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Walter Bingham
April 20, 1981
To the plaudits of far too few, this frail-looking slugger has risen to No. 4 in the tennis rankings. No player in the game has a better variety of shots
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April 20, 1981

The Prime Of Gene Mayer

To the plaudits of far too few, this frail-looking slugger has risen to No. 4 in the tennis rankings. No player in the game has a better variety of shots

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"Some players try to blow you off the court," says Roscoe Tanner, No. 9, who most certainly tries to blow opponents off the court with his blistering serve. "Gene manipulates you. One reason he returns serve so well is that he stands in close and takes the ball on the rise."

"He keeps me confused," says Mel Purcell, last year's Rookie of the Year. "I can't tell where he's going to hit the ball."

Says McEnroe, grudgingly, "He's a lot more confident now. He disguises the ball well."

On this evening in Denver there are more than the usual number of questionable line calls, provoking a protest by Mayer to the umpire. Mayer looks up at him, his palms held up as if testing for raindrops. Up in the stands, Rhonda Mayer stiffens slightly. "If he ever acted really poorly, I'd kill him," she says. "But he never would. Actually, I'd just be very quiet in the car later."

Rhonda has known Gene since junior high school in Woodmere, a town on Long Island some 14 miles from Manhattan. "He used to hang around outside my classrooms," she says. "He'd tease me a lot. He still does." The two were married in late 1977. A Mayer public-relations pamphlet credits both Rhonda and the Prince racket, which Mayer began using that year, with his improvement from No. 148 then to his present eminence. "Which one was it...really?" she asks her husband coyly. He is a tease, merely giving her a sly look. "It was me," she says defiantly, closing the subject.

On this evening he eliminates his opponent quickly, a Mayer characteristic. Virtually everything he does is done with dispatch, as if he's impatient to get on with whatever is next. He skipped his senior year of high school and took only three years to graduate from Stanford. He will put away a plateful of food before others have spread their napkins. His autograph takes only a second to administer, a straight line interrupted only by two humps and a dip, presumably a G, an M and a y. When he walks from the arena to his car, bag over his shoulder, rackets under his arm, he sets so brisk a pace that Rhonda falls 10 paces behind.

Since he has won this match, the media request his presence. Mayer is a good interview, not so much for what he says about himself as for his astute observations on the tennis scene and his rivals' strengths and weaknesses. And he is forthright enough to say what he thinks. For instance, he will tell you that Borg's strokes are not truly phenomenal, that many other players hit the ball better. But he will quickly add that Borg's patience, stamina and savvy make him the great player he is. Nastase? It's a shame he can't play anymore. The umpire working his match that night? It's not an easy job, but that fellow seems to have a particular problem.

Interviews over, it's time for the truly important event of the evening, the before-bed snack. As we shall see, it is mind-boggling. On the way to a restaurant near their hotel, Rhonda exuberates over an old rug they bought that afternoon. The Mayers love nothing more than to spend an afternoon in search of antiques for the five-bedroom ranch-style home they bought in Woodmere two years ago. They shop in virtually every town they visit.

"Today I went upstairs in this store and saw the greatest set of six dining-room chairs," Mayer says. "American mid-1800s, which is what we're doing the house in. I told Rhonda to come up, but then I saw a tag on one of the chairs. Sold! It's probably just as well. They were $600 each."

The fact is, Mayer can now afford a $3,600 set of chairs. He won $17,000 in 1976 and roughly double that the next year. In 1978 the figure was $75,000, then $219,000 in 1979 and $397,000 last year. He invests most of his income in real estate and natural gas holdings. No Rolls-Royces or mink jackets (Rhonda would kill him), although when he was single he did spend money as fast as it came in, mostly on stereos and clothes.

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