The best tennis player in the world right now may well be Raul Ramirez' doubles partner. As Mark Twain said while advising people to do right: this will astonish many and please a few. In this case the public may be even more dumbfounded, for compared to most top athletes Raul Ramirez' doubles partner is little known.
Part of whatshisname's recognition problem is that he spends so much time on the practice court that by now he seems to blend in: his eyes about the color of Har-Tru, his scraggly hair reminiscent of a net, his expression revealing all the emotion of a baseline. If hey-you ever should become No. 1 officially, he will no doubt be so invisible that they will start counting at No. 2 in tennis, just as they do with television channels. So, let's go right down onto the court and meet the player the fans affectionately call Who's That?
Brian Gottfried is his name in real life. He stands just over six feet in his sneakers and weighs 170 pounds. Twenty-five years old. Right-handed. Born in Baltimore, raised in Florida. Two-time All-America at Trinity University. Married. Turned pro in August 1972.
Brian Gottfried, as decorous and plain as some "names" in tennis tend to be vulgar and flamboyant, has risen to a position of preeminence this spring. He has won four tournaments in 1977, more than any other player. He leads in tournament prize money with $100,000 and is also first in the run for the Grand Prix. On the Association of Tennis Professionals' computer, Gottfried has ascended to seventh in the world for matches played over the last 12 months, but more recently he has been beating everybody. Through the semifinals at the Pacific Southwest Tournament in Los Angeles last week, Gottfried had won 39 of his last 42 matches, and 15 in a row.
To an astute few, this streak is nothing shocking—only chickens coming home to roost—for there has always been so much to recommend Gottfried for glory. He has a full complement of clean strokes, the sturdy arsenal of a baseliner, yet he also possesses the instincts of an attacking player and is most at home at the net. His single best stroke is his volley—either side (experts disagree). More over, Gottfried is uncommonly quick, and in regard to temperament he is devoted and diligent. Only Santa Claus' elves are known to be happier hard workers. The single anecdote that follows Gottfried about concerns how he practiced for a few hours on the morning of his marriage and then atoned for taking the afternoon off with double sessions the next day.
Gottfried has grown weary of having to regularly confirm this tale, and for fear of appearing to be some mindless drone, he protests that he does not practice nearly so much as advertised. But then again, maybe he does. A recent conversation: "Brian, a lot of people want to know about you now. What sort of things do you like to do?"
"Well, I enjoy playing matches."
"No, no, I don't mean playing."
"Well, I like to practice a lot."
Finally, it is elicited from Gottfried that he and his wife Windy are "home people" who don't engage in too many shenanigans. While this natural reserve may not lead to cologne endorsements and PEOPLE magazine covers, it serves him well with his colleagues, who are unanimous in their earnest appreciation of such a placid rival and solid citizen. "You'll even find out Brian's got a good little sense of humor too," one pro says, "if you've got a lot of time to give to the project."
But tennis is what Brian Gottfried is all about, and has been ever since he was eight. Gottfried's younger brother, Larry, has followed him to Trinity and to the 18-and-under championship, but the family has no tennis legacy. Young Brian took up the game because the family (his father Arnold is a construction executive) hosted some Japanese juniors who were participating in the Orange Bowl tennis tournament. Within three years Gottfried was national 12-and-under doubles champion (with little Jimbo Connors), and the next year, 1963, Gottfried won the doubles again (with little Dickie Stockton). In 1964 he won the singles, thereby becoming a FACE IN THE CROWD in this magazine.
He won 14 junior titles, but Stockton won 20 and played ahead of Gottfried at Trinity when it won the NCAA. Gottfried left school to turn pro, and in his first full year, 1973, won $90,000 and was named Rookie of the Year by Tennis magazine, but thereafter he was generally overshadowed by the other members of the incredible U.S. tennis class of '72. This group of six, all born between February 1951 and September 1952 now rank one, seven, eight, nine, 10 and 13 in the world. Besides Gottfried, Connors and Stockton, they are Roscoe Tanner, with the big glamour serve, and tiny Harold Solomon and diminutive Eddie Dibbs, the celebrated pitty-pat Bagel Twins. In this company, Gottfried seldom drew attention to himself, except perhaps in Mexico, after he hooked up with Ramirez in 1974.
Gottfried is so phlegmatic and precise that he will never quite become the people's choice. Nothing appears to move him. His first big tournament victory in 1973 was a shocker—a rookie win in Vegas in the Alan King Classic for 30,000 silver dollars, carted out in a wheelbarrow, for what was then the richest tennis tournament in history. So blandly did Gottfried respond that Windy, exasperated, finally screamed at him, "Get happy, will you!"
The players soon learned, though, that the kid with the close-set eyes and the frizzy hair who looks not unlike Barbra Streisand could be read. The unchanging expression concealed an unchanging game. It was not that Gottfried left his best on the practice courts, it was that he practiced so much he developed a practice mentality. He played a dispassionate, choreographed style.
Sandy Mayer, another contemporary, who has been playing Gottfried since they were nine years old, says, "Brian just always wanted to be a purist. He could put the ball where he wanted to anytime, anywhere, and it really didn't matter so much to him whether he won or lost."
Gottfried won the Wimbledon doubles championship with Ramirez in 1976, but he does not believe he grew up as a singles player until one day at Forest Hills last September. This incident appears to have turned Gottfried around in ways that hitting another 4,000 perfect backhands could not accomplish. He was playing Bjorn Borg in the round of 16, having not dropped a set in the tournament. Gottfried is renowned as a slow starter but on this occasion he took the first two sets from Borg and, in the third, led 2-0. Then, at 30-all, he double-faulted, Borg won the next point and the game, and it was all over. Gottfried won only eight more games the rest of the way.
"It was ridiculous," Gottfried says. "Here I was, up two sets and a break, four games from the match, and I honestly didn't think I could win. Whenever I'd get in a big match like this one, I just played to make it close. But losing that time had a big effect on me. Never again have I gone in against anybody thinking I couldn't win."
Gottfried won his next singles tournament after Forest Hills, defeating Dibbs, Connors, Ilie Nastase and Arthur Ashe in succession. The next time he played Borg, he beat him—and in Stockholm. So far in 1977 he has won three regular Grand Prix tour events, as well as the prestigious American Airlines Games at Palm Springs. He has won indoors and out, and back to back in successive weeks. Other players have been discombobulated by the use of slow balls on fast courts; Gottfried is not reluctant to display his whole repertoire whatever the circumstances. Moreover, with the help of Sandy Mayer's father, Alex, Gottfried has shored up his second serve, the weakest technical aspect of his game. Now Tony Trabert, the U.S. Davis Cup captain, who has selected Gottfried (and Stockton) to play singles next week in Newport Beach, Calif. against the South Africans, wants Gottfried occasionally to come in behind his second serve to keep opponents off guard. Everything else is going too well to be tinkered with.
Of course, tennis is a never-ending procession and there is plenty for everybody. Connors and Stockton, for example, are scuffling in WCT most weeks, safely upwind from Gottfried. He surely doesn't duck anybody—he played 34 tournaments one year—but after all, it is the big ones that really count. Connors now has four Grand Slam titles, and Tanner took his first in Australia this year, but Gottfried and the other members of the class of '72 have only gaudy records and hefty purses.
But Gottfried did win a pretty big one this year, the American Airlines Games. This must be in the top 10 of tournaments, but for one reason or another, Connors, Borg, Nastase and Ashe hadn't entered. The writers gathered about Gottfried after his victory and one inquired if the absence of these stars had not diminished his victory.
As you know by now, Gottfried is not very garrulous. He looked the interviewer square in the face, and then Raul Ramirez' doubles partner replied, "Do you ask them that question now when I'm not at a tournament?"