A paper tiger wins with steel

Aug. 05, 1968
Aug. 05, 1968

Table of Contents
Aug. 5, 1968

Table of Content
Nevele Pride
Playground Ball
Cale Yarborough
Dave Davis
Bear Facts
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

A paper tiger wins with steel

For Clark Graebner, a paper company executive, a more relaxed mien and a steel racket have made his last year of full-time tennis his best

By Roy Blount Jr.

Close up Clark Graebner just looks lean, dark, vigorous and sure of himself. But on the court, in shorts and among conventionally nifty-looking players, he appears more like a man hitting grounders to his kids. Or rather, line drives through his kids. He is high-pocketed, broad-based and generally untapering, even a little constricted because of a malformation of vertebrae that developed when he grew too fast in his teens. It has left him with a stiff back and a little trouble on low shots.

This is an article from the Aug. 5, 1968 issue Original Layout

The resulting style could hardly be called "soul," and in his younger days, when Graebner punctuated it with fits of pique, the 6'2", bespectacled amateur did not win the hearts of many crowds. But now, at 24, as a husband, father, staunch Republican and business executive with three stockbrokers, Graebner "can't afford to get mad," and he has acquired, as he says, a "good guy" image. In the process he has also become one of the top players in the world. His rise—in what he says will be his last year of full-time play—is a big reason why America's Davis Cup chances at last look very good.

At the end of 1967 Graebner was ranked fourth among the nation's amateurs, behind Charlie Pasarell, Arthur Ashe and Cliff Richey. But in the recent midseason voting for worldwide player of the year he placed eighth among all contenders. Ashe was the only U.S. amateur ranked ahead of him, and only one other amateur, Tom Okker of The Netherlands, made the top 10.

The vote was taken before July 21 when Graebner won his first national singles championship, the clay courts crown, which was a special coup for a big hitter hitherto typed as a fast surface man. The voting did, however, reflect his part in the U.S. Davis Cup team's undefeated record in sectional matches, and his startling performance at Wimbledon, where he beat the top-seeded amateur, Manuel Santana of Spain, and pro Fred Stolle of Australia before losing in four long sets in the semifinals to another Australian pro, Tony Roche. Two years ago Graebner was dropped from the Davis Cup team for venting too much spleen on a ballboy. Now he and Ashe are its mainstays.

A product of a prominent Cleveland suburb, Graebner gives five things credit for the high and even tenor of his recent ways. Two technical and probably minor factors are a new backhand motion, which he picked up from John Newcombe, and the new tubular steel racket he took to so enthusiastically a year ago. The lighter, springier steel racket relieved him of a bad case of tennis elbow, and enables him, he says, to give the ball more hum with less strain. Probably no player in the world now hits a harder serve or forehand than Graebner.

Deeper new sources of strength are his ripening marriage, his relations with new Davis Cup Captain Donald Dell and the responsibility of being understudy to the president of the company that Graebner—suddenly quite public-relations conscious—quickly points out provides the paper for 18% of all United States currency.

Graebner married the former Carole Caldwell four years ago, when he was still 20. She was the nation's fourth-ranked women's player and he was the 24th men's. Since then the fetching California blonde has dropped to sixth and currently to inactivity, being more occupied with caring for Cameron, 20 months, and Clark Jr., 2 months. Mrs. Graebner has also devoted herself to calming Mr. Graebner down. "She keeps me quiet," he says, "not too nervous. When I know how I want things to go and they aren't quite doing that, she knows how to handle me."

Carole herself says, "I just give him moral support. I'm a nervous wreck myself. You have to be nervous." At any rate, Carole and Clark and Cameron (who has already gone through the chicken pox in South Africa) have been together, sunnily, all over the world.

Of Dell, who left the Office of Economic Opportunity and has brought a remarkable new esprit de corps to the cup team, Graebner says: "He understands us. He's a contemporary of Ashe, Pasarell and myself, and he's an attorney, and logical, and he will sit down and talk things out. He has the intangible to get people to do what he wants."

One of the things Dell's intangible has effected is an extremely tangible and rigorous team training program. "I have always been naturally strong," Graebner says, and former team member Marty Riessen, who played ahead of Graebner for two years at Northwestern ("His father was the coach," Graebner points out pleasantly), agrees. But Riessen notes that Dell has Graebner doing calisthenics for the first time in his life, and "now, whether he is or not, he feels stronger. Clark knows he can outlast the other guy."

It was Dell's predecessor, George MacCall, who suspended Graebner for 30 days in 1966, and then left him behind when the team went to Brazil and an ignominious defeat. "I wasn't so mad at the suspension," Graebner says. "George did it for my own benefit. But I was very unhappy when, after telling me to drop out of school for a quarter, he didn't take me to Brazil. When you get a guy 46 or 47 years old and he wants to play God and tells you not to go to school and leaves you hanging...well, we had a very formal relationship. He just wasn't a good captain."

In fact, Graebner maintains, he was thinking of quitting cup competition until he talked with Dell. He was about ready to confine his tennis to weekends and put most of his drive into business—as indeed he will do, he says, after this year. He is playing now with just one year of grace that was granted by the Hobson Miller Paper Company of New York. The firm's president, Mr. Miller, is grooming Graebner for an executive position. Graebner has been with the company since he got his degree at Northwestern in the spring of 1967, but he has spent most of his tenure there playing tennis. Still, some deals have come through for him. " 'How did you get this thing without being in the office?' Mr. Miller will ask me. Gee, I'll try to figure out how I did it myself. Then sometimes something happens so you don't get a deal, and you get so mad you can't see straight. It's like losing to somebody in tennis; you've got to figure out what you did wrong and change it." A gleam comes into Graebner's eye, and you can almost see him practicing his business stroke.

Specific deals aside, he figures "this year has been worth a million dollars to me in business." But it would not have if he had assailed any more ball-boys. "If a client comes to see you play, he doesn't want to sec you getting mad," he says. "Recently there was a picture of me in the paper with the caption, 'Graebner, Always the Nice Guy.' You just can't buy that kind of publicity."

Nor, he says, can professional tennis buy him the kind of living he can expect from his business future. "I was given a pro contract a couple of years ago. I kept it, so I can show it to my son. But even if I made twice as much in the next couple of years as a pro, in the next couple of years after that I'll be making twice that much in business."

Meanwhile, he can't complain at all about the standard of living to which the amateur circuit has accustomed him. "Amateurism here is shamateurism. Everybody knows it. When we were playing abroad I told Carole, 'Maybe we won't ever make quite as much money as some of these people staying in second-class hotels, but not many people can say they went through Europe doing everything first class." It's a good life, at least the way I live it."