John Berryman, poet and tennis buff, wrote in his epic work, The Dream Songs, "The tennis is over. The last words are here? What, in the world, will they be?"
Bill Colson, editor and Berryman buff, knew that the tennis was pretty much over, at least as a possible career, back in 1968, the year that he won the national 18-and-under clay court championship but enrolled at Princeton rather than at one of tennis's powerhouses. The last words, however, are far from here. Millions of words have passed before Colson during his 13 years at SI—the past nine years as a senior editor and now as our newest assistant managing editor.
Colson's editing is marked by diligence and sensitivity. "He ministers to copy with the care of a physician tending to a patient," says senior writer Franz Lidz, "and he's got a wonderful bedside manner." Colson, it turns out, is a doctor of sorts: He got a Ph.D. in English at Indiana, where he wrote his dissertation on Berryman.
His desk, perhaps the tidiest in our editorial offices, is as antiseptic as an operating table. "Years ago I briefly glimpsed a can of Diet Coke on it," recalls senior writer Alexander Wolff. "But generally he's so fastidious, he makes Felix Unger look like Oscar Madison."
Unlike Madison, Colson disdains convention and clichè in sportswriting. He adheres to the advice of Ezra Pound, another poet who knew his way around a tennis court. "Pound's famous three-word dictum, 'Make it new,' influenced an entire generation of writers," says Colson. "That's the constant challenge for SI: to provide fresh and insightful perspectives on subjects that often have already been covered in the papers and on television." Colson likes prose that is, as Pound wrote, "austere, direct, free from emotional slither."
Colson, 41, may wield a mean pencil—or, to be precise, word processor—but the racket he wields is even meaner. He trades strokes nearly every Tuesday with 64-year-old Dick Savitt, who won the Australian and Wimbledon championships in 1951. Savitt is a bred-in-the-bone baseliner. Colson, on the other hand, is happiest at net. "Obviously I never approached the heights Dick attained in the sport," says Colson. "But I'd love to be hitting the ball as well as he is when I get to be his age."
"He plays very intensely," says Savitt. "Tennis is not what you would call a social game for him. My only concern is, now that he has three children [daughters Olivia, 4, and Marguerite, 2½, and son, Redmond, six months], he won't have any time to play."
Not to worry, Dick. As Berryman also wrote in The Dream Songs, "Toddlers are taking over," but there's always "room for tennis."
Redmond finds his old man to be as reflective as we do.