledon championships and 32 national collegiate titles. But before Olmedo there had been a long dry spell. Not since Pancho Gonzales turned pro in 1949 had southern California come up with a successor to the giants of the past. It was a matter of some concern to Jones, because management of a top player, and only that, could put him in the bargaining position he loved best. As Jack Kramer put it: "Whoever has got the top player runs tennis." Gardnar Mulloy assented: " Jones used to take care of his boys real good. You always found the Californians—and Jones—sleeping in the best hotels, eating at the best restaurants and staying at the best homes. When they were the best, that is. They got enough expense money to eat well and sleep well. If they didn't they didn't show up. The rest of us slept in locker rooms or tents."

It did not take Jones long to perceive that Olmedo was the key to reopen the golden door. But it was the University of Southern California's ex-tennis coach, Lou Wheeler, and George Toley, present coach, who arranged for Olmedo to enroll at Modesto Junior College, some 300 miles north of Los Angeles. It was not a moment too soon. Cianci had been on the point of sending the young player back to Peru when the offer came.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4