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

At Modesto, Olmedo slept five in a room with two tennis players and two football players (one of whom, Proverb Jacobs, now belongs to the Philadelphia Eagles). He also worked in a cannery. He also played tennis. He enrolled at the University of Southern California in February 1956, got a $100-a-month campus job, a sinecure at the Peruvian consulate answering phones and a membership at the Los Angeles Tennis Club. He became Mr. Jones's "boy" and won the NCAA championship for USC the first time he played in it.

Even so, his progress was aggravatingly slow, and he was frequently scolded for his lackadaisical play by both Jones and his coach, George Toley. It was Toley who first saw a pattern emerge: "It boiled down to this," he observes. "Some people can get on a court and, without effort, play up to their maximum capabilities every time. Pancho Segura is one who can, for instance. There are others who cannot put out every time. Henri Cochet was one of these. He was the best in the world in the Davis Cup, very often beatable other times.

"Alex is like that. Once, in a doubles match against Stanford, he didn't try a lick. I talked to him for two hours and told him he had to shape up. I told him he gave inferior players confidence by not keeping the pressure on. He walked away and was mad. Pretty soon he came back with a smile on his face."

But, the point is, the smile was probably only on Olmedo's face. There is little doubt the Incan impassivity, as it so often does, masked a seething within. Olmedo renders even to Toley only that which he thinks is Toley's. He admits: "I have a philosophy. I have heard so much from so many. I never listen exactly. I mean, I listen. But I don't. I learn most from players I play against. That's the big way you learn tennis."

Olmedo learned life, too. Although accepted virtually without reservation in the West on the sheer force of a captivating personality, it was true that Alex had chosen a sport still largely dominated by the very rich and the very white. Cornwell Jackson, the president of the Los Angeles Tennis Club, once found Olmedo, the top-seeded player at the club at the time, weeping convulsively in back of the locker rooms. Some thoughtless member had addressed him sharply as "You, there, boy!" Another time Gardnar Mulloy commented on Alex's play at Wimbledon by likening it to that of a "knife fighter." Alex was extremely hurt by the comparison, nattering as it was intended.


As to the clay-court incident in Chicago, it is significant that it all began with Olmedo showing up at the gate and being unrecognized by the gateman. Olmedo returned to his hotel and refused to play that day in spite of the fact that this left four matches to be made up the next day. "Alex would rather get beaten than insulted," explains a fellow player.

Olmedo is still smoldering about the incident. He did not want to play in the clay-court tournament, and after Wimbledon he eagerly accepted an offer to play a tournament in Baastad, Sweden. His detractors hint this was because he was paid huge "expenses" to do so. The explanation is much more simple: Olmedo likes girls in general but Swedish girls in particular. It is a predilection not " confined to tennis players.

Said Olmedo: "I go to Sweden because I like it. In Europe people treat you much better. I feel better over there because they know a player is a human being over there." He swept his hand around the tennis clubhouse he was in, which happened to be the Longwood Cricket Club at Brookline, Mass. "You see these kids? You know what they get on a hot day like this? One chit a day for a soft drink. That's all." He looked over to where Davis Cup Captain Perry Jones—murmuring harassedly, "There's more heartbreak than glory in this game"—was busily trying to find a tournament for young Chris Crawford to mark time in while awaiting the Nationals, which are late this year because of the Davis Cup challenge round. "He has to have a tournament, otherwise he cannot afford to remain in the East for the Nationals," explained Alex. "I have been through all this. I have washed dishes and carried out trash in houses where I have stayed.

"Now, when I got to Chicago for the clay courts, there was no welcome. They were unfriendly. This upset me after I had flown overnight and paid $40 extra allowance on my baggage. And I did not want to come. That is the funny part of it. Mr. Jones and the sporting goods people persuaded me to come. Then the Chicago papers say, ' Alex Olmedo came to Chicago for dinner.' They are sarcastic. Then there is this cameraman who has 20 cameras strapped around his neck and he follows me everywhere. Then they make us shake hands with about 600 people, each one of them. My hand was completely tired. I had to play four matches in one day. When I play Abe Segal I am exhausted, mentally tired. The referee starts to make bad calls. I can see it is hopeless. My concentration came apart. Then I saw the officials move around and start to get excited. Now, I am an amateur. I don't get paid. I see the official behind the fence start the booing. I say to him, 'Oh, sure. It would have to be an official who would do this.'

Continue Story
1 2 3 4