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OLMEDO: THE ENIGMA OF TENNIS

Sept. 07, 1959
Sept. 07, 1959

Table of Contents
Sept. 7, 1959

Cover
Coming Events
Olmedo The Enigma
Spectacle
  • The sea's soft edge belongs to the young, and the only way they lose their place in that shining, protean realm between the tides is by growing up

Events & Discoveries
Admiral Gallery
Food
Horse Racing
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over
Pat On The Back

OLMEDO: THE ENIGMA OF TENNIS

He was everybody's hero last year when he won the Davis Cup for the U.S., but at Forest Hills the brilliant, moody Peruvian frustrated tennis fans with his erratic play

Last weekend at Forest Hills the man who was primarily responsible for America's dramatic capture of the Davis Cup in 1958 all but lobbed it right back. It was frustrating. If he had been at the top of his form, the challenge round would not have been close. In the U.S. tennis fans sighed as they realized what had happened: Alex Olmedo was simply behaving like Alex Olmedo. It had happened before. It would happen again.

This is an article from the Sept. 7, 1959 issue

There is nothing else quite like Olmedo in the formful world of tennis. He is the world's best amateur tennis player one day. And he is plain run-of-the-mill the next.

It is New Year's Eve, 1958, in the steeply banked Milton tennis stadium at Brisbane, Australia, and the capacity crowd falls sickly silent. The Davis Cup is hanging in the balance. Nervous and haggard, the Australian Ashley Cooper, behind two sets to one in the match, 7-6 in the set and 40-love in the game, waits for the match-point serve. Across the net the poker-faced Peruvian with the black-spike hair flashes his racket like a machete in the air and the ball hurtles in. Desperate, Cooper leaps at it, slashes, hits the ball out of court, and the Davis Cup goes over to the U.S. Cooper's opponent dances a brief war dance, flings his racket in the air and bursts into tears. It is Alex Olmedo's finest hour.

Now it is May 1959, brief months later, in the cool breezes of San Francisco. Alex Olmedo, the one-man Davis Cup team, is playing a California second-rater named Clif Mayne in the semifinals of the state tournament. Onlookers cannot believe their eyes. Olmedo leaves the base line only six times in three sets as Mayne, who would have to pay to see a Davis Cup match, eliminates him 6-3, 6-1, 6-0. Hisses fill the clubhouse. "Olmedo fouled out!" a sportswriter exclaims incredulously.

Now it is July 1959, at Wimbledon. Olmedo is crushing the Aussie, Rod Laver, in the finals of the world's foremost tournament. The scores are devastating, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4. Laver looks dazed as he walks off the court. Alex Olmedo is presented Wimbledon's Challenge Cup by the Duchess of Kent. Once again he is the toast of tennis.

Now it is two weeks later. Olmedo is playing not before royalty but before shirtsleeved fans at the National Clay Court championship at River Forest near Chicago. His opponent is not a high-ranking Australian but a nondescript South African, Abe Segal. Olmedo shows less interest in the match than in the birds flying overhead; in fact, he spends a good part of the time watching a pair of pretty girls playing a match one court away. He loses 6-2, 6-1, 6-0 in a torrent of boos. Even Opponent Segal grows exasperated, shouts at him, "Start playing tennis." Olmedo's eyes merely glitter as he insolently double-faults, refuses to play reachable shots and turns his back on his opponent's pleas. He is promptly disqualified from even playing out the doubles in the tourney, and a Chicago paper the next day congratulates the officials for "the prompt manner in which they tossed Alex Olmedo out on his ego." The paper also requests that the officials "cut off his expense account," and a columnist adds that "while on the subject...I've been wondering along with some millions of others just why it was necessary to go to a foreign country to pick a player to represent the U.S. in Davis Cup competition."

WHO IS ALEX?

The question, of course, is begged: Which is the real Alex Olmedo? The dissident, resentful, balky young Incan who would spitefully lose to a public-parks player? Or the savage slasher of Brisbane and Wimbledon who can put away the world's best in straight sets?

It is probable that neither and both is the real Alex Olmedo. For the young Peruvian who, in the words of one cynic, has become "the U.S.'s most embarrassing foreign entanglement since Tito," is, in the words of a kinder critic, "a guy who wouldn't swat a fly but who would tackle a tiger with his bare hands."

To be sure, as his good friend Myron MacNamara puts it, "He needs an element of self-preservation in the match for him to do his best. Alex will not beat anybody as a favor to the tournament committee."

But this does not explain why. Tennis has been good to Alex Olmedo, goes the refrain. Therefore, he owes it a top performance every time he goes to the court.

To understand why Olmedo apparently doesn't think so, it is necessary to go back to 1953 when Olmedo was a simple, sunny youngster from Arequipa, Peru, the son of a quondam groundskeeper and coach, who had become, at the age of 17, the best tennis player in Peru. The head of the Peruvian tennis association, Jorge Harten, knew this was not enough, and he imported the U.S. teacher, Stanley Singer, to demonstrate the finer points to the gifted youngster and other Lima hopefuls.

Olmedo, at that time, had appeared briefly on the international scene, bowing out in his first match in the U.S. Nationals at Forest Hills in 1951 (to Jacque Grigry, 6-4, 6-0, 6-1). But it did not take Singer long to realize the boy's rare talent.

It became imperative to get Olmedo to the U.S., to Los Angeles, before his game could atrophy in a welter of inferior competition. A collection of $700 was taken up, Peru promised to send their student $75 a month, and in early 1954 Olmedo headed for Los Angeles and tennis destiny.

There was no question then of delivering this uncut diamond directly to the fussy, fanatical entrepreneur of amateur tennis in southern California, Perry T. Jones himself. The non-English-speaking, shy and frightened Olmedo was not ready for Jones when he arrived hot and dusty in the depot in Los Angeles in February 1954. A more fitting mentor in the person of a public-park tennis-shop proprietor, Joe Cianci, was the man who met, clothed, fed and befriended the semiwaif who had had to pay a Mexican in El Paso to write out the wire to Los Angeles about his arrival.

Cianci put Alex in night school, gave him a job in the tennis shop when the Peruvian government later stopped its subsidies, coached the youngster in what tennis he knew and encouraged pros like Pancho Segura to take an interest in him. He also schooled him in the realities of tennis in southern California, Perry T. Jones presiding. "When I take you to Mr. Jones," instructed Cianci urgently through an interpreter, "no matter what happens, no matter how mad you get, smile, dammit, smile—all the time! Hear?"

It would be nice—for the movie rights—to be able to report that Cianci and his young ward walked into the sunset of life still fast friends. But Cianci does not even speak to Olmedo any more. "I found the kid an apartment, fed him scrambled eggs in the morning, treated him like a son. He gives the appearance he's a swell kid, but you can't rely on him," growls Cianci bitterly today. Olmedo bows his head at the charge but does not return the serve. "Joe thinks I do not give him enough credit. The truth is I worked for him in his shop—I strung rackets and made malts and hamburgers for the customers."

Cianci tried manfully to get his charge in the hands of Jones. But Jones has a rigidly enforced rule that his junior tournaments, for which Olmedo was eligible agewise, are open only to youngsters attending regular classes in school. Says Cianci: "I think Mr. Jones was also mad because Alex had not come up here through him. Anyway, he used to scream at me that Olmedo would never play at the Los Angeles Tennis Club as long as he had anything to say about it. But then, one day, he says to me, 'I just can't be mean to that boy—that cute little smile. I'm going to help him.' "

At that time, as it happened, Czar Jones was fast losing his grip on his little world of amateur tennis. Under his system of interlocking programs and foundations, southern Californians historically had won a staggering total of 446 national championships, 39 Wimbledon championships and 32 national collegiate titles. But before Olmedo there had been a long dry spell. Not since Pancho Gonzales turned pro in 1949 had southern California come up with a successor to the giants of the past. It was a matter of some concern to Jones, because management of a top player, and only that, could put him in the bargaining position he loved best. As Jack Kramer put it: "Whoever has got the top player runs tennis." Gardnar Mulloy assented: "Jones used to take care of his boys real good. You always found the Californians—and Jones—sleeping in the best hotels, eating at the best restaurants and staying at the best homes. When they were the best, that is. They got enough expense money to eat well and sleep well. If they didn't they didn't show up. The rest of us slept in locker rooms or tents."

It did not take Jones long to perceive that Olmedo was the key to reopen the golden door. But it was the University of Southern California's ex-tennis coach, Lou Wheeler, and George Toley, present coach, who arranged for Olmedo to enroll at Modesto Junior College, some 300 miles north of Los Angeles. It was not a moment too soon. Cianci had been on the point of sending the young player back to Peru when the offer came.

At Modesto, Olmedo slept five in a room with two tennis players and two football players (one of whom, Proverb Jacobs, now belongs to the Philadelphia Eagles). He also worked in a cannery. He also played tennis. He enrolled at the University of Southern California in February 1956, got a $100-a-month campus job, a sinecure at the Peruvian consulate answering phones and a membership at the Los Angeles Tennis Club. He became Mr. Jones's "boy" and won the NCAA championship for USC the first time he played in it.

Even so, his progress was aggravatingly slow, and he was frequently scolded for his lackadaisical play by both Jones and his coach, George Toley. It was Toley who first saw a pattern emerge: "It boiled down to this," he observes. "Some people can get on a court and, without effort, play up to their maximum capabilities every time. Pancho Segura is one who can, for instance. There are others who cannot put out every time. Henri Cochet was one of these. He was the best in the world in the Davis Cup, very often beatable other times.

"Alex is like that. Once, in a doubles match against Stanford, he didn't try a lick. I talked to him for two hours and told him he had to shape up. I told him he gave inferior players confidence by not keeping the pressure on. He walked away and was mad. Pretty soon he came back with a smile on his face."

But, the point is, the smile was probably only on Olmedo's face. There is little doubt the Incan impassivity, as it so often does, masked a seething within. Olmedo renders even to Toley only that which he thinks is Toley's. He admits: "I have a philosophy. I have heard so much from so many. I never listen exactly. I mean, I listen. But I don't. I learn most from players I play against. That's the big way you learn tennis."

Olmedo learned life, too. Although accepted virtually without reservation in the West on the sheer force of a captivating personality, it was true that Alex had chosen a sport still largely dominated by the very rich and the very white. Cornwell Jackson, the president of the Los Angeles Tennis Club, once found Olmedo, the top-seeded player at the club at the time, weeping convulsively in back of the locker rooms. Some thoughtless member had addressed him sharply as "You, there, boy!" Another time Gardnar Mulloy commented on Alex's play at Wimbledon by likening it to that of a "knife fighter." Alex was extremely hurt by the comparison, nattering as it was intended.

ALEX THE INSULTED

As to the clay-court incident in Chicago, it is significant that it all began with Olmedo showing up at the gate and being unrecognized by the gateman. Olmedo returned to his hotel and refused to play that day in spite of the fact that this left four matches to be made up the next day. "Alex would rather get beaten than insulted," explains a fellow player.

Olmedo is still smoldering about the incident. He did not want to play in the clay-court tournament, and after Wimbledon he eagerly accepted an offer to play a tournament in Baastad, Sweden. His detractors hint this was because he was paid huge "expenses" to do so. The explanation is much more simple: Olmedo likes girls in general but Swedish girls in particular. It is a predilection not " confined to tennis players.

Said Olmedo: "I go to Sweden because I like it. In Europe people treat you much better. I feel better over there because they know a player is a human being over there." He swept his hand around the tennis clubhouse he was in, which happened to be the Longwood Cricket Club at Brookline, Mass. "You see these kids? You know what they get on a hot day like this? One chit a day for a soft drink. That's all." He looked over to where Davis Cup Captain Perry Jones—murmuring harassedly, "There's more heartbreak than glory in this game"—was busily trying to find a tournament for young Chris Crawford to mark time in while awaiting the Nationals, which are late this year because of the Davis Cup challenge round. "He has to have a tournament, otherwise he cannot afford to remain in the East for the Nationals," explained Alex. "I have been through all this. I have washed dishes and carried out trash in houses where I have stayed.

"Now, when I got to Chicago for the clay courts, there was no welcome. They were unfriendly. This upset me after I had flown overnight and paid $40 extra allowance on my baggage. And I did not want to come. That is the funny part of it. Mr. Jones and the sporting goods people persuaded me to come. Then the Chicago papers say, 'Alex Olmedo came to Chicago for dinner.' They are sarcastic. Then there is this cameraman who has 20 cameras strapped around his neck and he follows me everywhere. Then they make us shake hands with about 600 people, each one of them. My hand was completely tired. I had to play four matches in one day. When I play Abe Segal I am exhausted, mentally tired. The referee starts to make bad calls. I can see it is hopeless. My concentration came apart. Then I saw the officials move around and start to get excited. Now, I am an amateur. I don't get paid. I see the official behind the fence start the booing. I say to him, 'Oh, sure. It would have to be an official who would do this.'

"I know I did wrong, and I am sorry for it. But they don't understand my side of it. They only know the Davis Cup team is out of the tournament before the semifinals, and it costs them money."

Mentor Jones, who moved quickly to prevent his Davis Cup bellwether from being ruled off the courts for the misbehavior, also had to hold his ears at the renewed attacks on the Peruvian's presence on the U.S. Davis Cup team. "Alex qualifies legally, ethically and competitively," exclaimed Jones, pounding his fist. "Besides, we are the first ones who had a player from another country whom we developed.

"And I'll tell you something else: thanks to the impetus of Alex Olmedo, tennis is on the march in this country." Added the 71-year-old Jones: "I wish I were 10 years younger! Never have we had such a fine group of players. Under my leadership, conceited as it may be, tennis is on the march."

There is a live possibility it will have to march without Olmedo. The boy from Arequipa will almost surely turn professional this fall if he hits one of his peaks and wins the Nationals at Forest Hills. But he has already dumped Pro Promoter Jack Kramer's opening serve neatly back at his feet. Kramer, who has more than a half dozen touring professionals on his payroll, wanted Olmedo to join his troupe under the same terms that Australia's Ashley Cooper did—with $100,000 guaranteed for three years but under constraint to play for it on a prize-money basis. To Alex this sounded suspiciously like doing dishes for his supper again. He would prefer a head-to-head tour with Gonzales and a quick killing financially, an idea which happens to suit Gonzales fine, too.

Kramer argues hoarsely that this would be suicidal not only for Alex but for pro tennis (i.e., Kramer), but a curiously illustrative incident occurred at an impasse in their negotiations when Kramer, exasperated, shouted at Olmedo: "Look, if you don't trust me, O.K. But isn't there someone you can trust to advise you?" Kramer says Alex looked at him sadly. And then he slowly shook his head.

Whether it is that he can't trust anyone, or that he won't, it seems clear that the arts and mysteries of "amateur" tennis have conspired to give young Olmedo a thoroughly confused set of values. A week or so ago he sat in a tennis clubhouse, Italian straw hat pushed back on his quill of hair, and allowed quietly: "The life of a tennis player is very hard. People think it is fun. It isn't."

PHOTOTED POLUMBAUMLOUNGING OLMEDO WEARS SOLEMN EXPRESSION, DESPITE GAY ITALIAN STRAW HATPHOTOTED POLUMBAUMDISGUSTED WINNER Abe Segal (right), clearly angry, reluctantly accepts Olmedo's handshake after latter deliberately lost match in a tournament at Chicago in July.PHOTOTED POLUMBAUMSTUNNED KING of amateur tennis, Perry Jones, was baffled by the strange Olmedo.