Remember when tennis players wore whites? Everything seemed simpler, purer, then. Players didn't beseech or berate the heavens and other more earthly authorities. They played for the love of the game and a cold pork pie at Wimbledon.
"Nostalgia?" said Fred Stolle, an eyebrow raised quizzically. "I've forgotten his first name."
There are athletes who resolutely refuse to accept the finiteness of their skills. They are so busy remembering what they were, they cannot go on being who they are. This does not appear to be the case with Rod Laver (44), Ken Rosewall (48), Roy Emerson (46), and Fred Stolle (44), four living legends of tennis on display last night and tonight at the Smith Center in the E. F. Hutton Masters Challenge. The nostalgia was in the stands, not on the court.
Rosewall, who has won everything but Wimbledon, defeated Emerson, who was twice ranked No. 1, 4-6, 6-1, 7-5. Laver, who won the Grand Slam twice, defeated Stolle, 6-2, 4-6, 6-2.
"People are interested in our kind of tennis," Rosewall said. "We add a bit of a nostalgic flavor. They know us."
Most of the 2,150 in the crowd did. Ray Cox, who is 11, came to see them because he plays tennis and "my dad likes me to see how they play. Guys don't play like they used to play. These guys have a little more style."
Vincent Mallare of Bowie glanced at Rosewall and said, "I can relate to him. I'm almost his age."
A young girl named Vanessa came because she wanted to get a lesson, which Laver and Emerson happily provided. She pursed her lips, and swung mightily with a racket at least as big as she. "She's probably saying, 'Who the hell is he, this bloody guy, telling me what to do,' " Laver said.
He didn't mind a bit.
Stolle's clippings are at home with his mother. Laver's mother has his in a suitcase. "I threw all that garbage out," he said. "I sent the clippings home to her. She's got the whole bloody shooting match."
Emerson, panting, after an hour and a half workout, said, "If Rocket got in shape, he could be in the top 20 easily, close to the top 10."
Rosewall? "The same," he said.
But Laver, who struggled mightily to prevent the present from taking over his past, demurred. "Not and be able to sustain any real presence," he said. "It's tough to stay fit. It's difficult to compete day in and day out and think tennis alone. I'm not fast enough to maneuver now and get back into the game. Now I stay back and wait for some bugger to hit it out."
"Are you accusing me of being an old bugger," Stolle said, as they sat together waiting for their match, as they have done so many times before.
"No," Laver said, "Actually, I was talking about Emmo."
In 1967, they played the first professional match played at Wimbledon. Laver won in straight sets. "I remember the first time, you lost to (Raul) Ramirez," Stolle said. "You moaned and groaned and bitched. Emmo and I took you out and got you drunk and said, 'Hey, Rocket, he's not bad.' We can all remember the first superstar we beat. When the time comes, you've got to give the kid credit. Sometimes they can hit the ball."
"You do have to accept it," Laver said. "For a long time, I didn't want to accept it."
"We all go through it, a great champion like Rocket, it's harder to accept than for someone like me," Stolle said. "That's probably why we didn't get as far."
"I tried like anything, I worked hard to stop if from happening," Laver said. "I was 35, 37. I knew it was happening. There were times I could play close to what it was. Other times, there was no reason to be playing badly. I'd win three or four in a row and then lose a simple match to someone I should beat and probably did beat the week before."
And now? "In practice, I can still do it," he said. "In matches, it's a totally different story. Some of the boys today, I practice with, tell me I'm hitting the ball harder than guys on the circuit. But I'm not holding anything back. "
Last week, in a tennis legends tournament in Cincinnati, Laver beat Rosewall, 6-2, 6-2. "I felt I was moving him around as well as I've ever done," Laver said. "But I was looking at old legs over there."
Some athletes just can't "accept playing crappy," Laver said. "It's not what they envision in their own game. But this kind of circuit keeps us competing, it keeps us fit and healthy. It beats the hell out of sitting on a chair or running around an oval. It's frustrating to see athletes from team sports, once they're older, it's see you later. At 31-32, they're sitting around having a few beers saying, 'now what?' We're most fortunate in tennis."
He played in 12 legends and master's tournaments last year, winning three. Though he remembers playing at Wimbledon where he got "trophies in Mars bars and vouchers for tea tickets worth eight and sixpence," he doesn't begrudge anyone their money. He doesn't wonder why a 26-year-old who had won Wimbledon five times would get burned out. "You can get burned out quick when you've got $8 million in your pocket every year," he said.
And he doesn't think about the shots that might have been five years ago. "I wouldn't say, 'five years ago, I got it.' I say, 'I got it yesterday, why not today?' "