Higueras has a spectacularly accurate passing shot, and his backhand is as smooth as Ken Rosewall's, though not as powerful as Connors'. The Higueras serve, though, looks as if it's launched by a medieval catapult. The Moorish citadel of Granada fell in less time than it takes him to unwind. "Jose's serve is like a Goya painting," says Tommy Tucker, the director of tennis at the Mission Hills (Calif.) Country Club, where Higueras is a touring pro. "It brings back that Old World feeling. It's that single-mindedness of purpose. He looks almost timeless." Higueras aces are as rare as picadors in Pough-keepsie, but his serve is just a little too deep to take advantage of.
For Higueras, practice makes patience. He's on the court four to six hours every day. Tucker says that four of Higueras' hours are more intense than the average pro's two. "I've never seen anyone practice as relentlessly through pain," says Tucker.
And Higueras has endured more of that than most. The tennis elbow that caused him so much anguish in Paris had also plagued him through the three preceding tournaments. He made the finals of two of them. Then there were the 32 tournaments he played while ill with hepatitis. "Jose would get up in the morning and say, 'I feel awful,' " says his wife, Donna. "He looked awful, too, but he wouldn't see a doctor. He had yellow eyes and lost a lot of weight."
Higueras finally relented and saw a physician. On doctor's orders he spent three weeks in bed and took four months off from the tour. He returned to the circuit in January 1981, but the effects of the ailment lingered through the year, leaving him weak and with little stamina. His ranking, which had reached No. 9 at the end of 1979, fell to No. 38, and he seriously considered retiring.
By May 1982, though, Higueras was in the finals of the German Open, which is when he had his five-hour-plus match. He beat Peter McNamara 6-4, 7-6, 6-7, 3-6, 7-6, despite playing the last two sets with a broken blister the size of a quarter on the palm of his racket hand. "Pride is a huge factor with Jose," says Tucker.
Huge enough to make him walk away from jeering crowds at the 1978 Italian Open. He was leading Italian demigod Adriano Panatta 6-0, 5-1 in the semis. It was raining beer cans and 100-lira pieces—on Higueras' side of the court. "They called me everything," he says, "even 'son of a whore.' I didn't understand them: I was playing good; it wasn't that Panatta was playing bad." Higueras raised a fist in defiance. "Maybe I was wrong, but what else could I do?" he asks. Angered by the crowd, the umpire left the court, saying he was no longer officiating a tennis match. Higueras followed and forfeited.
"Jose equates diplomacy with dishonesty," says Donna. That may be why the Spanish press has never been too kind to him. They may be a bit chagrined that their best player is a cautious, clay-court laborer with none of the fire and flair of flamenco. Higueras has never enjoyed anything approaching the national popularity of Manuel Santana, the only Spaniard to win Wimbledon. Higueras broke with Santana, his boyhood hero, in 1980 when Santana, then captain of the Spanish Davis Cup team, wouldn't support Higueras in a clash with their country's tennis authorities, who thought he was washed up and had dropped him from the squad. Higueras even ripped up all his old clippings that said Santana was his idol. He also vowed he'd never again play Davis Cup.
"Jose was always terribly independent," says Michael Larim, former vice-president of the Real Club de Tenis Barcelona 1899, where Higueras got his start as a ball boy. "He had his own ideas, and usually he kept his ideas to himself. Very often he thought everyone was against him, but it was all his imagination."
Larim, a prosperous Barcelona customs broker, takes credit for bringing Higueras to the club. Larim sits in a dimly lit office before a yellowing map of the world as it used to be. He chews on a Partagas cigar that precedes him by about three blocks. He never lights it. The Real Club, Larim points out, is the oldest such institution in Spain. "Jose has a way of thinking about life that is a bit different than that of ordinary people," he says. "Ah, but it is always easier to talk to a millionaire's son than to a boy who comes from humble origins."
In the kitchen of his sister's unexceptional Barcelona apartment, Higueras sips malta, the Spanish peasant coffee, and spoons up the last drops from a bowl of lentil soup. "I have a rule that I never leave any food on the plate," he says. "If I ask for it, I eat it." His mother, Pura, and sister, Maria, are still dressed in black in memory of Jose's father, Jordi, who died last June. "This isn't Hollywood," Higueras says. "Most of the world lives like this. Some people think you don't have to remember when you're poor, but I don't think I'm any more happy now that I have money. Not that my life has been easy. I've always had to do a little extra."