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Original Issue

Act Two for Bionic Boy

Vincent Van Patten, a sometime movie star, has become a hit on the pro tour

Every Friday and Saturday at midnight the New Yorker theater on Manhattan's Upper West Side shows a punk-rock film that has roughly the same artistic merit as the cinematic fare on 42nd Street. Only instead of sighs and moans, the audience at the New Yorker is treated to the sounds of the Ramones, the string and percussion quartet that has recorded Teenage Lobotomy and Blitzkrieg Bop. Also featured in this puerile cult movie is a 22-year-old heartthrob named Vincent Van Patten, whose credits also include the starring role in The Bionic Boy, a movie-mag "romance" with Farrah Fawcett and a ranking among the top 50 tennis players in the world.

The movie is called Rock 'n' Roll High School and for anyone not into punk, it has only one conceivable point of interest: Can Van Patten act as well as he hits a tennis ball? The answer is no, which is not to say that he isn't a promising young actor. It's just that as a tennis player he is a good deal more than fine. In fact, since last spring, when he decided to shelve his Hollywood career to play tennis full time, Van Patten has shot up the charts faster than On the Radio.

He began the pro tour as the 374th-ranked player on the Association of Tennis Professionals' all-knowing, career-making-or-breaking computer. That was just about good enough to get him into qualifying tournaments for qualifying tournaments. But after only six weeks on the U.S. satellite circuit, tennis' version of Double-A ball, Van Patten started advancing straight into major events, like the $200,000 ATP Championships in Cincinnati, in which he upset Bob Lutz (then 38th in the rankings) and Tom Okker (44th) before losing in three sets to Harold Solomon (ninth). A month later he pulled off three more shockers, the biggest coming against Pat DuPre, the world's 19th-rated player, en route to the quarterfinals of the $175,000 Jack Kramer Open in Los Angeles. Van Patten closed out 1979 by reaching the semis of the $50,000 Paris Indoors, where he lost another three-setter to Solomon.

Performances such as these catapulted Van Patten to 44th on the computer. No player—not even John McEnroe, who jumped 243 spots in 1977—has leaped so far in a year. Hence, Van Patten was the obvious choice for the ATP Rookie of the Year award, not a bad beginning for someone who spent the better part of his formative years on sets rather than playing them.

As youngsters, Connors, McEnroe and the rest of today's tennis stars each hit millions of balls, received thousands of hours of instruction and competed in hundreds of tournaments. Not all of them were national age-group champions, but few players have made it to anywhere near the top without having played with some success on the national level either as a kid or in college.

Van Patten never had a lesson or held a national junior ranking. Nor was he offered a single college scholarship. His highest ranking came in 1976, when he was 10th in Southern California in the 18-and-under division. That was the only year he qualified for the nationals, but at the last minute he chose to play the Bionic Boy instead of the tournament.

Van Patten has been acting since he was nine. "In the early '70s, he was the-hottest kid actor in Hollywood," says his father, Dick, star of the ABC series Eight Is Enough. "Much hotter than I was." Since then Vincent has appeared in scores of commercials, eight motion pictures and more than 40 television shows. He also has co-starred in two CBS series, Apple's Way and Three for the Road, which ran for a total of three years.

"Between jobs Vincent would go to a public park by himself after school and look for games," his father adds. "He would play with anybody. When he was working, he was always hitting against the wall behind the stage between scenes."

The only tournaments Vincent had time for were local age-group and celebrity events. His only serious challenger for Tinseltown's No. 1 ranking was Dino Martin, and Van Patten easily disposed of him several years ago in an exhibition at the Los Angeles Civic Center. He also has outhustled Bobby Riggs several times. In their last meeting Van Patten spotted the nation's premier male chauvinist the alleys and still won.

Wins over a 61-year-old former champion and a putative player like Martin, however, don't qualify a player for the pro tour. But so what? With classic all-American-boy features—platinum blond hair, 30-inch waist, cherub face and Pepsodent smile—Van Patten's future in Hollywood was secure. At 18, he was making $100,000 a year, owned his own home—next door to his parents—complete with swimming pool and tennis court and the tabloids were insisting that he and Farrah Fawcett were an item. Everyone who might reasonably be expected to know the true life story of Farrah and Vincent denies the rumors, especially Van Patten's parents. Had they had their way—and this is on the level—Vincent would have gotten together with Debbie Boone or Marie Osmond.

Then, in the fall of 1978, Van Patten's celebrity status landed him a wild-card spot in Hawaii's $100,000 Island Holidays Classic. He lost a three-setter to first-seeded Raul Ramirez, at that time the No. 7 player in the world. "That was the most exciting match of my life," says Van Patten. "Until then I had no idea I could do well against a top player."

It was another six months, though, before he joined the circuit. From January through March of 1979 he was committed to make a movie with Cloris Leachman and Eddie Albert entitled Yesterday. Scheduled for release this year, the picture is a love story set in Montreal during the '60s. Van Patten portrays a U.S. hockey player at McGill University who is torn between staying in Canada and going to Vietnam. He ends up enlisting without knowing that his fiancèe is pregnant and returns after both his legs are blown off by artillery fire. Rock 'n' Roll High School this is not, and Van Patten gives a sensitive and credible performance in his biggest and most demanding role to date.

"Vince has all the ingredients," says Yesterday co-producer John Dunning. "With a couple of more major parts he should be able to stack up against anybody. His only limitation now is his youthful appearance. He's like Tyrone Power and Errol Flynn were in their early movies—so good-looking that they were almost feminine."

It was during the final stages of shooting Yesterday that Van Patten decided to try tennis full time. Notwithstanding his insistence that "it was an easy decision that I know was right," the dilemma he faced was considerably more complex than the typical finish-school-or-turn-pro predicament encountered by many other promising players. The college will always be there should they choose to return. Van Patten's career may not be, at least not as he left it.

"He had great momentum going," says his father. "Now he'll probably have to start all over." Also apprehensive is Dan Petrie, one of Van Patten's agents in Hollywood: "I've known that Vincent was a tremendous talent since he was 12 or 13, when he played a heroin addict going through cold turkey on Medical Center. That's a tough part for anyone, much less a kid.

"But as good as he is, he's not a Newman or Redford, who can disappear for five years and still be in demand. This is an important period in Vincent's career. Someone like Redford is at an age at which he'll be cast the same way for 10 years because he won't change that much. But people who remember Vincent at 21 won't know him as a 30-year-old."

Maybe not, but one thing is certain: if Hollywood has room for Joe Namath and Jim Brown, it will have a place for Van Patten. And if he makes a name for himself as a tennis player, he'll be even more in demand than he was as a too-good-looking young actor with a six-figure income. And his bank balance hasn't suffered with his career switch. Counting endorsements and exhibitions, he will clear at least $100,000 this year. And if he doesn't think that's enough to get by on, he can always sneak in a movie or two, though he insists that "the part would have to be fantastic, take no more than a month and not conflict with any major tournaments."

Van Patten's game combines Southern California aggressiveness and European baseline skill. His primary weapon is a lethal two-handed backhand that he can rifle to either corner from anywhere on the court. The rest of his shots—with the exception of his volley, which he tends to swing at rather than punch—are sound and deceptively effective. The heavy top-spin he generates off both wings makes it difficult for opponents to settle into a rhythm. They also have a hard time putting the ball away against him.

"Vincent has the one quality that all great athletes must have—quickness," says Marty Riessen, who has recently become Van Patten's first coach. Riessen also is impressed by his pupil's Bjorn Borg-like temperament. "He never lets anything bother him on the court," Riessen says, "and he's not lacking in confidence or afraid to go for shots."

Van Patten attributes his court composure to his thespian background. "The most important thing about acting is concentration," he says. "You've got to be totally involved with the part and the scene. I've been working on that since I was nine. It's the same with tennis. You can't think of anything but playing the ball properly."

Davis Cup captain Tony Trabert sees another plus in Van Patten's acting experience. "In addition to being very gifted and having a natural flair for the game, he is used to performing in front of large crowds in pressure situations," says Trabert. "That's a tough problem for a lot of players, particularly those from small towns, and many never overcome it."

There's a flip side to having grown up facing cameras rather than top age-group competition. Junior tennis tests not only a youngster's ability but his nerve and will as well. It's both a winnowing process and a rehearsal for the real thing. Having missed the dry run means that Van Patten is still very raw.

His instincts are superb, his shotmaking dazzling, but he has not had ingrained into him that most unfortunate axiom of the sport: tennis is a game of errors, not winners. Van Patten still must conquer a tendency to try a low-percentage drop volley or next-to-impossible backhand angle when a more routine shot will suffice; he must learn when to hit out and when to stroke the ball smoothly, when to come in and when to stay back, when not to run around a forehand.

Most important, he must find out how to play the big points well. Not long ago, for example, he dropped a 7-5, 7-5 decision to England's Buster Mottram, a solid but unspectacular player who was ranked 31st in 1979. After rallying from a 1-5 deficit in the opening set, Van Patten lost his serve at 5-5. In the second set he stayed close only to lose his serve again at 5-5. He hit 44 outright winners during the match but committed 33 unforced errors. On a good day Borg won't make 10 such mistakes.

Van Patten is giving himself two years to make it big in tennis. He hasn't made up his mind where he'll have to rank by then, but he doesn't think cracking the top five is beyond his reach. Talent alone has brought him to No. 44, and when it has been tempered by experience and coaching, he could jump another 15 or 20 notches. Whether he can take that final step depends on how singlemindedly—and how ruthlessly—he pursues his new career. He has all the physical equipment, but one senses that he may be too nice, too fair and too content to come out on top in a tangle with a McEnroe or a Connors, players who have been bred to loathe defeat and to do anything to prevent it.

At the moment, losing a tennis match is little more than a temporary disappointment for Van Patten. Perhaps he knows in the back of his mind that he can always return to Hollywood, where the setbacks have been few. He can recall only two: when he lost out to Dino Martin for the lead in Players—a movie about a pro who gets to the finals of Wimbledon—after he had been repeatedly assured the part was his; and when he was offered the part of Richie in the pilot for Happy Days, but his parents wouldn't let him take it because the script included a scene in which Richie fumbles with his date's bra strap at a drive-in.

"It all worked out for the best," Van Patten says. "It was meant to be. Had I gotten either of those parts, I wouldn't be on the circuit now."

If he can acquire a healthy dose of intensity and drive to complement his optimism and exuberance, Van Patten may yet get to act out the Players scenario—only this time in real life.


After practice on his home court, Van Patten visits with his next-door neighbor—his father.