- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
Jordi worked on an olive farm in Diezma, 18 miles from Granada, for 40 pesetas a day, the equivalent at the time of $1.80. The Higuerases lived in a stone barn surrounded by fruit trees. It still stands, though it's falling apart from disuse. Pura did the family wash in the river and cooked meals for the pickers.
They moved to La Floresta, eight miles from Barcelona, when Higueras was six. Jordi then worked 15 hours a day in construction. "We didn't have enough money for dessert," Jose recalls. "After a few years, my father got a raise, and we had dessert on Sundays." At that time the tennis clubs were recruiting ball boys out of the villages. The clubs promised hot lunches, the most elementary of education and 40 pesetas a day. In return, the boys chased balls for eight or nine hours.
Spain's best players came out of this system. Santana and 1975 U.S. Open champion Manuel Orantes were both ball boys, and the other old Spanish master, Andres Gimeno, is the son of a ball boy. Some Spaniards say the elimination of this peonage is the reason their country has no up-and-coming players. "Giving those boys the opportunity to be ball boys kept them off the streets," says Larim. "If they didn't become champions, they could always teach tennis. Our old ball boys now have apartments near the sea and mountains. They live better than many of our members."
At age nine Higueras began hounding balls full time. He'd get up at 5 a.m., walk a mile and a half to the train station and ride for an hour into the city. He had to work two days to pay for a week's train fare. He'd get in a couple of hours of tennis before and after work and return home at about eight in the evening. Higueras worked seven days a week, 52 weeks a year. If he was good, he got every other Sunday afternoon off.
"Jose was strong-willed, even at 12," says Jose Maria Ducamp, a Spanish tennis writer. "Once, Fred Stolle and Roy Emerson, who were playing at the club, hiked 12 kilometers into the mountains. Jose was so impressed that the next day he did the same thing. I asked him, 'Why are you killing yourself?' And he said, 'Because they're the number one and number two players in the world. If they can do it, so can I.' "
But Higueras wasn't exactly a hot prospect. In fact, he was pretty much ignored. A few club members even objected that he was practicing when he was supposed to be running down balls. "They didn't want a poor boy to beat their kid," says Higueras with some bitterness. "No matter what I did, they'd always look at me as a ball boy."
On his 15th birthday Higueras was deemed too old to continue being a ball boy. So Larim took him off the courts and moved him to the front door, which he opened for members. At 17, Higueras was still eating hot lunches out back with the ball boys. The more promising kids had been dining in the club restaurant for years. "It never entered anyone's mind that Jose could become a world-class player," says Orantes. "People were always saying what a poor or unnatural player he was. It was tremendous willpower that turned him into a good player. He practiced for hours and hours on his own."
One day during a tournament against another club, Real's star junior player bowed out of a decisive match, and Higueras volunteered to take his place. He won the match and, finally, a measure of acceptance. But after all these years, Higueras still feels uneasy at the club. He spends more time speaking to the ball boys, who now work only tournaments, waiters and locker-room attendants than to the members. And he has never made it past the quarterfinals of the Spanish Open, which is held there. "I don't feel comfortable playing in Spain," he says.
Several years ago Higueras bought a "title," or equity membership, to the club. "It cost me 3,500 bucks, but at least I'm a member," he says. "Now no one can tell me I can't play when I want." Says Orantes, "Jose has been let down so often by those he trusted that he has turned more and more to his family. Today he takes refuge in his family."
The family breaks down into two parts, the Palm Springs branch and the Barcelona branch. His father-in-law, Palm Springs Mayor Frank Bogert, has an air of the Old West about him. He wears a bolo tie, brown sharkskin boots and a rabbit-felt cowboy hat, and acts as if he has just stepped off a stagecoach. During a tournament in Palm Springs in 1978, Bogert put up Higueras and his countryman, Angel Gimenez. Bogert asked Donna to return from Cal State—Fullerton to show them around. "I was mad because I had to come home and baby-sit a couple of tennis players," she says. "I thought tennis players were the most arrogant people alive."