If there is such a thing as a tennis bum," says Whitney Reed with characteristically disarming frankness, "I guess I'm it." The hypocritical rules of amateur tennis have made the term bum almost synonymous with tournament player, and certainly this attractive 29-year-old Californian, now America's No. 1 amateur, seems to have all the credentials to fit it: no steady job, a dozen years of tournament tennis, no wife, attendance at three colleges without a degree from any, and a deep fondness for girls, gambling and late parties.
Like most ranking players, Reed leads a life of moneyed luxury far beyond his visible means of support. As an amateur he achieves only decent comfort via expense money, but the fringe benefits of amateurism enable him to mingle with the rich in party after party at country clubs wherever he goes, and his itinerary would bring envy to the hearts of the most sophisticated travelers. Last year, for example, Reed and his rackets touched down at Mexico City, Kingston, Caracas, Barranquilla, San Juan, Montego Bay, Naples, Turin, Berlin, Bielefeld, Barcelona, Bristol, London, Dublin, Toronto, New Delhi, Teheran, Rome, Buenos Aires, Santiago, Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, not to mention such local watering spots as Miami, La Jolla and Newport and, of course, the fashionable suburbs and exurbs of New York City.
This kind of life is understandably hard to give up. Yet last November, when he finished eight straight months of tennis and traveling, Whitney Reed was ready to call it quits. "1 was just plain tired of tennis," he recalls. "I'd made up my mind I wasn't going to the Caribbean again, and I was considering passing up Europe and the eastern grass circuit too." Whitney was even pondering the square life of marriage and job. Then, largely because he beat Chuck McKinley in the third round of the nationals at Forest Hills in September, Reed was moved up to the No. 1 ranking. No one was more startled than Reed himself. He had never been higher than No. 8 and his 1961 record had been spotty. Still, there it was, and how could a guy quit when he'd just reached the top? First of all, people were saying he didn't deserve it, that he was the weakest No. 1 player in years, so he had to prove himself. Secondly, and perhaps more to the point, he had been playing all those years for nickels; now that he was officially rated No. 1, he would be foolish not to capitalize on it.
So Whitney Reed pushed the square life a bit further into the background and in mid-March took off for Barranquilla. Flexing his No. 1 ranking, he promptly lost in the early rounds of three straight tournaments, but no matter. The losses were all to foreigners (therefore not considered too important by the U.S. ranking committee), and the Caribbean circuit was still the happiest hunting ground for expense money, parties and a general good time.
May 6, 1962
The endless round of tournament tennis has equipped Reed admirably for the life it provides. A modest, reserved young man by nature, he—like most other circuit players—has acquired a buoyant suit of social ease that floats him along in the best of circles. He is friendly to strangers and will talk about his tennis in a modest, relaxed way. He can consume very sizable quantities of alcohol (Scotch by preference, beer by custom) without becoming wild or even loud. And his manly, curiously handsome features make him, for lady tennis buffs, one of the top attractions among the touring players.
It is Reed's liking for parties and high life, even in a low-pressure way, that has built the legend of loose living that surrounds him. Sportswriters have harped on his unconventional training habits so much that he now bristles at the mere mention of training. One can hardly blame him. The legend has far outgrown the man. Reed smokes, but so do all the other players who enjoy it. Reed drinks, perhaps more than the others, but he can hold it better than they can. Reed stays up late, usually until 3 or 4 or 5, but once in bed he never fails to get the approved eight hours of sleep. Reed gives an appearance of not caring about tennis, rarely practices between matches or tournaments and seldom watches other people play. But, actually, he is devoted to tennis, and is known among the players as a fierce competitor in match play and one of the best behaved on court.
The only part of the Whitney Reed legend not exaggerated is his gambling. He plays hearts for hours on end, at 10¢ a point, usually with the same players: Mike Sangster from England, Rod Laver and Roy Emerson from Australia, and his closest friend on the circuit, Ed Rubinoff from Miami Beach. He is also adept at bridge, gin rummy and poker—though regular poker games have vanished since the influx of younger players on the circuit. He would rather not play any of these games if there is no betting.
When the Caribbean tour reached San Juan at 3 o'clock one morning last month, Reed promptly headed for the craps table at the Caribe Hilton Casino. A half an hour later he walked away richer by $20.
"I've been reading a book by the guy who runs Harold's Club," he explained, "and I followed his system. Keep betting $1 and if you get ahead bet $2—just once. If you lose, go back to $1."
The following night the new system won him $65 more at blackjack, but on the third night he took a bath and spent all the rest of the week catching up. On the last night, just before the celebration ball, Reed downed three Scotch and waters and marched resolutely to the craps table. He blew $10, then $20, then $20 more. He deliberated for a moment, then pulled out all his remaining tennis earnings and slapped them on the come. The point came up nine, and for the next minute or so he showed more emotion than any tennis match had ever produced. When the nine finally arrived ahead of the seven, Reed cashed in his chips, pocketed a $90 profit and staggered out a true believer.
The game of tennis that makes this nighttime gaming possible has been a part of Whitney Reed's life from the very beginning. His father, Rolland Reed, a machine-shop supervisor at the Alameda Naval Air Station, was at one time the No. 1 player in Sonoma County. Whit's mother is ranked No. 1 and his sister Susan No. 2 at the local tennis club in Alameda. Whitney himself reached for a racket when he was barely old enough to toddle. "It seems like that was the first toy he picked up," his mother recalls. "In the house or the yard or on the courts with us, he was always dragging a racket around." His first competitive experience, at age 6, was against a particularly steady garage door in Vallejo. Later he followed his parents to the courts where, says Mrs. Reed, "he would sit with his racket between his legs until someone agreed to hit with him."
The Reeds played with and encouraged their son from the beginning, but they shun responsibility for his strokes. "He picked them up himself," says Mrs. Reed, "and by the time he started winning they were too far gone to change. Anyway, we don't think they're so bad." According to Whitney, his mother really shouldn't think so. "I inherited my reactions from Mom," he says, "and my off-balance shots, too. Her racket goes every which way. But one reason for that top-spin forehand drive and forehand volley is that the racket was as big as I was and almost as heavy. I used the lightest racket they had but it was still too heavy."
Even today, however, Reed plays tennis somewhat like a small boy who has borrowed his father's racket. At different times and on different shots he can look gawky, comical or plain absurd. He may hit a swinging forehand volley off the wrong foot or a stiff-armed overhead smash or a forehand facing the net. He has few shots that look like anyone else's, and his form leaves spectators astonished. Weird as he looks, however, Reed is a marvelous athlete on the court. He has to be to make his game pay off. He has superb reflexes and anticipation and, above all, he has whole handfuls of that precious commodity called touch. Touch in tennis is what allows Reed to execute drop volleys as easily as most players put away short lobs, to hit the swinging forehand volley that has become his trademark, to produce wristy and awkward passing shots from any spot on or off the court. Touch gives him what Vic Seixas calls "a unique ability to hit off balance and out of position. But Whitney is only unorthodox in his approach to the ball and his follow-through. His technique of actually hitting the ball is very sound."
When touch deserts him, as it did during his early Caribbean stops this spring, Reed can be beaten by any middling tournament player. In Barranquilla he lost to Iyo Pimentel of Venezuela, in Caracas to Miguel Olvera of Ecuador, in San Juan to Ronnie Barnes of Brazil. After the Barnes match he slumped dejectedly on his bed and mourned, "I should just pack it up and stop taking the tournament director's money. This is getting to be really embarrassing—the No. 1 player going out in the first or second round for three straight weeks. I can just imagine what people watching me say." Later, after more losses, he said, "I'm having a worse spring than Eddie Fisher."
Reed has come to rely so heavily on touch tennis that he finds adjusting to the loss of it almost impossible. "Even if my game is off," he says, with an air of hopelessness, "I can't stay backcourt and wait for the feeling to return. My patience is limited. After two or three exchanges I'm on my way to the net, though I know I'm probably going in on a prayer." And when the drop volleys and lob volleys are working he tends to rely on them too much. This makes him an easy mark for such court-wise players as Ham Richardson. Reed is gloomily aware that his game falls into predictable patterns. "I get ahead with the touch shots, but sooner or later a good opponent gets wise. Like once when I played Seixas at Forest Hills I got ahead two sets to one with the drop shots before he moved in. The fourth and fifth sets he was playing on the service line, and I was still hitting drop shots."
Reed really began to go places as a tennis player when he was a physical-education major at San Jose State College. Unhappy academic experiences at USC and Modesto Junior College, plus an equally unhappy tour of duty in the Air Force had succeeded only in turning him more and more to the game he loved. "I never really had my heart in studying," he says, "and when I got out of the service I just wanted to play tennis—turn pro if I could." In 1958 Reed began to move. This was a memorable Davis Cup year (the Challenge Round was Alex Olmedo's shining hour), but that summer our cup prospects were anything but bright. With veterans like Vic Seixas on the sidelines, Captain Perry Jones was trying to build a team around the reluctant Ham Richardson and untested Olmedo. For the American Zone semifinal with Canada he had Jon Douglas, Barry MacKay, Sam Giammalva, Earl Buchholz and Reed to work with. "Mac-Kay was conceded one singles spot," Reed recalls, "and it was between Giammalva and myself for the second." Reed got the assignment and played one match, beating Canada's Bob Bedard in straight sets. He was dropped from the squad before the American Zone final, however, and stories began circulating that Jones had become incensed over his training habits.
Jones denies this indignantly, and Reed concedes that his play following the Canada match was poor enough to warrant dismissal. He knows, however, that his general reputation with Jones didn't help him any. "Jones has a fatal memory for bad things about you," says Reed. "Some stories from my USC days got back to him and he's had a grudge against me since."
Last fall, after a summer of play that included some of the worst losses and some of the best wins a leading player could have had, Reed got another chance at the Davis Cup. During the year he had lost to Olvera and Barnes, to South Africa's junior, Rod Mandlestam, to young Australians Alan Lane and John Sharpe, but he had scored victories that are still making conversation. At Montego Bay he beat Roy Emerson and Neale Fraser, two of the finest players in the world, both on the same day. On clay in Atlanta he beat Tut Bartzen, the best U.S. clay player, 6-0, 6-1. And in the nationals at Forest Hills he beat second-seeded Chuck McKinley, the wonder boy of U.S. tennis, in the third round. McKinley launched his customary all-out serve-and-volley game, but Reed's touch and dexterity blunted his attacks repeatedly. Reed pulled off a sparkling series of service returns and passing shots that had McKinley diving from one side of the court to the other. "McKinley was flogging balls all over the place," Reed remembers happily. "I remember one sequence in particular. He served and charged the net full-bore. I lobbed the return, and he started skidding trying to stop short. He scrambled back for the lob and the ball hit him right on the head." Reed won the first two sets, but when McKinley took the third, the crowd was still sure McKinley would win. McKinley broke serve at the start of the fourth set; then Reed broke back twice and ran out the match.
The Davis Cup team of Reed, Douglas & Co. that arrived in Rome under the leadership of David Freed for the Inter-zone Final was not given much chance by either American or Italian tennis enthusiasts. But when Jon Douglas fought back from a two-set, 5-2 deficit to beat Fausto Gardini in the opening match, the U.S. outlook brightened immensely. "I was so inspired," says Reed, "that I felt sure I could beat Pietrangeli and give us that big 2-0 lead." Reed's inspiration drove him through two of the best sets of tennis he has ever played, and when darkness fell that first afternoon he had a commanding lead of two sets to none. "That night, though, I had a chance to think it all over," he says, "and I guess I got shook. I've never been the same two days in a row. I always lose a little if I've been good the day before, and that's just what happened this time. I lost my sharpness and he gained his." Sharp and confident next morning, Pietrangeli whizzed through Reed in three straight sets, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4, and the Americans went on to lose by the decisive score of four matches to one. Reed still blames himself for America's defeat. "If I had won," he says, shaking his head slowly, "we'd have been so inspired and they'd have been so choked that we couldn't have missed beating them."
There will be other Pietrangelis and other McKinleys to face this season and the next and the next, but Reed may not be there to meet them. He is playing now because he is No. 1, and that may not last very long. McKinley beat him in the finals of the national indoors this year, and a swarm of lesser players are understandably eager to test so vulnerable a top-ranker. It may be weariness or a guilty conscience or a little of both, but for Whitney Reed the gay whirl of tournament tennis is undeniably losing some of its kick. The square life—including a job outside of tennis—is looking a little better, particularly if it includes a girl named Betty Hannis.
Betty and Whit have been going together for five years. Early last year they planned to meet at the Houston tournament, get married and take off on the European circuit. The plans were "postponed," and Whitney delayed them further by sending Betty only one postcard in the next six months. "We were really going to get married this March," he says, "but we never got past the blood test. She drove me to the plane for Barranquilla and said goodby. No tears, no promises, just goodby." They're reconciled now, and marriage is again in prospect. Reed's friends believe it is just what he needs. After all, not even No. 1 can be top tennis bum forever.