Aug. 25, 1980
Aug. 25, 1980

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Aug. 25, 1980

Odd Couple


Overpowering but underconfident, Peter Fleming hooked up with cocky John McEnroe and somehow they became the world's best doubles team.

Peter Fleming has been making peculiar decisions all his life. He picked tennis over basketball even as he was growing up very tall, albeit very late; he didn't stop growing until he was 21 and had reached 6'5". Fleming enrolled at Michigan even though, as a golden-haired, blue-eyed hunk of WASP he looked born to the California chorus of a Frankie Avalon beach blanket movie. Actually, he was born in New Jersey and ended up at UCLA.

This is an article from the Aug. 25, 1980 issue Original Layout

In 1977, Fleming picked a doubles partner. Contrasting personalities are considered de rigueur—so of course Fleming hooked up with a younger kid whose volatility, erratic behavior, loud mouth, snapping temper and monstrous ego were near the same level as his own. Now, Fleming frets that he will go to his eternal rest as merely "the big goon who played doubles with John McEnroe."

Not that such a distinction would be all that terrible. At next week's U.S. Open he and McEnroe will be the heavy favorites to repeat as national doubles champions. In the last 26 months, or since shortly after they were embarrassed in the 1978 Wimbledon final by Bob Hewitt and Frew McMillan, Fleming-McEnroe, or McEnroe-Fleming ("Take your pick," says Junior. "Go ahead with Fleming-McEnroe," says the older partner, who is known on the tour as "Flam") have won just about everything there is to win in doubles. In 1979 they took Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, the WCT Worlds and their second Masters—all in all, 12 of the 15 tournaments they entered as a team. Their overall won-lost record in Grand Prix matches was a fairly absurd 69-3. To keep the marriage fresh, they even split up occasionally and won those tournaments as well, McEnroe the U.S. Clay Courts with Gene Mayer, and Fleming the Italian Open with Tomas Smid.

Together again this year—but only briefly, because of injuries and conflicting commitments—they have lost only twice: in a Queens Club pre-Wimbledon warmup to the Gullikson twins, Tom and Tim, and in the semifinals of Wimbledon itself to the Australian pair of Paul McNamee and Peter McNamara, the eventual champions. In the latter match, played the same afternoon as McEnroe's street fight with Jimmy Connors and the day before his historic final against Bjorn Borg, Fleming says they "lost steam" after dropping the first set.

Flam and Junior contribute equally important condiments to the doubles sauce, resulting in a blend that is one of the surest things in tennis. Young as it is, their team already is inviting comparison with the brothers Renshaw, Baddeley and Doherty, who dominated Wimbledon doubles through the turn of the century, winning 19 All England championships; the Frank Sedgman-Ken McGregor tandem, which in 1951 became the first and only doubles team to win the Grand Slam; the Open era wonders, John Newcombe-Tony Roche, who won five Wimbledons; Stan Smith-Bob Lutz, who have won four U.S. championships; and Hewitt-McMillan, who together and in combination with other partners have won 18 men's and mixed Grand Slam titles.

The Fleming-McEnroe duo could become even more dominant. Gene Mako, the forgotten partner of the great Don Budge, says flatly, "They should never lose a match." Victor Amaya, the 6'7" giant of the current tour, reaffirms this. "No other team is close," he says. "Hewitt-McMillan and Smith-Lutz are past challenging them—no chance. Riessen-Stewart is a really good team. Fibak-Okker is good. But they don't have enough power. They would win about two of 10 matches against Fleming-Mac. Gottfried-Ramirez have been back together a while. They're smart, quick, creative. They make things happen. They'd get maybe three of 10. McNamee-McNamara are terrific, but new; we have to find out about them."

It is a disappointing irony of the sport that the event which most often raises the level of a tournament—with more players on the court, more action, better entertainment, a preponderance of gambling and hang-it-all-out shotmaking plus a more enlightening display of the game's tactical and technical possibilities—is doubles, yet doubles gets the lowest priorities both in terms of scheduling and prize money. Sometimes the hot-dog vendors have closed up shop by the time it's center stage for the doubles, which is allotted a measly 20% of a tournament's prize money.

"Basically, singles is work and doubles is play," says Gene Mayer, who has reached the Top 10 in both games. "I rarely have much fun playing a singles match. I have to fight and claw, think, gut things out. In doubles you can mentally lay back, hit out, do things with the ball, try pizzazz and really enjoy yourself." Nobody gets more enjoyment from doubles than Fleming and McEnroe. The latter has always liked doubles, not least for the salutary effect it has on his singles game. McEnroe would rather play doubles matches than practice singles any day. Fleming has come to the same conclusion, and his singles game has improved considerably.

In 1979 Fleming won three important singles titles—the Beckenham warmup to Wimbledon, the inaugural Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) Championships at Cincinnati and the Jack Kramer Open (formerly the Pacific Southwest) at Los Angeles—and was runner-up in tournaments in San Jose, San Francisco and Maui. His singles ranking on the ATP computer rose to No. 11 in the world. This year Fleming, who now holds down the No. 9 spot, advanced to the semifinals of the prestigious (but rained-out) Volvo tournament at Palm Springs before developing a neuroma on his foot while he was practicing for the Davis Cup matches in South America, which forced him to miss most of the spring season, indoors and out.

After recuperating at his oceanside retreat in Seabrook Island, S.C., he came back to play his finest Wimbledon, advancing to the quarterfinals. He lost in straight sets to—yes—McEnroe. "Junior got on top of me early," says Fleming. "I've never seen the guy move better."

Of his teammate's glorious turnabout, McEnroe says, "Peter just got used to playing all week. When he'd lose in singles, he had to stay mentally tough for the doubs. He worked hard. It helped his concentration all around."

"I learned from Junior," says Fleming. "He was so into our doubles. Always. If he was beaten in singles, he'd try even harder in doubles. We would never tank just because one of us got beat. The doubs got to be 99% a lock if the other poor bastards had to play us after Junior had lost."

The partnership was hardly prepared for what happened last September. Fleming was in the midst of a hot streak in which he would eventually win 22 of 25 singles matches, when he made it to the Jack Kramer final at L.A., only to find McEnroe waiting for him. In the doubles semifinals the night before, Fleming and McEnroe were so subdued—"both of us were psyched thinking about playing each other the next day," Fleming says—that they lost to Wotjek Fibak and McMillan.

The next day Fleming beat McEnroe 6-4, 6-4 despite the obligatory furious disputes over line calls and stalling tactics by his partner. These delays cost Fleming his composure and nearly the title. "How much longer before you give this guy a point penalty?" Fleming screamed at the chair at one juncture.

Afterward, Fleming publicly praised McEnroe and thanked him for his aid and inspiration, but he couldn't resist throwing in a few joking references to "the brat." The following week in San Francisco the two didn't speak en route to the doubles final. They would meet again in the singles final, too.

"Our girl friends were with us that week, making the whole thing tolerable," says Fleming. "But before the singles, we sat down and had it out. It was resolved that our friendship, our doubles, was more important than winning or losing any individual tournament. We said no matter if we threw punches at each other in our singles match, there was no way we were losing the doubles again."

After Fleming blew a set-up, breakup lead to McEnroe and then lost 6-2 in the third, without punches, the pair wiped out Fibak and McMillan 6-1, 6-4. After the Kramer Open, in fact, the team never lost again in 1979.

Daily workouts against McEnroe have undoubtedly solidified Fleming's already dangerous game, which is based on a punishing serve, a marvelous (especially for a big man) facility for angles and the rare inclination to go for broke on all returns. As receiver, Fleming simply winds up and blasts the ball, notably off the backhand side from the deuce court. This is a whippy, rolling topspin, opposite-court response to down-the-middle deliveries—a truly difficult shot to hit and one that Fleming consistently produces as well as any player in the world. It is particularly effective against the left-handed guillotine slice serve of McEnroe, whom Fleming has beaten in four of their nine singles meetings.

Fleming's serve and return were the points at issue in what had been weirdly different approaches to singles and doubles play, an ill-considered strategy that he corrected with a vengeance late last summer.

At the Canadian Open last August, Fleming had lost early to Butch Walts. "I was a basket case," says Fleming. "I mean, Walts is a good player, but three and one in the last two sets? He isn't that amazing. All season I'd be playing along real well and then just collapse and bag it. From the end of April through mid-August I didn't reach the third round in singles, but never lost a match in doubles. I'm right up there in stupidity. I finally figured out something was amiss. It was unbelievable."

Previously in singles, Fleming had led the world in double faults—"My game plan is boom, boom and more boom" he once said—and had alternately hit the fence or tentatively set up opponents with a no-clue, be-careful strategy off the ground. Conversely, in doubles—with the reassurance of a swashbuckling McEnroe terrorizing the opposition up there at the net—Fleming would nail returns without regard for life or limb and know his partner was ready to cross and pounce.

So at the ATP Championships, Fleming talked himself into pretending that his singles matches were doubles. On his service he stood wider and made a subtle adjustment in his second delivery, "staying over" the ball, adding more spin and keeping it in play. "I'll just throw this baby in there and Junior will cross and put away the volley," Fleming would say to himself on serve. Or "I'm mainlining this return and nobody over there is getting it back," he would say on defense.

It was the first time Fleming had connected the two games. "The change," he said, "was like black and white. One day I was terrible. The next I was amazing. I was routining guys all over the place." Among others in Cincinnati, he thrashed Stan Smith and Roscoe Tanner and seemed to be on the verge of fulfilling his enormous potential.

"Flam is one of the few guys out here who on a good day can manhandle anybody around—Bjorn, Jimbo, anybody," says Amaya, a rival since college. "He can streak-return a guy off the court. He can serve a couple of aces every game, then airmail a couple of winning returns a game. I've seen him beat guys in 40 minutes. Wham. It's over. When he's on, he's awesome. Then I've seen him go totally in the dumper. How can a guy win Cincy the way he did, then the next week blow out to Jaime Fillol in the second round of the Open?"

"I must have served 30 doubles in that one," Fleming sighs in explanation.

To be sure, Fleming's performances at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open the last few years have left much to be desired. Before this year, in four appearances at Wimbledon he had won two matches—over Fillol and the immortal Czech Jiri Granat—and last summer he lost to Hank Pfister after serving what he said were "another 30 doubles, easy."

Fleming is still horribly masochistic in his self-abuse during practice sessions—"You gawking fool," he will cry, "you stupid jerk"—and some players feel this attitude carries over to his matches.

"Peter doesn't stay positive," says one opponent. "You can always see the potential for a disaster there—his volatility and temper. He's tough on the lead, but when he's struggling he starts sulking and blows up. He'll usually beat himself."

On his return to the tour in the WCT Tournament of Champions at Forest Hills in May, Fleming was leading Brian Teacher 6-2, 5-3 and serving for the match when a heckler with white hair who had been applauding Fleming's errors finally got to him. He double-faulted away the game, lost the set, yelled at the heckler, "Hey, albino, why don't you shove this racket——" and threw away the match, 6-2, in the third.

Lack of confidence—the bane of most gawky, uncoordinated types—has haunted Fleming since his high school days in Chatham, a tree-lined stronghold of Jersey suburbia just close enough to Manhattan to explain the neighborhood children's sometimes rabid manner. At first Fleming's peers shot past him in height, after which he contracted mononucleosis. Fleming later rallied and grew at least two inches every year as he escaped teendom. But he says he always had the "geek syndrome." Fleming played all the sports anyway, just to be one of the boys.

The second of four sons, 5-year-old Peter used to tag along after his father, Alan, to the old man's tennis games at the Short Hills Racquets Club, where he hit against a backboard for two hours at a time. In later summers the father, a portfolio manager on Wall Street, would drop his son off at the club on the way to the train station in the morning and pick him up on the way home at night. "I once played 17 sets in a day," Fleming says.

Alan Fleming was a ranked player in the East who made a few forgettable appearances at Forest Hills. When his son was in his mid-teens, that was also the forecast for Peter, a lumbering soul who says he "kept losing to these bums who could only pat the ball back."

Meanwhile, Peter himself kept bashing his macho-monster serves and hitting the backstops until Warren Woodcock, a former player from Australia, took an interest in coaching him. Woodcock still has a yellowed clipping that reads "Laver Upsets Woodcock to Win Juniors." He was a brilliant youngster who never fulfilled his promise, but he knew things could work the opposite way.

Because Fleming was so awkward yet so penetrating on serve, Woodcock concentrated on his ground game, emphasizing clean strokes and flat balls. "He told me it didn't matter what I was at 14," Fleming remembers. "It's when I was 19 that everything would count."

In 1973, at age 18, Fleming began playing every day, all year round. He continued to grow, to fill out in the legs, to gain speed and quickness. In 1974 he and Fleming père won the National Father and Son Grass Court title at the Long-wood Cricket Club in Boston. Until then, Fleming had had few successes in national events. When he applied to Stanford the previous year, he was accepted—but without a scholarship. He had gotten in on his own without the help of the tennis coach. UCLA inquired. Michigan recruited him hard. Because Fleming had what he calls "a sheltered, naive East Coast guy's image of California as a freaked-out, drugged-up hippie colony," he chose Ann Arbor.

It was the wrong decision. Fleming was sidelined with a back injury much of his freshman year, was unhappy in his new surroundings and unpopular with teammates, who found him cocky. "I was not an easy person to live with," he admits. "I was an ass, more or less."

After his transfer to UCLA, Fleming changed his attitude within the year. "I had never been away from Jersey and it took a full year for me to grow up," he says. "I wasn't mad at everything anymore. I really loosened up." In his red-shirt year at Westwood, 1975, Fleming was astounded by the on-court intensity of the players under Coach Glenn Bassett. When Bassett put the Bruins through calisthenics, Fleming headed for the pool. Bassett had said if anybody didn't want to work, he should take a hike. Fleming took the coach at his word. He took a swim.

The next season NCAA champion Billy Martin turned pro and Fleming stepped in as the UCLA meal ticket. Still, he and Bassett didn't see eye to eye. "Flam's biggest concern was to have fun," says Bruce Nichols, Fleming's roommate at UCLA. "He refused to come to practice on time. He did his own conditioning up on the slope where the girls sunbathed. His whole philosophy was different from Bassett's. Once Flam made a mistake on court. He pointed to his brain. He said he needed electroshock treatments. Coach thought he was serious and almost called the doctor."

Bill Scanlon of Trinity upset the previously undefeated Fleming for the collegiate title in the heat of Corpus Christi, Texas that June, coming from behind to reverse a 6-0, 6-1 shelling he had received earlier in the season. "I have to rationalize this, of course," Fleming says, "but I was burned out from playing all year and staying unbeaten. I'll never be as tired until the day I die." Weariness didn't prevent Fleming from partnering Ferdi Taygan to the doubles title, however, a victory that clinched another NCAA championship for UCLA.

Fleming passed up his senior season in college. Outspoken and irreverent, he immediately established himself on the pro circuit with his slashing style, tons of double faults and a loose tongue. ("I have a tendency to spew forth from the mouth," he says.) But he needlessly lost matches to his temper when he wasn't squandering them because of self-consciousness or worry about his fitness. Ilie Nastase used to trail Fleming on court, mimicking him in the lurching movements of some spastic beast. As in his high school years, Fleming often was tense, overanxious, severely puzzled by his losses. It was as if the ugly geek was still alive in the handsome beach-boy body.

To the rescue of this winsome yet confused creature, or so it seemed, came McEnroe. Their upbringings—in New York bedroom communities—had been similar. Their reactions—instinctive, outrageous, often ill-timed—were alike. Their tastes—T-shirt wardrobes, New Wave music, gobbling up vast amounts of food at a single sitting—were virtually the same. They even knew each other from way back when.

When McEnroe made his huge splash at Wimbledon in 1977, Fleming remembered him as the same brash 12-year-old he used to spot games—and lose—to at the Port Washington Tennis Academy on Long Island. In the locker room at the All England Club, McEnroe hadn't changed. "Everybody thinks of himself as a player," Fleming says, "but it's more like 'yeah someday.' But there was Junior, just out of high school and in the third round at Wimby against Karl Meiler, and he was saying, 'This guy stinks. If I lose to this guy, I'm quitting the game.' What confidence! That really startled me. I think I began to believe in myself more."

Later that summer the two struck up a friendship, entered some doubles on the West Coast and even reached the semis in San Francisco. In 1978, after McEnroe had polished off his NCAA championship for Stanford and joined the big tour, the pair began kicking rears and taking names. Four moments in 1978 stand out:

Wimbledon, second round. Fleming-McEnroe lead Smith-Lutz two sets to one, but the veteran team wins a fourth-set tiebreaker to tie the match. At the changeover, McEnroe says, "Come on, these guys stink. How can we lose to these guys?" Minutes later it flashes on Fleming that McEnroe is denigrating Stan Smith and Bob Lutz, a storied team, Davis Cup heroes, his heroes. "I realized right then we were not in over our heads," Fleming says. "Everything was relative. We had become as good as them. We won in five. My self-worth changed for all time."

Wimbledon finals. Fleming-McEnroe are defeated by Hewitt-McMillan 6-1, 6-4, 6-2, the worst defeat in the championship round since 1911, as Bud Collins was sure to inform the Americans. "A sickening psych-out," Fleming says. "We were so impressed with them, so worried about their touch and angled stuff, we tried to hit impossible shots they couldn't reach. We played into their hands rather than playing our own game. We have too much power to piddle around. We should have just hit straight through them. We never forgot that."

U.S. Open quarterfinals. Fleming-McEnroe are defeated by Mark Edmondson-Geoff Marks. "Ham Richardson told us we were terrific return men and volleyers but that we didn't take advantage of it. We were hanging too far back from the net," Fleming says. "I moved up five feet. Junior practically climbed on top of the tape. We won seven of our next eight tournaments."

Cologne finals. Rematch against the two aging lions, Hewitt-McMillan. Early on, McEnroe takes sitter and unloads running, swinging, screaming volley six inches from Hewitt's face. Hewitt stares him down in intimidation move. Hewitt says, "You want to die?" McEnroe, enraged, says "What? You want some more, old man? Next time I won't miss:" On the next point with McMillan serving, Fleming smacks winner down the line depriving Hewitt of get-back, in-face volley. Americans break at love, win match 6-3, 6-2. "It was all over for them," says Fleming, "and they knew it. They've never beaten us since and they never will."

The new world champions are the absolute best at the two key elements of the doubles game: serving and returning. First, a team must cope with Junior's skidding parabolas, which curve into the corners from that anteater's stance off the southpaw wing. Then come Fleming's high-kicking, vicious fastballs descending from somewhere out of the rafters. Because both men guard the tape so well, the result is that neither serve can be attacked consistently.

On return, McEnroe is the scalpel and the trickster—probing with angled thrusts, then tossing his spinning, slicing junk every which way. Meanwhile, Fleming whacks away like a bludgeon, slugging the ball with so much speed that the opposition can do nothing but helplessly feed it back into McEnroe's net-covering clutches. Flaunting these skills, Fleming and McEnroe disdain consistency for the spectacular shot, the winner. They hold serve with such ease that they can gamble in their return games, gamble that a couple of chancy dynamite sticks will fall in, and then run out the matches from there.

When they are feeling especially feisty, or hungry for commotion, they are not above using the opposition for target practice, a favorite pigeon being Fibak. In Stockholm two years ago, Fleming-McEnroe accused Fibak-Okker of baiting the crowd in a match the Americans subsequently lost. A nasty locker-room confrontation followed. Since then Flam-Mac have taken turns headhunting the Polish player whenever possible; in Philadelphia, McEnroe finally struck, bouncing a ferocious roaring overhead into a wildly retreating Fibak's midsection with such force that surgery nearly was needed to retrieve the ball.

"Fleming and McEnroe's righty-lefty thing is the ideal arrangement," says Fred Stolle, the perceptive Aussie who shared in many big doubles titles. "In that respect the dynamics of their team are like Newcombe-Roche, a hitter and a finesser. Newk pounded the forehand return, Rochey chipped the backhand. But this team is even more versatile in that McEnroe can blast as well as finesse. He has the finest pair of hands I've ever seen, but he couldn't win so much with just another guy who kept the ball in play. With Fleming, he has a man who serves like a bombardier and kills returns as well. It seems like the perfect pair. Of course, they have yet to meet the test of time."

There are rumblings already that Fleming and McEnroe will not be able to last as a team for any great length of time. McEnroe acknowledges that playing doubles has adversely affected his singles performance in two big tournaments—the Masters in New York and the U.S. Indoors in Philly—when the team competition dragged far into the nights before his defeats by Borg and Connors. Winning both doubles titles with Fleming wasn't sustenance enough.

Then, too, as Fleming attempts to brighten up his singles star (and just about everyone suspects that he will continue to do so) and inevitably meets McEnroe in further face-to-face emotional collisions, their partnership surely must be debilitated by jealousy or resentment or hate or something.

The two men's unmerciful public riding of each other usually seems quaint and funny, and it may be an outlet for the pressures inherent in a pairing of such explosive temperaments. But sometimes Fleming steps out of bounds. At a posh reception in London honoring the team for winning the WCT World doubles, Fleming announced to a stunned black-tie crowd that he would have felt much better about the victory "if I didn't have to share it with such an a——hole." Fleming was kidding. But McEnroe, who has image problems of his own, wasn't too thrilled.

More seriously, in Jamaica a couple of years back, McEnroe was incensed that Fleming would accept a point penalty levied against Junior in their WCT Challenge Cup match. The pals argued loud and long and bitterly. Finally Fleming shouted at McEnroe across the net, "Just because I'm your friend doesn't mean I'm the Salvation Army." A poolside chat nipped those bad feelings in the bud. But will tennis' mod couple always be able to shake and make up?

"Listen," said McEnroe the other day. "We've heard all that before. McMillan predicted once that Peter and I had too similar' personalities to last long. Where is he now? We both won over $150,000 last year in doubles. We win two-thirds of the matches without trying, for god-sakes. We blasè a doubles match and still win. We blasè whole tournaments and still win. We're gonna give all this up? What are we, crazy?"

"The only way we wouldn't play together is if we stopped being friends," said Fleming.

"And that isn't going to happen," said McEnroe.

"I was dreaming just the other day that it wouldn't be beyond the realm of possibility to go undefeated through a whole year," said Fleming.

"You really want to do that?" said McEnroe.

"Yeah. I don't think that would be too amazing," said Fleming.

"Boy, you really are crazy," said McEnroe.

PHOTOAlike in fiery temper, the lanky righthander and the shrimpboat southpaw make up a study in physical contrasts on the court.PHOTOFleming and McEnroe usually overpower opponents, but at Forest Hills in May they showed that they could lob them, too.PHOTOFleming chows down near his Seabrook Island, S.C. villa with a practice partner, Carlos Goffi.PHOTOFleming now merits the attention of stargazers, big and small.