In 1977, Brian Gottfried was the world's third-ranked player in the Association of Tennis Professionals' computer. He reached 15 tournament finals that year, including the French Open. He won five tournaments. "I spent the whole summer losing finals to (Guillermo) Vilas," he says now with a wan smile.
Two years later, Gottfried's ranking had dropped as low as 28. He was losing in early rounds. Time and again, he went back to the practice court. He analyzed the problem constantly. He sat at home brooding about his game.
Then, last April, something happened. Gottfried isn't sure what it was. "I just woke up one morning wanting to play tennis," he said. "I hadn't felt like that for a long time.I just wanted to go out and enjoy the game. I went over to Solly's (Harold Solomon's) house and said 'Let's go.'
"I went out on the court and played. Basically, what I did was stop over-thinking. I tend to get too analytical when my game isn't going well. I stopped analyzing and just started playing."
Gottfried's no-think approach has had results. He reached the semifinals in his next two tournaments, won one of the Wimbledon warm-up tournaments and then, as an unseeded player, charged into the semis at Wimbledon before losing to Bjorn. He is back playing doubles with longtime partner Raul Ramirez (they have won two Wimbledons and eight majors overall).
"Every athlete says this, but confidence is so important in this sport," Gottfried said. "It works both ways. If you have a couple of good matches you build on it, you keep getting better. If things are bad, you build on that, too, and things get worse."
Gottfried's "slump" last year meant he earned "only" $193,000 on tour. His frustrations did not arise because he was worrying about supporting his wife, Windy, and their son, Kevin, now 15 months old.
"Believe me, at this stage of my career, money is not the motivator out there," Gottfried said. "If it was, I couldn't play. I was frustrated because I would play well in sports but wasn't coming up with any results. It should not have been happening, but it was."
Last year, in the first round of the Washington Star International Gottfried played a match typical of what ailed him during his slump. Facing Geoff Masters, Gottfried was up a break in the first set, blew it and lost the set. He then won the second set and promptly went up a break in the third. Again, he lost his lead and, eventually, the match.
"That was really the way I played for 18 months," he said. "I would get ahead and lose concentration. Then I'd go to the practice court, figure something was wrong with my strokes and work on something that didn't need work. The next week, things would be worse."
Gottfried has always been known as one of the hardest workers in tennis, a player who could practice his way out of any problem. When practice didn't help, he analyzed. When analysis didn't help, he rationalized. Things got worse.
"He kept going over things in his head again and again," said Solomon, Gottfried's neighbor in Florida. "Then, in April, he just decided, 'Heck with it, I'm going to just go out and play the game. Sink or swim.'
"He just dedicated himself to putting his game back together again. He started thinking positively again. You could see the difference in practice. He was enjoying it again."
Gottfried has always enjoyed tennis. He was born in Baltimore but grew up in Florida. "I was a tennis brat," he said. "When I was 8, I always wanted to know why adults got priority for courts over 8-year-olds.I still haven't figured it out."
He was a top-flight junior and an all-America at Trinity College in Texas. He has always been a solid, all-around player. As a boy, he dreamed of playing Davis Cup, but when tennis went open in 1968 he realized he could make it a career. "I just always wanted to go as far as I could with the game," he said. "But Davis Cup has always been my biggest dream."
He has played Davis Cup for the U.S. four times and says he still gets a tingle when he does. That makes him unusual in today's grab-the-bucks-and-run world of tennis.
But Gottfried is unusual in a number of ways in the ego-dominated world of tennis. Not that he doesn't have an ego -- "It's a necessity to survive out here" -- but in little ways, he is different.
For example, after walking into the players' lunchroom moments after winning his first-round Star match against Carlos Gattiker, Gottfried discovered there were no soft drinks available.
"Oh, Mr. Gottfried, we'll send someone right out for a soda," said an eager member of the tennis patrons.
Gottfried shook his head. "It's okay I'll get it myself," he said. Top-ranked tennis players rarely get anything themselves.
Now 28, Gottfried isn't sure how much longer he wants to play. Always in top condition, he looks younger than his age.
"I just can't imagine my life without tennis," he said. "I really haven't thought past my next match, which may be a mistake. I will want to get my game back to where it was in '77 and '78."
And, he would like to get some of the recognition he thought he deserved during those two magic years. "When I was ranked three on the computer, people talked about the Big Two -- Borg and Conners," he said. "It wasn't a big tournament unless they played. Then when I dropped to fourth. It was the Big Three, with Vilas.
"It bothered me then, sure. I sort of understood it but that doesn't mean I like it. Now, though, if I get back that high on the computer (he is back up to 15th), that will be enough for me."
The more mellow attitude showed up Tuesday when his opening match was scheduled for an outside court while Victor Pecci, Manuel Orantes, Pat DuPre and Corrado Barazzutti, all seeded lower than he, played in the stadium.
"I'm beyong worrying about that kind of thing," Gottfried said. "It surprised me a little, that's all. I really don't care where I play as long as I win. I don't even think about it."
As long as Gottfried can keep from thinking too much, he sould be able to keep winning. And that, he says, is the solution to any problem that might crop up.
"I go by the old Pancho Gonzales saying," Gottfried said. "He used to say that if you have any complaints, any problems with anything -- food, water, courts, where you're staying -- there's one solution to everything: play better. That takes care of it all."