Not too long ago, certainly no more than 10 years back, it was no big trick identifying a pro tennis player. He was the one carrying two rackets and a case of Foster's Lager.
Rackets and beer, mate.
No coach. This was tennis, not football.
Then, as prize money increased and the search for a competitive edge intensified, tennis players began to go out in search of support groups outside the immediate family to take with them on the tour; the way players live, they like it when things they want and need are portable. On one level this marshaling of these troops was a hedge against the loneliness of the road. On another it was an attempt to recreate an advantageous training regimen.
So tennis players started bringing their coaches with them -- after, that is, they hired coaches. Ion Tiriac, who was feared more for his Rabelaisian mustache than his forehand, was the first of the traveling gurus. Now, after successful tinkering with Guillermo Vilas, Henri Leconte and the latest teen whiz-bang, Boris Becker, Tiriac is considered the Angelo Dundee of tennis. Of course, with Tiriac's Medusa coiffure, Don King might be more like it.
After the coaches came the flying bobos, a group of people who served at their patron's whim. Jimmy Connors had bodyguards, beefeaters with demolition on their minds who cleared a wide path for Jimbo to stroll down and made sure the engine was running when Jimbo wanted to get out, like now. Reportedly, the trendy Vitas Gerulaitis liked traveling in the company of international backgammon stars, thereby satisfying two of his primary needs: cachet and competition.
But just as Muhammad Ali took the concept of the traveling retinue to a new level in boxing, often bringing as many as 30 freeloaders -- many of whom he didn't even know -- with him wherever he went, a kind of ongoing meals on wheels program, Martina Navratilova, has taken the form to new heights in tennis. With a nutritionist, a cook, a conditioning coach, a strategy coach, a small dog and assorted close personal friends in tow, she created Team Navratilova. Martina's Flying Circus: Everything you've come to expect in a John Irving novel, except the bear.
Now, the floodgates are open. It's not just nutritionists anymore. Where once there was marginal quackery, now there's the whole duck. When a tennis player phones his travel agent -- rather, when he has his traveling secretary call his travel agent -- he might buy a ticket for his personal sports psychologist, his spiritual adviser, his autobiographer, his racketmeister, his scheduler for exhibitions and all those portable adorables who exist to pour oils and fragrance over him (or her as the case may be). There are so many hangers-on they're thinking of putting subway straps in the players' friends' box.
The servicing of professional tennis players is becoming a cottage industry. They seem incapable of doing anything by themselves anymore except say, "Charge it!" and complain about the line calls. They have to be dressed, fed, housed, transported, coached, managed, parented, scheduled, analyzed, motivated, ministered and loved. Pity, the one thing they aren't is schooled. Players like 15-year-old Gabriela Sabatini and 17-year-old Boris Becker have long since dropped out. Had they been required to keep up their studies, they could travel with their teachers, and the tour would seem a combination of "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" and "Welcome Back Kotter."
What's the future?
I'm glad you asked. It's something you think about on a day when the only thing that happened at Wimbledon was that Navratilova and Evert beat people to advance to the finals for, what is it now, the 23rd year in a row?
The general shape of the tour is obvious: Everyone will follow the lead of Navratilova, Hu Na, Kevin Curren and Johan Kriek and move to America, except the Swedes who will continue to live in Monte Carlo.
The trend of the support staff will be toward specialization. Those small advertising patches the players wear on their sleeves -- now restricted in size and number so you no longer can confuse Bjorn Borg with Richard Petty -- will be aimed at a specific upscale market. You will see them for mobile phones, estate bottled wine and dermatologists. Since players are restricted in the number they can wear, they'll hire look-alikes to wear hundreds of them.
Just as players wear specific types of sneakers on specific court surfaces, they will import specific types of support staff -- cooks, tailors, sunglasses designers and the like -- for specific surfaces. For example, when John and Chris Lloyd want to bring in a band for some live music, they might import a string quartet on grass, a dirt band on clay. On artificial turf, they'd simply use Muzak.
Anne White will bring along someone to pour her into her tennis outfit.
Jimbo will bring attack dogs. If that isn't enough, he'll bring Rambo.
Ivan Lendl will bring someone to Grand Slam tournaments to hold the apple when he takes a big bite out of it.
In the spirit of the Medicis who hired food tasters as a hedge against being poisoned, John McEnroe will bring a newspaper reader here to Wimbledon, to deflect the angrier blows.
You've read about the way the British tabloid press treats McEnroe. Well, here's a taste of how The Mirror treated McEnroe's girlfriend's family earlier this week. After ostensibly getting an exclusive -- and seemingly friendly -- interview with Joanna Moore, Tatum O'Neal's mother, The Mirror described the family this way: " . . . more famous for their fisticuffs than their films . . . the tempestuous Ryan, married first time to 'ex-pill popper' actress Joanna Moore . . . 'Tantrum' Tatum . . . and her drug addict brother Griffin." Can you imagine what they'd have written if she'd stiffed them?