By turns, Michael Mewshaw's Short Circuit (Atheneum, $13.95) is a hilarious, naive, incisive, stylish book that deserves being summed up in a single word: important. Anyone with a stake or merely an interest in tennis should read it.
An American now living in Rome with his wife and two sons, Mewshaw has a Ph.D. in literature from the University of Virginia, has written five novels and has earned Fulbright and Guggenheim Fellowships and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. In February 1982 he decided to indulge his love for tennis by spending six months on the men's professional tour, starting in Genoa, continuing on to Strasbourg, Milan, Nice, Monte Carlo, the Italian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon and finishing at the U.S. Open, with a side trip to a round of Davis Cup play, in Rome.
On this first level—a look at the fun, games and personalities on the tour—Short Circuit is a neat, readable travelogue, studded with trenchant observations and a novelist's insights. There are finely tuned, biting vignettes of a hostile Ivan Lendl press conference in Strasbourg, the dilemma of a tennis-clothing rep whose famous player-client was upstairs seducing the rep's girl friend while he talked to Mewshaw in a Paris hotel lobby, and dozens of sharp sketches of prominent pros that benefit hugely from Mewshaw's fresh eye. He has, furthermore, played and studied the game long enough so that his descriptions of matches that interest him at each tour stop are first-rate journalism. All are good reading even a year later.
But Mewshaw started his tour as an amateur sportswriter—in the best sense—and that proved far more important than his skills in the making of this book. He began asking questions in Genoa and he never stopped asking them. While many tour regulars either refused to talk or dissembled when they did, enough answered either on or off the record to indicate that the men who run this sport have allowed it to deteriorate rapidly into a sleazy, debased traveling side-show in which participants and principles are for sale. Mewshaw makes these allegations:
•Much of the press covering and telecasting the tour is either phony or corrupt—that is, many "newsmen" are either paid flacks, agents or p.r. men for sponsors or are gorging on gifts and perks from tournament directors and sponsors.
•Players often tank matches so that they can quit a tournament and rush off to another one or to an exhibition match that offers more money.
•Players often arrange in advance to split prize money so that they know they will receive equal amounts of the purse regardless of who wins or loses.
•Players often accommodate sponsors and TV schedule-makers by agreeing to split the first two sets and play an "honest" third set to ensure filling a time slot.
•Tournament directors hire and pay all match umpires and make it very clear to them which players have received "appearance money"—those whose presence will enhance the gate. Preferential treatment for these drawing cards often follows.
•Appearance money—which can be as much as $100,000 for one tournament—or related sponsor fees, both of which are prohibited, lead to a wide variety of corrupt practices.
Many of Mewshaw's interviewees try to excuse the abuses on two counts. First, pro tennis is entertainment and should not have to abide by traditional sporting codes. The answer to this is that tennis is certainly entertaining, but it's still sport, the essence of which is that the results not be fiddled with in advance. The second excuse is that many of the abuses take place in so-called "special events" or exhibitions ("I think all exhibitions are fixed," says M. Marshall Happer III, administrator of tennis' Pro Council) and therefore don't matter. This would be a valid argument if the paying and viewing public were notified in advance of each match who was dumping what, why and for how much—which, of course, isn't done.
Mewshaw has done his job as a journalist. With the recent penalties against Guillermo Vilas and Yannick Noah, perhaps tennis officials are now prepared to do theirs. One hopes so.