In the last moments before he went out to play Jimmy Connors on Sunday, Bjorn Borg sat at courtside and thumped his racket head against the butt of his palm. Then he put the racket alongside his ear to listen to the strings vibrate. By their sweet music did he judge the instrument ready for another performance of surpassing beauty.
So I tried that trick.
The racket strings spoke to me, too. They said, "Unhand me, you cad."
The reason Norman Mailer gets poked in the nose is that writers cannot resist the temptation to become their subjects. Intoxicated by proximity to Ali, Mailer practices his jab against the fearsome Gore Vidal. Given half a chance, David Broder would move into the Oval Office tomorrow and Jules Bergman would catch the next Metro to the moon.
My racket saw what was coming.
"You've been watching Connors and Borg and Vilas and McEnroe in this big-deal tournament all week," the strings shouted into my ear, "and now you think this is an easy game. Talk about your short memories!"
There are times I wish I hadn't taken that racket into my home. I should have left it hanging in the sporting-goods store, there to waste its life next to the rods and reels.
"Wilson," I said, "this is a new year and I'm getting serious. Tennis is a gold mine. They're getting a buck a throw for Perrier water at this tournament. You're riding around in the trunk of a Nova when you could be in a Mercedes."
Wilson responded: "I remember last year when you tried to stuff me into a garbage can. All I want out of life now is to be left alone. I want to warp in peace."
"I didn't bring you to Florida so you could lie on the beach, Wilson. We're on Court 20 in an hour. Be there."
Thirty-four members of the Association of Tennis Professionals won more than $100,000 on the Grand Prix circuit last year. Ten won in excess of $300,000, and that does not include Connors, Borg, Vilas and McEnroe, who earned a total of maybe $7 million but are not APT members. The leading ATP money winner was Eddie Dibbs, whose renown is largely limited to his immediate family, although he earned more than $500,000.
I bet none of those guys had a racket that didn't want to work.
On Court 20, we (Wilson gave in when the sun went behind clouds) had a doubles match arranged. The three other sportswriters shall be anonymous. That's because they threatened to melt my typewriter if I described their tennis games. As I moved onto the court, I noticed that Wilson wasn't as big as he used to be.
"I'm the same size I ever was," he insisted.
"You look like a badminton racket," I said. "How am I ever going to hit anything when you're so little? I need one of those bigger rackets."
"You need a snowshoe, Rocket," Wilson said, as always, using Rod Laver's nickname in appreciation of my skills.
If Bjorn Borg is sweet music on a tennis court, I am, I confess, a tuba gone wrong.
Though I was, in the golden days of Wayne Terwilliger, a second baseman of remarkable agility and a basketball guard who lived on quickness (as I fondly remember it), on a tennis court I move with the studied deliberation of a Frankenstein in Fred Perrys.
Movement occurs only at the end of an elaborate sequence of signals. The eyes, which need glasses, send word to the brain, which is worn out from spelling Vitas Gerulaitis too many times. From there the message is carried by vacationing gnomes who dawdle along nerve-highways marked by little white tombstones.
Those courageous gnomes that make it safely through, then hand the work-order to the sportswriter muscles, which, depending on their activity the night before, may or may not respond to the order. Just wait until Bjorn Borg is 37 and his hair is falling out. Then we'll find out if he's such sweet music.
Every shot for a sportswriter with a reluctant racket, then, becomes an adventure. Connors has only to worry about hitting the corners. How dull. I have to worry about an Achilles' tendon snapping. I try to keep the ball on this side of the fence. Defeat is Connors' only worry; divorce is a possibility when I serve. Listen to this...
Few things in my life have been more thrilling, in terms of setting nerves into excited motion, than the time in mixed doubles when I smashed a serve directly into my wife's back. Wilson covered his eyes in shame, but I, a certified cad, said to my wife, "Fore!" As penance, I vacuumed the garage.
Our sportswriters' doubles match here was not widely reported, possibly because an $11 lunch wager is less glamorous than the $150,000 Borg took home for whipping up on Connors. Nevertheless, the doubles match was significant, for I made peace with Wilson by promising to take him out of the trunk. He promised to stop giggling on my backhand.