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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"We called him 'Tappy' because he liked to tap things the way people tap wood, and very often he tapped people, just nudging them twice with his knuckles, or maybe even three times, depending on his mood. Friends would say it was a 'twosies' day for Larsen, or maybe 'threesies.' It was a habit that came from the Army and the Battle of the Bulge, which he didn't think he was going to survive. He kept knocking on a tree growing beside his foxhole. He's kept at it ever since. I remember at Wimbledon one year that every time we'd change courts he'd tap me twice. It got annoying and finally I said, 'Hey, come on, Tappy, quit tapping me.' But the next time we went by the net posts he got me again with his two taps—it was a 'twosies' day for him—which aggravated me so much that for the next court change I walked around the far end of the net. Larsen had a fit. He called out, 'Hey, you can't do that,' and he chased after me to try to tap me because if he didn't get to me and do it, it broke some sort of sequence which was very important to him.

"I remember playing him in the finals in San Antonio one year. We had a football player-type umpire up in the chair who didn't know too much about the game, and right from the beginning I began arguing with him. From across the net Larsen kept trying to aggravate things. 'Just tell him off, Mulloy,' he'd yell. 'If I were you, I'd punch him right in the nose.'

"Well, we split sets, and in the third set Larsen himself suddenly got in a row with this guy. I wasn't going to let that go by, so I called out, 'Don't let that bum get away with anything, Lars. If I were you I'd punch him right in the nose.'

" Larsen got so angry in the dressing room during the rest period, so preoccupied about that umpire, that I noticed when we went out to the court to begin the fourth set that he had left a wire coat hanger stuck in his fresh shirt. I could see the hook of it sticking out behind his neck. I said, 'Hey, Lars, you've got a coat hanger....' and he felt around, and sure enough it was there—he could feel it—but he wouldn't take it out. 'I can't do without it now,' he said, 'it would be bad luck.'

"So he played out the fourth set, which he lost, wearing this coat hanger, and the crowd buzzing about it. He told me later that it hadn't bothered him much because he thought what a fine perch the coat hanger made for his eagle."

"We have a plan," Pancho Segura said. "We talk about it just now in the locker room." He was settling himself in the players' box for the Connors-Borg match. He was wearing a light gray tank suit and very highly polished black shoes. A small towel was tucked around his neck. "We are going to catch Borg's top-spin early," he said, "and hit out hard, especially when we are inside the baseline. And we are going to punish this guy's second serve. Also, we will try to get him to come to the net. Drop-shot him. He cannot volley easily because he must change his grip from that wrist-flip forehand of his." Segura demonstrated. "The trouble is, Jimmy cannot drop-shot." He winced and put his head down and massaged his temples. "Oh, I would drop him, oh yes."

Segura talks incessantly. A stranger will plunk into an empty seat next to him during a match, reach for a cigarette, and just as he taps it against his cigarette case he will hear the voice at his ear: "Jimmy got to be patient. He should not come to net on shoulder-high balls because we cannot get a good follow-through...." And the stranger will see the pale, olive face and the black eyes, and even if he hasn't the slightest idea who has taken him into his confidence he will be in for an instructive hour or so.

Segura is Connors' adviser, but he also would like to be Nastase's, or Ramirez', and probably even Borg's, and anyone else's curious about the intricacies of tennis strategy. Ken Rosewall says that just before an important European match between himself and Lew Hoad he happened to overhear a locker-room conversation in which Segura was telling Hoad how to beat him. By chance, Segura looked up and spotted Rosewall; he was so embarrassed that he'd been overheard and that anyone might think his advice was exclusively Hoad's that he came rushing around the corner to begin telling Rosewall how to beat Hoad.

It took almost an hour for Connors to get through the first set against Borg, and Segura was worried that Connors' strength would begin to fade. He moaned about the number of game points that had been squandered. Connors' main trouble had been with his approach shots—setting Borg up satisfactorily by getting him to hit short and weak, but then driving the ball into the top of the net as he came in. Segura said he was standing up too straight. "His seat should be lower," Pancho said.

Segura's monologue swooped from despair to delight and then back again. "Jimmy's got so much strength...he doesn't know the strength of his ground strokes...he's got everything, the complete watch, look at the length of that shot...slice it, Jimbo. Good, that's good—see how Borg has difficulty to hit the topspin off the slice. Very nice...oh, oh, oh, I didn't like that at all, not at all. We're dead, we're just dead." He dropped his head in his hands. He peeked out. "Well, he's behind, but then he attacks so well when he is behind. I'd like to see him do that when he's ahead. I tell him a thousand times, come to the net and attack when we are ahead 30-love or 40-15. He don't."

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