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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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Alas, it's still necessary to introduce Gene Mayer, even though he is the fourth-best tennis player in the world. Ya gotta have a gimmick, they say, and apparently Mayer has none. For instance, there's nothing memorable about his name. It's not as catchy as Vitas or Roscoe, Ilie or Wojtek, players he has left in the dust. His wife calls him Genie, but this lacks the punch of, say, Jimbo. Complicating matters is the existence of another tennis-playing Mayer, his older brother, Sandy (he's 29, Gene's 25), who reached the semifinals at Wimbledon in 1973. If the name Mayer does strike a chord, chances are you're thinking of Sandy.

Nor does Gene provide the folks in the seats with a little show within a show. He doesn't grunt with every shot or try to swallow the handle of his racket when he errs. He doesn't slug tennis balls at linesmen or into the rafters. In Denver last month, while Mayer was quietly winning his second straight tournament, Ilie Nastase grabbed most of the headlines for a series of obscene and self-destructive rantings that cost him $3,750 in fines.

Mayer has been No. 4 for only 3½ months, so his lack of celebrity is partly understandable. Moreover, his rapid rise is not the result of strong performances in the bright spotlights of Wimbledon or Flushing Meadow. John McEnroe became instant box office when he reached the semis of Wimbledon in 1977, his first time out of the starting gate. Ditto Bjorn Borg, who made it to the quarters there in 1973 as a 17-year-old. Mayer's best performance at either of those places is a quarterfinal loss to Borg at Wimbledon last year. Seven weeks later he went out in the first round of the U.S. Open, a victim of a pulled hamstring. Mayer's triumphs have come in comparative backwaters of the sport, places such as Cologne. Denver, Cleveland and Metz, France.

Let's observe Mayer closely during an evening of tennis, to see if we might detect something arresting about him, something noteworthy. Maybe he stands 6'7", like Vic Amaya, or sports a mustache, like John Newcombe. Wrong twice. He is a rather frail-looking young man, about 6 feet tall and 155 pounds. Much of the weight sits below the waist. His shoulders are almost delicate, his eyes heavy-lidded, his complexion pale, like that of someone enduring a bumpy plane ride. His expression is a blend of surprise and delight. When he arrives on court, he unzips from its case one of the nine rackets he carries. Mayer plays with an oversize model, the sort old men acquire when their skills begin to diminish. It's a Prince, and it has had much to do with his success.

He walks to the base line in a curious gait that is something between a waddle and a swagger. His heels land first, and he seems to move as much sideways as forward. He begins to rally and—what's this?—he's holding the racket with two hands, right over left, stroking both forehands and backhands in this manner. Others have hit two-fisted off both wings, most notably Frew McMillen, the renowned doubles specialist, but no double two-fister has ever been ranked nearly as high as Mayer.

Once play starts, this ordinary looking person with the ordinary name delivers his extraordinary message: Mayer's game has more variety and, yes, more excitement than those of all the Roscoes and Ilies, even more than Borg's. McEnroe's or Jimmy Connors', the three players ranked ahead of him. True, they do some things better—Borg willing to stay the night if that's what's needed to win; McEnroe serving and volleying; Connors pounding his glorious backhand. But Mayer provides a fuller smorgasbord of strokes. His forehand has always been a major weapon. His backhand, once vulnerable, has become an attacking stroke since he reverted to hitting it two-handed in 1974.

Mayer's return of serve is, with the possible exception of Connors', the best in the game. He dishes up a variety of spins and speeds that can drive an opponent crazy. A flick of both wrists sends a topspin lob over a foe at net, a ploy he used so often in the Denver final against John Sadri that poor Sadri looked befuddled. He also uses the drop shot—the most dangerous shot in tennis—more effectively and more frequently than anyone of his rank. At times it seems he's intentionally humiliating his opponent as he feathers the ball just over the net when a simple putaway would suffice.

Mayer's serve isn't fluid, not in the classic sense of Pancho Gonzalez' or Arthur Ashe's. It appears to unfold in sections, his back inordinately stiff throughout the swing. So what. It's the most improved part of his game, especially the first delivery, with which he can win points outright.

A poll of players produces agreement that Mayer has become a force. Sample comments:

"Mayer probably plays the game more intelligently than anyone," says Harold Solomon, No. 10 in the world. "He's also extremely deceptive off both sides. He's able to mix up speeds and change the angles of his shots—deep, short, soft and hard. His forehand is the best shot in the game today."

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