Alas, it's still necessary to introduce Gene Mayer, even though he is the fourth-best tennis player in the world. Ya gotta have a gimmick, they say, and apparently Mayer has none. For instance, there's nothing memorable about his name. It's not as catchy as Vitas or Roscoe, Ilie or Wojtek, players he has left in the dust. His wife calls him Genie, but this lacks the punch of, say, Jimbo. Complicating matters is the existence of another tennis-playing Mayer, his older brother, Sandy (he's 29, Gene's 25), who reached the semifinals at Wimbledon in 1973. If the name Mayer does strike a chord, chances are you're thinking of Sandy.
Nor does Gene provide the folks in the seats with a little show within a show. He doesn't grunt with every shot or try to swallow the handle of his racket when he errs. He doesn't slug tennis balls at linesmen or into the rafters. In Denver last month, while Mayer was quietly winning his second straight tournament, Ilie Nastase grabbed most of the headlines for a series of obscene and self-destructive rantings that cost him $3,750 in fines.
Mayer has been No. 4 for only 3½ months, so his lack of celebrity is partly understandable. Moreover, his rapid rise is not the result of strong performances in the bright spotlights of Wimbledon or Flushing Meadow. John McEnroe became instant box office when he reached the semis of Wimbledon in 1977, his first time out of the starting gate. Ditto Bjorn Borg, who made it to the quarters there in 1973 as a 17-year-old. Mayer's best performance at either of those places is a quarterfinal loss to Borg at Wimbledon last year. Seven weeks later he went out in the first round of the U.S. Open, a victim of a pulled hamstring. Mayer's triumphs have come in comparative backwaters of the sport, places such as Cologne. Denver, Cleveland and Metz, France.
Let's observe Mayer closely during an evening of tennis, to see if we might detect something arresting about him, something noteworthy. Maybe he stands 6'7", like Vic Amaya, or sports a mustache, like John Newcombe. Wrong twice. He is a rather frail-looking young man, about 6 feet tall and 155 pounds. Much of the weight sits below the waist. His shoulders are almost delicate, his eyes heavy-lidded, his complexion pale, like that of someone enduring a bumpy plane ride. His expression is a blend of surprise and delight. When he arrives on court, he unzips from its case one of the nine rackets he carries. Mayer plays with an oversize model, the sort old men acquire when their skills begin to diminish. It's a Prince, and it has had much to do with his success.
April 20, 1981
He walks to the base line in a curious gait that is something between a waddle and a swagger. His heels land first, and he seems to move as much sideways as forward. He begins to rally and—what's this?—he's holding the racket with two hands, right over left, stroking both forehands and backhands in this manner. Others have hit two-fisted off both wings, most notably Frew McMillen, the renowned doubles specialist, but no double two-fister has ever been ranked nearly as high as Mayer.
Once play starts, this ordinary looking person with the ordinary name delivers his extraordinary message: Mayer's game has more variety and, yes, more excitement than those of all the Roscoes and Ilies, even more than Borg's. McEnroe's or Jimmy Connors', the three players ranked ahead of him. True, they do some things better—Borg willing to stay the night if that's what's needed to win; McEnroe serving and volleying; Connors pounding his glorious backhand. But Mayer provides a fuller smorgasbord of strokes. His forehand has always been a major weapon. His backhand, once vulnerable, has become an attacking stroke since he reverted to hitting it two-handed in 1974.
Mayer's return of serve is, with the possible exception of Connors', the best in the game. He dishes up a variety of spins and speeds that can drive an opponent crazy. A flick of both wrists sends a topspin lob over a foe at net, a ploy he used so often in the Denver final against John Sadri that poor Sadri looked befuddled. He also uses the drop shot—the most dangerous shot in tennis—more effectively and more frequently than anyone of his rank. At times it seems he's intentionally humiliating his opponent as he feathers the ball just over the net when a simple putaway would suffice.
Mayer's serve isn't fluid, not in the classic sense of Pancho Gonzalez' or Arthur Ashe's. It appears to unfold in sections, his back inordinately stiff throughout the swing. So what. It's the most improved part of his game, especially the first delivery, with which he can win points outright.
A poll of players produces agreement that Mayer has become a force. Sample comments:
"Mayer probably plays the game more intelligently than anyone," says Harold Solomon, No. 10 in the world. "He's also extremely deceptive off both sides. He's able to mix up speeds and change the angles of his shots—deep, short, soft and hard. His forehand is the best shot in the game today."
"Some players try to blow you off the court," says Roscoe Tanner, No. 9, who most certainly tries to blow opponents off the court with his blistering serve. "Gene manipulates you. One reason he returns serve so well is that he stands in close and takes the ball on the rise."
"He keeps me confused," says Mel Purcell, last year's Rookie of the Year. "I can't tell where he's going to hit the ball."
Says McEnroe, grudgingly, "He's a lot more confident now. He disguises the ball well."
On this evening in Denver there are more than the usual number of questionable line calls, provoking a protest by Mayer to the umpire. Mayer looks up at him, his palms held up as if testing for raindrops. Up in the stands, Rhonda Mayer stiffens slightly. "If he ever acted really poorly, I'd kill him," she says. "But he never would. Actually, I'd just be very quiet in the car later."
Rhonda has known Gene since junior high school in Woodmere, a town on Long Island some 14 miles from Manhattan. "He used to hang around outside my classrooms," she says. "He'd tease me a lot. He still does." The two were married in late 1977. A Mayer public-relations pamphlet credits both Rhonda and the Prince racket, which Mayer began using that year, with his improvement from No. 148 then to his present eminence. "Which one was it...really?" she asks her husband coyly. He is a tease, merely giving her a sly look. "It was me," she says defiantly, closing the subject.
On this evening he eliminates his opponent quickly, a Mayer characteristic. Virtually everything he does is done with dispatch, as if he's impatient to get on with whatever is next. He skipped his senior year of high school and took only three years to graduate from Stanford. He will put away a plateful of food before others have spread their napkins. His autograph takes only a second to administer, a straight line interrupted only by two humps and a dip, presumably a G, an M and a y. When he walks from the arena to his car, bag over his shoulder, rackets under his arm, he sets so brisk a pace that Rhonda falls 10 paces behind.
Since he has won this match, the media request his presence. Mayer is a good interview, not so much for what he says about himself as for his astute observations on the tennis scene and his rivals' strengths and weaknesses. And he is forthright enough to say what he thinks. For instance, he will tell you that Borg's strokes are not truly phenomenal, that many other players hit the ball better. But he will quickly add that Borg's patience, stamina and savvy make him the great player he is. Nastase? It's a shame he can't play anymore. The umpire working his match that night? It's not an easy job, but that fellow seems to have a particular problem.
Interviews over, it's time for the truly important event of the evening, the before-bed snack. As we shall see, it is mind-boggling. On the way to a restaurant near their hotel, Rhonda exuberates over an old rug they bought that afternoon. The Mayers love nothing more than to spend an afternoon in search of antiques for the five-bedroom ranch-style home they bought in Woodmere two years ago. They shop in virtually every town they visit.
"Today I went upstairs in this store and saw the greatest set of six dining-room chairs," Mayer says. "American mid-1800s, which is what we're doing the house in. I told Rhonda to come up, but then I saw a tag on one of the chairs. Sold! It's probably just as well. They were $600 each."
The fact is, Mayer can now afford a $3,600 set of chairs. He won $17,000 in 1976 and roughly double that the next year. In 1978 the figure was $75,000, then $219,000 in 1979 and $397,000 last year. He invests most of his income in real estate and natural gas holdings. No Rolls-Royces or mink jackets (Rhonda would kill him), although when he was single he did spend money as fast as it came in, mostly on stereos and clothes.
Mayer earns close to three times as much away from tournaments as he does in them. "Below a certain level you pretty much have to live on what you make from official winnings," he says, sounding rather sad for those who must. Indeed, his current earning power stuns him. "It is so much more than the average person's," he says. "More than the President's."
Mayer's additional income flows from an ever-growing number of sources. In addition to playing several lucrative exhibition and special events every year, he is a walking billboard. His tennis clothes—warm-ups, shirts and shorts—are by Sergio Tacchini, his shoes are Nike and his racket, of course, Prince. He has an incipient relationship with Volvo, having done a brief commercial for the carmaker in January. His payment? What else—a new Volvo. Before matches Mayer is introduced as "the touring pro from the Westhampton Tennis and Sports Club in his home state of New York."
"I show up several times a year," Mayer says. "I say hello to the folks, organize a tournament and maybe play an exhibition."
The Mayers have arrived at the restaurant, and what happens next is astonishing. If Mayer never hits another ball, he will go down in tennis history as the game's greatest consumer of food. Only one person has ever been in his class, his brother Sandy, for whom Stanford established the Sandy Mayer Memorial Eating Award. When the Mayer boys were young, their mother, Ingeborg, did double duty in the kitchen as her sons put away, oh, two dozen eggs, a loaf of bread, two quarts of milk, plus a variety of hams, cheeses—whatever was there. "A new record every day," Gene once said. Today he is sensitive about the subject of his appetite, partly because the press keeps repeating the same old stories, like the time Tim Gullikson saw him devour seven double-decker cheeseburgers, and partly because he has cut down recently—although he hasn't been fanatical about it.
Gene and Rhonda take a booth in the non-smoking section of the restaurant. As the menus are delivered, Gene orders two lemonades, Rhonda a Sanka. When the drinks arrive, the orders are made: Gene will have a bowl of mushroom soup, a Grand Slam—a combo of pancakes, eggs and bacon—plus a ham and tomato sandwich with melted cheese over it. Rhonda orders a grilled turkey, bacon and cheese sandwich, part of which is ticketed for Gene. At an adjoining booth, John Sadri smiles. He is watching the master. A waiter brings a chocolate malt to Sadri, passing Mayer on the way.
"Almost hijacked that one," Mayer says. When the soup comes, it's in a cup. "This is a bowl?" Mayer asks.
"It's all that was left," says the waitress.
"No choice then," Mayer says cheerfully, diving in. When the rest of the food arrives, Mayer attacks. The pancakes go first. Rhonda is given one bite, but it costs her half her sandwich. Next come his sandwich and a third lemonade. Then, no more than half an hour after they sat down, they are back in the car, driving to the hotel. For all of his eating, Mayer's stomach is as flat as, well, a pancake. "He has a very high metabolism," Rhonda says. "And he really has cut down. He eats much less meat, hardly ever drinks soda and takes vitamins and minerals every day."
Although Gene Mayer is a new name among the elite of pro tennis, it is hardly new to the game itself. He has been winning tournaments since he was seven. He has recent victories over McEnroe and Borg, but still considers a win when he was 11 as his best ever. "It was in the finals of the national 12-and-unders in Chattanooga," he says. "I beat a kid named Robert Rouse, who was already 6'2" and had a huge serve. I cried for two hours before the match, and my parents were concerned that they had done the wrong thing by getting me involved in this sort of world."
Gene's father, Alex, had long been familiar with this sort of world. A native of Sombor, a town in northern Yugoslavia that was part of Hungary from 1941 to 1946, he represented both countries in the Davis Cup, the rules permitting such things then. He was also European doubles champion in 1938. During World War II Alex served in the Hungarian army and spent a year in an Allied prisoner-of-war camp. When the fighting was over, he went to work for the U.S. Military Government, giving tennis and Ping-Pong exhibitions at Army bases around Europe.
Alex and Ingeborg met at a Munich bridge club, married in 1949, had a daughter, Clare, and in 1950 moved to the U.S., settling on Long Island. Mayer had been a lawyer in Europe, but because he would have had to return to school in order to practice in the U.S., he took a job as an elevator operator. Predictably, he soon tired of that and decided to make a living at what he loved most—tennis. He secured a position as a pro at a four-court complex in Brooklyn called Burwood, and has been teaching the game in and around New York City ever since. He and Ingeborg now live 30 miles outside the city in Mendham, N.J.
To this day Alex is the only coach Sandy and Gene have ever had. He introduced his sons to the sport when they were two by hanging a rubber ball from the ceiling and having them hit it, two-handed, with wooden paddles. Later, the practice sessions became stormy. "My father is a charming man," Gene says, "but he is very demanding. Things must always be done on his terms. He insisted that if we were going to play tennis, we had to take it seriously. There was a lot of yelling and screaming—by him. Sandy just accepted it. I would say, That's wrong,' but I'd do it anyway."
Sandy was once ranked 19th in the world. That was in 1973, the year he won the national intercollegiate title and knocked off top-seeded Nastase to reach the semifinals at Wimbledon. Since then he has performed erratically. He cracked the Top 10 in 1978, but he's now 35th on the computer and still trying to recover his form after breaking his hand at Wimbledon in 1979. He is married, has a 2-year-old daughter and lives in Atherton, Calif., a suburb of San Francisco.
Gene has never felt closer to Sandy. "When I was younger I don't think I appreciated him," Gene says. "He used to spend a lot of time rallying with me when he was a lot better." Recently the brothers met in the opening round of the U.S. Indoors in Memphis, the first time they had faced each other in years. Gene won, but he didn't enjoy it. Happily, they teamed in doubles and won.
Gene and Sandy are two of the game's finest doubles players, and they play together whenever their schedules permit. In 1979 they won the French Open, which Gene had won the year before with Hank Pfister, and last year they reached the semis at Wimbledon. In 1975 Sandy won the Wimbledon doubles crown with Vitas Gerulaitis.
Gene's first major triumph came at age nine when he won the 1965 Orange Bowl 10-and-under title. He defended successfully the next year and went on to win six U.S. age-group championships as a junior. From the beginning, the sport came easily to him. "I was a natural," he says. "Sandy had to work to be good. He had a very mechanical game and still does, something like Brian Gottfried's. I didn't have to work that hard."
When he was 13, Gene lost to someone his own age for the first time, a boy named Horace Reed. "I went out of my mind," Mayer says. "I was really impossible, screaming on the court, throwing a fit." Ingeborg Mayer, who was there, was appalled. She reported the scene to Alex, who promptly banned his son from the game for three months. Gene's deportment at tournaments improved dramatically, though even today he's not beyond bouncing a ball 15 feet into the air. Given current tennis behavior, he is merely a popgun among cannons.
All three Mayer children excelled in the classroom. "It was expected," says Gene, who never made less than an A in three years of high school. "Certain things were required of us, and getting good grades was one. If we did what our parents wanted, we got everything we needed. We weren't well-to-do, but our parents made us feel like millionaires."
Sandy went to Stanford on a tennis scholarship, and Gene followed. "I was heavily recruited by the Ivies, Berkeley and Stanford," he says. "I almost chose Columbia, but it didn't have much of a tennis team."
Rhonda, whom Gene had been seeing steadily through high school, went to Queens College in New York City. The separation, plus Mayer's desire to get out on the pro tour, were two reasons for his hurry at Stanford. He majored in political science. "I took an unbelievable number of units," he says. "It was a ridiculous load." He even skipped two semesters to play tournaments, taking courses that required only heavy reading and the writing of papers. In 1976, his senior year, he earned a respectable ranking of 48.
After graduating in December, Mayer hit the pro circuit full time. But largely because of several tough draws that pitted him against top-tenners in early rounds, Gene found himself as low as No. 150 in the fall of 1977. In December he married Rhonda and switched to the Prince.
"We were running up huge phone bills," says Rhonda. "He'd call from places like Japan and South America." Rhonda now travels almost everywhere with him, spending long hours on her embroidery when her husband is practicing.
Mayer won his first pro event in 1978, the Guadalajara Open—hardly Wimbledon, but a start. Then, that October, an accident nearly ended his career.
Mayer had finished a tournament in Hawaii, and he and Rhonda had been talked into taking a horseback ride in the mountains there with a friend. "It was just a dead old horse I was on," Mayer says, "but suddenly the saddle slipped." Mayer tried to jump off, but the toe of his left shoe caught in the stirrup, causing him to twist his lower back as he fell.
"I remember looking up and seeing the horse up on its hind legs right over me," Mayer says. "I rolled out of the way fast." But when he rose and tried walking, it "was as if someone had stuck a knife in my back."
X rays revealed that he had fractured some of the transverse processors in his back, and for several weeks he was bedridden, uncertain if he would ever again be able to play tennis effectively.
Now consider another element in Mayer's life: his religion. Both elder Mayers were non-practicing Catholics when Gene and Sandy were growing up, and the boys stopped going to church when they were youngsters. "When I went to college I was aware of a void in my life," Gene says. "I didn't feel close to anyone for a while, even Rhonda. I had gotten into the habit of thinking I was right about everything, and I knew that couldn't be."
At Stanford, Mayer met an unofficial campus spiritual adviser named Jim Stump, who a few years earlier had persuaded Sandy to take an active interest in Christianity. Stump gave Gene religious books to read, and Gene forwarded many of them to Rhonda, a Jew. Before long both had converted, and they now belong to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, a small fundamentalist branch of Presbyterianism. Their religion is a very serious and private matter with them. They pray and read the Bible together, but there are no outward signs of their beliefs, nor do they try to convert friends or strangers.
Mayer believes his faith helped him through his three-month convalescence. When he started to play again, he found he had an intensity he had lacked before. In April of 1979, he reached the finals at Houston and the semis in Las Vegas. In May he was a semifinalist at the Italian Open. "If there was a turning point, that spring was it," Mayer says. He finished the year at No. 12 on the computer. Last year, with five more wins and many other strong showings (Mayer rarely gets upset by lesser players), he climbed to No. 4.
He hasn't tailed off this year, having won two tournaments and finished second in another. At the Masters in January, he beat McEnroe and Borg, each for the first time, although Borg, not needing to win that night under the tournament's double-elimination format, was not at his best. "Genie didn't miss a shot the first four games," says Rhonda when it is suggested that Borg went into the tank. Mayer won the first set 6-0. "I think he tried hard the second set," says Mayer. "It was 3-3 and then I broke serve." Mayer closed it out, 6-3.
It won't be long before Mayer gets another crack at Borg and McEnroe, and Connors as well. It could come as soon as next week in Las Vegas, and if not there then certainly in Rome, Paris or London. Mayer is virtually assured of the No. 4 seeding at Wimbledon, which means if all goes as predicted, he may well meet Borg in the semis. If he wins, becoming the player who stopped the mighty Swede after five straight titles, there will be no need to introduce Gene Mayer ever again. If he doesn't, well, Mayer can handle that.
"I'm going to play this game only until I'm 30," he says. "Then I'm going to return to school, either law or business." That's typical of Mayer. Here he has established himself as one of the top players in the world, and now he's in a hurry to get on to something else.