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Original Issue


The mail comes late to my mountain hideout somewhere off the coast of Iowa, but not long ago I read a copy of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED that contained a reminiscence by my old tennis coach. Bud Collins (SI, Sept. 17, 1979). Bud wrote about those glory-filled days of '59, when I captained Brandeis University's netmen to the school's only unbeaten season. I knew right off that Bud was going to say nice things about me, because he promoted me from the third spot to second. It took him 20 years to move me up a notch. I appreciate Bud's gesture, but for the sake of history I must break my fugitive silence and correct this and a few of his other recollections.

There is the matter of our feud and who was in charge of the team, he as coach or I as captain. It came about because before Bud, the captain was the coach. I mean, before Bud, our tennis team had zilch—just one beat-up court. So we looked to Bud as our savior, a guy who would approach Athletic Director Bennie Friedman and try to get us new balls to practice with and maybe team jackets.

Brandeis was only 11 years old at the time. Tennis was a diddly sport back then, and the school, like most, spent its alumni bankroll rounding up gridiron gladiators so the school would look good on the sports pages. Of course a football team at Brandeis was as out of sync as nuns at a cockfight. But the school wanted to prove it could break legs and dislocate shoulders with the best of Saturday's heroes. It didn't want the country's only Jewish-sponsored university to be known as a ghetto for brains, given stereotypes and all that. No one seemed to notice that except for the Goldfader boys, from my hometown of Worcester, Mass., the whole team seemingly was made up of Gentiles imported especially for that purpose.

So the athletic department gave practically all of its money to football, and the tennis team got new balls only for its matches and no jackets. So we asked Bud, as our coach and leader, to change all this, and he passed the racquet back to me as captain.

I went to see Friedman, who ushered me into his office and pointed out the trophies he'd won, while I spelled out our complaints. Then he said, "Sonny, you know the two greatest things that ever happened in the history of the Jewish people?" I thought for a while and gave up. "Well, I'll tell you. The first was when the Jews got up an army and walloped the British, and the second was when I made All-America twice for Michigan!"

Further into his article, Bud comments on my style of play: "Sadly, I must tell you there was nothing revolutionary about Abbie's style. He bordered on the reactionary, believing that every ball should be returned safely over the net." Way off, Coach. The Big Serve is reactionary tennis. Pancho Segura knew as much about tennis as Pancho Villa knew about revolution. Just run the ball down and get it back. It doesn't matter if the court is tennis or judicial, I've always found it best to "keep the ball in play." After all, it was Che Guevara who wrote the famous guerrilla maxim: "Wait for the unforced errors."

I don't want to get picky. I really like Bud, and in my forthcoming autobiography, Soon To Be A Major Motion Picture (Grosset & Dunlap), I refer to him as the Walter Cronkite of tennis. He really has been a big factor in getting the game out of the country clubs and onto the streets. And he wasn't as bad a coach as he claims. Bud taught the game of Outer Tennis. Say your opponent likes to rush the net. Instead of giving him the satisfaction of slamming the ball down your throat, Bud taught us to hit it out of bounds, explaining that net-rushers get frustrated quickly when prevented from testing their racquet strings.

Still, we all suspected Bud learned coaching from a how-to-teach-tennis pamphlet we once found next to his locker. We were never sure if he knew what he was talking about because he always showed up for matches in his street clothes. He'd circle around the courts in his Weejuns, yelling instructions. "Hit their ankles!" "Go for the backhand."

Yeah, I remember those times, playing tennis in New England back when, like bridge and croquet, it was considered less than a real sport. But I was hooked on Holden Caulfield. I kept up my game even during the great riots of the '60s. Once I challenged then-Vice-President Agnew to a match. I told him I'd get a haircut if he beat me. I could have spotted Spiro five games and Bobby Riggs and still have wiped his nose in the clay.

I often play on the run, so to speak, though underground courts do get a little damp. It was coincidental, Bud, but I read your article the day I got home from the doctor after getting shot with cortisone for my first tennis elbow. Time flies. You know, it's a funny thing: with age you are promised wisdom and instead you get tennis elbow. But don't worry about me being a fugitive and all, Coach; it's just another road trip. I was sorry to miss the team reunion at the U.S. Open; maybe I'll show up next year. I enjoy your announcing schtick on all the big matches, though your colleague on another network, the Davis Cup coach with the lean-mean look, has gotta go. Tony Trabert still hasn't accepted the fact that tennis, like life, is just another ball game. I always brag when your face comes on the tube. "Hey, see that guy? He was my coach." So I was your most notorious pupil? You're a good guy, Bud, and you can call me anything you want—just don't call 911.