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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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Mayer earns close to three times as much away from tournaments as he does in them. "Below a certain level you pretty much have to live on what you make from official winnings," he says, sounding rather sad for those who must. Indeed, his current earning power stuns him. "It is so much more than the average person's," he says. "More than the President's."

Mayer's additional income flows from an ever-growing number of sources. In addition to playing several lucrative exhibition and special events every year, he is a walking billboard. His tennis clothes—warm-ups, shirts and shorts—are by Sergio Tacchini, his shoes are Nike and his racket, of course, Prince. He has an incipient relationship with Volvo, having done a brief commercial for the carmaker in January. His payment? What else—a new Volvo. Before matches Mayer is introduced as "the touring pro from the Westhampton Tennis and Sports Club in his home state of New York."

"I show up several times a year," Mayer says. "I say hello to the folks, organize a tournament and maybe play an exhibition."

The Mayers have arrived at the restaurant, and what happens next is astonishing. If Mayer never hits another ball, he will go down in tennis history as the game's greatest consumer of food. Only one person has ever been in his class, his brother Sandy, for whom Stanford established the Sandy Mayer Memorial Eating Award. When the Mayer boys were young, their mother, Ingeborg, did double duty in the kitchen as her sons put away, oh, two dozen eggs, a loaf of bread, two quarts of milk, plus a variety of hams, cheeses—whatever was there. "A new record every day," Gene once said. Today he is sensitive about the subject of his appetite, partly because the press keeps repeating the same old stories, like the time Tim Gullikson saw him devour seven double-decker cheeseburgers, and partly because he has cut down recently—although he hasn't been fanatical about it.

Gene and Rhonda take a booth in the non-smoking section of the restaurant. As the menus are delivered, Gene orders two lemonades, Rhonda a Sanka. When the drinks arrive, the orders are made: Gene will have a bowl of mushroom soup, a Grand Slam—a combo of pancakes, eggs and bacon—plus a ham and tomato sandwich with melted cheese over it. Rhonda orders a grilled turkey, bacon and cheese sandwich, part of which is ticketed for Gene. At an adjoining booth, John Sadri smiles. He is watching the master. A waiter brings a chocolate malt to Sadri, passing Mayer on the way.

"Almost hijacked that one," Mayer says. When the soup comes, it's in a cup. "This is a bowl?" Mayer asks.

"It's all that was left," says the waitress.

"No choice then," Mayer says cheerfully, diving in. When the rest of the food arrives, Mayer attacks. The pancakes go first. Rhonda is given one bite, but it costs her half her sandwich. Next come his sandwich and a third lemonade. Then, no more than half an hour after they sat down, they are back in the car, driving to the hotel. For all of his eating, Mayer's stomach is as flat as, well, a pancake. "He has a very high metabolism," Rhonda says. "And he really has cut down. He eats much less meat, hardly ever drinks soda and takes vitamins and minerals every day."

Although Gene Mayer is a new name among the elite of pro tennis, it is hardly new to the game itself. He has been winning tournaments since he was seven. He has recent victories over McEnroe and Borg, but still considers a win when he was 11 as his best ever. "It was in the finals of the national 12-and-unders in Chattanooga," he says. "I beat a kid named Robert Rouse, who was already 6'2" and had a huge serve. I cried for two hours before the match, and my parents were concerned that they had done the wrong thing by getting me involved in this sort of world."

Gene's father, Alex, had long been familiar with this sort of world. A native of Sombor, a town in northern Yugoslavia that was part of Hungary from 1941 to 1946, he represented both countries in the Davis Cup, the rules permitting such things then. He was also European doubles champion in 1938. During World War II Alex served in the Hungarian army and spent a year in an Allied prisoner-of-war camp. When the fighting was over, he went to work for the U.S. Military Government, giving tennis and Ping-Pong exhibitions at Army bases around Europe.

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