It has always seemed to me that one of the pleasures of summer reading is to browse through record books—to immerse oneself gently in the batting averages of yesteryear, long-forgotten golf scores, punting averages, the winning high-jump mark at the Berlin Olympics, what weights these days the lifters are pressing (439 pounds, I just looked it up). The reading is as idle as one can find: the statistics lazy in and out of the mind as easy and forgetful as the sound of surf or the murmuration of bees or the gentle ticking and creaking of the hammock as it swings.
There are some enthusiasts, of course, who treat this sort of reading very seriously—who sit in hard-backed chairs and strain to memorize facts that will give them a reputation in saloon discussions ("Ask Reggie, he knows. Hey, Reggie, wha' did Campy bat back in '49—.285 or .287?"). Or knowledge enough to answer the quiz that the managements of some ball parks flash up on the illuminated scoreboard, along with the answer a few innings later. I have always found their questions impossible ("What American League catcher holds the record for three unassisted putouts in one inning?"), but here and there in the stands the statistics studier perks up and turns to the person alongside, very often a complete stranger, and he says, "Well, I mean, like who are they trying to kid! I mean like how can nobody not know that? It's Marty Blatt for Godsakes." He then returns to his gloomy contemplation of the game, full of pretended pique, but in fact with a secure, inward glow of contentment that his long hours of study have paid off once again.
Oddly, one of the most popular sports—tennis—does not have a record book, a lack that was particularly felt this past August when a series of marathon matches were played at Southampton and Newport and no one could find out if, indeed, a record had been set. Length, whether of time or distance, provides a most durable and interesting part of any record book (the longest baseball game—26 innings; the longest punt—94 yards), and the comparatively few spectators who saw those amazing matches felt a mild sense of loss that what they had watched would not be permanently marked in tennis history.
Two of the three marathon matches were played at Southampton, a tournament that used to be one of the most important on the summer tour but whose luster has faded somewhat in recent years. Many of the top players simply take the week off. Strange, because the Long Island community is as affluent as ever; it abounds in great tennis names—Davis, Shields, Hunter, Wood—and yet the grass courts at the Meadow Club where the tournament is played have fallen into such disrepair, presumably because of a lack of funds, that most of the name players refuse to show up at all. Those who do come look forward more to the pleasant ministrations of the community, particularly an annual party at which the tennis players are provided with a great lobster dinner, a rock 'n' roll band under a marquee and pretty girls by the score who pick that night to move to the dance rages in the wildest oufits they've got. Also in Southampton the community takes in most of the players as house guests and entertains them, which is a hospitable and welcome arrangement quite unlike Newport's, the next stop on the tour, where most of the players are assigned to low-slung cots in a barnlike hall in the upper reaches of the Newport Casino. But as for the tennis at Southampton, that is another matter.
September 17, 1967
"It all depends on the court you're assigned," one of the players said. "A good court and it's tennis. But if you get assigned to 'The Pasture'—well, you can hear the players on their way to those courts mooing and bleating, because what's played down there is a game unto itself."
The first of the marathon matches took place in the preliminary round of the singles tournament. The two participants were Dick Knight and Mike Sprengelmeyer, two top-notch college players, who were in fact delighted with their court assignment—court six, set immediately behind the temporary bleachers facing the center court and in relatively good shape. It was possible to sit on the top rows of the bleachers and look back down over the railing at the Knight-Sprengelmeyer match. Despite the extraordinary length of the match, not many did. As Knight himself said, "It was not exactly the prestige match of the tournament." Both players at this stage in their careers represent the equivalent of golfing's "rabbits"—that is to say, players who must scurry from one tournament to the next to compete among themselves in preliminary rounds for the open positions in the first round of the tournament draw. Such players must get to their work early, and the Knight-Sprengelmeyer match was scheduled for 10 o'clock.
Perhaps the most faithful spectator was Dick Knight's girl friend, Karen Williams, who had started out from Scarsdale, N.Y. at 6:30 that morning to be on hand. She arrived half an hour or so after the match had started. Knight could look up and see her looking down at him from the top of the bleachers. Occasionally, as the match wore on, she called down to him, "Do something!" Her schedule was tight (she had a rendezvous with her parents at Jones Beach that afternoon), and as noontime came and went and the match moved on into the afternoon, she wondered if she would be able to have a word with him at all.
It took three hours to play the first set of the match. Knight finally won it 32-30, breaking Sprengelmeyer's serve on the 61st game and holding his own. In the next set Knight began to have the odd sensation that he was "floating" above the court, as he put it. The night before he had driven up from Sea-bright, and the tournament there, in weekend traffic, and he'd had only four hours' sleep. He lost the set 3-6. But in the third set he got his second wind, and Sprengelmeyer, on his part, began to get cramps. At one point, at about the 20th game of the set, his arm muscle bulged out alarmingly, and he felt such pain that he wondered if he hadn't somehow broken his arm. But he persevered, the pain lessened, and he was able to struggle on at even terms, winning his serve as easily as Knight was winning his.
After the fifth hour of steady play, the quality of which was surprisingly good according to witnesses, the match took on a surreal quality: ball boys came and went (home for lunch and then returning); one of them was a nervous small girl in a white tennis dress who had difficulty bouncing the ball properly to the player, and she would run six or seven steps like an English bowler and with a small squeak of effort bounce the ball off at erratic angles. She would run to retrieve it, and return directly to the player and place the ball on the lip of his racket with a murmur of apology. Knight remembers the enormous pile of debris by the net post—Coca-Cola cans, orange peels, towels, empty pitchers (the players consumed two full pitchers of water and two of Coca-Cola), paper cups; he also retains the odd memory of an elderly man's face peering at the match through a hole in the green canvas backstop, an intermittent witness who would disappear for long stretches. Then, with a start, Knight would notice the face back in the hole, as surprisingly disembodied as the head of a jack-in-the-box.
Finally, in the 107th game of the match, Knight found himself with triple match points, love-40 on Sprengelmeyer's serve. He lost the next two points, and then Sprengelmeyer, rushing to net behind his serve, hit a good stiff volley that would have brought the score to deuce had not the shot gone beyond the baseline, not by much, just an inch, and the match was over 32-30, 3-6, 19-17. Knight threw his racket in the air. He said it didn't go up very far, "perhaps six or seven feet," and he walked to the net to shake hands with Sprengelmeyer, who was waiting, looking at him dully. Knight didn't know what to say. He said, "Mike, honest, I just don't know what to say." Sprengelmeyer couldn't find anything to say, either; he massaged the bulge on his arm, and he said, "Yes"—something as noncommittal—and the two left the court to report the scores to the tournament director. It was 3:30. They had been playing for five and a half hours.
Knight had just enough time to grab a sandwich (he also had two lemonades and two iced teas, one right after the other), and then he rushed Karen Williams to the train. On the way he said a number of times that he couldn't believe it; she said the same. That was about the extent of their conversation, and then he was waving goodby to her from the station platform. He rushed back to the tennis club to get himself ready to play his second match of the day.
Tom Gorman, his friend and doubles partner, has an apt description of Knight during his second match. "A lot of us went out to the court just to take a look at him. He was a skeleton out there, and you had the feeling watching him run that he was going to go down in a small heap of bones."
Knight lost quickly and mercifully to Cliff Montgomery; the scores were 6-3, 6-4. Later that evening the quixotic thought occurred to him that he had doubtless played more games to get into the tournament than the ultimate winner at Southampton would play in the entire tournament.
Knight was not the center of attention at Southampton for long. The following day another event, this a doubles match, caused a considerable stir: Lenny Schloss and Tom Mozur, who are an excellent doubles partnership from the University of Tennessee, got tied up in a doubles match standoff against Butch Seewagen from Rice University and Chris Bovett, who comes from Sydney, Australia, a good pair that had won the Southeastern doubles championship earlier this year.
The first set was ordinary enough—7-5 for Schloss and Mozur. The next set, however, went on for more than ninety games, Schloss and Mozur finally winning it and the match 48-46.
Most tennis players can go through an entire career and never find themselves playing in a set in the 20s, much less the 30s, and as for playing a set in the 40s, no one at Southampton, talking about it, could even remember such a thing.
In discussing the match, the participating players offered what seemed at the time a plausible enough reason for the long set—namely, the execrable condition of the court they were playing on, one of those in the so-called Pasture. The service line on one side lay on an undulation the players referred to as the game progressed as "The Trench," which either caused a deeply hit service to skid violently and hug the grass or, if it hit the upslope, to leap in a jackrabbit hop. One example of the latter darted up over Butch Seewagen's upstretched racket and soared over the back fence into the Meadow Club garden.
It was just as difficult to receive service on the other side of the net. Here, in the forehand court, lay what the players began to refer to as "The Patch"—a pocked area that turned the ball in various trajectories, usually a low skid. "I've never seen a spitball behave," Seewagen said of serves hit to The Patch, "but they're dillies if they're anything like what we saw that day. There is no way you could return service out of The Patch—at least with any authority."
The second set went through the 20s without incident and into the 30s and then the 40s. It was so easy to win service, as long as one could set the ball in The Patch or The Trench, that it seemed the match would go on indefinitely. From time to time the partnerships would confer and try some new tactic—half-volleying the return of service off The Trench, lobbing or attempting the soft chip and rush to the net—but nothing worked. Occasionally a serve hopped off The Trench into the garden, and it was a pleasant interlude to wander back among the flowers to retrieve it before returning to the green lawn purgatory.
At 46-all, Mike Blanchard, the tournament director, wandered by to see what was happening. It was getting dark by then (the match had started at 5 and had gone on for more than three hours); a mist was drifting in from the sea, and the tennis balls were picking up so much moisture from the grass that, as Tom Mozur put it, hitting them was like lacing a racket into a "mud ball."
Blanchard asked what was going on; the players clustered around and told him, shaking their heads, confiding their difficulties to him as if blurting out symptoms to a sympathetic doctor.
Blanchard suggested that two more games be played; if there was no conclusive result he would schedule the match to be continued the next morning on another court. His appearance and the ultimatum proved such a break that before everyone could settle back in the steady routine of the match Mozur had won his serve and had gone on with his partner, Schloss, to break the opposition's.
At match point Schloss hit a great forcing backhand out of The Trench (the first good shot he could remember from that area) and the match was done—its finish so sudden that none of the participants could quite believe it. "We stood around blinking like we weren't used to the light," Seewagen said, "like lifting a hutch cover off a bunch of rabbits."
The notion that the poor condition of the court was solely responsible for the long scores—that the match was thus a fluke—lasted only about a week. Because at Newport in the Hall of Fame tournament, the next stop on the tour, another marathon doubles match was played, the record match most likely, all the more astonishing because it was played on the Newport Casino's fine center court, which hasn't a mar on its surface, under the eye of an umpire up in his chair with his full complement of linesmen and foot-fault watchers at hand, and in front of witnesses, some banked in the old green stands that flank one side of the court and others, old Newport names, sitting in the field boxes under the green-and-white awnings and the great beach parasols that turn and creak in the breeze. The match lasted for two days—called for darkness after four hours of play on the first day, and going on for more than two hours on the second—an official total of six hours and 10 minutes of playing time. The scores were 3-6, 49-47, 22-20, a total of 147 games—the equivalent of playing more than fourteen average 6-4 sets.
Who should one pair of the participants be but the team of Lenny Schloss and Tom Mozur once again (who had gone on from their Seewagen-Bovett match to lose the three-set final at Southampton 6-3, 6-4, 21-19). Their opponents in the Newport draw were Dick Dell, who is on the University of Michigan tennis team (the brother of Don Dell from Yale, a ranking player a few years ago), and Dick Leach, a young high-school teacher who is this year's captain and coach of the Junior Davis Cup team.
As the second set went on, an interested and increasingly scornful spectator under the field-box awnings was James Van Alen, the peppery president of the Newport Casino and the inventor of VASSS (the Van Alen Special Scoring System), which scores much like table tennis. The most commonly played variant of his system scores to a 31-point limit, which naturally does away with marathon tennis matches, so often the bane of tournament directors who must worry about scheduling. "Absolutely embarrassing and ridiculous," Mr. Van Alen was saying. "That's nonsense out there, just nonsense."
He took it almost as a personal affront when suddenly, about 7 o'clock in the evening, the foursome ran out of tennis balls. The umpire called, "New balls, please!" The ball boys looked around, and there weren't any to be had. The closet in the Casino where the tennis balls were kept turned out to be locked and the girl-in-charge had gone home with the key. "Van Alen," someone said, "what sort of a tournament are you running here where the players don't have tennis balls to play with?" Van Alen sputtered and hopped about. "Well, you tell me," he said, "what sort of a match it is where you have to use more than two dozen balls to find out who plays better tennis." Out on the court the umpire fidgeted on his perch and was about to call a 10-minute recess for procuring new balls (it was planned to break into a nearby sporting-goods store) when two new ones were discovered under his chair. The match was continued with these until eventually a new box of balls was turned up. At 7:30 in the evening, with the score 35-all, Mike Blanchard stepped wearily forward and announced over the public-address system that the match would be suspended because of darkness. He said that it would take up at the same point the next day. He started to say "at one o'clock," which is the starting time for the Casino morning matches, but he found himself saying "noon"—a most prescient change of mind, as it turned out.
The news of the long match went the rounds that evening. It was the talk of the Van Alen dinner for the tennis players, at which, as he does annually, the host recited a long poem that in part extolled the virtues of his VASSS scoring system. The four players in the marathon left immediately after the dinner (and before the poem) to get as much sleep as they could in their barrackslike quarters in the Casino.
A large crowd awaited them around the center court the next morning—many of them curiosity-seekers hoping that the match would somehow prove a stalemate. The latter did some hefty groaning in the first moments of play when in the third game Dell had his service broken and it seemed as if the match would be over after only four games of play on the second day. But in a not untypical example of seesawing before a match gets down to its rhythm, Leach and Dell broke right back, and the match was, to the delight of the spectators, back on even terms. It moved right along, service win after service win.
As the match continued, back in the stands under the awnings a group of Australian players fed $1 each into a pool—the winnings to go to the holder of the name of whichever player finally lost his service. On the rare occasions when the server would be down a point or two, the Australians would stir and voice loud chagrin or relief as the server would finally pull out the game.
Then, in the 95th game of the second set, Lenny Schloss, with a double fault to plague him, abruptly lost his serve and the second set of the match 47-49—an enormous total of games that only went to square the match at a set apiece. Dollar bills exchanged hands among the clutch of Australians, and everyone settled back for the third set. Once again there was a service break in the first game of the set—the Leach-Dell team letting down just infinitesimally after winning the second set. They broke back again immediately, just as they had in the second set, and then once again the servers began to prevail.
Finally, in the 147th game of the match, the end came. Mozur was serving. Suddenly he had a match point against him. He served well and came to the net to volley the return. He drove the ball well, but an intercepting fluke shot off the wood of Dell's racket went by him, and Ruffels, the Australian who held Mozur's name in the pool game, gave a great shout, his wooden chair went over behind him, and the match was done.
The most surprised person at the match point was Dick Leach. The possibility of breaking serve had become so remote during the steady succession of services held that the point came and went without Leach being aware. "Think of that," he said later. "The first I realized that something out of the ordinary had happened was when the other three players had their arms out, wanting to shake hands. Can you imagine that? We'd gone through 147 games and I was so numbed by them that I wasn't even able to savor the match point. I thought the score was 30—all. 'Wha'? Wha'?' is what I said, and they had to explain it to me."
Afterward, around the grounds of the Casino, the players sat and talked about the marathon match. The consensus seemed to be that the reason for the long sets was not the power of the individual serve (none of the players owns a particularly impressive serve) but the comparative drop in ability to return service with pace and authority. Tennis players say that the big step into high-ranking play comes with learning how to return service. Despite all the talk about how the big serve has ruined tennis, there has only been one service in the past decade, and probably in the whole history of tennis, which at its best absolutely defied solution: that of Pancho Gonzalez. In the professional ranks and at the top of the amateur standings the players achieve the ability to anticipate and make some sort of forcing or controlled shot off a powerful serve. A match of top-ranking tennis players would never find a string of 50 or 60 games without a service break. At Newport, on both days of play, the players were all getting their first serves in and moving to the net well and volleying crisply. The return of service was another matter.
But they had the record—just about everyone agreed. The figure was often heard at Newport that week. "Hundred and forty-seven games," and then a shake of the head in awe. People stared at the four participants as if they were quadruplets. Lenny Schloss said: "I hope we're not remembered just for that match. After all, we lost. But I hope it's the record. That'd be some sort of compensation."
That was the other topic—the need of a record book for tennis. Someone mentioned The Golfer's Handbook as a model—the red-covered British publication that is the browser's delight. In it one can find such facts as the winner of the 1948 Kinghorn Grip Tournament (John Panton) and the length of the longest drive ever recorded hit (460 yards). Its most interesting section is entitled "Interesting Facts, Feats and Extraordinary Occurrences" (at Mowbray Course, Cape Town, Len Richardson, who represented South Africa in the Olympics, played a round which measured 6,248 yards in 31 minutes, 22 seconds, etc.), and in such a section in an equivalent tennis volume would go the short accounts of the great marathon matches of this August. The players had a number of categories to suggest. Besides Longest Matches, they offered such categories as Most Consecutive Sets Won Without Loss; Most Consecutive Games Won; Most Consecutive Aces; Hardest Serve (in mph); Shortest Match; Most Consecutive Double Faults; the rankings back through the years would be included, of course, and then there were some quixotic possibilities such as Highest Lob; Extraordinary Occurrences would include such shots as one that a player described as glancing off his racket and hitting the umpire sitting up in his wooden chair, hitting him directly between the eyes and breaking his glasses.
I had the temerity to offer a shot for this latter category. This summer a friend of mine dropped back to slam a lob thrown up rather poorly by his sister-in-law across the net. He stumbled on a ball rolling loose on the court as he reached up and he missed the ball completely. But on his swing through he bopped a small bird that had picked that unfortunate moment to meander across the court. The deed was done at 4:15 in the afternoon, and the score was deuce at the time, in the first game of the second set—all of paramount importance to the statistics lover. The bird was a wren, and it recovered.