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"When I was 10 I played my first tournament at the Corryville courts and lost 6-0, 6-1 in the first round to the local Boys champion, Don White. But my Dad arranged about this time for me to get some lessons from a couple of pros. Earl Bossong, the pro at the Camargo Club, had given me a racket for my ninth birthday, and Howard Zaeh, the pro at the Cincinnati Tennis Club, started working on me at the age of 10. Both of them taught me the basic fundamentals of tennis: good ground strokes, how to volley, how to serve. And I think that as I grew up I learned to play the game as it should be played instead of being weak in certain aspects through not having learned how to play correctly as a kid."
The young champion pushed his chair away from the desk and tried to treat it like a sofa. His feet stretched way out in a straight line. Both arms went back behind his head, and the only motion as he launched into conversation was the occasional stroke of the right hand through his sandy hair. "I guess tennis is like most sports," Trabert said, "in that you have to learn the fundamentals and stick to hard practice and be willing to make sacrifices. There's mental preparation, too, although I know it's hard to tell a 10-year-old kid to start working on psychology. But you've got to realize that you're going to be faced with a lot of disappointments, and if suddenly some victories come your way you have to learn to be humble—because the other person has lost, and he feels bad enough. My family—and my Dad in particular—have never stopped stressing good manners and courtesy. One of the first things my Dad told me about tournament tennis was that I should show up promptly on time. Likewise, I got to feel that the linesmen, the umpires, the ball boys all play a big part in the running of a successful tournament, so I always like to shake hands with the umpire, win or lose, and thank him for the job he's done. It's a very small thing, but I think it means a lot.
"My Dad and Bill Talbert have probably helped me more than anybody else. Bill's from Cincinnati, too. He's older than I am, and I guess I was about 11 when I first got to know him. I remember the first thing he showed me was how to volley. Another fellow, Gordon Naugle, and I didn't know how to volley very well, and Bill showed us how to stand up there at the net and reach out and punch for the shot. When he saw I was interested in the game and willing to work at it, he started helping me.
"He hasn't stopped yet. Bill took me on my first European trip in 1950 and we won every doubles match we played in. Later, when they were picking a Davis Cup doubles team, I guess we were a little bitter about being forced to split up, because we both really believed we were the best team over here. They put me with Vic Seixas, and I was quoted as saying I didn't want to play with Vic. Well, what I really said was that Vic—at that point—wasn't a sound orthodox doubles player. In the first place, his strokes aren't orthodox, and in the second place he adapted his strokes to doubles in a different way. When we started playing together my big task was to get to know what Vic was going to do—so I wouldn't have to guess. I suppose we've made out all right since, and we've won most every title around except the Wimbledon doubles, and last year we beat both the good Australian teams."
At Cincinnati's Walnut Hills High School, Trabert won the Ohio State scholastic singles title for three straight years. "I missed both the National Boys and Junior championship titles," he said, "but I was learning a lot. Gil Bogley beat me in the Juniors, but he taught me some thing valuable: play your own game. He didn't have particularly good strokes, but he beat me by 'outdinkying' me with a lot of soft balls until I started hitting them softer and softer myself. He beat me at his game rather than me playing my own game.
"In high school my Dad said to me one night, 'If you're going to play all sports you'll never be very good at just one.' I decided then I'd better concentrate on tennis, but I later found that basketball, which I played at Walnut Hills and at the University of Cincinnati, was pretty good at keeping you in shape. It's good for endurance, strengthening the legs and for quick action in changing directions. I made the varsity at college after starting as last man on the squad and working up. Our team one season led the nation in major college scoring and we went to the NIT in Madison Square Garden.
"We'd been averaging about 40% of our shots most of the season, but that night we only got about 20% and we lost in double overtime to St. Bonaventure in the first round. We all felt it was our worst game all season.
"I never scored much and the coach used to get mad at me sometimes because I only took seven or eight shots a game. But being a guard I was essentially a playmaker and a pretty good floor man defensively. If somebody accused me of being put on the basketball team because I'd already made a name for myself in sports—and because I might be a drawing power—I used to get mad. I never have bragged or held anything I've done over anyone's head, and I think I simply earned the spot on the team because I've always been a team man. Besides, the greatest drawing power you have is a winning team. Probably that's what drew me to basketball at Cincinnati. If I can be a member of a winning team, I think that's great. But I expect to earn my position. I'll play as hard as any man on the team and I wouldn't feel right accepting favors. But that's beside the point anyway with Cincinnati. If I couldn't have done the job, they weren't going to leave me in there for long, that's for sure.
"Guys often ask me about my disappointments. What athlete doesn't have disappointments and even feel like quitting his sport for good? Sure, I've felt pretty bad at times, but I guess I only once felt like giving the whole thing up. On my 18th birthday, August 16, 1948, I played my first match on grass. It was at Newport, R.I. I went up there a day early in order to hit a few, because I had never seen a grass court and the bounce was different, and the type of shots that were effective on grass were different from those that were effective on clay. My opponent was Chauncey Steele, a fellow from Cambridge, Mass., who was a pretty fair tennis player with a lot of experience on grass. Steele beat me. His strokes didn't look good to me and I just couldn't understand why I couldn't beat him. I was so disgusted and discouraged when it was over that I felt I would never be able to play on grass. I came very close to packing my bags and going home. But then I sort of thought it over and felt, 'Well, don't be so stupid. Give yourself a little more chance and don't give up.' Today I consider a good grass court the best surface for me. I think, also, that a good grass court is a truer test of tennis because the person who can do more things on grass is going to be the winning tennis player. The game, of course, is quite different. On grass if a ball is hit hard it will slide and stay very low, whereas on clay when you hit a ball hard it hits the ground and sort of grabs hold and bounces more slowly and higher up in the air. The game on grass is faster and I like it better.
"One of the things every kid expects to go through nowadays is a hitch in the service. Well, I'd had a good year in 1951, and after winning seven straight tournaments I carried Frank Sedgman to five sets in the Nationals at Forest Hills. I was in the upper third of my class at UC (a B student majoring in political science), and although I had no objections to serving when my time came, I was a little bitter when a few 'poison-pen letters' written to my draft board literally forced me to enlist. I played only three months of that year, and yet some people acted as though I had given up everything else in the world to play tennis."