I think," said Tony Trabert, the Wimbledon champion who this week as the country's top amateur will lead the U.S. team in the defense of the Davis Cup, "the people who label touring amateur tennis players as tennis bums are undoubtedly jealous.
"Take a hypothetical case of a guy who works hard at tennis. He's got plenty of years when he's going to have to work, punching the clock from 8:30 to 5:30. But when he's young he has the opportunity to travel around the world with somebody else paying his expenses. In return he's performing, he's playing tennis to please the crowd. He's having a lot of fun, getting a good education. Why shouldn't be do it? Why should he be labeled a tennis bum? Other athletes who travel and play their sport aren't bums. It just doesn't make sense—and it gripes me.
"Look at baseball. And I really love baseball. So a baseball player takes a punch at another player or at an umpire. He gets fined and that's all there is to it, and everybody takes it for granted that ballplayers are going to blow up once in a while. Nothing like this ever happens in tennis, and yet when we complain about a call—or dare to question an official—it's written up everywhere that we're all a bunch of bad sports. Personally I think you'll find a higher type, a more intelligent fellow playing tennis than any of the other sports, and, furthermore, I think I'm a better sport than 99 and 9/10ths of the guys playing the game. Sure, I'm enough of a competitor to want to win, but I seldom question decisions if I think a linesman has made an honest mistake. The way I feel is that if I work all my life at tennis I don't want some guy losing points for me because he isn't paying attention."
Trabert, born Marion Anthony just 25 years ago, sat slumped in a hard-backed office chair and looked not unlike a successful junior executive in his neatly pressed brown-plaid suit. His blue eyes leveled on a spot across the room in the manner in which they habitually take dead aim at a few square feet of tennis court before he unleashes a blazing first service. As he warmed to his subject, Trabert spoke quickly with the confident air of authority and conviction that has moved some critics to accuse him of arrogance.
August 28, 1955
"I worked hard to become a champion, and it's something I'm proud of," Trabert said. "Like others who've reached the top I've had to experience a lot of things-obligations, responsibilities, disappointments, hard work, joy, time consumed, radio and television shows, clinics and speeches. I know it's the sort of life I have to accept, but at times you sort of feel like getting away and relaxing—and not worrying about pleasing everyone. Oh, just to get out of the goldfish bowl for a change.
"This shoulder trouble I had a few weeks ago. Actually it may have been a blessing in disguise because it was a warning that I was working pretty hard and that my muscles needed a rest. I'd been playing tennis almost steadily all year, and to have a minor injury is about the only way I can get a rest."
Trabert sat down again and threw his feet onto the desk. "People always want to know," he said, "how I got started in tennis and how I got so good at it. Well, I'll never know quite why I picked tennis over the other sports, but I do know that once I got to play and had a little success, I got hungry and wanted more success. That's what sort of pushes you up the ladder.
"Back home in Cincinnati our house in Bond Hill was near the playground. My Dad, a sales engineer with General Electric, was always sports-minded, and I guess from the beginning my two older brothers and I always liked playing all the sports with the rest of the kids on the block. Sometimes I used to go to the playground courts. The best tennis players in Cincinnati were playing there. It created a lot of interest, and when there's a lot of interest it sort of attracts you, and so I tried to play. Naturally I wasn't very good, but there was something fascinating about it—just what it is I don't think I can answer to this day.
"I was only 6 at the time, but there were people up there like Will Wellage, Andy Hittle, Bud Vorhees and Thelma and Harry Miller—all of them much older than I was—who helped me. I'd ball boy for them, run after soft drinks, and in return one of them would stick around a while, maybe only five minutes, to hit some balls with me.
"I didn't know until much later that tennis would be my sport. I loved baseball and was catching on Dan Teehan's Knothole team. I often wonder how good I would have been had I followed a baseball career. I started as a shortstop, but I was short and fat and Dan decided I was a natural catcher. I didn't hit a long ball but was consistent.
"When I was 10 I played my first tournament at the Corryville courts and lost 6-0, 6-1 in the first round to the local Boys champion, Don White. But my Dad arranged about this time for me to get some lessons from a couple of pros. Earl Bossong, the pro at the Camargo Club, had given me a racket for my ninth birthday, and Howard Zaeh, the pro at the Cincinnati Tennis Club, started working on me at the age of 10. Both of them taught me the basic fundamentals of tennis: good ground strokes, how to volley, how to serve. And I think that as I grew up I learned to play the game as it should be played instead of being weak in certain aspects through not having learned how to play correctly as a kid."
The young champion pushed his chair away from the desk and tried to treat it like a sofa. His feet stretched way out in a straight line. Both arms went back behind his head, and the only motion as he launched into conversation was the occasional stroke of the right hand through his sandy hair. "I guess tennis is like most sports," Trabert said, "in that you have to learn the fundamentals and stick to hard practice and be willing to make sacrifices. There's mental preparation, too, although I know it's hard to tell a 10-year-old kid to start working on psychology. But you've got to realize that you're going to be faced with a lot of disappointments, and if suddenly some victories come your way you have to learn to be humble—because the other person has lost, and he feels bad enough. My family—and my Dad in particular—have never stopped stressing good manners and courtesy. One of the first things my Dad told me about tournament tennis was that I should show up promptly on time. Likewise, I got to feel that the linesmen, the umpires, the ball boys all play a big part in the running of a successful tournament, so I always like to shake hands with the umpire, win or lose, and thank him for the job he's done. It's a very small thing, but I think it means a lot.
"My Dad and Bill Talbert have probably helped me more than anybody else. Bill's from Cincinnati, too. He's older than I am, and I guess I was about 11 when I first got to know him. I remember the first thing he showed me was how to volley. Another fellow, Gordon Naugle, and I didn't know how to volley very well, and Bill showed us how to stand up there at the net and reach out and punch for the shot. When he saw I was interested in the game and willing to work at it, he started helping me.
"He hasn't stopped yet. Bill took me on my first European trip in 1950 and we won every doubles match we played in. Later, when they were picking a Davis Cup doubles team, I guess we were a little bitter about being forced to split up, because we both really believed we were the best team over here. They put me with Vic Seixas, and I was quoted as saying I didn't want to play with Vic. Well, what I really said was that Vic—at that point—wasn't a sound orthodox doubles player. In the first place, his strokes aren't orthodox, and in the second place he adapted his strokes to doubles in a different way. When we started playing together my big task was to get to know what Vic was going to do—so I wouldn't have to guess. I suppose we've made out all right since, and we've won most every title around except the Wimbledon doubles, and last year we beat both the good Australian teams."
At Cincinnati's Walnut Hills High School, Trabert won the Ohio State scholastic singles title for three straight years. "I missed both the National Boys and Junior championship titles," he said, "but I was learning a lot. Gil Bogley beat me in the Juniors, but he taught me some thing valuable: play your own game. He didn't have particularly good strokes, but he beat me by 'outdinkying' me with a lot of soft balls until I started hitting them softer and softer myself. He beat me at his game rather than me playing my own game.
"In high school my Dad said to me one night, 'If you're going to play all sports you'll never be very good at just one.' I decided then I'd better concentrate on tennis, but I later found that basketball, which I played at Walnut Hills and at the University of Cincinnati, was pretty good at keeping you in shape. It's good for endurance, strengthening the legs and for quick action in changing directions. I made the varsity at college after starting as last man on the squad and working up. Our team one season led the nation in major college scoring and we went to the NIT in Madison Square Garden.
"We'd been averaging about 40% of our shots most of the season, but that night we only got about 20% and we lost in double overtime to St. Bonaventure in the first round. We all felt it was our worst game all season.
"I never scored much and the coach used to get mad at me sometimes because I only took seven or eight shots a game. But being a guard I was essentially a playmaker and a pretty good floor man defensively. If somebody accused me of being put on the basketball team because I'd already made a name for myself in sports—and because I might be a drawing power—I used to get mad. I never have bragged or held anything I've done over anyone's head, and I think I simply earned the spot on the team because I've always been a team man. Besides, the greatest drawing power you have is a winning team. Probably that's what drew me to basketball at Cincinnati. If I can be a member of a winning team, I think that's great. But I expect to earn my position. I'll play as hard as any man on the team and I wouldn't feel right accepting favors. But that's beside the point anyway with Cincinnati. If I couldn't have done the job, they weren't going to leave me in there for long, that's for sure.
"Guys often ask me about my disappointments. What athlete doesn't have disappointments and even feel like quitting his sport for good? Sure, I've felt pretty bad at times, but I guess I only once felt like giving the whole thing up. On my 18th birthday, August 16, 1948, I played my first match on grass. It was at Newport, R.I. I went up there a day early in order to hit a few, because I had never seen a grass court and the bounce was different, and the type of shots that were effective on grass were different from those that were effective on clay. My opponent was Chauncey Steele, a fellow from Cambridge, Mass., who was a pretty fair tennis player with a lot of experience on grass. Steele beat me. His strokes didn't look good to me and I just couldn't understand why I couldn't beat him. I was so disgusted and discouraged when it was over that I felt I would never be able to play on grass. I came very close to packing my bags and going home. But then I sort of thought it over and felt, 'Well, don't be so stupid. Give yourself a little more chance and don't give up.' Today I consider a good grass court the best surface for me. I think, also, that a good grass court is a truer test of tennis because the person who can do more things on grass is going to be the winning tennis player. The game, of course, is quite different. On grass if a ball is hit hard it will slide and stay very low, whereas on clay when you hit a ball hard it hits the ground and sort of grabs hold and bounces more slowly and higher up in the air. The game on grass is faster and I like it better.
"One of the things every kid expects to go through nowadays is a hitch in the service. Well, I'd had a good year in 1951, and after winning seven straight tournaments I carried Frank Sedgman to five sets in the Nationals at Forest Hills. I was in the upper third of my class at UC (a B student majoring in political science), and although I had no objections to serving when my time came, I was a little bitter when a few 'poison-pen letters' written to my draft board literally forced me to enlist. I played only three months of that year, and yet some people acted as though I had given up everything else in the world to play tennis."
Trabert was in the Navy nearly two years and he doesn't particularly relish rehashing the old days. "Most of my Navy time," he said, "was spent on the aircraft carrier Coral Sea. I wasn't very happy as a seaman apprentice in a deck division, because most of the fellows aboard ship just wanted to read funny books. It was upsetting to me not to find anyone who could even carry on an intelligent conversation. Later I got into the quartermaster division and it was more interesting working on navigation.
"I took a 30-day furlough during the winter of 1952 and went on my second trip to Australia with the Davis Cup team. I learned the hard way the importance of being in good condition. I didn't have much time to get in shape and passed out after my match with Ken McGregor. A lot of the success I've had this year comes from having learned how to handle my training sensibly. I think 185 pounds is my best playing weight, and if I'm not playing I stay close to that doing roadwork, jumping rope and calisthenics.
"In the tournaments leading to Forest Hills in 1953 I didn't care so much about winning as I did in perfecting every phase of the game. Then, when I won—just like this summer at Wimbledon—people asked me what I considered the best part of my game. Ted Williams in your magazine said confidence can sometimes be detrimental. I agree with him. I seldom go on the tennis court in a big match feeling completely positive that I'm going to win. On the other hand, I have confidence in my own ability. I have confidence knowing that I'm in good shape. I know that I am capable of playing the game well, and I have confidence that I can produce under pressure in the clutch. I've always strived and attempted to make every phase of my game the same. Don't you see, if I don't think in my own mind that I have a real weakness, then I don't feel that anyone I play can discover a weakness and beat me by capitalizing on it.
"So I never have—or never would—admit to a weakness, because I don't think I have a particular weakness, and I don't care what phase of my game my opponent cares to attack. In short, I think I can play equally well with any shot.
"This, you must understand, is a sort of constructive confidence. It's not overconfidence or bragging. I know my capabilities and my limitations. I certainly know that because I'm reasonably big I can't be as quick as some of the smaller fellows who run around the court and get a lot of balls back defensively. So, quite simply, my game is that I make up in power what I lack in speed.
"Blisters on my hand gave me a rough time in 1954. Blisters and other things. The Nationals was the one big tournament I had won in 1953 and because of it I got a lot of publicity. In the eyes and minds of the people I was expected to be unbeatable. I wasn't up to it, and knew I wouldn't be until I gave up college to achieve my next goal: to be the best tennis player in the world.
"At Wimbledon I blistered my hand and also my feet while taking a five-set match from Sven Davidson. Without making excuses I think it's safe to say that I was handicapped. In trying to compensate and avoid pain, I changed my grip on the racket, and consequently my strokes didn't get the same result. I lost to Rosewall in five sets in the semifinals. I didn't play too well for the rest of the summer, including the match in which Rex Hartwig beat me in the quarterfinals of our own Nationals at Forest Hills."
Picking up a tennis magazine, Trabert thumbed through it quickly, then stopped at a picture of himself with his wife. "I met her in June of 1953 while playing the National Hard Court Championships in Salt Lake City," he said. "Her name was Shauna Wood and she had just graduated from the University of Utah and had been named Miss Utah. I took her out one night and fell in love with her. I hoped—but wasn't sure—that the feeling was mutual. We got engaged later that summer and were married in October. Although she's not very good at tennis, she does enjoy it. It was difficult, too, when she was first drawn into this thing because she didn't understand what we were all talking about. But now she doesn't get hurt when we can't go out late, although I guess there was a problem about that at first.
"Over your lifetime there's no big money in professional tennis. I don't want to end up as a teaching pro at a club. It's hard work and the compensations aren't that great actually. Of course the top amateur, the guy who has established himself in the eyes of the people, can make a big hunk on his first tour. He figures to do pretty well for as long as he's on top.
"But there's a question in my mind about turning pro—not that I've had any offers yet. You see, I want to work, have a solid sense of security, make some money and become a family man. Well, I already have a good job, starting this fall as the West Coast representative of the Security Banknote Company. I'll live in Los Angeles but there'll be no limit to my territory and .I'll be able to do business wherever I go. If I turned pro I might be able to put $60,000 or $70,000 in the bank, but then I might be out of luck in a couple of years. I've been thinking it might be better to remain amateur, pick my tournaments and carry on my business with the knowledge that in 10 years time I'll be better off from every angle than if I faded out of the picture after a couple of years on the pro tour."
A visitor entered the room for a moment and fired a direct question: "What about this Australian team? Has it improved in the last couple of years?"
"Possibly Rosewall has improved a little bit, but Hoad has been fairly disappointing. I think it stems from the fact that they were exceptional as young kids. Everybody thought they were sort of cute—sort of phenomenal. They had no reason to get choked up in a match because they weren't often expected to win. When they did win, it was great. But after they had won a few tournaments—and were expected to win more often—they suddenly felt the pressure that the other big players had felt all along. They haven't been able to carry this pressure too well.
"When you get right down to it, what have the Australians won? Look at the whole tennis circuit record and you'll see that outside of Rosewall in the Australian Nationals, their guys haven't won many singles championships.
"It's true, Davis Cup Challenge Rounds are different and you certainly get pretty keyed up. It's a big thing when you realize that you alone represent your entire country.
"Harry Hopman claims a lot of credit for Australia's Davis Cup victories and says when he's sitting alongside the court his boys are at least 15 points a match better. I don't think it's true. He may help his boys a little, but not that much. He was regarded as great when they were winning, but last year—while they were losing to us—I didn't notice him giving them any great tips on how to change their strategy. If a captain is great and is as smart as Hopman is given credit for being, he should come up with an answer when being beaten.
"I guess I get as nervous as the next guy before a big match—especially if it's in the Davis Cup Challenge Round. But I think I'm enough of a competitor and am certainly serious enough about wanting to win, that it's not likely that it's going to be difficult to get me prepared mentally and physically to be at my best. If you go on the tennis court a little apprehensively, wondering how tough your opponent is going to be, I think you'll play better in the long run. You've got to be a little keyed up and nervous to start with, but once you get warmed up and into the match, then you start to produce.
"There are still lots of things to think about, though, even during the match. Although you should know your fundamentals by now, it does no harm to remind yourself with some dedicated concentration about even the most elemental phases of the game—even such as watching the ball. I also run over and over in my mind the weaknesses of the other guy—and seldom go into a match without some idea of the pattern I'm going to play. If I'm losing I'll always follow the old sports saying, 'Never change a winning game but always change a losing game.' I'll change even though I may feel what I've been doing is the best thing. If it's not winning for you, what can you lose changing?
THE AUSTRALIAN TROUBLE
"Going back a second to my being a competitor—maybe I should say something about what happened a couple of years ago in Australia. Well, I suppose everybody knows by now how I criticized the crowds down there for cheering when I double faulted in the crucial match against Lew Hoad. Maybe I wasn't too sharp about that.
"But that was only the beginning. A few weeks later I played John Bromwich in the Australian National Championships. I won the first two sets 6-1, 6-1. There was very little applause and you could have heard a pin drop in the stadium. John is a veteran, very popular and very clever, and he's always trying to fool you. He changed his game and won the third set and the people went crazy. In the fourth set he got ahead and it got so bad that people started hollering while the ball was in play. Inside of me there "was suddenly a culmination of all the things we'd been forced to go through during three months there—and I simply blew my stack.
"I did something in that match that I've never tried to convince anyone was right. I quit. Sure, I stayed on the court till it was over, but my way of saying, 'I've had enough, I pass' was that I simply didn't try any more.
"The one mistake I think I've made in my tennis career was quitting that match. I'd never quit before, haven't since and would never do it again.
"My big winning streak this season has a few people moaning that I'm all ripe for an upset. Well, I don't feel that way at all. I feel the more you can win, the better off you are because you make other players respect you. And a lot of the players will get so they don't feel they can beat you because you've won so many times. When you have a winning streak going for you, I think it puts the pressure on the other players rather than on you. Now I approach each tournament and each individual match as though it was the last and most important one I'm going to play."
There was a knock on the door and Bill Talbert walked in. "You ready for lunch, Trabe?" he asked.
"Can't make it," Trabert said. "I've got to meet a news-reel guy, see the doc about my shoulder and then go on a radio show."
The two young men from Cincinnati walked toward the door. Trabert, still showing just the right amount of confidence, had one parting word. "If you want my opinion on the subject, I think we'll retain the Davis Cup this weekend. Furthermore, I think we'll do what we did last year: clinch it in the first two days."