The tennis players who make up the world's top doubles team may look clean-cut and wholesome, but they sound downright repugnant.
"Kids used to call me Mr. Parasite," says Rick Leach.
"I always got, 'Oh, what stinks? Pugh!' " says Jim Pugh.
When did that stop happening?
April 8, 1990
"You mean daily ?" says Pugh.
These days the only people saying unpleasant things about Leach and Pugh are Ken Flach and Robert Seguso, the 1987 and '88 Wimbledon champs and Davis Cup mainstays whom Leach and Pugh displaced on this year's U.S. Davis Cup team. Flach and Seguso—famed for their on-court harangues at linesmen and at each other—dismiss Leach and Pugh's No. 1 ranking, denigrate their achievements and even disparage their grit. "Leach and Pugh haven't done that great to really take over our spot," said Seguso in January, after the unheralded Canadian team of Grant Connell and Glenn Michibata upended Leach-Pugh in the semis of the Australian Open. "They have had some great wins, but they lose some matches they should win. We would never have lost to Connell and Michibata at that stage of a major tournament."
Maybe not, but Flach and Seguso keep losing to Leach and Pugh. In three matches dating back to August 1988, they've won only one set from the upstarts. "I feel bad for Flach and Seguso," says Pugh. "They were the best team for four or five years, but now they're on the way down. I've always heard they don't get along, that there's real animosity between them. Rick and I support each other 100 percent, even if we've just played the worst match of our careers."
Leach and Pugh are mild, even-tempered Southern Californians. Leach, 25, is dark and solidly built, while the 26-year-old Pugh is blond and stalky. "We definitely have a cleaner image than Flach and Seguso, but that's not going to draw crowds," says Pugh. "People would rather watch Andre Agassi twirl his racket and show off or John McEnroe yell at officials. With McEnroe, they get tennis and a show. We're much blander. We just do the tennis."
Contemporary tennis fans are also extremely singles-minded, largely because the top singles players usually don't play doubles. The scheduling of matches is too erratic, the risk of injury too great, the pay too meager. "They don't need the cash," says Leach's father, Dick, who coaches tennis at USC.
Leach and Pugh scratch out a modest living, at least compared with what the leading singles players make. The two split $319,479 in prize money in 1988 and $274,170 in '89. Nike has promised them a total of $250,000 this year in addition to their on-court earnings if they win 10 tournaments, a feat last accomplished on the men's circuit by the team of McEnroe and Peter Fleming in '79.
The world's best doubles team has often been described as McEnroe and anybody. "It still is," says Dick Leach, though Mac has played doubles only intermittently since the mid-1980s.
McEnroe used to play doubles as if he were inventing the game as he went along. He undermined opponents with an array of sharply angled volleys, off-pace returns and offensive lobs. "Doubles is no longer a game of strategy," says Ion Tiriac, who teamed with Ilie Nastase to win the 1970 French Open and now manages Boris Becker. "It's all power—slam the serve, slam the return, slam everything, thank you very much."
Leach and Pugh have a lot more going for them than power. For starters, Leach is lefthanded, Pugh righthanded, and a lefty-righty combo is always an advantage in doubles. Their above-average height—Leach is 6'2", Pugh, 6'4"—gives them excellent range, so getting a shot by them or over them is no easy matter. Pugh, who plays the ad court and hits with two hands off both wings, is the steadier of the two off the ground. Leach's biggest strength is his volley. "Except for McEnroe, there's not a player in the game with better feel at the net than Rick," says Chris Dunk, a former player on the tour. "From his wrist to his fingertips, he's incredible. Too bad the rest of him is human."
Leach is No. 236 in the world in singles, Pugh, No. 55. But even their lack of singles success is an advantage. By the latter rounds of a tournament both are usually fresh and well-rested because they already have lost in singles.
"Rick's a patient player, maybe a little too patient for singles," says his father. "I started giving him lessons when he was four years, 11 months [at the club where he was teaching at the time]. He'd hit against the ball machine in the mornings until the ladies arrived. He'd hit and hit and hit and hit."
By age six, all that hitting had blown out Rick's arm. "The doctor put Rick in a cast and told me he'd never play lefthanded again," says Dick. Undaunted, Rick became a righty. "Unfortunately I hadn't learned," says Dick. "Within a year, I'd ruined him righthanded too."
The doctor shook his head and told Dick, "You've got to be the dumbest dad in the world." Then he checked Rick's left arm. Remarkably, it had healed.
As a kid, Rick was ranked No. 1 nationally in the boys' 12-and-under in 1977 and in the 16's in '81. One of his most frequent opponents was a kid named Pugh. "We faced each other thousands of times," says Pugh. "Each of us insists he's won more matches than the other."
"Neither is willing to look it up, though," says Leach.
Pugh's dentist father, Jim, had been a starting forward for USC's basketball team in the late 1950s, and he still regrets passing up a shot at the NBA to attend dental school. "I've spent years inside people's mouths," Jim Sr. told Jim Jr. "Years of saliva and blood and bad breath. Son, I would have done anything to play pro basketball. If you love to play tennis, play."
So Jim played and played until he blew out his right arm as a junior at Palos Verdes High. For nine months he had trouble even lifting the arm, so he played his senior season as a lefty. Eventually, he saw a chiropractor, and within days Pugh was swinging righthanded again.
Pugh was an All-America as a sophomore at UCLA in 1984 before turning pro the following year. Meanwhile, Leach, who was playing at USC, was en route to becoming the only Division I four-time All-America in singles and doubles in NCAA history. He considered joining the pro tour after his junior year, in '86, but decided to stay on to help his father try to win his first national collegiate championship.
The journey wasn't smooth. By the time the Trojans reached the semifinals of the team competition in the 1987 NCAA tournament in Athens, Ga., they were a seemingly invincible 32-0. But Georgia, the host school, was their opponent, and thanks to the Bulldogs' notorious tennis fans, the Dawgs enjoyed a decided home court advantage. For instance, during critical points they would yell "Choke!" at the Trojans and chant "Woof, woof, woof!"
Though Leach won both his singles and doubles matches, Georgia edged Southern Cal 5-4. He kept his cool until the third round of the individual competition, three days later. As Leach was gathering his equipment after having been upset by Ned Caswell of Furman—whom Bulldog fans had supported vociferously—a Georgia player made a nasty crack about Leach's family, and Rick snapped. "I'll break this racket over your head, man," he screamed.
When the fans continued to hound Leach in the parking lot, he leapt onto the hood of a car, brandishing his racket. "Come on," he yelled at one. "You want me to kill you?" He had to be restrained by campus police.
"That was the low point of my career," says Leach, who has since won more sportsmanship awards than tournaments. "I can't explain what I did."
The summer before that outburst Leach and Pugh had teamed up for the first time, at a backwater tournament in Raleigh, N.C. Leach couldn't qualify for the draw with his usual partner, so he asked Pugh to play with him. "Sure," said Pugh. They won the tournament.
Leach then asked Pugh to join him in Hawaii for five satellite tournaments. "Sure," said Pugh. They won all five.
So Leach asked Pugh if he was up for a Grand Prix event in San Francisco, in September 1987. "Sure," said Pugh. They lost in the opening round.
Leach and Pugh persisted. A week later, they won a Grand Prix tournament in Scottsdale, Ariz., and then they entered the Australian Open in January 1988. "We figured, what the hell," says Pugh. They won that too.
Leach and Pugh won so often that they finished the year with the highest point total on the Grand Prix doubles list. They even started 1989 by winning the Australian Open again. Yet they were bypassed for last year's Davis Cup squad by team captain Tom Gorman, who instead chose Flach and Seguso, whom Leach and Pugh had rolled over in the semis of the '88 U.S. Open. "We felt slighted," says Pugh. "We were the world's No. 1 team, yet we couldn't play Davis Cup."
"How could we not go?" says Flach. "We'd been on the team since 1985 and had never been beaten. We also had a hell of a lot more experience."
To gain such experience, Leach and Pugh had to play Davis Cup. But they couldn't play until Flach and Seguso faltered. That didn't happen until last July, in a semifinal tie against West Germany. Becker and Eric Jelen broke the Flagusian Davis Cup victory streak at 10 in West Germany's 3-2 win over the U.S.
Enter Leach and Pugh, whom Gorman named to play in this year's opening-round tie, against Mexico in February. They had again finished atop the points heap, but Seguso still gave them flack. "He kept us focused," said Pugh after he and Leach beat Leonardo Lavalle and Jorge Lozano in four sets in the U.S.'s 4-0 triumph. "We'd have sooner scraped all the skin off our bodies diving around the court than lose."
Last week Leach and Pugh represented the U.S. again, in a second-round tie against Czechoslovakia in Prague. This time the pressure was greater because the tie stood at 1-1 when Leach and Pugh faced Petr Korda and Milan Srejber last Saturday. The Americans prevailed 6-4, 6-4, 6-4, and the U.S went on to a 4-1 victory.
One place Leach-Pugh most likely won't represent the U.S. is at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. According to International Olympic Committee rules, any athlete who has competed in South Africa is ineligible for the Games, and Leach played a tournament in Johannesburg in 1987 and may enter another one there later this year. "Sports and politics don't mix," says Leach. Pugh has not played in South Africa, though he has no quarrel with Leach's having done so.
For all their success—in six tournaments this year, they have reached at least the semifinals in five and won two—Leach and Pugh are probably best known for a match they didn't play. After they flogged Flaguso in the semis of the 1988 U.S. Open, Leach celebrated by buying himself a seafood sandwich. "I was so happy, I didn't really taste it," he says. He did the next afternoon. Again and again and again.
Leach made it to the stadium for the championship match but never got out of the training room. Pale and feverish, he was bundled in towels, jabbed with IV needles, strapped into a wheelchair and taken to a hospital. Since then Leach has sworn off seafood sandwiches. "The smell always gives me the same reaction," he says.
Leach eyes his partner coolly. "That's a little harsh," he says.