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They arrived in Tampa on spring break from college. They came to Memphis by the busload. At the U.S. Open they appeared in the form of girls wearing T shirts with his name on the back. In Palm Springs, during a doubles match, an older one of them was so vociferous (read inebriated) that the normally mild-mannered Sherwood Stewart shoved the offender and had to be talked out of punching some manners into him.
This noisy, excitable breed of tennis follower has become known along the Grand Prix circuit as the "Mel Troop," a brazen cadre defined by tour player Peter Rennert as "usually 15 obnoxious people in the crowd who've never seen him play and are hooting their lungs out. There are always plenty of hicks wherever we go. Right away they get into Mel."
Country and western comes to big-time tennis.
The object of all this attention is Mel Purcell, a 5'10", five-muscle, skin-and-bone waif with flaxen hair and a gap-toothed grin who appears to have momentarily left his pitchfork back in the barn. Aw, shucks. Ah cain't git the hang of holdin' this here rackit. Do ah hit it ovah or through the dang fence? But the look is all part of the act. When the match begins, the corn-pone con ends. With a long piece of graphite in his hand and a short piece of terry cloth around his forehead, this man is an assassin.
Last week as the French Open got under way on the bronze dirt at Paris' Roland Garros Stadium, Purcell rubbed out three players, including 16th-seeded Eddie Dibbs, before losing to Jimmy Connors 6-4, 6-3, 7-6. Against Dibbs, one of the game's premier clay-courters and winner of the $500,000 WCT Tournament of Champions two weeks earlier, Purcell overcame a two-set deficit for the second time in the tournament. He won the three-hour match 3-6, 2-6, 6-4, 6-2, 6-3 despite cramping up in the final set.
Mel Purcell (pronounced in his hometown of Murray, Ky. just as it looks: mail-el pur-sail-el) arrived on the scene with the legacy of a loser. His dad, Bennie, a basketball All-America at Murray State in the early '50s, used to barnstorm with the old Washington Generals, the team that played pigeon for the Harlem Globetrotters. But last summer, after turning pro on the same day he turned 21, Mel became an immediate winner and all the rage on the clay by defeating Dibbs at Washington and Harold Solomon and Wotjek Fibak at Indianapolis, players who, Purcell said, he "idoled a few months before."
Later he adapted to faster surfaces and beat Stan Smith at Flushing Meadow. "Good gosh, Stan was almost my idol," Purcell said. His play earned him the Association of Tennis Professionals' 1980 Rookie of the Year award.
This year Purcell has come within 1.1 points of the Top 20 on the ATP computer. Besides Dibbs, he has knocked off two higher-ranked players—Johan Kriek in Philadelphia and John Sadri in Las Vegas—and advanced past the first round in all 12 tournaments he's entered, a statistic doubtless more impressive to the players themselves than to laymen. Currently he's No. 28 in the world.
It isn't Purcell's victories that have intrigued the masses so much as his speed and hustle and flair; the determination exemplified by his diving into courtside boxes and sprawling across the lines; the hot-dog zestiness manifest in his fist waving, arm raising and slapping of thighs; and his plain infectious enthusiasm for the battle. So what if he blatantly plays to the crowd, practically orchestrating applause? When is the last time anybody saw Bjorn Borg or John McEnroe even smile out there? This hick kid. this Mail-el Pur-sail-el, actually looks as if he's having fun on the tennis court.
Of course, Purcell isn't a hick. Though he has suffered the inevitable media comparisons with the Twainian characters of eternal boyhood, it should be pointed out that Tom and Huck didn't escape Injun Joe on athletic skill alone. Purcell is about as witless, shy, naive and unaware as a fox in a hen house.