The excitement over the final match was heightened because neither team cares much for the other. This was confirmed when each team said that it liked the other team just fine. But the fans—about 100,000 if you believed the paddle fanatics, 1,000 if you believed paddle haters and 2,200 if you believed the truth—knew bad blood was in the air. Up to the finals the teams had played seven times. Gray-Russell had won four matches, the Bairds three. But the Bairds had won the biggie, last month's National Championship, while Gray-Russell had floundered in the quarterfinals.
A poorly kept secret is the tale of a match not long ago. Gray, a pleasant man with a nice-guy approach to nearly everything, muttered before that match, "I'd love to go out there, hit 48 straight winners, mash my paddle down Chip's throat and walk off the court smiling." With that, Gray and Russell stormed out and got thrashed.
Gray has been playing the game since he was 10 years old; he won a number of championships and almost retired from competition a couple of years ago. But he couldn't stand that. "It's such a lovely sport," he says, "and I was so eager." So he got together with Russell in a classic odd-couple matchup. In life-style, Gray is steady, conservative; Russell is unsteady, unconservative. Except that when it comes to paddle, it is Gray who attacks, attacks, attacks and Russell who meditates 30 minutes a day, then takes to the court and plays defensively, cautiously. "Doug has all the shots," says Gray. "The only problem is when he decides to play not to lose instead of to win." Says Russell, "I think Gordon sometimes plays too aggressively and takes too many chances." Obviously a partnership made in heaven.
Russell is flexible, though. In an early job as a bag salesman, he could handle plastic, paper or burlap. As a stockbroker, he got laid off while in training for one firm. He joined another and advised a number of his customers to buy Con Edison at between 18� and 27 "because they had paid dividends for 171 years or something," then watched in dismay when the company skipped a quarterly dividend and the price dropped to six. His phone rang a lot with customers offering their views on his ability and parentage. One more brokerage house, and he quit. He taught tennis for three months, then spent a month in Europe. "Already I knew things were better," he says.
Russell was serious the day before the Tribuno tournament, saying, "I won't do anything stupid tonight. I'll go to bed early." Gray didn't look convinced.
The Bairds are so competitive that they have agreed not to play against one another. Steve recalls the time Chip "threw a ball at me from about 15 feet, so I turned and threw my paddle at him." Boys will be boys. Says Chip, "I am tightly strung. I froth at the mouth. I'm the eccentric."
On the court Chip hollers, stomps, questions calls, throws rackets. Steve is more stoic but understands. "All good athletes have a temper," he says.
Paddle is normally a pleasant game, a sort of hit-and-giggle endeavor that is far easier than tennis to play and good for all levels of players. But Saturday's finals were decidedly different. The Bairds easily won the first two sets 6-4, 6-3 as the normally steady Gray played somewhere between the categories of awful and dead. Moaned Russell, "The Bairds are the greatest front-runners in the world. I don't know."
Then, imperceptibly, things started going better for Gray-Russell. And when Chip's racket started flying and the fans started hissing, Gray and Russell were on the move. They won the third set 6-1, the fourth 6-3. Gray was not so dour anymore; Russell regained his easy smugness. In the deciding set Chip complained that he had not been ready for a Russell serve; the crowd offered the Queens version of a Bronx cheer and the referee made it unanimous. Gray and Russell were ahead four games to one. So, naturally, several of their shots hit the tape on the net and fell fairly, which is what often happens once it starts raining on somebody's parade. In a whoosh, Gray and Russell took the set 6-2 and the match. Said Steve Baird, "We ran out of steam. It was embarrassing."
Meanwhile, back at the bar, Tournament Director Billy Talbert, who also directs Forest Hills, said, "This was fun. It's like tennis used to be. These guys even have jobs."