After graduating in December, Mayer hit the pro circuit full time. But largely because of several tough draws that pitted him against top-tenners in early rounds, Gene found himself as low as No. 150 in the fall of 1977. In December he married Rhonda and switched to the Prince.
"We were running up huge phone bills," says Rhonda. "He'd call from places like Japan and South America." Rhonda now travels almost everywhere with him, spending long hours on her embroidery when her husband is practicing.
Mayer won his first pro event in 1978, the Guadalajara Open—hardly Wimbledon, but a start. Then, that October, an accident nearly ended his career.
Mayer had finished a tournament in Hawaii, and he and Rhonda had been talked into taking a horseback ride in the mountains there with a friend. "It was just a dead old horse I was on," Mayer says, "but suddenly the saddle slipped." Mayer tried to jump off, but the toe of his left shoe caught in the stirrup, causing him to twist his lower back as he fell.
"I remember looking up and seeing the horse up on its hind legs right over me," Mayer says. "I rolled out of the way fast." But when he rose and tried walking, it "was as if someone had stuck a knife in my back."
X rays revealed that he had fractured some of the transverse processors in his back, and for several weeks he was bedridden, uncertain if he would ever again be able to play tennis effectively.
Now consider another element in Mayer's life: his religion. Both elder Mayers were non-practicing Catholics when Gene and Sandy were growing up, and the boys stopped going to church when they were youngsters. "When I went to college I was aware of a void in my life," Gene says. "I didn't feel close to anyone for a while, even Rhonda. I had gotten into the habit of thinking I was right about everything, and I knew that couldn't be."
At Stanford, Mayer met an unofficial campus spiritual adviser named Jim Stump, who a few years earlier had persuaded Sandy to take an active interest in Christianity. Stump gave Gene religious books to read, and Gene forwarded many of them to Rhonda, a Jew. Before long both had converted, and they now belong to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, a small fundamentalist branch of Presbyterianism. Their religion is a very serious and private matter with them. They pray and read the Bible together, but there are no outward signs of their beliefs, nor do they try to convert friends or strangers.
Mayer believes his faith helped him through his three-month convalescence. When he started to play again, he found he had an intensity he had lacked before. In April of 1979, he reached the finals at Houston and the semis in Las Vegas. In May he was a semifinalist at the Italian Open. "If there was a turning point, that spring was it," Mayer says. He finished the year at No. 12 on the computer. Last year, with five more wins and many other strong showings (Mayer rarely gets upset by lesser players), he climbed to No. 4.
He hasn't tailed off this year, having won two tournaments and finished second in another. At the Masters in January, he beat McEnroe and Borg, each for the first time, although Borg, not needing to win that night under the tournament's double-elimination format, was not at his best. "Genie didn't miss a shot the first four games," says Rhonda when it is suggested that Borg went into the tank. Mayer won the first set 6-0. "I think he tried hard the second set," says Mayer. "It was 3-3 and then I broke serve." Mayer closed it out, 6-3.