Dear Donald Dell:
You may not have heard of me, but I guess it's time to bag the junior career and turn pro. I mean, Sammy Giammalva did and look what happened. He's only 18 and he's already ranked 30 in the world. He might wind up getting seeded at Wimbledon—a guy who hits the ball like ol' lady Flockenstein. And get this—he doesn't yell at linemen or throw his racket. He doesn't even act like a junior player. Plus, the guy is a space cadet. The other players make foghorn sounds when he's around. Why, he looks as if he's sleeping on the court. I figure, if Sammy can make it, I can, too. So what if he beat me love and love last year? My headband was too tight, and you know I can't play when it's smoggy.
Yours in tennis,
(soon to be No. 1)
Sammy Giammalva Jr., 5'10", 170 pounds, two-handed backhand. One of the best returns of serve in the game. Turned pro last month, just two weeks after his 18th birthday. Only teen-ager ranked among the first 40 in the world. Someday he'll have a racket named after him.
There, that should do it. Get the raw facts out of the way quickly, which is how everything is happening for Giammalva. This is the implacable, self-effacing Houston kid with the feather-duster eyelashes and the guileless attitude who has come from the chaff of the junior ranks to win pro matches and upset applecarts—without having acquired his first credit card. Last month every agent worth a contract addendum—including Donald Dell—was knocking at Giammalva's door with a plan to make him a millionaire before he gets out of his teens. Barring injury or collapse, within a few weeks Giammalva will probably be ranked in the world's Top 20.
Giammalva is the youngest in a remarkable tennis family consisting of his father and coach, Sammy Sr., a U.S. Davis Cup player 25 years ago; his brother Tony, a budding 23-year-old professional who's ranked 77th on the computer but can still whip his little brother; his sister Mary Jo, a sophomore at the University of Texas; and his mother, Cecile. She's in charge of deflating egos and making sure, now that Sammy is a tournament winner and a big deal, that he doesn't forget to dry the dinner dishes or walk Stevie, the dog, at 6 a.m.
May 17, 1981
"You know Stevie is on a schedule," says Cecile.
"Yeah," moans Sammy, "but why does he have to have that schedule? Did Borg have to put up with this?"
Meanwhile the rest of the family rides Cecile pretty hard, as well, for whenever they think she overdoes the discipline, they threaten to tell the neighbors that as a 20-year-old in San Antonio she was elected Miss Alamo.
"Don't you dare," she shrieks.
The Giammalvas' irreverent humor extends to the family's best friend, Steve Weiss, namesake of the mutt whose care is entrusted to tennis' newest phenom. "Asking me if I am a believer in the Giammalva family is like asking Mr. Gillette which razor he uses," says Weiss. "They're a prototype of what family life should be about. As for little Sammy, from Day One he had unbelievable determination. I'd played him for candy bars when he was six. Such a competitor! He loved it when he was down because it meant he could come from behind. He'd play eight, nine hours a day. There never was any question what Sammy was going to do. He was a kid who could write his own destiny."
Less than a year ago, Giammalva was in Columbus, Ohio getting his destiny kicked around in a consolation match at an obscure junior tournament. He was down 4-0, 40-0 in the third set but pulled out the victory. It became his personal turning point, and Sammy went on to have a marvelous summer, winning both the Junior International and the U.S. 18-and-under championships. Then, despite strokes that are described as having less pace than a 14-year-old girl's, he reached the third round at the U.S. Open. In the fall, still an amateur, he got to the semifinals of the $50,000 Israel Tennis Center Classic and the quarters of the $75,000 Swiss Indoor Championships. By January, he was 189th in the world and accepting congratulations modestly. "I haven't done anything yet," he said.
His match record for 1981 is 13-5. He began the year by reaching the third round of the $250,000 U.S. Pro Indoor. Then, after making the quarters of a $75,000 tournament in Tampa, he won the $50,000 Congoleum Invitational in Napa, Calif., beating junior rival Scott Davis in the finals. It was the first time in the history of the Grand Prix tour that two amateurs had reached the title round of a pro tournament.
Giammalva's victory at Napa persuaded his father to heed his son's entreaties to let him turn pro. The same week he shucked his amateur status, Sammy stunned Eddie Dibbs, 18th in the world, en route to the finals of the $175,000 River Oaks Classic in Houston. He lost 6-2, 6-4 to Guillermo Vilas, the world's No. 4 player at the time, but by the end of the match Vilas looked like a veteran fighter on the ropes wondering how to put away an upstart kid. Said Vilas, "If he plays like this every time, he will win many tournaments. He has the talent, which is the key ingredient. He runs, he fights and he never gives up. Now all he needs to do is work."
If Vilas is right, then Giammalva is headed for stardom, because no young player is more committed to becoming a champion. What transformed him from a kid who merely loved tennis into one who lived it was a book he read when he was 13. Not an instruction guide or a player biography but a tennis novel called World Class. The hero is a teen-ager named Christopher, who comes out of nowhere to win Wimbledon and the Davis Cup for the U.S.
As soon as he finished the book, Giammalva sat down and wrote out yearly goals. At 14 he hoped to make the top five in his age division. At 18 he wanted to be a professional and be ranked among the world's top 50. To make that jump, Sammy redefined the term work.
The Giammalva plan required endless hours of hitting balls, running sprints, doing calisthenics, stretching—and then going home to read World Class once again. "The thing I like best about turning pro is that now I get to concentrate on tennis all the time," says Sammy, who completed high school in February. "You don't know how nice it is to do something I've always done for fun and be making a good living off it." In his professional debut in Houston, Giammalva picked up $17,500.
Except for getting more phone calls from females, not much about Giammalva's life away from the courts has changed. He drives a small economy car, and he thinks a big night on the town is going to the local amusement center, where he can pilot mini race-cars and play electronic games. His father has told him that since he's now a pro, he can start paying for his own tennis balls. One night they figured up Sammy's ball bill for the last few months and it came to nearly $900.
"O.K.," said Sammy with a smile, "I'll start next week."
This practicality about money is a trait of Sammy's. Members of Houston's Metropolitan Racquet Club, where the senior Giammalva is tennis director and manager, recall Sammy's begging matches with them and asking them to bet on the results. Once a member refused him. Sammy thought about it.
"Listen," he said, "if I give you a dollar, will you play me for it?"
Giammalva also used to be a bit of a brat on the court. After one racket-throwing incident when he was eight, his father banned him from the club for a week. Later, Sammy again was caught in a tantrum. His father made him sit against a wall for three hours. Sammy made a deal. "Buy me a headband, and when I get mad, I'll put it in my mouth and bite it," he said.
"He must have chewed through a carton of headbands," his father says.
Nowadays Giammalva's displays of spleen are pretty much restricted to the words "Dang it!" and various modes of self-inflicted punishment. Last month in Monte Carlo, where he let a second-round match get away, he whacked his right palm with his racket so hard that he broke the flesh. A week later the palm still bore scabs.
Sammy may be doing a better job of controlling his temper, but he can do nothing about his rep as a "space cadet." He forgot some of his rackets when he went off to Monte Carlo, and then he lost his passport there. On the court between points he frequently closes his eyes in an attempt to meditate. "My doubles partners yell at me to wake up," he says. He also has a terrible time keeping his shoelaces tied. Recently, his brother Tony went so far as to knot them himself. After about five minutes of warming up, Sammy looked down and smirked.
"Guess what?" he yelled to Tony.
Giammalva's game is difficult to categorize. While he doesn't swing very hard, he plays offensively, taking the ball on the rise. His ground strokes are smooth and compact, and he returns serve superbly. The return is usually hard and flat, more in the style of Connors than Borg. He also disguises his shots well, especially off his two-fisted backhand.
The one stroke that probably has made the difference in Sammy's performance over the last year is his serve. In the juniors, he double-faulted routinely and had a second delivery that was about as hard to handle as Andrea Jaeger's. His serve is still his weakest stroke, but it has improved dramatically, thanks to his father, who spotted three flaws in Sammy's delivery: His toss was too high; he was pointing his left hip; and he was pulling his head down too quickly. Giammalva now gets in a high percentage of his first balls and opponents can no longer jump all over the second, which has more depth and pace. "His serve isn't really grooved yet," says Sammy Sr., "but he knows what to do if it goes off."
But when all is said and done, Giammalva's success stems mainly from never, never giving up. "Guts-ing it out," he calls it. During last year's Wimbledon Juniors he had to play twice in one day. In the second match, he cramped up and had to serve underhanded. He won anyway, which gives an indication of the soundness of his ground strokes.
Giammalva also suffered cramps during his quarterfinal win over Dibbs in Houston. The match, which Sammy won in a third-set tiebreaker, lasted nearly three hours. "He was in such agony that people almost couldn't bear to watch," says Giammalva's father, "but he hung in there. It was unbelievable. An hour or so afterward he was feeling fine again."
The elder Giammalva admits he's surprised his son has developed so fast, but he thinks the future will be even better. "He will continue learning, just the way Borg has continued to learn, because Sammy is a great worker," he says. "He'll get the most out of his ability. Before River Oaks, one of the top players predicted that Sammy would be in the world's top five within 18 months. The main thing he's got going for him is that he wants it so bad."
No question about that. "I used to have idols," says Sammy, possibly thinking of World Class and a teen-ager named Christopher. "But I can't afford to have them now. If I want to get to where I want to, I can't afford to be satisfied. I have to keep working. I've always wanted to be No. 1."