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A pair of nonswinging singles

But in the doubles world Freddy McNair (left) and his partner Sherwood Stewart are now No. 2

Professional tennis player Freddy McNair has a problem. "Everywhere I go," he says, "I'm always getting confused with the help." While in Florida practicing for a recent World Championship Tennis tournament, he was accosted in the tennis shop by a woman who demanded he rewrap the grip on her racket. Back on the front steps of his hotel another matron told him to trot off and pick up her Eldorado from the parking lot. McNair courteously rewrapped the grip, but balked at playing parking valet. After all, the 36th-ranked singles player in the U.S. figures he deserves a little respect.

Not for his singles, however. McNair, 25, has yet to win a singles match in 1976, and his record last year was just a tad better. But when he takes to the court with his equally anonymous doubles partner, Sherwood Stewart, the 19th-ranked singles player in the country, they usually make their presence felt. After the fuzzy-cheeked McNair and the bearded Stewart, 29, teamed up last June, they won three tournaments, made it to the semis of three others—including Forest Hills—and compiled a remarkable match record of 35-14. That was good enough, in the opinion of the U.S. Tennis Association, to catapult them from nowhere to the No. 2 ranking in the nation for 1976 behind perennial partners Stan Smith and Bob Lutz. McNair and Stewart began their first full season together in February by winning the U.S. Men's Indoor Championship in Salisbury, Md., and through the end of April were 7-1.

Becoming the Avis team of U.S. doubles virtually overnight hasn't made either player a household name, nor has it made them rich. Despite their modest records in singles (Stewart was 22-29 in 1975), each made as much, or more, in singles last year as his share of the $35,000 or so that they split for cleaning out the opposition in doubles. The reason: tournament promoters treat doubles almost as an afterthought. Matches are squeezed into the schedule after the singles, after the celebrity doubles, after the consolation singles and after almost everyone else in town is tucked in bed for the night. The prize money is apportioned accordingly. A player who wins the singles title at a WCT tournament pockets $17,000 for his four match victories. For winning three matches a member of a winning doubles team takes home $2,000. In fact, a second-round singles loser in all but one WCT tour event gets $500 more than each of the champion doubles partners. The purses at Association of Tennis Professionals tournaments are little better. At the U.S. Open it's considerably worse; last year the winning doubles team made $4,500 while singles champion Manuel Orantes walked away with $25,000.

"It's a travesty," says McNair with understandable pique. "Doubles is half the program on the final day of a tournament. I'm not saying that we should get half the purse, but we ought to at least get a third." And so, tennis fans, after Billie Jean King's successful campaign for equality on the court, we now face the prospect of "doubles lib." Right on, say McNair and Stewart, the charter members of the movement. "If I had two broken legs and could never play tennis again," says McNair, "I'd still be all for it."

If McNair is to be believed, it is because he is that rarity among American tennis brats: he was raised to play doubles. His father, Fred III, a hotshot life-insurance broker from the Washington, D.C. suburb of Chevy Chase, had no plans to live vicariously through his oldest son's athletic achievements. So he started Freddy cutting his competitive teeth at age 10 in the cutthroat world of Father-and-Son tennis.

Freddy had the talent, and his father had the will. In fact, early on, Fred the father had picked up the nickname "Fierce"—as in competitor. They celebrated their first national clay-court title when Freddy was 15—in a roadside tavern, Fierce downing beer and hard-boiled eggs, Freddy knocking back a gallon or so of ginger ale. Before they called it quits in 1972 when Freddy was 21, the pair had won two additional national clay-court titles and three more on grass. To hear McNair fils tell it, Father-and-Son was a matchless training ground. "You learn to cover a lot of court in that league," he says. And to lob. Dink the dad was the favorite McNair family tactic.

Stewart, on the other hand, came to tennis through the back door. Down in Goose Creek, Texas, his hometown, football is the sport. And so it was for Stewart, until he came out of a game with a broken foot. His football coach, Paul Wilkins, then the reigning Texas singles champion, recommended tennis as therapy. Stewart never looked back. "I didn't like the idea of getting my brains beaten in every weekend," he says. He became adept enough at beating on a tennis ball to win a tennis scholarship to Lamar Tech in Beaumont, and in 1967 won the national small-college singles title.

A nice way to end a modestly successful career, Stewart thought at the time. He then joined an airborne unit of the National Guard, survived the match-point experience of having a fellow paratrooper land on the top of his billowing parachute and shortly thereafter tried to settle down by selling office products for IBM. But the itch to play more than just weekend tennis returned, and 18 months later, with a $2,500 stake from his paternal grandmother, he set off to scratch it.

There were days when Stewart must have wondered about the wisdom of his grandmother's investment. Like the one in Rotterdam in February 1975, when he tore the meniscus cartilage in his right knee while playing Arthur Ashe. He came home for an operation, began playing himself back into shape and returned to Europe in time for the Wimbledon walkup at Beckenham. His regular doubles partner, Dick Dell, decided to stay in Paris, however, so Stewart cast about for a stand-in. McNair, a sociable sort who had played with five different partners the previous five weeks, was agreeable to making Sherwood No. 6.

"We had no expectations," says Stewart. "We were playing for fun." The biggest decision they faced was who would play the backhand court, since both were experienced forehand-court players. That, and which game to play at the local gambling casino. With Stewart moving to the backhand side, they blitzed the field, beating Ashe and Roscoe Tanner in the finals. "We were unconscious," says McNair. "We'd lose at the tables at night, then we'd make up our losses on the court the next day. When we beat Arthur and Roscoe, I knew we could be a pretty rough team."

Stewart agreed, and after playing Wimbledon with Dell, he again joined McNair, and the two set off to find out exactly how rough. They won an indoor tournament in San Francisco, jetted to Hawaii and won again—this time outdoors on fast cement. Two days later they stepped off a plane in Madrid, and an hour later won their first match. By the time jet lag caught up to them in the semifinals, they had won 14 straight matches and established themselves as the hottest—and most exhausted—tandem on tour.

Along the way they beat Brian Gottfried and Raul Ramirez, the team most experts considered the best in the world last year. They also discovered that their collective style was a fortuitous blend of their individual strengths. "Sherwood's Mr. Consistency on ad point," says McNair. "Freddy's the gambler at the net," says Stewart. "They have confidence in their partnership," says fellow pro Ray Moore, "and they are well suited to one another. Sherwood is steady, and Freddy makes all the spectacular shots." With his strong serve and even stronger service return, Stewart keeps opponents on the defensive until the lynxlike McNair can position himself for killing volleys. "I keep trying to gain the offensive," says Freddy. "I'm willing to lose a point by poaching in order to disrupt the other team's rhythm and win a few points later on." Says Stewart, "We work the middle until we create an opening."

Nothing subtle about that, sniffs Gardnar Mulloy, who teamed with Bill Talbert to win four titles at Forest Hills in the 1940s. "When Billy and I played," says Mulloy, "if we couldn't hit through you, we'd hit over, or around you. Today's game is all power. Everybody tries to bash it by you." True enough, admits McNair, who says that statistics show that 70% of all doubles points today are won with just such bashes at the net.

In addition to guile, Mulloy and Talbert used elaborate hand signals. "When I was at the net," says Mulloy, "I'd keep one hand behind my back. If I showed one finger, that meant I was going to poach on Billy's first serve. Two meant I was going on his second and three meant I was going on both. If I made a fist, I wasn't going on either." Stewart and McNair disdain such sophistication. "We operate strictly on instinct," says Stewart. "I can sense when Freddy is going to cross, and I move over to cover for him."

Instinct is O.K. in Mulloy's opinion, but compatibility is even more important. "I've never seen a good team on which the players weren't good friends off the court as well," he says. McNair and Stewart qualify—to a point. "We socialize a lot," says McNair. "We're a lot alike." "C'mon, Freddy," says Sherwood with a smile. "We're incompatible in every way. You're the basic preppie from the East, and I'm the basic poor boy from Texas. Sometimes I can't believe that we actually play together."

The preppie and the poor boy plan to enter every major tournament that will have them this year, from the Italian Open later this month to Forest Hills in September. After that they hope to play in an ATP doubles tournament in Woodlands, Texas that offers a "doubles lib" kind of total purse—$100,000. Their ultimate goal is to win a spot as the 1977 U.S. Davis Cup doubles team.

"The difference between doubles and singles," says McNair, "is the difference between a violin and a Stradivarius. I know that I'm no Stradivarius." "Hold on pahdner," says Stewart. "You ain't no ukulele, either." In fact, if they continue to keep their strings in tune, Smith and Lutz and the rest of their opponents will end up playing second fiddle.