What we're seeing in Chip Hooper at Wimbledon, to take a guess, is the first light in a day that will change tennis.Check in here again in 15 years and see if this place isn't full of remarkable athletes. It isn't now. Only the very best tennis pros are good pure athletes. The rest are only so-so, much too little and too weak to succeed at other games.
Hooper can do anything. Just ask him. What other sports did you play, Chip? "Baseball, basketball, football, track, soccer, everything." Did you play any of them well? "Every one."
Can any other tennis pro say that?
Is any other 6 feet 5 and 212 pounds?
Does any other bench press 300 pounds? "Most guys can't do 150" Hooper said. "I was keeping Arthur Ashe in touch with the weight lifting I was doing. He said not to worry about it, it will make me a better athlete in general. You ever look at the guys who run the 100-yard dash? They're severely muscled. Good Lord, they're 400-pound bench pressers. I was playing better, so I kept doing it."
Should someone inform the Dallas Cowboys' computer of the bare facts of Hooper's size and strength, alarm bells would go off and Gil Brandt would slide down the brass pole from his bedroom to his garage, there leaping into his car to get the first plane to London. He'd need to before George Steinbrenner realized that anybody who can serve a tennis ball 150 miles per hour can throw a baseball two-thirds that fast.
And this guy is playing tennis.
Playing tennis aganst teeny-tiny Swedes and New Yorkers with spaghetti-skinny arms.
Makes you wonder what tennis would be like if the very best athletes were out here. One of the game's legends, Fred Perry, the Wimbledon champion in 1933-34-35, watched Hooper and Lloyd Bourne win first-round matches here last week. The Englishman loved it.
"I've seen those 6-foot-11 and 7-foot black American basketball players moving so beautifully," Perry said. "Hooper doesn't move as well as some of them. Bourne moves better and is quicker on his feet. But Hooper is so strong. One day we may see a lot of these black basketbal players trying tennis. They will be something to watch."
Of the games he has played, Hooper says tennis is the most difficult and demands the greatest discipline. The Bullets' point guard, John Lucas, tried to mix a basketball and tennis career before choosing, one presumes, the sport in which he believed he could achieve the most success.
Though tennis offers a life style beyond reach of any other sport (John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg, 23 and 26, are multimillionaries working in Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Paris, Rome) it is not the game of choice of American athletes, for several reasons.
We are great mimics and our children see the best football, basketball and baseball on television and in convenient stadiums the year around. Only occasionally do they see tennis, only occasionally do they read much about it and rarely do they see the masters live.
Like golf, tennis has been a country club game solidly set in the middle class of affluent suburbanites. Players who succeed grandly from the public parks levels of either game are so exceptional we can tick off their names quickly: Le Trevino, Arthur Ashe.
Hooper is no inner-city black. The son of a surgeon and a high school guidance counselor, he had the opportunity to play tennis at an entry level guaranteeing him a shot at realizing his potential. Makes you wonder, doesn't it, what a gifted basetball player might have done had he grown up next to a tennis court instead of a hoop.
Julius Erving, say. Or Magic Johnson. To see Vitas Gerulaitis at 6-foot and 155 prowling a tennis court is to know that Oscar Robertson would have curled the fellow's hair. Jerry West made himself into a scratch golfer and is club-champion quality at tennis. He played neither game until he left college.
As good as Hooper is at tennis, if he wins the fifth set of a delayed match come Monday, he moves to the third round at Wimbledon.
He is not nearly as agile as an average NBA small forward. He is pigeon-toed to an extreme that limits his lateral movement. He also is not quick with his first step. These deficiencies are largely hidden by his strength and size.
"My backhands I hit aren't really shots, they're just really strong," he said. "I'm so strong in so many ways that I don't have to be in total position."
It also is true that he is unable to get into proper position, a failing that leaves him an unfinished product at the moment. He makes up for it by sheer athleticism of the sort that allowed him to leap straight up for an overhead that closed out his first-round upset of eighth-seeded Peter McNamara.
"The two-legged jump, God, I've never seen anyone do that before in tennis," he said. "Most guys are taught to jump back off one leg, but I jump straight up. I went straight up in the air, and I think that blew McNamara's mind. I was about 15 feet up, probably."
In an effort to improve his movement on court, Hooper has taken ballet lessons. After surgery to remove growths from his eyes, Hooper looked for something to do during his recuperation.
"So I took ballet for 10 weeks, three times a week, and I was getting more adept at movement . . . I took just basic ballet movements. I wanted to go out there and learn how to move. I used to be the fastest kid in my class when I was 12. I was 6-foot-3 and 130 pounds. When I started growing, then I was the slowest."
And how good, now that he's moving better, will Hooper become?
"Within 18 months," said Arthur Ashe, who only knows everything about tennis. "He will be in the top 10 in the world."