Because I'm a teaching professional myself, the dramatic license taken with tennis pros on TV and in the movies has always amused me. However, a few episodes of ABC's Dynasty, the evening television soap opera, have made the tennis character absurd and done a vast disservice to my profession. I refer to Mark Jennings, played by Geoffrey Scott, an actor who's obviously a graduate of the University of Tom Selleck.
Mark gives lessons only to incredibly gorgeous girls, and these "lessons" are constantly being interrupted by more incredibly gorgeous girls, with names like Krystle (Linda Evans), Alexis (Joan Collins) and Fallon (Pamela Sue Martin), who walk right onto the court to discuss things that most people would be uncomfortable talking about in their own homes. When interrupted, Mark doesn't say, "Sorry, I've got 20 minutes left in my lesson with this incredibly gorgeous girl." Oh, no. He says, "That's enough for today, honey." What's more, the girl doesn't say, "Hey, I paid 50 bucks for this lousy lesson. What do you mean 'That's enough for today'?" She just strolls contentedly off the court, presumably considering herself fortunate to have received any of Mark's attention.
Mark doesn't have to worry about retaining his clientele with good teaching techniques, anyway. He keeps them coming back with displays of superhuman effort. Because his teaching court just happens to be surrounded by beautiful people at all times, there's always an audience when he performs his impromptu exhibitions. In one he placed little pyramids composed of four tennis balls each in the far corners of both service boxes and, machine-gun style, hit four serves that exploded each pile in succession. If the Dynasty crew had put John McEnroe on the baseline and asked him to do that, they'd probably be on take No. 5,000. Needless to say, the magic of television helped out: shot of Mark serving, cut; shot of ball hitting target, cut. Repeat three times. Follow with shot of Mark nodding nonchalantly.
In another episode Dynasty takes even more liberties with the game—not to mention with reality—to demonstrate Mark's tennis prowess. In this scene our hero is confronted by Fallon's jealous husband, Jeff, who struts up to Mark—in the middle of a lesson, of course—and with racket clenched in fist announces, "I'm going to show you up!" With that, Jeff serves the ball at a dumbfounded Mark, who still hasn't moved from his position at the net. No matter. Mark volleys the serve back, kicking off perhaps the longest tennis point in history. When it's finally over, Mark has doggedly worked his way back to the baseline and up to the net again three separate times, until he hits a swinging put-away volley just as Jeff collapses face-first on the hard court, undoubtedly feeling the effects of being poisoned by his exposure to toxic paint in a previous episode. Well, you had to be paying attention.
May 1, 1983
Such abuse of the average tennis player's sensibilities hasn't been witnessed since the abominable movie Players, starring Dean-Paul Martin—no relation to Pamela Sue, I hope—graced the silver screen. In Players' climactic match, you may recall, Martin dived for so many of Guillermo Vilas' shots in the Wimbledon final that he looked more like Rickey Henderson stealing bases than a competitor at the All England Club. And Vilas? In the finals at Wimbledon?
Mark's character clichés don't stop with good looks, limitless talent and cocky demeanor. He's also a master at stringing along clients. In one scene Mark is shown graciously losing to an older gentleman with obviously inferior ability. As Mark walks off the court, he smugly assures the beautiful people ogling each other on the veranda that he was just letting the guy win to keep him coming back for more lessons.
Mark gives poor instruction, has, it is implied, affairs with club members, and purposely loses matches to keep his clientele happy, yet is adored by all. The pros I know who go that route last about as long as it takes for the tennis committee chairman to fire them.
When I was growing up, most of the tennis pros I admired were from the old school. Maybe they didn't look dashing or hit aces on every serve. So what if they spent more time stringing rackets than stringing along incredibly gorgeous girls? (The only female who ever interrupted my tennis pro's lessons was his wife, reminding him to pick up prune juice at the grocery.) Real pros had a genuine concern for everyone who came to them for help, regardless of body shape, social status or tennis potential. They taught kids like me more important things than simple forehands and backhands.
Real tennis pros acted as avuncular advisers. And they didn't gain their wisdom by flying off to Haiti in midseason, as Mark did recently. (You guessed it: He went to Haiti because Fallon was there, getting a divorce.) Real tennis pros learned about life while grinding out 10 hours a day on the court, six days a week, most weeks of the year, and then taking out the garbage and balancing the books as well. When they advised you to study hard so you could earn a living with your brain instead of your back, you knew what they meant. It's hard to picture Mark advising anyone on anything except where to get the best deal on a new Porsche.