USTINOV ON TENNIS

The noted actor shows off his own playing style and offers some wry observations on court procedures
June 22, 1969

I became conscious of tennis at a very early age, stimulated by the fact that I detested cricket, a hate that has never left me. I got out of cricket, but then I had to row instead and that didn't interest me either, as I don't like going backward. Of all the games, I always had the most flair for tennis—an instinct for it.

As early as when I was 8 or 9, I can remember absolutely insisting on accompanying my father, who was a journalist, to Wimbledon. I'll give you an idea of how long ago that was: I can remember a lady player with an eyeshade beginning to wind up to serve and suddenly shouting at the top of her voice, "Underarmmm!" And then she belted across a withering underarm service, which aced the opponent, who looked as if she had been cheated.

Nowadays the cry would be taken as a deodorant advertisement, but in that distant past, serving underarm—while providing shrill warning at the same time—was a form of bad sportsmanship cleverly disguised to look like good sportsmanship. In other words, it was vintage gamesmanship.

Wimbledon supplied me, then, with a certain amount of rudimentary instruction, which was helpful, because at an English school there were very few opportunities to play tennis. I was never taught. In those days one was never taught; one was allowed to play. Also, I was, for some obscure reason, kept off the team for some time, and when at last I was allowed on the tennis squad, I had already formed certain bad habits from playing squash and fives, which is a three-wall game rather like handball.

I still hold the racket the wrong way whenever I play, and so I have a great deal of excitement. My best shot is my forehand. It's not good enough to generate speed, but if somebody hits a ball hard at me I can sometimes get it back even faster. I'm absolutely inconsistent, but I sometimes do spectacular bits of nonsense, which gives me immense satisfaction. What I find magical about the game is that if you play sufficiently well, then your play against a fine player will improve instead of going downhill.

I can speak with some authority on that subject, since some of the best players in the world have been sympathetic enough with my passion for the game to go on the court with me. I've played with Frank Sedgman, Neale Fraser, Roy Emerson, Fred Stolle and, most recently, John Newcombe, which seems like the whole Australian Davis Cup roster since the war. I hit with Newcombe in San Antonio, where I was making the movie Viva Max and where these revealing pictures of me were taken.

The best birthday present I ever had was one time when I was in New York appearing in a play and some friends said they would take me to the Town Tennis Club for the occasion. When I reached the courts, there were all my friends in the galleries and on the court stood my surprise partner and opponents—Gardnar Mulloy, Bill Talbert and Donald Budge. Mulloy and I lost 5-7, 5-7, and I was delighted to escape without casualty.

I'm really not built for tennis. I'm built in a very Slavonic way, and the player I have always had the most empathy—and sympathy—for is Jaroslav Drobny, because we are the same age, built in the same way and by now he's got rather stouter than I, which is a fine advertisement for Czech beer. I have had affection for Drobny ever since he fell in at Wimbledon—a stocky Slav amid all those lissome Australians and lithe Americans—and won. He was also supposed to have a suspect temperament, although I never understood that, because he was forever playing those 37-35 sets with Budge Patty and standing up under them. I think, really, it is the British who have a suspect temperament, because they have this complex about losing and then winning by their grace on the way back to the changing room.

The British really are extraordinary. The only trouble with them—well, I once said that a British education is the best in the world if you can survive it. If you can't, there's nothing for you but the diplomatic corps. I have two Oscars and two Emmys—two emasculated men and two emasculated women who play tame mixed doubles on my desk—and when I won my first Oscar and had to make a speech I was really lost for words. At last I said something from the heart, apologizing for being unable to make a speech but explaining that I was educated in a British school, where an enormous amount of time was spent in teaching us how to lose gracefully but absolutely no time was spent on how to win gracefully because it wasn't expected that we would win.

I'm British by passport and I was born there, but I'm really not very British. There was anomaly from the first because I was born in the section of London known as Swiss Cottage, and I had been conceived in Leningrad (then St. Petersburg)—I have that on the best authority. I admire the British enormously, though, because I was in the British Army during the war, surrounded by British characters, and there is nothing like a war to make you feel foreign.

I think that through history the British have been extremely ingenious in inventing sports, but when other people would catch up with them in one—which was not long—they would drop it and invent another. They stuck with cricket because there was no competition. Tennis is really very un-British, very specialized in that it is linked so to Wimbledon, which is unquestionably the championship of the world. Why, in the British calendar, I would say that Wimbledon is at least comparable to the ceremony that used to be held for the new viceroy of India.

Wimbledon is just so much more agreeable than Forest Hills, or Roland Garros or the Foro Italico. So very little seems to mar it, though I do recall Jean Borotra once saying that his ideal death would be serving an ace at center court. I reminded him that you must be very careful in this endeavor because the linesmen are so slow that after you fall to the turf there is liable to be a voice calling "Outtt!"

More seriously, I find it truly sad that there are certain aspects of the snobbishness of tennis that still remain at Wimbledon. A great friend of mine, and I think one of the most admirable of men, is Bunny Austin, who was the last Englishman to make the singles finals of Wimbledon and who teamed with Fred Perry to bring the British their greatest triumphs in the Davis Cup in the 1930s. Bunny is a successful businessman but at the same time is one of the pillars of the Moral Re-Armament movement—with which I'm not very much in sympathy, although I am enormously in sympathy with Bunny and his wife. And yet, because he is in the Moral Re-Armament program, he is not a member of the All England Club. This I find absolutely insupportable, that people can be so ungrateful as to deny him entrance to the place where he so rightfully deserves to be. It is as impossible as imagining Olympus without Jupiter.

But then, the people who administer tennis the world over are absolutely surpassed by the events. They treat their players as though they were gladiators, in the most cavalier and stupid fashion. What a shame for the game that the usual lawn tennis association people are of such an extraordinary low level. I think they are even worse than film distributors.

I remember one marvelous exchange which I overheard at the Pacific Southwest tournament in Hollywood, when Mr. Perry Jones approached Ramanathan Krishnan and said he was fed up with his behavior and would have to report him to his federation. "In that case," Krishnan replied, "you had better give the letter to me, because I am the Indian federation."

There is this element in my love for tennis, that it is such an international sport—like soccer, which I enjoy watching, but don't care for playing, since it is sometimes a little difficult to find 21 others to play with you. Tennis does take on national characteristics so very easily. Krishnan, for instance, is capable of beating anyone with his soft, accurate shots, psyching opponents with a game that is obviously related to the Indian character. Manolo Santana and Maria Bueno, and even your Gonzalez and Segura—so marvelously Latin, their strength and their weakness.

My own is a touch game, although too often the touch finds the net or the netting at the back. I roam quite a bit because I have quick reflexes and am better at the net than at the baseline. I see both the theater and tennis as sports of quick reflexes. Because, in fact, the theater is such a sport, I disapprove of the so-called Method—it is so analytical that it slows down everybody's reactions. I believe, obviously, that you must go into depth in your own mind when you're going to attack a character, but I believe also that the whole Method approach to acting is as though you asked everybody to consider every ball in a tennis game and work it out on a plan. You're so hidebound at the end that you miss all the excitement—the quick reactions in the theater or in sport.

There are also psychological things which are, to my mind, especially interesting. For instance, when there is a quick exchange of balls and suddenly at an instant somebody lobs, you somehow know the other lad is going to miss it because all at once he has too much time to think after a passage in which his instinct alone guided him. It is that disruption which is terribly similar to the moment in the theater when you blow your lines. It is invariably the moment on stage when you take time out and say to yourself, "Ah, thank God, I'm over the awkward bit and this bit I know." Aaaaiii! You're stuck. That is it, the sudden variation of pace which is so liable to throw the mind, or the stroke, off its rhythm.

I was doing a film in Rome a few years ago and three players arrived unexpectedly and wanted me to make a fourth. They were Neale Fraser, who was then at the top of the tree, a Californian named Jack Frost and my old friend Abe Segal from South Africa. They were wonderful to ask me. I felt very cosseted by them, lullabyed, because they know I'm a fanatic but don't really play very well. They put up with me because they know that sometimes I will take them out to dinner, though that should not be sufficient reason.

For some reason it was decided—I suppose again to flatter me—that a fair team, a fair one, would be Fraser and Segal vs. Frost and me. Absolutely ludicrous. The first thing I had to face was Fraser's service, which I had never seen from that angle before except in the newsreels. I saw him winding up and aiming, and suddenly I noticed an aspirin flying at me.

I put my racket in the way and felt an enormous wrench, and the ball went flying back, to Fraser's surprise—and mine. He was coming into the net, but he hadn't gotten in quite far enough and so he hit the ball back at me again, and I remember thinking—a kind of emergency semaphore—if it's possible once, it's possible again. Once more I felt an enormous wrench and the ball flew back again.

This time it really surprised him—he was up at the net—and he sent a rather soft ball—that is, soft by his standards—to my backhand. I was embarrassed by it, because my backhand is notoriously weak, and all I could do was pat it back. In the air the aspirin became a beach ball, and though he was right at the net, he was so surprised he put it into the net.

I looked around in triumph. A friend who was standing there but not watching asked if I were winning. Ah, 15-love on Fraser's service. But I didn't reply, which was wise, for thereafter I was like a war correspondent, just watching the bullets pass.

Tennis at its best is a game of endless surprises. If Goliath wins, you think, yes of course that is logical, but if David wins, you think only how marvelous. It is also, of course, a thing of stamina. Any big tournament, like Wimbledon, is a marathon. You must win seven matches just to get into the final and it is a tremendous physical and mental drain. That's why I think the Davis Cup—which I love—is not quite fair. I don't see why the champion nation can sit it out. It should be in the thing from the beginning. It would also be more interesting for defenders to have to take risks, to try out their good people.

Tennis seems to me a game of tremendous subtlety—which is perhaps why it has never become enormously popular. Certainly, it must be subtle when you think that the United States can be defeated by Ecuador, when you think that at just some moment a country can produce two great players who can take the Davis Cup. And yet it seems to be very difficult to produce a player of world rank. There are many efficient players but it is so rare that you find one subtle enough to be the champion.

I remember at the Pacific Southwests the first time I saw a young Spanish player—very young and unknown at the time—Santana. He was not supposed to beat anybody, but he was playing marvelously well and we happened to meet. He suddenly asked me for my autograph. I said, I'll give you my autograph if you'll give me yours, and so we exchanged. He was playing Alex Olmedo next, and Olmedo was near the height of his career, but I said to Santana that he was going to win.

He protested that that was impossible, but he won the first set against Olmedo. Santana lost the second, but as he changed sides to begin the deciding set I did a thumbs-up sign, because he said he had liked Nero in Quo Vadis. And Manolo won the last set 6-0.

I lost sight of him completely then, but a little bit later he was in the French championships in 1961 and I read that he had reached the quarterfinals. I was crossing France by car when I learned of this, so I stopped and sent Manolo a telegram just saying "Olé!" The next day I opened the paper and saw he had won his way to the semifinals, so I sent him a cable saying, "Olé, Olé!" And he won that and went into the finals for a chance at his first major title against Pietrangeli. So now I sent him a cable saying, "Olé, Olé, Olé!"

I could not find the results of the finals till late the next evening in the south of France, when I got an evening paper that described Santana's victory and said he had jumped the net shouting, "Olé, Olé, Olé!" Long afterward I saw him and he thanked me for my encouragement, so whenever he is in a big match, Australia or anywhere, I always send him a cable. Of course, it doesn't always work.

Though I most enjoy watching a player like Santana, I never look for one thing when I go to any match because I don't think that any tennis player ever lives by himself. The most marvelous thing is when you find two players of contrasting techniques. In that sense I think it must be like chess—although I don't play chess myself—for when I see a great tennis match I think this must be like that scene in Moscow, where you have the great crowds watching the chess scoreboards and gasping whenever somebody makes an odd move. It's this to me, but of course at a very, very high speed.

I don't think, really, that most people realize it is not good enough to be a champion in tennis: it takes two to make greatness. A great match needs a loser as well as a winner. This is something on a much deeper and more profound basis that we don't usually realize. I'm writing a play now about Pontius Pilate, simply because there was a much maligned man; without him there would have been no match, and Jesus could not have won and entered history. It is always this way. You needed Pétain to make de Gaulle. There's always someone you have to step over to get to where you are, someone who contributes to your success. That's my point. I don't believe in either villains or heroes but in everybody's contribution to a story—or a match.

PHOTOSTEVE SHAPIRODaintiness is not a monopoly of the weaker sex. PHOTOSTEVE SHAPIROIf you poach too much, your partner may suddenly lose interest. PHOTOSTEVE SHAPIROThis trick is a great deal more difficult with three balls. PHOTOSTEVE SHAPIROIt is always advisable to be generous when you are winning. PHOTOSTEVE SHAPIROOlé!

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)