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Will the real Bud Collins please stand up?
Let's see now, is he Bud Collins No. 1, who would eeeeeew, aaaaaah and yak like a magpie after every point at Wimbledon? Or is he Bud Collins No. 2, the restrained TV analyst who knows when to button his lip and let tennis breathe a little? Or is he Bud Collins No. 3, the author of bright, pungent tennis columns for The Boston Globe, who, if forced to choose, would work for a newspaper full time rather than do television?
Bud Collyer isn't around to tell the truth about this one, but the real Arthur Worth (Bud) Collins Jr., 56, owner of that Henry VIII beard since 1983, is in fact a combination of Nos. 2 and 3. Listen closely to NBC's coverage of Wimbledon this weekend and you'll notice that Collins lets Dick Enberg do most of the talking. Oh, he certainly can't resist coining an occasional nickname. When unknown Bobo Zivojinovic of Yugoslavia ousted Mats Wilander last week, Collins suggested Bobo move to Zagreb so he could be known on the air as "Mr. Z, the Zagreb Zinger." And yes, Collins still plugs his Uncle Studley back home in the States. But since 1983 there has been a marked change in what we'll call Collins's chartreuse level. Cast in a new role as an analyst, and not as a play-by-play man as he had been since 1963, when he called his first tournament on public television, Collins has become downright pleasant to listen to.
Bud Collins No. 1—the old, high-octane Collins—was, he admits, always something of an act. When the cameras caught a glimpse of John McEnroe's father picking his nose, Collins came up with a TV hall of fame classic. "Great forehand!" he said in hushed tones. For every natural quip, though, came two or three groaners. Bjorn Borg was the "archangel of center court" one year, the "angelic assassin" the next. Lady Di was Bud's "rookie housewife to be." The late Princess Grace of Monaco was "Grade Grimaldi."
During those overkill days Collins was trying too hard to be "on." "Commercial television is a little different from public TV," he says. "In commercial TV, you're expected to be always up and bright. You get into a certain mood. You feel yourself getting into a hyped-up beat." Now the tempo is different. While tennis is vanishing from PBS—the network may carry only the Virginia Slims of Newport tournament this year—Collins is shifting his PBS personality to NBC.
One person partly responsible for the "new" Collins is Mike Weisman, the executive producer of NBC Sports, who installed Enberg as the No. 1 tennis voice and assigned Collins to commentary in 1983. "Bud's enthusiasm when he's doing play-by-play can be a little overwhelming," Weisman says. "It goes back to my philosophy that less is more. I'm a big fan of Bud's, but I thought if he made only one reference to his uncle instead of six, it might play better."
Surrendering the lead microphone at Wimbledon to a fellow known more as a football and baseball announcer wasn't exactly a promotion for Collins, but it was a move that played to his broadcast and reportorial strengths. I rank them in this order: knowledge of his sport, candor, humor, intelligence as an interviewer and enthusiasm. The move made Collins better. He now can drop his little jewels in just the right places and isn't tempted to overwork anything except those purple nicknames (another blast of bombast for '85: Argentina's Gabriela Sabatini, "the Pearl of the Pampas").
Collins, the doyen of U.S. tennis writers, is certainly the most knowledgeable TV commentator on the game. Still a journalist first and media star second—"If somebody said take your pick, I'd stick to the paper," he says—he pays his dues by covering 20 to 25 tournaments a year for NBC, the Globe and World Tennis magazine. As for candor, well, we're talking about Mr. Frank Question here. Once when Romania's Ilie Nastase won a tournament, Collins opened an interview with this dart: "What's a nice communist boy like you doing taking all this prize money?"
As an interviewer, Collins may be the best in sports TV after Howard Cosell. People somehow feel compelled to open themselves up to Collins. One reason is that he doesn't ask questions just to confirm what he thinks. Another is that he actually listens to replies. Most TV interviewers give you the feeling that if Martina Navratilova mentioned she was four months pregnant, they would miss it while thinking up the next question.
So there we have it. The real Bud Collins is a Wimbledon workaholic (he's on double duty again this week, sometimes writing his daily Globe column while sitting in the NBC voice-over room). He's one of TV's few talking heads who was told to cool it and did. And—here's another four-star surprise—he's no longer the name-dropping know-it-all he once seemed to be on television.