The most exciting tennis player in the U.S. today is a broad-backed, brown-eyed, irrepressible Missourian named Charles Robert McKinley. A year ago he was just another talented youngster. Now, at the still tender age of 19, he is whipping some of the finest amateurs in the game. To the delight of the galleries, he plays with a headlong exuberance seldom seen in amateur tennis since the days of Pancho Segura. Not in years has an American fledgling combined so much box-office appeal with so much pure ability—or crashed the tight little world of big-time tennis with so much confidence. "If I didn't think I could be the best tennis player in the world," Chuck McKinley says, "I don't think I'd want to play."
McKinley looks more like a stocky fullback than a tennis player. Only 5 feet 8 inches tall, he is as short as Bobby Riggs but, at 160, he weighs some 20 pounds more than Riggs did when he was winning at Wimbledon and Forest Hills. McKinley has broad shoulders, thick biceps and the wrists and hands of a blacksmith. He is what most topflight American tennis players are not—an honest-to-goodness athlete who would stand out in almost any sport.
On the court McKinley's nerves are stretched as tautly as the strings of his racket ("It all builds up inside me; if I'm not nervous, I lose"), and it is transparently clear that he does not intend to finish where nice guys traditionally do. "You don't want to give 'em anything," he says. "You're out there to win the same as they are, and you can't for one minute be nice. If you get ahead you can't afford to let up and let 'em win a few games."
COLORFUL AND ENERGETIC
As McKinley leaps, lunges, runs full tilt and whacks the ball violently, he burns energy at a furious rate. When he really leans into an overhead smash he looks as though he is going to bounce the ball into the next township. A fine shot brings a quick, broad grin to his face, and when an opponent misses, he often chirps a falsetto "Out!" to supplement the linesman's call. But when he commits an error, he is likely to bring his racket savagely downward as if clubbing a snake, or to tell himself, so courtsiders can hear him, "Oh, Charley, you missed that one."
Since all this is spontaneous and unmarred by the sulkiness so commonly seen on tennis courts today, spectators who have watched McKinley in action are fascinated by him. He has color, a rare and precious quality for which they are grateful, but beyond that they sense his impending arrival as a major star.
In the considered judgment of Bill Talbert, former national doubles champion and frequent contributor to these pages, McKinley has everything a champion needs except experience. "There is nothing he can't do on the court," Talbert says. "He has all the strokes. He's fast. He's strong. He has marvelous reflexes. He has the eyes of a hawk—sees the ball as well as anyone in the game.
"Right now Chuck tends to over-hit. He simply needs more experience. He will make a fabulous shot and then a silly schoolboy error. It's just a question of time, and not very much time, I think, until he is playing percentage tennis on every stroke."
McKinley's lack of height is a handicap, but Talbert believes he can compensate for it with his speed. "Jack Kramer wasn't fast," Talbert says, "so he had to make compensations—and he became the best player in the world. Riggs was small, but he had first-rate control. Chuck, on the other hand, is a power player. Riggs would make his opponents lose points. This kid will win points."
McKinley began beating the country's best players as long ago as last August, when he a gave the veteran Dick Savitt a 6-4, 6-8, 6-4 licking in the eastern grass court championships at South Orange, N.J. In the national doubles at Brookline, Mass. McKinley reached the quarter-finals with Martin Riessen of Hinsdale, Ill., after upsetting Tut Bartzen and Ron Holmberg. In September he removed the Mexican champion, Antonio Palafox, from the national championships at Forest Hills before losing in the fourth round to Alex Olmedo, who later lost in the finals to Neale Fraser.
From Forest Hills, McKinley went to San Antonio to enroll as a freshman at little Trinity University, a Presbyterian school with 1,600 students, year-round tennis weather and an aggressive recruiting policy that has put Trinity tennis in a class with the country's best.
Not the least of Trinity's merits, to McKinley's mind, is the fact that there is a plentiful supply of coeds. After tennis, he likes girls, chocolate milk shakes and Frank Sinatra records, in approximately that order, and, from all reports, the girls like him. He is as relaxed and fun-loving on campus as he is high-strung on court. He does have a problem, however—the milk shakes. McKinley has a longshoreman's appetite which he is not always able to control. As a late-evening snack not long ago he consumed a bowl of soup, two ham and cheese sandwiches, four glasses of milk and two pieces of chocolate cake with ice cream. "Then I couldn't go to sleep for thinking about it," he says ruefully.
McKinley had barely gotten acquainted with Trinity when, in November, he bowed out of junior competition with a flourish. Returning to St. Louis, his home town, he won his third straight junior indoor singles championship. Paired with Cliff Buchholz, he added his third straight indoor doubles title. Cliff is the brother of Earl Buchholz Jr., the brilliant 19-year-old St. Louisan (ranked sixth in the U.S.), who is one of McKinley's closest friends and toughest tennis rivals.
Fresh honors came almost immediately. In the national indoor championships in New York this February he disposed of Sweden's Ulf Schmidt with such vigor that Allison Danzig, The New York Times tennis writer, was moved to salute, flamboyantly, "the fury of his service, the vengefulness of his volley and the murderous effectiveness of his overspin drives." Next to fall was Holmberg, who is ranked fourth in the U.S. Finally, McKinley extended Savitt (ranked fifth) to four sets before losing in the semifinals.
Then came Pittsburgh and the first important men's tournament victory of McKinley's career. His victims were Vic Seixas, ranked 10th, whose best years, of course, are behind him, and Barry MacKay, ranked third, who at 24 is in his prime, towers 7½ inches above McKinley and is having his best year as a player.
McKinley not only defeated Seixas and MacKay singly at Pittsburgh, but, paired with Bill Talbert, beat them again in the doubles final. Just three years before, MacKay and Seixas had been the American Davis Cup doubles entry. McKinley's extraordinary aptitude for the doubles game might well land him on the U.S. Davis Cup team this year.
By the time McKinley came into Houston the other day for the 26th invitational clay court tournament at the exclusive River Oaks Country Club, he was one of the stars of the show, and not self-conscious about it in the least.
"I used to be so scared when I'd play a top man," he said. "Now maybe they're a little bit scared of me."
The remarkable thing about McKinley is not that he has arrived in the big time but that he ever got started in the first place. The son of a St. Louis pipe fitter, he spent his earliest years in a "rough neighborhood" on the north side of town. Baseball was his first love, Marty Marion and Stan Musial of the Cards his sports heroes.
During winters, when it was too cold for baseball, McKinley went to the Y, where he swam and played table tennis. He came under the influence of a volunteer instructor named Bill Price, who dropped in now and then to give pointers on the game the kids called ping-pong. Price was one of the best table tennis players in the country and a tennis pro as well. He had earned his living in the 1930s by playing table tennis exhibitions in vaudeville.
A KICK IN THE SLAM
The Price-McKinley relationship might have ended when, at 10, Chuck moved with his family to the suburban community of St. Ann. But McKinley made frequent trips back into town to play at the Y. One time, in 1953, just to be with the crowd, young McKinley trooped out to a public tennis court with his buddies and Price. He discovered that he got a kick out of slamming the ball around. Before long he cared enough about tennis to cry after a losing match and to defend the game with his fists against sneering schoolmates with whom he had, as he puts it, "a few differences of opinion." Soon Price was spending up to four hours a day sharpening the claws of his pint-sized tiger, whose table tennis indoctrination was proving to be a valuable asset. (Price, incidentally, is an eloquent spokesman for table tennis as basic training for the outdoor game. It can cut three years from a tennis novice's learning period, he believes. Another believer is Fred Perry, who was world table tennis champion before turning to tennis.)
When it became apparent that Chuck could be a superior player, Price advised him to forget about other sports and concentrate on tennis. He plunged into a long series of boys' and then junior tournaments, forsaking other sports except table tennis and, when in high school, basketball. Playing guard, he averaged 18 points a game as a senior and made the all-county team despite a mid-season spell of pneumonia that sidelined him for half the schedule.
Last spring a capped and gowned Chuck McKinley accepted his high school diploma one evening at 8:30 p.m. and half an hour later was flying out of St. Louis on the first leg of an all-summer tennis tour. With time out for classes at Trinity, he has been traveling steadily to tournaments ever since.
The tournament at River Oaks was notable for a number of reasons. In the quarter-finals McKinley again met Holmberg and defeated him in straight sets. He again teamed with Bill Talbert, who is more than twice McKinley's age and acutely aware that the court seems to get bigger every year, and reached the doubles finals.
FIRST BIG SERVE
Most notable of all was McKinley's reaction to the first match of his career with Neale Fraser, the left-handed Australian who is the best amateur tennis player in the world. McKinley lost to Fraser in the semifinals 7-5, 6-4, 6-4. He was soundly beaten. Fraser, who has the biggest, best and most varied serve in the amateur game, was getting his first one in consistently, and McKinley had never seen anything like it, nor did he know how to cope with it.
After the match McKinley's head was drooping. Then Price, who had driven in from St. Louis with McKinley's father, gave him a pep talk.
"When you play a man with a big serve you have to fight it, Chuck," he said. "You can't just push at the ball the way you were doing out there. Look, when someone is poking you in the jaw you can't just fend him off. You have to fight back."
Soon McKinley's head was up. His natural confidence, which had deserted him that afternoon, came flooding back.
"I've seen now what the best in the world is like," he told a visitor, "and I know I'm not that far away from it."
His inexperience was showing again the following week, when he lost in the quarter-finals at Dallas. But take care, Fraser. Heads up, MacKay, Bartzen, Holmberg and Buchholz. Unless the experts are badly deceived, Chuck McKinley is coming fast and somebody is going to have to step aside.