Here's A Lamb Among Wolves

The meek are not about to inherit the woolly world of pro tennis, but Jose Higueras is proof that a gentle man can win
January 09, 1984

On a narrow, dusty street in Diezma, a village of 1,150 people in the south of Spain, a train of donkeys plods past houses so white they rise from the red clay like gleaming teeth. At the edge of town, old men pass time in a junkyard by taunting two toritos (little bulls). Caught up in their own myths, the old men tease the bulls with a straw hat on a stick in scarecrow mimicry of bullfighting. Jose Higueras pauses to watch. He's the rich young tennis player come home.

"Hola, Pepe," shouts one old man with a leathery grin, using the Spanish nickname for Jose. "Take a turn with the bulls." But Pepe disdains this sport.

The bulls tire of the game, too. They snort and paw the ground. They charge. The old men scatter, screaming. Higueras doesn't move. "The bulls haven't heard about my backhand," he says.

Higueras, 30, has made a career out of standing firm. He's one of the toughest tennis players there is. He has played the two longest matches in Grand Prix history: The first lasted five hours and six minutes; the second, 58 days. He competed on the tour for the better part of 1980 and '81 with hepatitis sapping his strength. Last May he reached the semifinals of the French Open with an elbow injury so painful that after matches he couldn't raise his right arm to flick on the light in his hotel room. On the court he even had trouble pat-a-caking serves and overheads. This kind of tenacity has made him the No. 7 player in the world and in 1983 earned him $200,000 in official winnings and about the same amount from endorsements and exhibitions.

Yet he's virtually unknown in the U.S. Although Higueras lives in Palm Springs, Calif., where his father-in-law is the mayor, he spends most of his time grinding down opponents in wars of attrition on the slow clay courts of Europe and South America. His baseline game isn't well-suited to the hard surfaces used in most American tournaments, so he competes in the U.S. only six weeks a year. Last summer he entered the U.S. Open for the first time since 1977, the final year the event was played on clay. In the opening round of the '83 Open he beat Matt Anger, Tracy Austin's boyfriend, before getting whipped by Chris Evert Lloyd's husband, John, in the second. He'll be playing on the carpet of the Volvo Masters at Madison Square Garden Jan. 10-15. If you want to catch him, you'd better get there early in the tournament.

Lately Higueras, who's the son of an olive picker and once shagged tennis balls for the local gentry, has taken on a lean and clean (shaven) look. He used to have a beard that made him resemble an Andalusian outlaw. He speaks English with the warm musical inflections of southern Spain. At a press conference following his loss last May in Paris, he gave an unsolicited testimonial to his opponent, Mats Wilander. After Higueras had fielded the final question and the reporters were on their way out of the interview room, he said, "I would like to say something about Mats if I could. It's a pleasure to play against someone like him. He's such a sportsman, and such a great player as well. I hope he becomes Number One in the world. The game needs more like him." With under-the-table guarantees and over-the-table petulance the norm these days, it's hard enough to get a defeated pro to show up at a press conference, much less to find one lavishly praising his conqueror to the media. For such actions the Association of Tennis Professionals—Higueras' fellow players—next week will present him with its Sportsmanship Award for 1983.

Higueras, clearly, isn't your typical tennis star. He believes in the ancient verities: courage, perseverance, loyalty, honor. He chafes at the privileges, such as byes and guarantees, given high-ranking players. And he's practically alone among those in the Top 10 in remembering he was once among the bottom 100.

"I'm very grateful to tennis," Higueras says. "I never had anything, and now I have a family and everybody's happy. Sometimes I don't understand the attitude of other players. They make millions of dollars, and still they're very selfish. They think they are the game." An especially notable offender, according to Higueras, is Ivan Lendl. "That guy doesn't give a crap about anything," Higueras says. "He makes as much money as he can off tennis and then walks away."

In the summer of 1982, Higueras was trailing Lendl 6-3, 3-2 in the finals of the Volvo International in North Conway, N.H., when rain stopped the match. Higueras could have taken the $16,000 second-place prize and never looked back. After all, his chances of winning seemed slim. But two months later Higueras returned from Spain to resume the match. He lost in just 7½ minutes. "The fans deserved a winner," he says.

Watching Higueras play is about as exciting as counting the 850 columns in the Great Mosque at Cordoba. Jimmy Connors calls his game "baby tennis," but in 1982 Higueras babied Connors out of the French in three 6-2 sets. Last November, at the European Champions Championship in Antwerp, he nursed Jimbo along again, winning 2-6, 7-6, 6-2. Higueras may not be too artistic, but he takes full advantage of what he does well. He stays at the baseline and popcorns ball after ball until he either wears out his opponent or the guy just plain loses patience. Once at North Conway, Higueras and the equally plodding Corrado Barazzutti traded 135 shots on a single point. Later, after several more interminable rallies, the umpire called for the compulsory ball change. "Change balls?" a spectator yelled. "Change players."

Higueras has a spectacularly accurate passing shot, and his backhand is as smooth as Ken Rosewall's, though not as powerful as Connors'. The Higueras serve, though, looks as if it's launched by a medieval catapult. The Moorish citadel of Granada fell in less time than it takes him to unwind. "Jose's serve is like a Goya painting," says Tommy Tucker, the director of tennis at the Mission Hills (Calif.) Country Club, where Higueras is a touring pro. "It brings back that Old World feeling. It's that single-mindedness of purpose. He looks almost timeless." Higueras aces are as rare as picadors in Pough-keepsie, but his serve is just a little too deep to take advantage of.

For Higueras, practice makes patience. He's on the court four to six hours every day. Tucker says that four of Higueras' hours are more intense than the average pro's two. "I've never seen anyone practice as relentlessly through pain," says Tucker.

And Higueras has endured more of that than most. The tennis elbow that caused him so much anguish in Paris had also plagued him through the three preceding tournaments. He made the finals of two of them. Then there were the 32 tournaments he played while ill with hepatitis. "Jose would get up in the morning and say, 'I feel awful,' " says his wife, Donna. "He looked awful, too, but he wouldn't see a doctor. He had yellow eyes and lost a lot of weight."

Higueras finally relented and saw a physician. On doctor's orders he spent three weeks in bed and took four months off from the tour. He returned to the circuit in January 1981, but the effects of the ailment lingered through the year, leaving him weak and with little stamina. His ranking, which had reached No. 9 at the end of 1979, fell to No. 38, and he seriously considered retiring.

By May 1982, though, Higueras was in the finals of the German Open, which is when he had his five-hour-plus match. He beat Peter McNamara 6-4, 7-6, 6-7, 3-6, 7-6, despite playing the last two sets with a broken blister the size of a quarter on the palm of his racket hand. "Pride is a huge factor with Jose," says Tucker.

Huge enough to make him walk away from jeering crowds at the 1978 Italian Open. He was leading Italian demigod Adriano Panatta 6-0, 5-1 in the semis. It was raining beer cans and 100-lira pieces—on Higueras' side of the court. "They called me everything," he says, "even 'son of a whore.' I didn't understand them: I was playing good; it wasn't that Panatta was playing bad." Higueras raised a fist in defiance. "Maybe I was wrong, but what else could I do?" he asks. Angered by the crowd, the umpire left the court, saying he was no longer officiating a tennis match. Higueras followed and forfeited.

"Jose equates diplomacy with dishonesty," says Donna. That may be why the Spanish press has never been too kind to him. They may be a bit chagrined that their best player is a cautious, clay-court laborer with none of the fire and flair of flamenco. Higueras has never enjoyed anything approaching the national popularity of Manuel Santana, the only Spaniard to win Wimbledon. Higueras broke with Santana, his boyhood hero, in 1980 when Santana, then captain of the Spanish Davis Cup team, wouldn't support Higueras in a clash with their country's tennis authorities, who thought he was washed up and had dropped him from the squad. Higueras even ripped up all his old clippings that said Santana was his idol. He also vowed he'd never again play Davis Cup.

"Jose was always terribly independent," says Michael Larim, former vice-president of the Real Club de Tenis Barcelona 1899, where Higueras got his start as a ball boy. "He had his own ideas, and usually he kept his ideas to himself. Very often he thought everyone was against him, but it was all his imagination."

Larim, a prosperous Barcelona customs broker, takes credit for bringing Higueras to the club. Larim sits in a dimly lit office before a yellowing map of the world as it used to be. He chews on a Partagas cigar that precedes him by about three blocks. He never lights it. The Real Club, Larim points out, is the oldest such institution in Spain. "Jose has a way of thinking about life that is a bit different than that of ordinary people," he says. "Ah, but it is always easier to talk to a millionaire's son than to a boy who comes from humble origins."

In the kitchen of his sister's unexceptional Barcelona apartment, Higueras sips malta, the Spanish peasant coffee, and spoons up the last drops from a bowl of lentil soup. "I have a rule that I never leave any food on the plate," he says. "If I ask for it, I eat it." His mother, Pura, and sister, Maria, are still dressed in black in memory of Jose's father, Jordi, who died last June. "This isn't Hollywood," Higueras says. "Most of the world lives like this. Some people think you don't have to remember when you're poor, but I don't think I'm any more happy now that I have money. Not that my life has been easy. I've always had to do a little extra."

Jordi worked on an olive farm in Diezma, 18 miles from Granada, for 40 pesetas a day, the equivalent at the time of $1.80. The Higuerases lived in a stone barn surrounded by fruit trees. It still stands, though it's falling apart from disuse. Pura did the family wash in the river and cooked meals for the pickers.

They moved to La Floresta, eight miles from Barcelona, when Higueras was six. Jordi then worked 15 hours a day in construction. "We didn't have enough money for dessert," Jose recalls. "After a few years, my father got a raise, and we had dessert on Sundays." At that time the tennis clubs were recruiting ball boys out of the villages. The clubs promised hot lunches, the most elementary of education and 40 pesetas a day. In return, the boys chased balls for eight or nine hours.

Spain's best players came out of this system. Santana and 1975 U.S. Open champion Manuel Orantes were both ball boys, and the other old Spanish master, Andres Gimeno, is the son of a ball boy. Some Spaniards say the elimination of this peonage is the reason their country has no up-and-coming players. "Giving those boys the opportunity to be ball boys kept them off the streets," says Larim. "If they didn't become champions, they could always teach tennis. Our old ball boys now have apartments near the sea and mountains. They live better than many of our members."

At age nine Higueras began hounding balls full time. He'd get up at 5 a.m., walk a mile and a half to the train station and ride for an hour into the city. He had to work two days to pay for a week's train fare. He'd get in a couple of hours of tennis before and after work and return home at about eight in the evening. Higueras worked seven days a week, 52 weeks a year. If he was good, he got every other Sunday afternoon off.

"Jose was strong-willed, even at 12," says Jose Maria Ducamp, a Spanish tennis writer. "Once, Fred Stolle and Roy Emerson, who were playing at the club, hiked 12 kilometers into the mountains. Jose was so impressed that the next day he did the same thing. I asked him, 'Why are you killing yourself?' And he said, 'Because they're the number one and number two players in the world. If they can do it, so can I.' "

But Higueras wasn't exactly a hot prospect. In fact, he was pretty much ignored. A few club members even objected that he was practicing when he was supposed to be running down balls. "They didn't want a poor boy to beat their kid," says Higueras with some bitterness. "No matter what I did, they'd always look at me as a ball boy."

On his 15th birthday Higueras was deemed too old to continue being a ball boy. So Larim took him off the courts and moved him to the front door, which he opened for members. At 17, Higueras was still eating hot lunches out back with the ball boys. The more promising kids had been dining in the club restaurant for years. "It never entered anyone's mind that Jose could become a world-class player," says Orantes. "People were always saying what a poor or unnatural player he was. It was tremendous willpower that turned him into a good player. He practiced for hours and hours on his own."

One day during a tournament against another club, Real's star junior player bowed out of a decisive match, and Higueras volunteered to take his place. He won the match and, finally, a measure of acceptance. But after all these years, Higueras still feels uneasy at the club. He spends more time speaking to the ball boys, who now work only tournaments, waiters and locker-room attendants than to the members. And he has never made it past the quarterfinals of the Spanish Open, which is held there. "I don't feel comfortable playing in Spain," he says.

Several years ago Higueras bought a "title," or equity membership, to the club. "It cost me 3,500 bucks, but at least I'm a member," he says. "Now no one can tell me I can't play when I want." Says Orantes, "Jose has been let down so often by those he trusted that he has turned more and more to his family. Today he takes refuge in his family."

The family breaks down into two parts, the Palm Springs branch and the Barcelona branch. His father-in-law, Palm Springs Mayor Frank Bogert, has an air of the Old West about him. He wears a bolo tie, brown sharkskin boots and a rabbit-felt cowboy hat, and acts as if he has just stepped off a stagecoach. During a tournament in Palm Springs in 1978, Bogert put up Higueras and his countryman, Angel Gimenez. Bogert asked Donna to return from Cal State—Fullerton to show them around. "I was mad because I had to come home and baby-sit a couple of tennis players," she says. "I thought tennis players were the most arrogant people alive."

Donna and her dad's German shepherd, Taco, and his malamute, Thadia, met Higueras and Gimenez at the door. The two players—with the two dogs—went back to get their luggage. When they didn't return after 20 minutes, Donna looked outside and saw Taco and Thadia circling the car. Inside with the doors locked and the windows rolled up were the two brave athletes.

"One day Jose didn't have any way to get to the tournament," says Bogert. "So Donna took him out there, and they fell in love. I was sure glad when they got to romancin', because I didn't like the guys she was goin' out with, and I was hopin' she'd find a better feller."

Jose and Donna live in a sprawling Spanish-style house decorated with Tecate tiles and colonial Mexican furniture. Higueras keeps busy giving free tennis lessons to neighbors, tending his vegetable garden and planting citrus trees. His 22-month-old son, Jordi, keeps busy playing with their German shepherd, Mica. "I think it's sad when a little kid grows up and doesn't know what a nest looks like and is afraid of dogs and chickens," says Higueras, apparently forgetting his introduction to Palm Springs. "I never saw anything that makes me feel better than a little bird with a nest."

Higueras says he's sometimes embarrassed by his affluence. He looks sheepishly at his electronically activated garage door. The luxury of the Higueras household is tempered by frugality, however. Bars of soap from hotels around the world stock the bathrooms, and malta is still his preferred libation. "Going back to the town where Jose grew up was a shock," says Donna. "It's like life 200 years ago, even thousands of years ago."

This autumn Higueras drove back through time to the gaunt hills of Diezma to buy the olive farm where his father had worked for 35 years. "I don't expect to make money off it," he said. "I want the farm for sentimental reasons." The trip should have taken eight hours, but Higueras' car broke down twice and had a flat, and he got a ticket for a burned-out headlight. He arrived in Diezma 13 hours later. "This is the worst 13 hours of my life," he moaned. "It never happened to me, so many things worse than this."

When he got to the farm, the owner doubled the price. "Such a rich tennis player can afford to pay more," he said.

"I know that I earn a very good living," Higueras said. "But I have to work very hard for it." They argued over the terms, and Higueras would not give in. A week later the owner offered Higueras the farm at the original price. The poor owner never had a chance with a guy stubborn enough to wait 58 days to lose a tennis match.

PHOTOHigueras' sense of touch was evident on a visit to his hometown of Diezma, Spain. TWO PHOTOSHigueras' childhood home was this stone barn. Today he, Jordi and Donna live in Palm Springs, of which Frank (left), his father-in-law, is mayor. PHOTOAt the Real Club, where he once was a ball boy, Higueras chats with those working the Spanish Open. PHOTODespite a debilitating elbow injury, Higueras reached the semis in Paris last year.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)