They arrived in Tampa on spring break from college. They came to Memphis by the busload. At the U.S. Open they appeared in the form of girls wearing T shirts with his name on the back. In Palm Springs, during a doubles match, an older one of them was so vociferous (read inebriated) that the normally mild-mannered Sherwood Stewart shoved the offender and had to be talked out of punching some manners into him.
This noisy, excitable breed of tennis follower has become known along the Grand Prix circuit as the "Mel Troop," a brazen cadre defined by tour player Peter Rennert as "usually 15 obnoxious people in the crowd who've never seen him play and are hooting their lungs out. There are always plenty of hicks wherever we go. Right away they get into Mel."
Country and western comes to big-time tennis.
The object of all this attention is Mel Purcell, a 5'10", five-muscle, skin-and-bone waif with flaxen hair and a gap-toothed grin who appears to have momentarily left his pitchfork back in the barn. Aw, shucks. Ah cain't git the hang of holdin' this here rackit. Do ah hit it ovah or through the dang fence? But the look is all part of the act. When the match begins, the corn-pone con ends. With a long piece of graphite in his hand and a short piece of terry cloth around his forehead, this man is an assassin.
June 7, 1981
Last week as the French Open got under way on the bronze dirt at Paris' Roland Garros Stadium, Purcell rubbed out three players, including 16th-seeded Eddie Dibbs, before losing to Jimmy Connors 6-4, 6-3, 7-6. Against Dibbs, one of the game's premier clay-courters and winner of the $500,000 WCT Tournament of Champions two weeks earlier, Purcell overcame a two-set deficit for the second time in the tournament. He won the three-hour match 3-6, 2-6, 6-4, 6-2, 6-3 despite cramping up in the final set.
Mel Purcell (pronounced in his hometown of Murray, Ky. just as it looks: mail-el pur-sail-el) arrived on the scene with the legacy of a loser. His dad, Bennie, a basketball All-America at Murray State in the early '50s, used to barnstorm with the old Washington Generals, the team that played pigeon for the Harlem Globetrotters. But last summer, after turning pro on the same day he turned 21, Mel became an immediate winner and all the rage on the clay by defeating Dibbs at Washington and Harold Solomon and Wotjek Fibak at Indianapolis, players who, Purcell said, he "idoled a few months before."
Later he adapted to faster surfaces and beat Stan Smith at Flushing Meadow. "Good gosh, Stan was almost my idol," Purcell said. His play earned him the Association of Tennis Professionals' 1980 Rookie of the Year award.
This year Purcell has come within 1.1 points of the Top 20 on the ATP computer. Besides Dibbs, he has knocked off two higher-ranked players—Johan Kriek in Philadelphia and John Sadri in Las Vegas—and advanced past the first round in all 12 tournaments he's entered, a statistic doubtless more impressive to the players themselves than to laymen. Currently he's No. 28 in the world.
It isn't Purcell's victories that have intrigued the masses so much as his speed and hustle and flair; the determination exemplified by his diving into courtside boxes and sprawling across the lines; the hot-dog zestiness manifest in his fist waving, arm raising and slapping of thighs; and his plain infectious enthusiasm for the battle. So what if he blatantly plays to the crowd, practically orchestrating applause? When is the last time anybody saw Bjorn Borg or John McEnroe even smile out there? This hick kid. this Mail-el Pur-sail-el, actually looks as if he's having fun on the tennis court.
Of course, Purcell isn't a hick. Though he has suffered the inevitable media comparisons with the Twainian characters of eternal boyhood, it should be pointed out that Tom and Huck didn't escape Injun Joe on athletic skill alone. Purcell is about as witless, shy, naive and unaware as a fox in a hen house.
As a teen-ager he left backwoods Kentucky to play tennis in Europe. He spent his last year of high school in Los Angeles. He played college tennis for two different universities. One of Purcell's closest friends on the tour is show business' own—pause for sighs—Vince Van Patten, who has introduced him to Far-rah and all the rest. One of Purcell's practice companions is Connors. His recent pro-celebrity partner in Vegas was the extremely legendary Sonny Bono. Talk about high cotton. I got you, babe. "This is the only thing I ever wanted to be," says Purcell. "Back in Kentucky they laughed at me, but I always worked hard and I knew I could get here. We all play this game to be rich and famous, don't we? Now people take pictures of me in hotel lobbies and stuff. It's almost enough to get carried away."
The work ethic had to sustain Purcell for a while because, outside of his blinding quickness and a forehand that he could crack with authority nearly from the time he took up the game at age five, there wasn't much else. In the juniors his serve was weak and his backhand nonexistent. He was ranked 12th in the U.S. in the 14-and-unders, 15th in the 16s and third in the 18s. Even after he had honed his game in California, practicing with the likes of Brian Teacher, Billy Martin and Eliot Teltscher, UCLA offered him only a partial scholarship. Insulted, Purcell turned it down. His emergence last summer, then, was truly out of nowhere—a fluke. Or was it?
"Mel wins matches because he tries so hard," says Teltscher, who thrashed him last summer in Boston 6-1, 6-3 in Purcell's first tournament as a pro, and then barely squeezed by him in three tough sets in Tokyo 3½ months later. "A lot of players subconsciously pace themselves during a match, give up games when they're down love-40 or 15-40. But Mel never stops scrapping. It bothers guys when he keeps trying and getting balls back. His competitiveness intimidates them. Plus he's got some wins now, and he's unbelievably confident. He thinks he can beat anybody. He improved immeasurably between Boston and the Orient. Now he's improved immeasurably again."
Competitiveness. It's no secret that on today's glamour-and money-laden tour few players below the top three will scratch and bite and go to the wall for the win, will, when they're down two sets to none on clay to Dibbs and cramping, compete to the last ball. Solomon is one. Teltscher is another. And, now, Purcell. "He has a lot of Connors in him," says Van Patten.
That's it, of course. The thigh-slaps. The toughness. The tenacity. The crowd-pleasing antics. Take away Connors' early-career nasty streaks and bathroom-wall humor, and the style is all Jimbo. It is, inevitably, Connors who was Purcell's real idol.
A first-round loss at a tournament in China last fall, says Purcell, "was the best thing that happened to me." It meant he could practice each morning with Connors, see him up close, observe his dedication. "At first I'd just try and keep the ball in play," Purcell says. "Then I figured that wasn't helping him, or me, either. So I hit out all the time, and we played points."
Connors and his longtime henchman, Lorne Kuhle, a teaching pro in Vegas, also broke in Purcell on the backgammon board and "barbecued" him on some practice-court wagers. Jimbo called the new kid "Ken Tuck." Once after Purcell lost a bet to Kuhle, who was getting the doubles alleys to even things up, he was so enraged he broke his racket over his knee, sending graphite splinters deep into his skin. "I learned my lesson," Purcell says.
He learned the game from his father, Bennie, who returned to Murray State in 1963 as assistant basketball coach. Three years later he also became head tennis coach. When Bennie took up tennis at 35, Mel and his older brother, Del, chased the balls. Mel and Del? Now appearing live at the Lil' Dogie Cafe and Bowling Lanes, Mel and Del Purcell!
Mel also inherited his father's devotion to all sports. Bennie has a collection of ancient sports journals and baseball cards worth more than $20,000. Mel is rabid for Notre Dame, the Tennessee Volunteers, the Yankees and any pro athlete within hailing distance. "Is that Franco Harris?" Purcell will gasp at, say, Caesars Palace. "Look, it's the Stork, Ted Hendricks!
"The other day I met some tennis celeb player named Hank Greenberg, who used to play baseball," says Purcell. "I told my dad on the phone, and he about went nuts."
When he was in the seventh grade, Purcell's mother, Betty, was hospitalized with an aneurysm. She has never really come home. "It kills me to talk about this," says Mel. After the discovery of his mother's illness, he mostly was on his own, traveling on planes to tournaments by himself, going to Europe, staying in California for a season "where it didn't snow once—amazing."
To get back near home and Bennie, who remains his only mentor, Purcell enrolled at Memphis State. Then a strange thing happened. Following an argument with his father, Purcell ran away from school to turn pro. That was a mistake. After getting defaulted for showing up late at a tournament, Purcell sat on a rock in the Utah mountains and decided to go back home. This time he transferred to Tennessee, had a reconciliation with Bennie, waited out a year, got "unmessed up and organized," was tagged with a nickname, "the Cell," and then, a year ago last May, won the NCAA doubles title with Rodney Harmon.
Because of his checkered college career—in the NCAA singles he won two games in a first-round defeat—and because most of the tennis community was in Europe at the time, nobody noticed early last summer when Purcell dominated the bramblebushes of the Penn Circuit in the suffocating 120° heat of places like Monroe, La. and Rockwell, Texas. But that experience prepared him for his golden moment in July at the U.S. Clay Courts in Indianapolis, where, he acknowledges, "I made my career in one tournament."
How? Go back a week to a tournament at North Conway, N.H. If his friend and doubles partner, Tracy DeLatte, closes out a match serving at 5-3, 40-0 in the third, Purcell has to stay in North Conway and never makes it to Indy for the qualifier. If Jay Lapidus holds on to a 6-1, 3-1 lead over Purcell in the qualifier at Indy, the Cell never makes it into the tournament proper. Neither of these things happens.
So Purcell beats Pascal Portes (who had beaten Connors two weeks before) 6-0, 3-0 (retired); beats Hank Pfister 6-4, 6-0; beats Solomon (who can't breathe in the stifling night heat) 4-6, 6-0, 6-2; beats Fibak (who's looking for the nearest air conditioner) 6-1,6-3; and beats Mario Martinez (who?) 6—1, 6-3 to reach the finals. "Everybody was dropping in the heat, but I was used to it," says Purcell. "Like, I was an instant, uh, star, or whatever. It was what I'd always dreamed about. Every round more people on my side. Like, I was going to win the tournament! Then I got scared."
In the final Purcell blew two set points to Jose-Luis Clerc and lost 7-5, 6-3, but it didn't matter. His hellacious dashes to the outer boundaries; his corn-silk locks and outsize sleeves flopping every which way; his ultrawide headbands, meticulously scissored from hotel towels; the manner in which he enjoyed himself and fairly demanded the enjoyment of others: All this was enough to make a national TV audience recognize charisma when it saw it.
Some of Purcell's tour brethren are not yet convinced that his country-boy image and exuberant reactions are entirely spontaneous. "I don't buy the act," says Solomon. "Here I was dying in Indy, and he's got his arms up on every point. I mean, come on. Sometimes he takes his showboating beyond cockiness."
Another player says, "If Mel wants to get the crowd on his side, O.K. But there's a fine line out here. He must watch out that this need for attention doesn't cut into his relationship with the guys. Sometimes a player can tick off enough other players that they gang up, compare notes, and then all come out to watch and root for him to get beat."
Only recently has Purcell overcome the disastrous (for friendships) habit of calling his own lines, even in the presence of linesmen. He had a verbal run-in with Roscoe Tanner at San Francisco over this, and another in Japan during a close match with George Hardie.
Hardie: "One more line call and I'll kick your ass."
Purcell: "Sure. Come on over and this racket's in your face."
When Purcell gleefully danced up to the net to shake Sadri's hand after beating him six weeks ago in Las Vegas, the monster-serving North Carolinian who's known as "the Marine," refused, saying, "What are you, queer or something?"
"I guess I whipped you good," said the smiling Purcell, who walked away. Later he said, "If there had been a fight, I had two chances. Running. Or a gun."
If Purcell hasn't made a ton of friends on the tour yet, the players at least recognize that he's making friends for the tour. And his talent is unquestioned. Solomon speaks of Purcell's "alacrity" on court. "Tennis needs guys like him," says Solly. Smith is impressed with Purcell's "sense of where to hit the ball" and his "feel," especially with the Wilson Ultra racket, with which it's not easy to employ touch. Dick Stockton, his occasional doubles partner, says Purcell "makes such good contact. Not many guys get to all the balls he does. Fewer hit them in the middle of the racket. Borg mishits a lot. Raul Ramirez always mishits. This guy never seems to mishit."
Rennert, one of the young lions out of Stanford, says, "With some players you face, you say, 'Well, he's good but beatable.' Against others you just say, 'Geez, I hope I win.' A lot of people think they know how to play Purcell. But Mel fights all the time. If you have a bad day, you don't have a chance."
In March, Purcell won a $75,000 tournament in Tampa for his first Grand Prix championship, and it has taken players like Teacher, Brian Gottfried and Gene Mayer (twice) to knock him out of other tournaments. Purcell has gained penetration on his first serve, and while his second is still a patsy, he's quick enough to chase down the ferociously hit returns. In a three-set loss to Mayer in the semis at Denver this winter, Purcell also unveiled a newly developed flat passing shot off the backhand wing. Still, more often he loves to race around the backhand and nail his marvelous, whippy forehand to the far corner.
That stroke, along with his speed and athleticism, are his principal weapons, and they make him especially tough on clay. Though his serve-and-volley game is not yet major league, his short back-swing and reflex serve returns should equip him well enough for a meritorious, debut at Wimbledon.
Most important, having barely started the life he has always wanted to lead, Purcell realizes what his biggest edge is right now. "Excuse me, do you have the time?" a smashing girl in a smashing bikini asked him one day at another glamorous stop on the pro tennis circuit.
"Lots," said the Cell.