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Original Issue

A big word for a small boy

Many people have called Mike Belkin the greatest, so even he thinks they could be right

Miami Beach has just about everything these days. It has beautiful girls, nice weather. It has dog racing, the Fontainebleau, Floyd Patterson and Sonny Liston. It has lots and lots of nice, slow clay tennis courts and, playing on them, it has a young man who has been called the greatest for so long that, even though he is only 17, a lot of people think of him as a has-been. Around National Junior Singles Champion Mike Belkin the word "greatest" is used with much the same careless abandon and the same lack of point that it is around Comedian Jackie Gleason. "Let's face it," says his mother. "Mike wants to be the greatest tennis player in the world." "I think," says Mike himself, "there's no reason I can't be the greatest." "A player like Mike comes along every 20 years," says Dale Lewis, the tennis coach at the University of Miami. "He can be the greatest."

These are hefty words to use about a 5-feet 11½-inch, 150-pound high school kid who hasn't begun to fill out yet and who, despite an impressive record on clay, has never beaten anybody on a grass tennis court in his whole life. So far the very bulk of words has served only to conceal the sharper truth from those around Mike. "Oh, sure," says Ed Rubinoff, the second-ranked player in Florida, "Mike Belkin will be the best around here for years, but that's all. Just around here. Mike's a victim of his environment."

Too much too soon

Mike Belkin came to Miami from Montreal with his parents five years ago. (Since he is not yet a U.S. citizen, Canada's Davis Cup men are eager to get him back.) His father, Ralph, who used to be a fair athlete and a good enough tennis player to win a second prize (an ashtray) in a club tournament, was Mike's first coach. By the time Mike was 15 he had a key to the city of Miami ("in token of our great esteem") and a scholarship offer from the University of Miami. By then his mother was halfway through the second of the bulky scrapbooks she keeps on Mike. "There was just too much publicity at too early an age," says an older player. "Remember, in tennis it's all yours. There's nobody to share it by throwing the pass. Nobody opens the hole. The publicity is all yours, and Belkin has a pile of it." At North Side Park, a city-run recreation area conveniently located a block and a half from the Belkin apartment, Mike is king. "Whenever I win," he says, "I just get right up on my high horse and go over to the park to get congratulated."

Mike has a weak serve and a poor overhead, and he plays the net something like McClellan took Richmond. On the other hand, to go with his unfailing optimism and faith in himself, he has a fine tennis sense, great speed and a remarkably accurate passing game, both forehand and backhand. It is the backhand that has attracted the most attention to Belkin. From the very first time he held a racket backhand, he held it in both hands, exactly as a left-handed baseball player grips a bat—and Belkin used to be a left-handed baseball player. This Australian-type stroke gives Mike control and power on the backhand but tends to slow him up.

Belkin's game—unlike his ambition—is a waiting one. He stays near the baseline, takes the good clay bounces, runs and retrieves. Eventually—after up to 20 exchanges—he either puts a placement away or passes any opponent foolish or bored enough to venture near the net. The formula is simple enough and, no matter what the future holds, it certainly has been successful.

At one point in his career, Belkin won 26 straight sanctioned tournaments. He has won the National Boys' (15 and under), the National Jaycee Junior (18 and under) and the Orange Bowl Junior Singles Championship (the top international competition for juniors). At present he is the national junior champion (18 and under) and the Florida men's champion. He won the last title in December by beating both young Frank Froehling, one of the best of the newcomers, and old Gardnar Mulloy on the same day.

Such credentials, even when supplied firsthand, often fail to impress other players, however. Defeated opponents tend to be more chagrined than awed. Typical is Australian Junior Geoffrey Pollard, who says politely: "Well, I can't very well pick his game apart because, after all, he has beaten me twice, but if he's to go anywhere he'll just have to change his whole game." On tour other players are forever informing Belkin that they have figured out a way to beat him, as if it were all sleight of hand anyway. "I always hear that stuff," Mike says, "but it doesn't worry me anymore, because it never works."

Still, Belkin really is in the process of changing his whole game. He has been working on the revision for about three months now. "To be great," says Belkin, "you have to have that serve and volley. O.K., I didn't have them, so I decided to get them. I have the ground game. That just comes naturally to me—and everyone says it's the hardest part. So if I can just get the serve and volley, then I've really got it all." He believes that the weak aspects of his game have already improved, but whether or not the development of these strokes will help on grass is strictly problematical. As strong as Belkin's game is, his strokes were built on and for clay courts; they are steady, long and looping. On grass, where the really great ones congregate with their big games, he might not have the time to get the racket around. Belkin dismisses this possibility with a shrug.

Invariably cocky, with the reputation for being somewhat contemptuous of both opponents and officials, he seems to thrive best on downright adversity. When physically wounded, he rises to new heights. He was behind against Mulloy in the Florida Championship till he hurt his right ankle, and then he came on to win. A few weeks later, playing Pollard in the Orange Cup finals, Mike actually sprained the ankle in the first set. "It was amazing," says Coach Lewis, who was serving as team captain. "The ankle was swollen up twice its size. He didn't pick up a racket for a week afterward." But instead of leaving the court Belkin tried to minimize the injury to fool Pollard, placed his shots to keep Pollard back and won the match in three straight sets to help take the cup for the U.S.

Last summer, in the opening round of the national clay courts, Belkin slipped on the first point and gashed his lip on the racket. He had two stitches and then returned to whip his opponent—No. 1-ranked Whitney Reed—6-4, 3-6, 6-3. Last month in the Dorado Beach junior invitational in Puerto Rico, he began the finals with a temperature that matched the 100° heat. Playing against one of Europe's best juniors—Nick Kalo of Greece—Belkin lost the first set, got even in the second, was down at match point in the third, then won the match and the tournament. Back home in Miami Beach the next day, Belkin was put to bed under heavy blankets with a temperature of 103° and chills.

Go west, young man

The Puerto Rico tournament is likely to be one of Mike Belkin's last appearances as a junior. As part of his own redevelopment program, he has made up his mind not to play the junior circuit this summer, not even to defend his national title. He wants the grass and the competition. He has had about a dozen college offers, from such places as Penn, Illinois and Trinity (Texas). He also has the word "from just about everyone" that to become great "you have to go to California." But he has a great admiration for Coach Lewis and the knowledge that he has already made a solid name for himself in Miami. He thinks, in the long run, that it would serve him best to remain there.

Anyway, the decision will be all his. Belkin is both self-made and self-disciplined. Naturally, he has received help with his game, but he owes no great debt to any single professional. He is conscientious about getting rest, has never smoked and has a beer every few months or so, quite frankly "just to show off." He is really both appalled and disillusioned at other teen-age athletes not quite so Spartan. He is not given to strenuous training, however, and he has trained particularly hard only once—late last fall in preparation for the defense of his Orange Bowl crown. He succeeded, he believes, only in overtraining; he was weak, stale and played poorly throughout the tournament until Australia's Tony Roche mercilessly eliminated him 6-4, 6-1 in the quarter-finals. It was, coincidentally, also about this time that Mike first went steady. He doesn't think that the girl had anything to do with his sudden bad form but, then, he isn't given to taking any chances when it comes to tennis. So, he gave up the strict training regimen and the girl.

The greatest

Belkin still practices regularly, of course, but no more than two hours or so a day after school. He is a senior at Miami Beach High, which he has attended for the last three years except for a brief fling at St. Mark's School in Dallas. He went to St. Mark's last year on a scholarship, but was back home in a month. It was too hard and not enough tennis. Belkin hesitates to call himself even an "average" student, and he admits to only a casual interest in his studies. His most difficult courses, English and economics and government, are the first on his schedule. School starts at 7:30, and Mike is ready to drive home in his '57 MG when those classes are over. The rest of the school day—math, Spanish, music and physics—just bores him. "Nine-thirty, I'm ready to go home and get over to the park and play tennis."

There, in North Shore Park, the best junior player in America is trying to redo his whole game before the dreadful sundrenched Miami Beach environment sentences him forever to the unsatisfactory position of being merely the best clay courts player around. "The way I'm going with my serve and volley now," he says, "I think I should be on top by the time I'm 20. Yeah, on top. That's right, the greatest player in the world."