I was yearning for that mythical time machine when I learned of Barry MacKay's passing last week. He was a giant in the tennis community, and as much as he'd contributed to the broadcasting and promotional side of things, I wanted to set the dial back to Wimbledon 1959, and the semifinal between MacKay and Rod Laver.
Laver was said to have great respect for MacKay's powerful, big-serving game, and what a match this was: MacKay won the first set 13-11 (no tiebreakers in those days), and it took everything within Laver's arsenal to pull out the next two sets, 11-9 and 10-8. Undaunted, MacKay outlasted the great Australian in the fourth set 9-7, and it wasn't until the very end of this titanic match that Laver found some breathing room, notching a 6-3 win in the fifth.
Just as Andy Roddick hit his prime in conjunction with a golden era in men's tennis, MacKay rose to prominence at a time when Pancho Gonzalez, Ken Rosewall, Lew Hoad, Tony Trabert and other great stars topped the professional rankings. MacKay turned pro in 1961, at the age of 25, but the previous year, he was ranked No. 1 in the U.S. ahead of such well-regarded players as Butch Buchholz, Chuck McKinley and Dennis Ralston. After winning the 1960 Italian Open, he was seeded No. 1 at the French Open -- remember, it was amateurs-only at that time -- and reached the quarterfinals.
He'd come out of Dayton, Ohio, and legendary broadcaster Bud Collins (also from Ohio) had known him from his days as a collegiate star at Michigan. "I called him the Ohio Bear," said Collins, currently recuperating from leg surgery and hopeful of attending the U.S. Open in September (he has all but ruled out Wimbledon). "Big guy, very good doubles player, excellent volley, and always had a smile. One of the most likeable guys I've ever encountered in sports."
That became the secret to his success as the longtime tournament director of the men's tour stop in Northern California: first at the Berkeley Tennis Club, after he'd purchased a controlling interest in the event, and then at San Francisco's Cow Palace. I first came in contact with MacKay in the late '70s, as a fledgling reporter for the
"The players loved him," Collins said. "He'd do anything to make them comfortable, and they went out of their way to come play for him."
The Bay Area's tournament is a veritable ghost town now, bound for Memphis after one last stand in San Jose next year. In those Cow Palace days, though, it was a treasure. MacKay lured the likes of John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg into the event, among many other stars, and it was a must-see event on the sporting calendar.
"He was a businessman, but the players adored this guy," recalled Bill Simons, who penned his recollections of MacKay for
Collins recalled a night in San Francisco when everything was set to go, right around the scheduled 7:30 p.m. start, except there were no players on the court.
"I was there doing television with Donald Dell, and Barry was going to be our courtside reporter," Collins said. "Minutes are going by, and it was obvious something had gone wrong. When I finally called Barry, he said McEnroe had decided he wouldn't play unless he got 20 tickets for some friends of his. This was a huge problem, because the place was well sold out, and Barry just wasn't in position to give away tickets like that. Somehow, he made it happen. McEnroe played, and won the title."
Somewhere, behind the scenes that night, people undoubtedly got a glimpse of MacKay's temper. He didn't show it often, but it was there.
"I knew he'd broken a racket on occasion, but one time I asked him, 'What's the worst thing you ever did?'" said Collins. "He mentioned the Adelaide tournament (Australia), where he lost a tight match and got so angry, he went outside the stadium and threw his racket into the Torrens River! It wasn't a very wide river, but he says, 'I'll bet nobody ever beat my racket throw.'"
In the early '60s, MacKay spent some memorable years on the barnstorming professional circuit, touring the country with the likes of Gonzalez, Trabert, Jack Kramer and Bobby Riggs.
"I remember talking to Buchholz, one of Barry's dear friends, about those days," said noted historian Joel Drucker. "Those barnstorming pros were moving to the next city in stationwagons, much like the old Negro League baseball players, trying to envision a bigger and better world. Butch has a vivid memory of Barry pounding his fist on a table, saying, 'One day we're going to be playing tournaments for $100,000 in prize money!' And, of course, they thought he was crazy."
A couple of years before the onset of Open tennis in 1968, Collins ran into MacKay at the Longwood Cricket Club, where the U.S. Pro tournament was taking place.
"We're having a few beers, and Barry says, 'There are so few of us pros, why should we listen to anyone about the dress code? I say we go out and play in colors.'"
"Sounds good," said Collins, sensing a good story. "What color will you wear?"
"Well, I'm a tall guy ... I'll be the Jolly Green Giant."
Collins couldn't wait to see this. It was after midnight, with a bit of alcohol in play, but MacKay promised him, "You'll see tomorrow."
As MacKay's match arrived, Collins was disappointed to see him in all-whites. "What happened?" he asked.
"It's not time yet," said MacKay.
MacKay's career was all about good timing. For decades, he was a leading voice among television broadcasters, working for various networks at all the big events.
"He was everywhere," Simons wrote. "You'd see him at the Memphis Racquet club, or lumbering down the hallway behind Court Centrale at Roland Garros, or on the broadcast roof at Wimbledon, or whispering into the mike at the U.S. Open. He'd be catching up on gossip with Billie Jean or super-agent Donald Dell, or sharing a laugh with McEnroe. And it wasn't so much about his pedigree; it was about his giving spirit, his love of the game, his ability to engage all."
Dick Gould, the longtime Stanford coach, was saddened to learn that MacKay had died, after a long illness, at the age of 76.
"I never met a person who met 'The Bear' who didn't have anything but exemplary things to say about him," he said. "I never knew anyone who knew him who didn't love him."
I heard from Tennis Channel anchor Bill Macatee in the wake of MacKay's passing. "I've been down since I heard the news," he said. "Because as long as I've been broadcasting tennis, Barry has been a part of that. Even in later years, when our paths would cross less often, my day would immediately get better when I got to see that great smile and talk with him.
"I called my very first tennis match with Barry at Indian Wells, on the USA Network, back in the early '90s," Macatee said. "He was as gracious and giving as anyone I have ever met in my life. I loved having him on the air with me, talking about those days when he was the No. 1 seed at the French and about those barnstorming days of pro tennis. He always had such a boyish glint in his eye, and he was as enthusiastic as if all those stories he was telling had just happened last week. He was one of the truly great people in the tennis world."
It seems odd, to me, that such names as Sven Davidson, Mervyn Rose, Francoise Durr and Gabriela Sabatini have a place in the International Tennis Hall of Fame -- and believe me, I have nothing against any of them -- yet there's no room for MacKay. As Simons pointed out, he's not even in the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame. Perhaps he was so good at so many things, people somehow took him for granted. There's no doubt how he ranks, however, among those who knew him well. His place in memory is forever secure.