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The second of four sons, 5-year-old Peter used to tag along after his father, Alan, to the old man's tennis games at the Short Hills Racquets Club, where he hit against a backboard for two hours at a time. In later summers the father, a portfolio manager on Wall Street, would drop his son off at the club on the way to the train station in the morning and pick him up on the way home at night. "I once played 17 sets in a day," Fleming says.
Alan Fleming was a ranked player in the East who made a few forgettable appearances at Forest Hills. When his son was in his mid-teens, that was also the forecast for Peter, a lumbering soul who says he "kept losing to these bums who could only pat the ball back."
Meanwhile, Peter himself kept bashing his macho-monster serves and hitting the backstops until Warren Woodcock, a former player from Australia, took an interest in coaching him. Woodcock still has a yellowed clipping that reads "Laver Upsets Woodcock to Win Juniors." He was a brilliant youngster who never fulfilled his promise, but he knew things could work the opposite way.
Because Fleming was so awkward yet so penetrating on serve, Woodcock concentrated on his ground game, emphasizing clean strokes and flat balls. "He told me it didn't matter what I was at 14," Fleming remembers. "It's when I was 19 that everything would count."
In 1973, at age 18, Fleming began playing every day, all year round. He continued to grow, to fill out in the legs, to gain speed and quickness. In 1974 he and Fleming père won the National Father and Son Grass Court title at the Long-wood Cricket Club in Boston. Until then, Fleming had had few successes in national events. When he applied to Stanford the previous year, he was accepted—but without a scholarship. He had gotten in on his own without the help of the tennis coach. UCLA inquired. Michigan recruited him hard. Because Fleming had what he calls "a sheltered, naive East Coast guy's image of California as a freaked-out, drugged-up hippie colony," he chose Ann Arbor.
It was the wrong decision. Fleming was sidelined with a back injury much of his freshman year, was unhappy in his new surroundings and unpopular with teammates, who found him cocky. "I was not an easy person to live with," he admits. "I was an ass, more or less."
After his transfer to UCLA, Fleming changed his attitude within the year. "I had never been away from Jersey and it took a full year for me to grow up," he says. "I wasn't mad at everything anymore. I really loosened up." In his red-shirt year at Westwood, 1975, Fleming was astounded by the on-court intensity of the players under Coach Glenn Bassett. When Bassett put the Bruins through calisthenics, Fleming headed for the pool. Bassett had said if anybody didn't want to work, he should take a hike. Fleming took the coach at his word. He took a swim.
The next season NCAA champion Billy Martin turned pro and Fleming stepped in as the UCLA meal ticket. Still, he and Bassett didn't see eye to eye. "Flam's biggest concern was to have fun," says Bruce Nichols, Fleming's roommate at UCLA. "He refused to come to practice on time. He did his own conditioning up on the slope where the girls sunbathed. His whole philosophy was different from Bassett's. Once Flam made a mistake on court. He pointed to his brain. He said he needed electroshock treatments. Coach thought he was serious and almost called the doctor."
Bill Scanlon of Trinity upset the previously undefeated Fleming for the collegiate title in the heat of Corpus Christi, Texas that June, coming from behind to reverse a 6-0, 6-1 shelling he had received earlier in the season. "I have to rationalize this, of course," Fleming says, "but I was burned out from playing all year and staying unbeaten. I'll never be as tired until the day I die." Weariness didn't prevent Fleming from partnering Ferdi Taygan to the doubles title, however, a victory that clinched another NCAA championship for UCLA.
Fleming passed up his senior season in college. Outspoken and irreverent, he immediately established himself on the pro circuit with his slashing style, tons of double faults and a loose tongue. ("I have a tendency to spew forth from the mouth," he says.) But he needlessly lost matches to his temper when he wasn't squandering them because of self-consciousness or worry about his fitness. Ilie Nastase used to trail Fleming on court, mimicking him in the lurching movements of some spastic beast. As in his high school years, Fleming often was tense, overanxious, severely puzzled by his losses. It was as if the ugly geek was still alive in the handsome beach-boy body.