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Who will be the Colgate Grand Prix champion?" asked the magazine ad for the big January showdown in Madison Square Garden. "Hmm, let's see now," muttered Edward Brodeur, studying the candidates listed in the ad. "Vilas? No. Tanner? Hardly. Solomon will be out of there early...."
Then, with an air of finality, Brodeur said, "O.K., in the semifinals you'll have Borg, Connors, McEnroe and Gerulaitis. The matches will last an average of one hour and 50 minutes. The players will average 4.8 strokes per point with 3% aces, 8% service winners, and 2% of their rallies will exceed 15 strokes. And, oh yes, to answer the question, Bjorn Borg will be the champion."
At the time, three weeks before the tournament, Brodeur was sipping a cup of coffee in a cafeteria near his home in Marietta, Ga. So there were no tea leaves to consult, no crystal balls or trick mirrors. By what magic, then, was he able to correctly predict the triumph of Borg, who had never won in New York City, the names of the four semifinalists, the average length of the matches and all the other variables to within two-tenths of a percentage point?
The answer lies not in the stars but underfoot. Ed Brodeur, 58, is not a psychic but a very down-to-earth chemist who makes tennis courts. He is the owner of Research Coatings and Plastics, Inc., an eight-man company that manufactures Supreme Court, a portable playing surface used in the major men's indoor tournaments throughout the world. And while he calls them as he foresees them strictly for fun, he does it with the uncanny accuracy of a tennis technocrat who can discourse for hours on the relationship among Newton's laws of motion, the energy absorption of vinyl-coated polypropylene and the 140-mph serves of Roscoe Tanner.
Over the past six years Brodeur has amassed reams of technical data on some 1,000 professional tennis matches. He was seeking to "engineer" the perfect court, but along the way he also became an expert on the imperfections of the players. Forget motivation, rivalries, pressure, courage and all the other intangibles that the romantics in the press box dote on. Regardless of how hard they struggle, says Brodeur, the pros are such slaves to the dictates of physics that the results of their labors are as foregone a conclusion as ball impact equals mass times velocity squared.
"You can predict exactly what will happen," says Brodeur. "It doesn't matter what kind of ball they use or what kind of racket or what kind of shoes they wear or anything else."
What really matters, he says, is the composition of the surface, and when it comes to creating courts Ed Brodeur is a cross between Nostradamus and Henry the Navigator. He can foretell the final destination because he charts the course. That is, by varying the mix of chemicals, Brodeur contends, "We can put down a court on which Tanner would win absolutely. We can keep the Eddie Dibbses in there and we can get the Brian Gottfrieds out of there. We can favor the Europeans or we can make it an ail-American event. No one is aware of the power we have. They can say what they want, but in the final analysis we are the ones who are going to say who wins."
So why play? Or more to the point, why believe such an expansive claim? Well, beyond Brodeur's demonstrated powers as a clairvoyant, there are other factors that support the basis, if not the full sweep, of his contentions.
It is no secret that certain players perform more proficiently on certain surfaces than on others. Harold Solomon, for instance, is as tough to beat on slomo clay as Pancho Gonzalez was on the lickety-split cement slabs of California. It can be argued, in fact, that playing conditions figure more crucially in the outcome of tennis than in any other professional sport.
Brodeur's credibility is also enhanced by the fact that the art of creating tennis courts has advanced to the point where he can roll out a customized surface to suit the style of any type of player. "We can make it play like grass, like clay, like cement or anything in between," he says. "We can make it as soft as a worm or as hard as rock. We can maximize the spin effect of the ball or make it play as straight as a railroad track. In short, we can make the ball do anything we want it to."