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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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"Well, as a doubles team those two used to fight like cats and dogs. Once they were playing in a Public Parks Department doubles' tournament on Randall's Island here in New York, changing into their tennis clothes out on the parking lot, and Jimmy got mad because Barney was poaching and missing easy shots. So he said, 'If you poach once more, Barney, I'm leaving.' Barney did poach, of course, and Jimmy got in the family car and drove all the way home to Cincinnati in his tennis clothes, leaving his brother out there on the tennis court with nothing to his name but a tennis racket!"

Jimmy Connors, playing doubles with Ilie Nastase—the two Peck's bad boys of tennis on the same side of the net—was having his usual tempestuous affair with the gallery, getting them to laugh sometimes with a remark, or fluttering his hand inside his tennis shirt to show how frightened an opponent's shot had left him, and then occasionally annoying them with a gesture, or an epithet, or his cockiness. He seemed to bring out the worst in them, so that truck-driver comments began to float down from the upper reaches of the stadium. At one point Connors began fooling with a ball up at net, tapping it with his racket so that the ball girl could not clear it, not daring to reach for the ball as he dribbled it around her feet, and in the middle of this cat-and-mouse fooling around, someone sitting down in front of the marquee called out, "Idiot!"

Connors looked over. He called out a cussword, and when the gentleman called out "Idiot!" again, both he and Nastase began meandering toward the marquee, Connors with the butt end of his racket proffered as if to suggest that if the spectator didn't like what was going on, he could take over the court himself. The gentleman, a white tennis hat pulled down to his ears, leaned out of his chair and said with great clarity, so he could be heard up in the stands, that he had not come to play tennis, but to watch it played—his implication clear he didn't consider that included playing little games with a ball girl. Neither Connors nor Nastase could think of anything sharp to say. They slouched back to their positions and the match got under way again.

Gardnar Mulloy, who had come half out of his seat to watch what was going on, sat back down and grinned. "Not much," he said.

He began reminiscing about perhaps the most famous confrontation between a player and the gallery, which had happened during a match between himself and Earl Cochell. "Cochell was a big man, and quick," he said, "a good, feisty player, a lot like Eddie Dibbs, except that he rushed the net, which everyone did then. He had beaten Frank Sedgman to get to me in the quarterfinals. We had split sets, and then midway in the third set he got a bad call, which upset him. When he complained, the crowd started booing him. It was an odd time for him to complain since I had broken his serve twice and he was coasting along, letting the set go and waiting for the rest period, which was a legitimate tactical maneuver and done by any number of players. But after the bad call he began throwing the set in such an obvious manner that the crowd really began to get on him, to such a degree that he felt he had to defend himself and his actions against them. It was very noisy. He told them to shut up, which, of course, they wouldn't do, and finally he went to the umpire's chair and started climbing up to get at the umpire's microphone. The umpire tried to shove him off, the two of them struggling up there over the mike like a pair of bears in the top of a tree, their voices bouncing out over the open mike: 'Go on, get out of here,' 'Lemme talk to those S.O.B.s,' that sort of thing, and it was quite an alarming business.

"What didn't help at all was that after the set was finally over and we were under the stands in the little dressing room for the rest period, Dr. Davenport, who was the referee, came in to try to calm things down, but Cochell, who was still all riled up, cussed him out. He really cussed him out. The combination of all this, especially, I think, the confrontation with Dr. Davenport, who was a gentle and elderly man, got Cochell suspended from tennis for life. They didn't fool around in those days."

Out on the court, Nastase, who had just been informed of an $8,000 fine for tempestuously throwing a match in Montreal, and Connors combined to win a brilliant point that brought half the spectators out of their seats to cheer. Connors, who had made the put-away, walked the length of the baseline waiting for the noise to subside; he looked preoccupied, and in what seemed a studied motion, he stubbed the toe of his sneaker on the court with each step.

"Odd, but I don't think that's a superstition," Mulloy observed. "He does it a lot, but I think it's probably an unconscious habit." Mulloy went on to describe a superstition of his own that had evolved from a match against Frank Parker in the National Clay Court Championship, in which he had tripped over a line and hurt his ankle.

"Ever since then I've made it a habit in each set to hop over a line," he said. "Usually I do it twice to make sure I've done it once. I have an absolute obsession that if I don't do it, either my opponent or myself is going to get hurt.

"The most superstitious person of my era was Art Larsen. He was a bundle of odd compulsions and flights of fancy. He imagined that he had an eagle sitting on his shoulder, and he had this way of looking back, a sort of crick of the neck, and you knew that he was listening to his bird.

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