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George Plimpton
September 18, 1967
Tennis history (well, maybe) was not made at Forest Hills this year but rather at Southampton and Newport, where wilted heroes played sets of 48-46 and 49-47 respectively
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September 18, 1967

What The Deuce Is Going On?

Tennis history (well, maybe) was not made at Forest Hills this year but rather at Southampton and Newport, where wilted heroes played sets of 48-46 and 49-47 respectively

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It has always seemed to me that one of the pleasures of summer reading is to browse through record books—to immerse oneself gently in the batting averages of yesteryear, long-forgotten golf scores, punting averages, the winning high-jump mark at the Berlin Olympics, what weights these days the lifters are pressing (439 pounds, I just looked it up). The reading is as idle as one can find: the statistics lazy in and out of the mind as easy and forgetful as the sound of surf or the murmuration of bees or the gentle ticking and creaking of the hammock as it swings.

There are some enthusiasts, of course, who treat this sort of reading very seriously—who sit in hard-backed chairs and strain to memorize facts that will give them a reputation in saloon discussions ("Ask Reggie, he knows. Hey, Reggie, wha' did Campy bat back in '49—.285 or .287?"). Or knowledge enough to answer the quiz that the managements of some ball parks flash up on the illuminated scoreboard, along with the answer a few innings later. I have always found their questions impossible ("What American League catcher holds the record for three unassisted putouts in one inning?"), but here and there in the stands the statistics studier perks up and turns to the person alongside, very often a complete stranger, and he says, "Well, I mean, like who are they trying to kid! I mean like how can nobody not know that? It's Marty Blatt for Godsakes." He then returns to his gloomy contemplation of the game, full of pretended pique, but in fact with a secure, inward glow of contentment that his long hours of study have paid off once again.

Oddly, one of the most popular sports—tennis—does not have a record book, a lack that was particularly felt this past August when a series of marathon matches were played at Southampton and Newport and no one could find out if, indeed, a record had been set. Length, whether of time or distance, provides a most durable and interesting part of any record book (the longest baseball game—26 innings; the longest punt—94 yards), and the comparatively few spectators who saw those amazing matches felt a mild sense of loss that what they had watched would not be permanently marked in tennis history.

Two of the three marathon matches were played at Southampton, a tournament that used to be one of the most important on the summer tour but whose luster has faded somewhat in recent years. Many of the top players simply take the week off. Strange, because the Long Island community is as affluent as ever; it abounds in great tennis names—Davis, Shields, Hunter, Wood—and yet the grass courts at the Meadow Club where the tournament is played have fallen into such disrepair, presumably because of a lack of funds, that most of the name players refuse to show up at all. Those who do come look forward more to the pleasant ministrations of the community, particularly an annual party at which the tennis players are provided with a great lobster dinner, a rock 'n' roll band under a marquee and pretty girls by the score who pick that night to move to the dance rages in the wildest oufits they've got. Also in Southampton the community takes in most of the players as house guests and entertains them, which is a hospitable and welcome arrangement quite unlike Newport's, the next stop on the tour, where most of the players are assigned to low-slung cots in a barnlike hall in the upper reaches of the Newport Casino. But as for the tennis at Southampton, that is another matter.

"It all depends on the court you're assigned," one of the players said. "A good court and it's tennis. But if you get assigned to 'The Pasture'—well, you can hear the players on their way to those courts mooing and bleating, because what's played down there is a game unto itself."

The first of the marathon matches took place in the preliminary round of the singles tournament. The two participants were Dick Knight and Mike Sprengelmeyer, two top-notch college players, who were in fact delighted with their court assignment—court six, set immediately behind the temporary bleachers facing the center court and in relatively good shape. It was possible to sit on the top rows of the bleachers and look back down over the railing at the Knight-Sprengelmeyer match. Despite the extraordinary length of the match, not many did. As Knight himself said, "It was not exactly the prestige match of the tournament." Both players at this stage in their careers represent the equivalent of golfing's "rabbits"—that is to say, players who must scurry from one tournament to the next to compete among themselves in preliminary rounds for the open positions in the first round of the tournament draw. Such players must get to their work early, and the Knight-Sprengelmeyer match was scheduled for 10 o'clock.

Perhaps the most faithful spectator was Dick Knight's girl friend, Karen Williams, who had started out from Scarsdale, N.Y. at 6:30 that morning to be on hand. She arrived half an hour or so after the match had started. Knight could look up and see her looking down at him from the top of the bleachers. Occasionally, as the match wore on, she called down to him, "Do something!" Her schedule was tight (she had a rendezvous with her parents at Jones Beach that afternoon), and as noontime came and went and the match moved on into the afternoon, she wondered if she would be able to have a word with him at all.

It took three hours to play the first set of the match. Knight finally won it 32-30, breaking Sprengelmeyer's serve on the 61st game and holding his own. In the next set Knight began to have the odd sensation that he was "floating" above the court, as he put it. The night before he had driven up from Sea-bright, and the tournament there, in weekend traffic, and he'd had only four hours' sleep. He lost the set 3-6. But in the third set he got his second wind, and Sprengelmeyer, on his part, began to get cramps. At one point, at about the 20th game of the set, his arm muscle bulged out alarmingly, and he felt such pain that he wondered if he hadn't somehow broken his arm. But he persevered, the pain lessened, and he was able to struggle on at even terms, winning his serve as easily as Knight was winning his.

After the fifth hour of steady play, the quality of which was surprisingly good according to witnesses, the match took on a surreal quality: ball boys came and went (home for lunch and then returning); one of them was a nervous small girl in a white tennis dress who had difficulty bouncing the ball properly to the player, and she would run six or seven steps like an English bowler and with a small squeak of effort bounce the ball off at erratic angles. She would run to retrieve it, and return directly to the player and place the ball on the lip of his racket with a murmur of apology. Knight remembers the enormous pile of debris by the net post—Coca-Cola cans, orange peels, towels, empty pitchers (the players consumed two full pitchers of water and two of Coca-Cola), paper cups; he also retains the odd memory of an elderly man's face peering at the match through a hole in the green canvas backstop, an intermittent witness who would disappear for long stretches. Then, with a start, Knight would notice the face back in the hole, as surprisingly disembodied as the head of a jack-in-the-box.

Finally, in the 107th game of the match, Knight found himself with triple match points, love-40 on Sprengelmeyer's serve. He lost the next two points, and then Sprengelmeyer, rushing to net behind his serve, hit a good stiff volley that would have brought the score to deuce had not the shot gone beyond the baseline, not by much, just an inch, and the match was over 32-30, 3-6, 19-17. Knight threw his racket in the air. He said it didn't go up very far, "perhaps six or seven feet," and he walked to the net to shake hands with Sprengelmeyer, who was waiting, looking at him dully. Knight didn't know what to say. He said, "Mike, honest, I just don't know what to say." Sprengelmeyer couldn't find anything to say, either; he massaged the bulge on his arm, and he said, "Yes"—something as noncommittal—and the two left the court to report the scores to the tournament director. It was 3:30. They had been playing for five and a half hours.

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