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Here's A Lamb Among Wolves
Franz Lidz
January 09, 1984
The meek are not about to inherit the woolly world of pro tennis, but Jose Higueras is proof that a gentle man can win
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January 09, 1984

Here's A Lamb Among Wolves

The meek are not about to inherit the woolly world of pro tennis, but Jose Higueras is proof that a gentle man can win

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On a narrow, dusty street in Diezma, a village of 1,150 people in the south of Spain, a train of donkeys plods past houses so white they rise from the red clay like gleaming teeth. At the edge of town, old men pass time in a junkyard by taunting two toritos (little bulls). Caught up in their own myths, the old men tease the bulls with a straw hat on a stick in scarecrow mimicry of bullfighting. Jose Higueras pauses to watch. He's the rich young tennis player come home.

"Hola, Pepe," shouts one old man with a leathery grin, using the Spanish nickname for Jose. "Take a turn with the bulls." But Pepe disdains this sport.

The bulls tire of the game, too. They snort and paw the ground. They charge. The old men scatter, screaming. Higueras doesn't move. "The bulls haven't heard about my backhand," he says.

Higueras, 30, has made a career out of standing firm. He's one of the toughest tennis players there is. He has played the two longest matches in Grand Prix history: The first lasted five hours and six minutes; the second, 58 days. He competed on the tour for the better part of 1980 and '81 with hepatitis sapping his strength. Last May he reached the semifinals of the French Open with an elbow injury so painful that after matches he couldn't raise his right arm to flick on the light in his hotel room. On the court he even had trouble pat-a-caking serves and overheads. This kind of tenacity has made him the No. 7 player in the world and in 1983 earned him $200,000 in official winnings and about the same amount from endorsements and exhibitions.

Yet he's virtually unknown in the U.S. Although Higueras lives in Palm Springs, Calif., where his father-in-law is the mayor, he spends most of his time grinding down opponents in wars of attrition on the slow clay courts of Europe and South America. His baseline game isn't well-suited to the hard surfaces used in most American tournaments, so he competes in the U.S. only six weeks a year. Last summer he entered the U.S. Open for the first time since 1977, the final year the event was played on clay. In the opening round of the '83 Open he beat Matt Anger, Tracy Austin's boyfriend, before getting whipped by Chris Evert Lloyd's husband, John, in the second. He'll be playing on the carpet of the Volvo Masters at Madison Square Garden Jan. 10-15. If you want to catch him, you'd better get there early in the tournament.

Lately Higueras, who's the son of an olive picker and once shagged tennis balls for the local gentry, has taken on a lean and clean (shaven) look. He used to have a beard that made him resemble an Andalusian outlaw. He speaks English with the warm musical inflections of southern Spain. At a press conference following his loss last May in Paris, he gave an unsolicited testimonial to his opponent, Mats Wilander. After Higueras had fielded the final question and the reporters were on their way out of the interview room, he said, "I would like to say something about Mats if I could. It's a pleasure to play against someone like him. He's such a sportsman, and such a great player as well. I hope he becomes Number One in the world. The game needs more like him." With under-the-table guarantees and over-the-table petulance the norm these days, it's hard enough to get a defeated pro to show up at a press conference, much less to find one lavishly praising his conqueror to the media. For such actions the Association of Tennis Professionals—Higueras' fellow players—next week will present him with its Sportsmanship Award for 1983.

Higueras, clearly, isn't your typical tennis star. He believes in the ancient verities: courage, perseverance, loyalty, honor. He chafes at the privileges, such as byes and guarantees, given high-ranking players. And he's practically alone among those in the Top 10 in remembering he was once among the bottom 100.

"I'm very grateful to tennis," Higueras says. "I never had anything, and now I have a family and everybody's happy. Sometimes I don't understand the attitude of other players. They make millions of dollars, and still they're very selfish. They think they are the game." An especially notable offender, according to Higueras, is Ivan Lendl. "That guy doesn't give a crap about anything," Higueras says. "He makes as much money as he can off tennis and then walks away."

In the summer of 1982, Higueras was trailing Lendl 6-3, 3-2 in the finals of the Volvo International in North Conway, N.H., when rain stopped the match. Higueras could have taken the $16,000 second-place prize and never looked back. After all, his chances of winning seemed slim. But two months later Higueras returned from Spain to resume the match. He lost in just 7½ minutes. "The fans deserved a winner," he says.

Watching Higueras play is about as exciting as counting the 850 columns in the Great Mosque at Cordoba. Jimmy Connors calls his game "baby tennis," but in 1982 Higueras babied Connors out of the French in three 6-2 sets. Last November, at the European Champions Championship in Antwerp, he nursed Jimbo along again, winning 2-6, 7-6, 6-2. Higueras may not be too artistic, but he takes full advantage of what he does well. He stays at the baseline and popcorns ball after ball until he either wears out his opponent or the guy just plain loses patience. Once at North Conway, Higueras and the equally plodding Corrado Barazzutti traded 135 shots on a single point. Later, after several more interminable rallies, the umpire called for the compulsory ball change. "Change balls?" a spectator yelled. "Change players."

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