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Peter Ustinov
June 23, 1969
The noted actor shows off his own playing style and offers some wry observations on court procedures
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June 23, 1969

Ustinov On Tennis

The noted actor shows off his own playing style and offers some wry observations on court procedures

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I became conscious of tennis at a very early age, stimulated by the fact that I detested cricket, a hate that has never left me. I got out of cricket, but then I had to row instead and that didn't interest me either, as I don't like going backward. Of all the games, I always had the most flair for tennis—an instinct for it.

As early as when I was 8 or 9, I can remember absolutely insisting on accompanying my father, who was a journalist, to Wimbledon. I'll give you an idea of how long ago that was: I can remember a lady player with an eyeshade beginning to wind up to serve and suddenly shouting at the top of her voice, "Underarmmm!" And then she belted across a withering underarm service, which aced the opponent, who looked as if she had been cheated.

Nowadays the cry would be taken as a deodorant advertisement, but in that distant past, serving underarm—while providing shrill warning at the same time—was a form of bad sportsmanship cleverly disguised to look like good sportsmanship. In other words, it was vintage gamesmanship.

Wimbledon supplied me, then, with a certain amount of rudimentary instruction, which was helpful, because at an English school there were very few opportunities to play tennis. I was never taught. In those days one was never taught; one was allowed to play. Also, I was, for some obscure reason, kept off the team for some time, and when at last I was allowed on the tennis squad, I had already formed certain bad habits from playing squash and fives, which is a three-wall game rather like handball.

I still hold the racket the wrong way whenever I play, and so I have a great deal of excitement. My best shot is my forehand. It's not good enough to generate speed, but if somebody hits a ball hard at me I can sometimes get it back even faster. I'm absolutely inconsistent, but I sometimes do spectacular bits of nonsense, which gives me immense satisfaction. What I find magical about the game is that if you play sufficiently well, then your play against a fine player will improve instead of going downhill.

I can speak with some authority on that subject, since some of the best players in the world have been sympathetic enough with my passion for the game to go on the court with me. I've played with Frank Sedgman, Neale Fraser, Roy Emerson, Fred Stolle and, most recently, John Newcombe, which seems like the whole Australian Davis Cup roster since the war. I hit with Newcombe in San Antonio, where I was making the movie Viva Max and where these revealing pictures of me were taken.

The best birthday present I ever had was one time when I was in New York appearing in a play and some friends said they would take me to the Town Tennis Club for the occasion. When I reached the courts, there were all my friends in the galleries and on the court stood my surprise partner and opponents—Gardnar Mulloy, Bill Talbert and Donald Budge. Mulloy and I lost 5-7, 5-7, and I was delighted to escape without casualty.

I'm really not built for tennis. I'm built in a very Slavonic way, and the player I have always had the most empathy—and sympathy—for is Jaroslav Drobny, because we are the same age, built in the same way and by now he's got rather stouter than I, which is a fine advertisement for Czech beer. I have had affection for Drobny ever since he fell in at Wimbledon—a stocky Slav amid all those lissome Australians and lithe Americans—and won. He was also supposed to have a suspect temperament, although I never understood that, because he was forever playing those 37-35 sets with Budge Patty and standing up under them. I think, really, it is the British who have a suspect temperament, because they have this complex about losing and then winning by their grace on the way back to the changing room.

The British really are extraordinary. The only trouble with them—well, I once said that a British education is the best in the world if you can survive it. If you can't, there's nothing for you but the diplomatic corps. I have two Oscars and two Emmys—two emasculated men and two emasculated women who play tame mixed doubles on my desk—and when I won my first Oscar and had to make a speech I was really lost for words. At last I said something from the heart, apologizing for being unable to make a speech but explaining that I was educated in a British school, where an enormous amount of time was spent in teaching us how to lose gracefully but absolutely no time was spent on how to win gracefully because it wasn't expected that we would win.

I'm British by passport and I was born there, but I'm really not very British. There was anomaly from the first because I was born in the section of London known as Swiss Cottage, and I had been conceived in Leningrad (then St. Petersburg)—I have that on the best authority. I admire the British enormously, though, because I was in the British Army during the war, surrounded by British characters, and there is nothing like a war to make you feel foreign.

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