Peter Fleming has been making peculiar decisions all his life. He picked tennis over basketball even as he was growing up very tall, albeit very late; he didn't stop growing until he was 21 and had reached 6'5". Fleming enrolled at Michigan even though, as a golden-haired, blue-eyed hunk of WASP he looked born to the California chorus of a Frankie Avalon beach blanket movie. Actually, he was born in New Jersey and ended up at UCLA.
In 1977, Fleming picked a doubles partner. Contrasting personalities are considered de rigueur—so of course Fleming hooked up with a younger kid whose volatility, erratic behavior, loud mouth, snapping temper and monstrous ego were near the same level as his own. Now, Fleming frets that he will go to his eternal rest as merely "the big goon who played doubles with John McEnroe."
Not that such a distinction would be all that terrible. At next week's U.S. Open he and McEnroe will be the heavy favorites to repeat as national doubles champions. In the last 26 months, or since shortly after they were embarrassed in the 1978 Wimbledon final by Bob Hewitt and Frew McMillan, Fleming-McEnroe, or McEnroe-Fleming ("Take your pick," says Junior. "Go ahead with Fleming-McEnroe," says the older partner, who is known on the tour as "Flam") have won just about everything there is to win in doubles. In 1979 they took Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, the WCT Worlds and their second Masters—all in all, 12 of the 15 tournaments they entered as a team. Their overall won-lost record in Grand Prix matches was a fairly absurd 69-3. To keep the marriage fresh, they even split up occasionally and won those tournaments as well, McEnroe the U.S. Clay Courts with Gene Mayer, and Fleming the Italian Open with Tomas Smid.
Together again this year—but only briefly, because of injuries and conflicting commitments—they have lost only twice: in a Queens Club pre-Wimbledon warmup to the Gullikson twins, Tom and Tim, and in the semifinals of Wimbledon itself to the Australian pair of Paul McNamee and Peter McNamara, the eventual champions. In the latter match, played the same afternoon as McEnroe's street fight with Jimmy Connors and the day before his historic final against Bjorn Borg, Fleming says they "lost steam" after dropping the first set.
Flam and Junior contribute equally important condiments to the doubles sauce, resulting in a blend that is one of the surest things in tennis. Young as it is, their team already is inviting comparison with the brothers Renshaw, Baddeley and Doherty, who dominated Wimbledon doubles through the turn of the century, winning 19 All England championships; the Frank Sedgman-Ken McGregor tandem, which in 1951 became the first and only doubles team to win the Grand Slam; the Open era wonders, John Newcombe-Tony Roche, who won five Wimbledons; Stan Smith-Bob Lutz, who have won four U.S. championships; and Hewitt-McMillan, who together and in combination with other partners have won 18 men's and mixed Grand Slam titles.
The Fleming-McEnroe duo could become even more dominant. Gene Mako, the forgotten partner of the great Don Budge, says flatly, "They should never lose a match." Victor Amaya, the 6'7" giant of the current tour, reaffirms this. "No other team is close," he says. "Hewitt-McMillan and Smith-Lutz are past challenging them—no chance. Riessen-Stewart is a really good team. Fibak-Okker is good. But they don't have enough power. They would win about two of 10 matches against Fleming-Mac. Gottfried-Ramirez have been back together a while. They're smart, quick, creative. They make things happen. They'd get maybe three of 10. McNamee-McNamara are terrific, but new; we have to find out about them."
It is a disappointing irony of the sport that the event which most often raises the level of a tournament—with more players on the court, more action, better entertainment, a preponderance of gambling and hang-it-all-out shotmaking plus a more enlightening display of the game's tactical and technical possibilities—is doubles, yet doubles gets the lowest priorities both in terms of scheduling and prize money. Sometimes the hot-dog vendors have closed up shop by the time it's center stage for the doubles, which is allotted a measly 20% of a tournament's prize money.
"Basically, singles is work and doubles is play," says Gene Mayer, who has reached the Top 10 in both games. "I rarely have much fun playing a singles match. I have to fight and claw, think, gut things out. In doubles you can mentally lay back, hit out, do things with the ball, try pizzazz and really enjoy yourself." Nobody gets more enjoyment from doubles than Fleming and McEnroe. The latter has always liked doubles, not least for the salutary effect it has on his singles game. McEnroe would rather play doubles matches than practice singles any day. Fleming has come to the same conclusion, and his singles game has improved considerably.
In 1979 Fleming won three important singles titles—the Beckenham warmup to Wimbledon, the inaugural Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) Championships at Cincinnati and the Jack Kramer Open (formerly the Pacific Southwest) at Los Angeles—and was runner-up in tournaments in San Jose, San Francisco and Maui. His singles ranking on the ATP computer rose to No. 11 in the world. This year Fleming, who now holds down the No. 9 spot, advanced to the semifinals of the prestigious (but rained-out) Volvo tournament at Palm Springs before developing a neuroma on his foot while he was practicing for the Davis Cup matches in South America, which forced him to miss most of the spring season, indoors and out.
After recuperating at his oceanside retreat in Seabrook Island, S.C., he came back to play his finest Wimbledon, advancing to the quarterfinals. He lost in straight sets to—yes—McEnroe. "Junior got on top of me early," says Fleming. "I've never seen the guy move better."