On the morning that I write these words the headline across the top of the sports page reads, "Vilas Draws One-Year Suspension for Taking Appearance Money"; the story beneath it describes how the world's fifth-ranked tennis player has been found guilty by the Men's International Professional Tennis Council of accepting a guarantee of $100,000 merely to show up at a European tournament earlier this year. But what's shocking about this news, as is made clear by Michael Mewshaw's devastating examination of the pro circuit, is not that Guillermo Vilas took the money but that he has been punished for doing so.
Until the pro council took this action against Vilas, not a single professional tennis player had been suspended for a practice that, if one is to believe Mewshaw, has been routine procedure in the game for years--the payment of "bribes or inducements" by tournament officials to attract "star players who will bring in sponsors, television contracts and fans." It is extremely difficult to believe that the council's action against Vilas was not influenced by the advance publicity about Mewshaw's book, for it portrays pro tennis as a snake pit of greed, duplicity and mendacity--a portrait that, unless the game's hierarchs move quickly to prettify it, could well destroy what little good repute pro tennis now enjoys.
As Mewshaw tells it, the story only begins with appearance money. Equally common practices described in "Short Circuit" involve the splitting of prize money in tournaments where a "great disparity" between the money for winner and loser "invited secret pre-match deals to divide the pot"; the throwing, or "tanking," of matches and the widespread attitude that, in the words of one official, "I don't care if people tank, as long as they put on a good show"; the rigging of lucrative matches so that, as the French star Yannick Noah put it, "the players reach an agreement to play three sets: one apiece and then an honest third"; and the policing of this mess by an officialdom that is "like a corrupt police department that investigates itself and always awards itself a medal for integrity."
This sordid picture is not what Mewshaw proposed to paint when, "longing to write something lighthearted, uplifting and funny, I decided to combine the twin passions of my life, tennis and travel, and follow the men's professional tour for a few months." He "imagined that a career in tennis, unlike a career in literature, involved little compromise, no ambiguity, no troubling shades of gray, just stark yet reassuring black and white." But what was gradually revealed to him, as he talked with players, administrators, umpires, journalists and hangers-on, was that "life on the circuit was not what I had expected, was not what it appeared to be."
Mewshaw does not appear a shockable sort, but "Short Circuit" leaves no doubt that he was deeply shocked and disillusioned by what he saw and heard, to the point of reaching "the painful certainty that professional tennis was so tainted it was no longer possible to regard it with anything like my old enthusiasm and affection." What really shocked him was not the susceptibility of immature and self-centered players to flattery and bribery, but the tennis establishment's benign tolerance of blatant violations of its own strictures. In certain respects his deepest contempt is reserved not for the satraps of the game but for the tennis press, some members of which go hand in glove with the people they allegedly cover:
". . . They may criticize an event for having a weak field or for being poorly organized. But they seldom, if ever, put directors or players on the spot by writing about appearance money, tanking, drugs, corrupt umpires, prize-money splitting, set-splitting, betting, or other subjects which, judging by my experience, would be very difficult for reporters not to know about."
Mewshaw's is not, it should be emphasized, an unrelievedly hostile depiction of the men's pro tour. He is sympathetic toward many of the players with whom he spoke and portrays them accordingly. He understands that the life they lead is essentially bleak: "Fatigue, boredom, nagging illness, homesickness, sophomoric humor, abrupt mood-swings, a feeling during the indoor season of living in a time capsule shut off from the sun, fresh air and all outside influences--these are the hallmarks of the professional tennis tour and they leave little opportunity or inclination for cultural excursions. If a camera is the symbol for a tourist, then a Walkman headset is the symbol of the circuit." The conditions in which they play can vary insanely, each new arena and climate demanding hasty adjustments in their games. Those who are married or otherwise attached often find that the pressures of the tour are built-in causes of estrangement.
"Short Circuit" is, if anything, an amusing and enlightening account of what pro tennis players are like and what it is like to be one; Mewshaw, the author of five first-rate novels, is a good writer and a tough, penetrating observer. But more than anything, "Short Circuit" is a book about a beautiful game that may well have been corrupted beyond redemption by the people who squeeze it for profit and advantage. After reading it I concluded that I have watched my last professional tennis match.