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THE ODD COUPLE OF THE COURTS
Curry Kirkpatrick
August 25, 1980
Overpowering but underconfident, Peter Fleming hooked up with cocky John McEnroe and somehow they became the world's best doubles team.
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August 25, 1980

The Odd Couple Of The Courts

Overpowering but underconfident, Peter Fleming hooked up with cocky John McEnroe and somehow they became the world's best doubles team.

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Previously in singles, Fleming had led the world in double faults—"My game plan is boom, boom and more boom" he once said—and had alternately hit the fence or tentatively set up opponents with a no-clue, be-careful strategy off the ground. Conversely, in doubles—with the reassurance of a swashbuckling McEnroe terrorizing the opposition up there at the net—Fleming would nail returns without regard for life or limb and know his partner was ready to cross and pounce.

So at the ATP Championships, Fleming talked himself into pretending that his singles matches were doubles. On his service he stood wider and made a subtle adjustment in his second delivery, "staying over" the ball, adding more spin and keeping it in play. "I'll just throw this baby in there and Junior will cross and put away the volley," Fleming would say to himself on serve. Or "I'm mainlining this return and nobody over there is getting it back," he would say on defense.

It was the first time Fleming had connected the two games. "The change," he said, "was like black and white. One day I was terrible. The next I was amazing. I was routining guys all over the place." Among others in Cincinnati, he thrashed Stan Smith and Roscoe Tanner and seemed to be on the verge of fulfilling his enormous potential.

"Flam is one of the few guys out here who on a good day can manhandle anybody around—Bjorn, Jimbo, anybody," says Amaya, a rival since college. "He can streak-return a guy off the court. He can serve a couple of aces every game, then airmail a couple of winning returns a game. I've seen him beat guys in 40 minutes. Wham. It's over. When he's on, he's awesome. Then I've seen him go totally in the dumper. How can a guy win Cincy the way he did, then the next week blow out to Jaime Fillol in the second round of the Open?"

"I must have served 30 doubles in that one," Fleming sighs in explanation.

To be sure, Fleming's performances at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open the last few years have left much to be desired. Before this year, in four appearances at Wimbledon he had won two matches—over Fillol and the immortal Czech Jiri Granat—and last summer he lost to Hank Pfister after serving what he said were "another 30 doubles, easy."

Fleming is still horribly masochistic in his self-abuse during practice sessions—"You gawking fool," he will cry, "you stupid jerk"—and some players feel this attitude carries over to his matches.

"Peter doesn't stay positive," says one opponent. "You can always see the potential for a disaster there—his volatility and temper. He's tough on the lead, but when he's struggling he starts sulking and blows up. He'll usually beat himself."

On his return to the tour in the WCT Tournament of Champions at Forest Hills in May, Fleming was leading Brian Teacher 6-2, 5-3 and serving for the match when a heckler with white hair who had been applauding Fleming's errors finally got to him. He double-faulted away the game, lost the set, yelled at the heckler, "Hey, albino, why don't you shove this racket——" and threw away the match, 6-2, in the third.

Lack of confidence—the bane of most gawky, uncoordinated types—has haunted Fleming since his high school days in Chatham, a tree-lined stronghold of Jersey suburbia just close enough to Manhattan to explain the neighborhood children's sometimes rabid manner. At first Fleming's peers shot past him in height, after which he contracted mononucleosis. Fleming later rallied and grew at least two inches every year as he escaped teendom. But he says he always had the "geek syndrome." Fleming played all the sports anyway, just to be one of the boys.

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