Marilyn and Ed Fernberger had their tournament last week. Held at the Spectrum in Philadelphia, it was the first indoor open, and with Marilyn working 60 hours a week and Ed putting in all his spare time, it was an enormous success. The best players in the world were there—Laver, Roche, Ashe, Okker—and the crowds that showed up for the five-day event were the kind that simply do not exist short of Wimbledon and Forest Hills. Rod Laver won $7,000 for beating Tony Roche in the finals, and when the match was over the most excited people in the Spectrum were, naturally, Marilyn and Ed. If Roche had won instead, the Fernbergers would have been just as excited.
You never heard of the Fernbergers? Well, there are a few of them in every sport but none are more totally involved than these two. You may boast of your track nuts and the guys who know all the earned run averages, but they have nothing on the Fernbergers. They are as fanatical, devoted, informed and ubiquitous a pair of fans as can be found in any sport. It is even money that at any tournament Marilyn will be found seated between the wives of the finalists, and Ed, who takes tennis pictures as a special avocation, will be the first person to reach and congratulate or console the competitors after a match. Their more serious efforts on behalf of the game have already earned them the Marlboro Award, an honor given to devoted and respected contributors to the sport.
All this is particularly amazing because the Fernbergers have never been very good players themselves, and just burst upon the tennis scene eight years ago as sudden as a genie loosed from a bottle. By now notice is taken at a tournament only when they are somehow not on hand. They never miss a tennis gathering within any reasonable (or otherwise) distance from their suburban Philadelphia home. They have traveled to the Caribbean, to Europe, to Fiji, Australia, Tahiti, New Zealand, and also to Hawaii, where Bo Belinsky—exiled there to the minors—met the Fernbergers and taught Marilyn how to surf. Ed suspects that their tennis mileage now easily exceeds 100,000 miles.
Traveling statistics, however, are of small moment when compared to Marilyn's telephone records. Ed calls her "Madame Telephone," and while she is able to laugh easily about this singular affliction, she is also unable to do anything about it. By now she is totally impervious to the meaning of such expressions as: "But it's 4 a.m.!" "I'll call you back later," and "Goodbye." Gladys Heldman, the editor of World Tennis, avers that she herself is a rather normal person except that she has developed psychic powers in one area. When the phone rings sometimes, she knows. She is able to pick it up and say "Hi, Marilyn" before Mrs. Fernberger identifies herself.
February 17, 1969
Leif Beck, a tournament vice-chairman and one of the founders of the Indoor, says, "I learn it's Marilyn on the phone, and I just cringe because I know she'll be checking to see if I did five little things I promised her the last call. Look, you can always get a lot of people to help out with a lot of little civic jobs, but you need someone devoted to make sure the things really do get carried out, and that's Marilyn and her phone."
To Marilyn, though, the phone is as much a friend as it is an instrument of efficiency. Once she tracked Roche down in Switzerland when his itinerary had him in a distant country. A player who moved into a new apartment welcomed the phone man, who installed a phone. Before he could call the office to check the operation, the phone rang and Marilyn was on the other end. Last fall, when she was trying to obtain permission for the Russian players to enter the tournament in Philadelphia, she finally just put in a call to Moscow. Got through too. Marilyn always gets someone on the phone.
Ed is nearly as occupied with photographing tennis. He began it strictly as a hobby in 1962, and is now one of the best tennis photographers in the world, even though, for his square job, he is still a construction company executive. Ed has built up a file of more than 30,000 black-and-whites and 3,000 color shots, including some taken at John Newcombe's 1967 Wimbledon victory party that drew substantial offers from London newspapers. (Ed, who ran the party as well as took the pictures, had had the foresight to invite a topless waitress to cater it. This made for a better party, he says—and better pictures, too.)
The Fernbergers have posted so many of Ed's pictures that Woolworth's, impressed and sympathetic, at last agreed to sell frames to Marilyn in lots. There are more than 1,000 pictures on the club cellar walls, and it is fair to say that the player who is not included in this melange does not truly exist. For that matter, most world players have been sequestered at the Fernberger home. Their house in Huntingdon Valley is a tennis hostel. The Fernberger children—Jim, 13; Ellen, 17; and Ted, 20, who is a fourth-generation Fernberger at Penn—are used to waking up to find Manolo Santana or Fred Stolle or somebody at the breakfast table. Spanish records have been stocked so that Latin visitors will feel at home. Birthday cakes are provided. Marilyn has written the mothers of visiting young players to learn their favorite recipes.
Only once was there substantial conflict with a guest. This visitor, a chronic late sleeper, was domiciled in a room with a telephone (Marilyn gets as many calls as she makes). At last, around 2 p.m. when the phone rang for about the 78th time that day, with a harried overseas operator having tracked down another missing party, the disgruntled guest rose purposefully from his fitful sleep, strode to the phone and summarily yanked the offending instrument out of the wall.
The Fernbergers, in their low 40s, really act as contemporaries of the more experienced players. With the younger players and the juniors, though, they assume a different role, that of teacher and parent-away-from-home. They instruct their visiting charges in culture and living history, Marilyn dragging them off to museums and Independence Hall, and in the social demands of dining and dancing. It is not an exaggeration to say that as much as Waterloo was won on the playing fields, so have social graces in the world of tennis been cast in Huntingdon Valley.
"You want to know something?" Ed says, starting with the introductory rhetoric he often employs. "Everything that we might have done for these kids, we've been paid back in kind. We love all of them. And they've never disappointed us."