SI Vault
George Plimpton
November 24, 1975
Yesterday's tennis stars made up a jury of genuine peers at Forest Hills as they offered sharp verdicts about the current state of the game, cut up a few of its top performers and told some wonderful stories about themselves
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November 24, 1975

Those Were The Days

Yesterday's tennis stars made up a jury of genuine peers at Forest Hills as they offered sharp verdicts about the current state of the game, cut up a few of its top performers and told some wonderful stories about themselves

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He went up again on his toes. Solomon won the first five points of the tie breaker, all of them fought for with such energy and skill that the crowd began cheering more for the quality of the tennis than for their favorites, quick gusts of applause that ceased abruptly in the tension of the tie breaker.

Savitt beamed. "Tremendous tennis. Too bad it's not in the stadium instead of those women." He even beamed at Fibak. "He's strong and good. He's got great potential." He supported Fibak through one point of the tie breaker ("Keep it deep. Keep it deep"), perhaps to atone for his support of the moonballer across the net. When the match ended (in Solomon's favor) he began applauding, clapping in delight, the stalks of the grapes ignored in his enthusiasm, mashed between his big hands. "That was just great," he said happily.

Don Budge was sitting with his wife in the marquee, two rackets with bare wooden handles balanced between his knees. His face has filled out, and the jug ears that were so prominent when he dominated tennis in the late '30s seemed to have receded into proper proportion. "I swear by wood," he said. "No chance of getting calluses with wooden handles. Look at my hands. Soft! The only reason that there are leather handles on rackets is that years back L. B. Isely, who was the president of Wilson's Sporting Goods, got up at a meeting and said, 'Hey, look here, why don't we dress up a tennis racket like a golf club and put leather handles on it and charge a dollar more.' Everybody agreed that it was a fine idea. So the result is that you see players scratching up the leather to get a better grip, coming down with blisters and calluses. The consistency of leather changes, leather absorbs 87% of the moisture on it, compared to 7% for wood. Bill Tilden knew it was crazy. He and I were the only ones to stick to wood. He used to say, 'For God's sake, Don, you and I are the only ones left. Don't tell anyone....' "

Down on the court Bjorn Borg, ranging back and forth in his querencia behind the baseline from which he hit his big looping drives, was playing Rod Laver, whose tactic was to execute stop-volley drop shots to catch Borg back. The shot is one of Laver's best, and the crowd shouted its delight at his delicate touch.

"My goodness," said Budge, "what a difference between this and the slam-bang-thank-you-ma'am tennis, the big serve and volley. What we have now is the era of the short ball. Look there! Look at the margin of safety with that topspin. Look at those drives landing on the service line." He wrinkled his nose. "Bitsy Grant would have given these fellows fits on the slow courts. He was very fast, he was patient, he lobbed well, and the main thing was that his shots had great depth."

Out on the court a linesman called one of Laver's rare deep shots out that had apparently landed on the baseline. The whistles of disapproval rose out of the crowd. Borg himself, though he would have benefited from the out call, circled the spot where the shot had landed with his racket. The linesman leaned back in his chair, and when the umpire asked him if he would yield on his call, he put his hands in front of his eyes to indicate that he had been "unsighted" and had not seen the ball properly. He looked very solemn, and the gesture with his hands was abject and forlorn.

Budge said, "Now Baron von Cramm, who was probably the greatest gentleman who ever stepped on a tennis court, would never have done what Borg did. He would have let the call go rather than embarrass the linesman in front of all these people and have them think ill of him. Von Cramm's distinction was that we were contestants, not officials."

The match resumed. Laver was having his troubles. Even his good shots seemed to leave him with a puzzled look on his face and a shake of the head with its great jib of a nose, as if however well dispatched the put-away had seemed to the gallery, it had not felt right to him, some tangible evidence imparted along the length of that enormous left arm, almost twice as muscled as the other, that something in the mechanism was a little off. Borg, on the other hand, seemed implacable and in complete control of his game, his expression never changing a jot as he covered court and flipped his racket to hit the high, arching shots that bit into the court surface across the net and leaped forward from the topspin.

Laver served a double fault. "Oh, that's a terrible sin—serving a double fault to Borg," Budge said. "He's never going to smash it back at you, no matter how weak. Your grandmother could put the ball in play against Borg and never get hurt by his return."

Laver succumbed in the fourth set. Budge rose and stretched. "Well, there you are," he said. "Closer than it seemed. One or two points. Tilden pointed out that in a match with a score like 6-4, 7-5, 6-4, if you take only one point a set away from the winner and give it to the loser the outcome would almost invariably be reversed. He called them 'swing points.' Well, Laver's off to take a shower and think about those swing points. My dear," he turned to his wife, "what about a sandwich? Wouldn't a sandwich be just the thing?"

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