So the game is minutely slower, enough so that the rallies continue where once they were over in seconds. The tour often plays on clay, which enhances strategy and guile at the expense of speed. Consequently, the best-conditioned players—Sedgman, Ulrich and Davidson—win on stamina as well as ability. By comparison, when Neale Fraser joined the circuit last season as a 45-year-old rookie, his conditioning was only fair and, although he reached the finals of five tournaments, he failed to win one, falling apart in the third set when his legs turned rubbery. The previous year, newly eligible Luis Ayala expected to dominate the old guys and didn't win a match.
There is something attractive about a person who refuses to capitulate to the erosions of age. Ulrich considers the tour his laboratory, a means of experimenting with body and game. Each day the players walk onto the court, wondering—can they do what they could yesterday? The fans view them differently. When Borg defaults it is because he has a blister on his hand. When one of the Grand Masters does, it is because he is old. The seniors take pride in the fact that in the tour's six years, only three matches have been canceled because of injury.
Occasionally one of the Grand Masters will practice with a player in his 20s. The younger man might be a local pro or college player, and often the workout turns into an unofficial exhibition. Such exercises illustrate the senior's talent. They maintain they can compete with what Bunis calls "the young people." "Not Connors or Borg," says Seixas. "I'm not that presumptuous. But in the second or third echelon, we could play, because they're not smart enough to adjust to what we would do. They know only one way to play."
The players really are grand and they really are masters, especially of disguise and deception. They rarely hit the ball hard; they pick their spots like poker players. Sedgman says a sure sign of age is when your return of serve deteriorates; that and slower net reactions. But there are ways to compensate. After almost 40 years the Aussie can "read" a server's racket well before the man hits the ball. Occasionally he does guess wrong, in which case the serve is unplayable.
Were it not for Bunis and the senior circuit, Sedgman says that by now he would be a lost resource. "I would have gracefully evaporated," he says. When he joined Jack Kramer's pro circuit in 1953, the newspapers were calling Kramer "the old pro" and nightly asking him about his arthritis. Kramer was 31. Sedgman eventually gave up tennis for 10 years, disconsolate that he no longer could play Davis Cup. He staged a comeback of sorts with the emergence of open tennis in 1968, and while he failed to win a tournament, "I gave some players a good scare."
What probably frustrates a youngster most when he plays one of the Grand Masters is that it often is impossible to hit the ball past him. Ulrich, for instance, is in exceptional condition for an athlete of any age; at 50 his legs are heavily muscled and he is remarkably quick, enough so that he plays a spidery, defensive game, running down every shot and waiting until his opponent makes a mistake. Bunis believes Ulrich's game is as sharp as it was when he was playing 98 Davis Cup matches for Denmark, and he leads the senior tour in tournament titles with 30.
At the net, Sedgman and the others still have keen anticipation. They purposely leave an open court, inviting a passing shot, but are there to bash away the volley. Sedgman, in particular, constantly keeps up the pressure. He always has had a superb volley, and his overhead is deadly accurate. While he doesn't cover as much ground as he once did, he doesn't have to, because he never plays the entire court.
As Seixas stated, the seniors have adjusted. Most of them use steel, graphite or composite rackets that are lighter and quicker in their hands. Davidson is a devotee of the oversized Prince racket, and Pancho Gonzales and Beppe Merlo string their rackets loosely for more control.
With the occasional exception of Gonzales, who sees himself as the lone wolf, the seniors socialize with one another, attending the prerequisite cocktail parties, dining as a group, regaling each other with stories repeated over the years. Hartwig recalls his first experience as a pro when he joined Kramer's cross-country tour in the mid-'50s. Hartwig drove 37,500 miles by car while his companion, Segura, slept blissfully in the back seat, recuperating from another romantic evening. Segura was a remarkable ladies' man, but a terrible driver. Once Hartwig gave him the wheel. The desert road was straight and empty. A short time later Hartwig was roused from sleep by Segura's screaming. The car was shaking violently, Segoo had a death grip on the wheel and his eyes were wide and staring. "Look, see how fast I'm going!" he yelled, afraid to take his eyes off the road. The speedometer needle was vibrating above 90 mph. Hartwig took the wheel and ordered Segura to the back seat.
When the seniors were younger, tennis was different, more of a lark than a business. Perhaps for this reason the Grand Masters has more than its share of eccentrics. Ulrich still has his beard, his ponytail and his baffling responses. When a solicitous fan inquires about the state of Ulrich's injured foot, the player looks at the limb seriously. He wiggles it. The foot is studied. Torben inhales deeply and cocks his head. His hands flutter. "Wellllll," he says. "It's still there."