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Steve Flink: Major player missing at Wimbledon

6/26/2012 3:00:00 PM

WIMBLEDON—I walked into the press room this morning, and was greeted by nearly all of the old familiar faces I have come to know so well across the years. Reporters from Spain and Australia, Great Britain and France, and many journalists from my country were hard at work, happy to be writing stories from the world’s most prestigious tennis tournament, inspired by the opportunity to be present for a fortnight unlike any other in our sport. But the single most important and enduring American reporter—and one of the most influential, entertaining and knowledgeable journalists ever to cover tennis—is not here this year. He is back home trying to overcome an aggravating series of battles with his health. He surely is very disappointed about not being at the shrine of tennis because—to my knowledge-he has been to every Wimbledon since observing Rod Laver secure his second Grand Slam 43 years ago.

Bud Collins is not simply a man of stature in his community; he is a tennis treasure, a fellow who lights up every room he walks into, a unique individual who has transcended the game he has covered so comprehensively through a remarkable lifetime. Bud has been singularly devoted to this sport for the simple reason that it is at his core, in his system, and almost incessantly on his mind. He has built a prodigious reputation on his capacity to connect with the players, to make them laugh at themselves, to enlighten them about the history of tennis. I doubt there has ever been a prominent journalist in any sport who has understood and made an impact on so many fellow scribes and such a wide range of celebrated players.

So I take Bud’s absence personally. Something seems entirely off key about the music of Wimbledon being played without Bud being near the center of the melody, conducting it all with grace and flair. It was here at Wimbledon in 1969 that I met Bud for the first time. My father had been a reporter for Life Magazine and Bud had spoken with my old man about his desire to become a tennis broadcaster. Bud had managed to realize that ambition in 1963 when he did a telecast of the U.S. National Doubles Championships final round contest at the Longwood Cricket Club in Brookline, Massachusetts, featuring Dennis Ralston and Chuck McKinley against Rafael Osuna and Antonio Palafox. Bud’s television career had been launched, and the world of tennis was irrevocably altered, all for the better.

In any event, my father knew how much I wanted to become a tennis writer and he helped me find Bud in the old press facility on that momentous day in 1969.  I vividly recall my father asking someone where we could find the press room, and we were told to go up a flight of stairs and to knock on a door in that corridor. We did just that, and our timing was excellent. The affable Bud emerged from behind his typewriter and my father informed him about my aspirations. Bud was, as always, personable and encouraging. He said something like, “You picked the right game. Stick with it”. I saw him later that summer at the U.S. Open. Seated in the old Grandstand at Forest Hills alongside the estimable Edwin Baker of the USTA at the quarterfinal match between Nancy Richey and Billie Jean King, I was a shy kid of 17, and I didn’t think Bud would remember me. I could not have been more wrong. “Hi, Steve, “he said, reaching out to shake hands with me. “ How have you been?  And how is your father?” I was immediately put at ease.

As I finished high school and went on to college, I would run into Bud at tournaments and was fortunate to make my mark with him, primarily because he realized I had a photographic memory for tennis. My mind would collect information about the game that would be locked inside that chamber permanently. I was fully aware of what a walking encyclopedia Bud was himself, but fortunately for me he found a way to use my skills to help supplement his considerable stock of knowledge. In the process, he was instrumental in allowing me to realize my goal of becoming a full time tennis reporter. In 1972, I worked behind the scenes with Bud on his NBC telecasts from Wimbledon and on his CBS shows from the U.S. Open, serving as a statistician. I also would try to assist him with his columns for the Boston Globe. I learned immeasurably from watching him pursue his craft. Above all else, Bud Collins is a top of the line professional who leaves no stone unturned in his pursuit of the pertinent facts.

In 1974, I landed a job with World Tennis Magazine in New York, probably in large measure because of my association with Bud. I continued working with him as a statistician on his PBS and NBC telecasts into the 1980’s, and from 1985 until 1990 we even shared the microphone at Madison Square Garden network as commentators with Mary Carillo and later JoAnne Russell during the Virginia Slims Championships. He could not have been more generous in that capacity, writing me a laudatory note after one of those events about my insights in the booth. In another instance, after I had done a telecast for ESPN alongside the venerable Jim Simpson, Bud sent me a postcard that simply said, “I watched you from Memphis and was very proud of you. All the best, Collini.”

Collini, of course, is his nickname. Be that as it may, we have enjoyed being around each other for all of these decades, and I have always marveled at Bud’s vitality and spirit, his originality and creativity, and, above all else, his kindness and extreme generosity with colleagues and players. I have also admired his unique set of communicative skills, and the lofty standards he has set for all of us. His blend of humor and intelligence is unsurpassable.

His judgment is also remarkably astute, and Bud is fundamentally a progressive traditionalist. In almost any discussion with Bud that I can recollect, we have been in accord. Probably the only exception to that rule has been his insistence that the term “ Grand Slam” be used only to refer to winning the four major events—Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open—in a single year. Bud is adamant that those four championships be called “majors”, and nothing else. This is a rare case where we respectfully disagree.

I fully understood when Bud abhorred players making reference to winning “Slams”, which should be reserved for more casual conversations. And I share Bud’s distress when some players call winning one of the majors a “Grand Slam”, as in “ I know I will win a Grand Slam this year”. But I believe strongly that calling them “Grand Slam championships” or “Grand Slam events” or “Grand Slam tournaments” is accurate, appropriate and acceptable. They can be rightly be called majors as well, but I think there is room for both terms. Bud also disdains the word “tie-break”, much preferring the original term “tiebreaker.” In my view, either one is fine, although tie-break has become the common currency among the tennis community and authorities.

But, as I sit here now on my 60th birthday, none of that really matters. After all, Bud has earned the right to push his point of view as long and as far as he wants. Who could ever question his credentials as an authentic authority on the game? He does so because he cares deeply about tennis and its importance. We all value greatly the contribution he has made as a writer and broadcaster.

As I reflect now on his fifty years in broadcasting and an even longer stretch as a print journalist, I recollect most powerfully a pair of towering Wimbledon triumphs for Bud Collins. The first was his brilliant play-by-play call on the Bjorn Borg-John McEnroe Wimbledon final of 1980 for NBC, particularly his handling of the renowned 18-16 fourth set tie-break won by McEnroe, who saved five match points after casting aside two match points when Borg served at 5-4, 40-15 earlier in the set. That tie-break was as difficult as it gets to follow factually, and this was long before graphics were used as liberally as is the case today. But Collins was astounding, sprinkling the crucial facts, providing just the right dose of drama. He never stumbled verbally, not even once. That was a staggering feat. It was, to me, his “High Water” moment in television. The second “moment” where Bud surpassed himself at Wimbledon was much longer lasting. I will never forget his extraordinary post-match interviews with the finalists and champions coming off the court at Wimbledon that took place from the mid-1970’s until this past decade. No one could have been as relaxed and prepared for such a tall and demanding assignment.

He was the first person to speak with those players year after year immediately after they came off the court, until the BBC began doing on court post-match interviews beginning with the 2000 finals. Bud’s rapport with the players was always revealed at those times as he talked with everyone from Borg to Connors, Evert to Navratilova, Agassi to Sampras, and right on down the line. Collins had the gravitas to step in and be sensitive with the loser, and reverential yet amusing with the winner. Those interviews were absolute gems, not only to me but to nearly all tennis observers. I never understood why someone didn’t put together a DVD package with all of Bud’s post-match Wimbledon final interviews.

Think of what we are missing this year at Wimbledon without Bud walking through these corridors and gracing us with his personality and outlook.  A part of me remains shy, and I have always tried to downplay my birthday. But Bud always refused to let that happen. Along with his wife, Anita, he would come around to my desk, sing “Happy Birthday”, and present me with a neck tie to honor the occasion. That was an annual Wimbledon highlight for me, and much appreciated. When I turned 50 ten years ago, it was on the afternoon that Pete Sampras was toppled shockingly by George Bastl in the second round, and Andre Agassi bowed out hours later surprisingly against young Paradorn Srichaphan. Yet Bud assembled all of the writers who knew me best, and asked Chris Evert to stop by. They presented me with a cake and Anita Collins took some terrific photos. I was deeply touched.

What I remember most about those pictures was the great big beaming smile of Bud Collins. That inimitable smile he wears so naturally is his trademark. It is the smile that has opened up the hearts and minds of so many players, the smile that makes everyone comfortable, the smile that tells you all you need to know about Bud and his essence. I will think of him often across this fortnight, remembering years gone by, looking forward to Bud’s return at the next Grand Slam tournament—make that major—in New York later this summer.

So, Bud, this column is for you. It is my small way of saying thanks for all you have done for me, and, more importantly, everything you have given to tennis. We are your extended family, and we don’t take you for granted. Get well, my old friend, and be prepared for a showering of affection from all of us at the U.S. Open. This time, in honor of your return, in recognition of who you are and what you represent, out of respect for your unique contribution to the history of the game, I will arrange for a celebratory cake and assemble your media friends. That will be a standing room only occasion.

Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He was a columnist and editor for World Tennis Magazine from 1974-91. Starting in 1992, he was a senior correspondent for Tennis Week Magazine. During the 1970's and 1980's he served as a statistician for NBC, CBS and ABC on their tennis telecasts. Since 1982 he has been covering Wimbledon and the French Open for CBS radio. He has been a columnist for since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.