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Steve Flink: Remembering Carole Caldwell Graebner

12/1/2008 12:42:00 PM

by Steve Flink

It has been a few weeks now since Carole Caldwell Graebner--- much too young--- passed away at 65, and I am remorseful that she is no longer among us. Carole was one of those indefatigable people who spent a lifetime making a considerable difference in the world of tennis. She was driven by large dreams, determined to contribute to the game in significant ways, and strong willed in pursuit of her aspirations. Across her life, she realized a lot of those dreams, accomplishing considerably in a variety of roles, gaining the respect of everyone in her community for the forthright woman she was and for what she represented.

Growing up in California, Carole developed a first rate, all court game that enabled her to become one of the finest players of her generation. In 1961, when she was 18, Carole broke into the U.S. top ten at No. 9. From 1962-65, she alternated between No. 3 and No. 4 in her nation, and then in 1967 she was No. 6. She married the distinguished American serve-and-volleyer Clark Graebner on July 10, 1964 (which happened to be the 21st birthday of Arthur Ashe), and the glamorous couple became the first husband-wife duo to reside in the American top ten since Sarah Palfrey Cooke and Elwood Cooke in 1945.

Her foremost achievement was in reaching the final of the U.S. National Championships at Forest Hills in 1964. Seeded 9th at that major event, she fully displayed her innate tenacity as a competitor all through the fortnight. Facing the relatively unknown left-hander Geraldine Houlihan of Ireland in the second round, Graebner narrowly survived a psychologically bruising battle, prevailing 11-9, 5-7, 8-6. In the round of 16, she held back the assertive Argentine Norma Baylon in three sets.

That set the stage for a quarterfinal confrontation with 1961 Wimbledon champion Karen Susman, who had ousted No. 2 seed and all time great Margaret Smith [Court]. Carole took that one 6-4, 6-8, 6-3. Not content with her run to the penultimate round, she then toppled doubles partner Nancy Richey in a stirring clash 2-6, 9-7, 6-4.

The victory over Richey was the single biggest moment of her career. Carole exploited her remarkable all court skills on the grass courts at the fabled West Side Tennis Club, overcoming one of the premier competitors in the world of women's tennis. Richey had taken a 4-2 final set lead, but Graebner was unwavering, capturing four games in a row for a gritty win. As Mary Hardwick wrote in World Tennis Magazine, "Carole Graebner's great victory over Nancy Richey was as much a triumph of mind as it was of court strategy. It was founded on determination and ambition."

Graebner--- severely handicapped by sunburn and second-degree burns to her face, arms, and hands--- lost the championship match to the inimitably graceful and versatile Maria Bueno 6-1, 6-0, winning only 13 points in the opening set and seven more in the second. Although the majestic Bueno was clearly a better player than Graebner, the fact remained that Carole was not entirely herself on that occasion. A year later, the two competitors met again at Forest Hills in the quarterfinals, and Bueno was hard pressed to defeat the American 8-6, 1-6, 9-7.

As formidable as she was in singles, Graebner was a larger figure in doubles. Ever sure of herself in the forecourt, solid and resourceful on the return of serve, always eager to exploit her fine serve, Carole took the 1965 U.S. and 1966 Australian Championships alongside Richey. Graebner distinguished herself considerably--- primarily in doubles--- playing for her country in the Fed and Wightman Cup team competitions from 1963 to 1971. Her Fed Cup record was a stellar 12-1. But Carole's role in representing her country went beyond her playing skills; she held the unique distinction of serving as captain of the American Wightman Cup (U.S. vs. Great Britain), Fed Cup and Bell Cup (U.S. vs. Australia) teams. In that capacity, she demonstrated beyond repute that she was above all else a leader.

Graebner loved that role as captain, and flourished in it. I remember asking Chris Evert in 1973--- who made her Wightman Cup debut in 1971 at 16 with Carole as her captain--- how helpful Graebner had been when Chris first played for her country in those initial years. "We get along very well," answered Evert. "She knows my weaknesses but she didn't go into details, like telling me: "You have a quirk in your forehand.' She would give the players pep talks and say,' O.K. bend and think low.' She has a lot of spirit. She is great."

It was nice for Carole that she was so suited to the captaincy of those American teams. At that stage of her life, as a mother and wife, she simply did not have time to play regular competitive tennis out on the tour. She was a product of the old amateur era and played largely for the love of the game, and yet never was able to exploit the enormous financial opportunities other competitors had in the Open Era, which began in 1968.

But forgive me as I take this piece in another direction, and allow me to do some reminiscing about the Carole Graebner I knew for 40 years. In 1968, I was 16 and already a big tennis fan on my way to becoming a full time tennis journalist .Spending the summer in London with my father, we were having dinner one night not long before Wimbledon. He was trying to convince me that vegetables and salad are essential to any healthy diet for a kid.

Clark Graebner was one of my idols, but I disliked salads and barely tolerated vegetables, so I said, "Look Dad, Clark Graebner would never eat a salad. Why would I want to do that?" My father replied, "I'll make you a deal. Just eat your salad tonight, and I promise you we will find out about Graebner and his salad habits tomorrow." I quickly agreed, knowing somehow my father would keep his word. Sure enough, as I walked up the steps at the Queen's Club the following afternoon, there at the top was Stanley E. Flink wearing a bright smile, standing right next to a beaming Clark E. Graebner.

"Steve, "my father said, "I would like you to meet Clark Graebner." I shook hands with my hero, and the first words out of Graebner's mouth were, "I'm the President of a lettuce company, and I want you to eat your salad!" The three of us laughed heartily. A long term friendship had begun. Graebner, who replicated his wife's achievement of reaching the final of the U.S. Championships in 1967, made it to the semifinals of the historic first "Open" Wimbledon--- and the inaugural U.S. Open--- not long after I met him in 1968. For several years I hardly missed one of his matches at those two major events, and watched him play frequently at a number of other tournaments as well.

Clark Graebner introduced me to Carole, and we got along well from the outset. She knew how much I admired her husband, and we developed a nice rapport. She saw my father and me as sympathetic tennis friends who were on her side and that of her higher profile husband. Carole was playing very little by then, so she dedicated herself to raising her children and supporting Clark in his efforts as a player. One powerful memory I have from that period was in 1969 at Wimbledon, when Clark took on Tony Roche in the quarterfinals.

Serving with astonishing power and precision--- he had one of the most explosive serves of his era--- Graebner took the first two sets from Roche, but the left-handed Aussie battled back fiercely to reach two sets all. In a dramatic fifth set, Graebner had three match points--- all on Roche's serve--- but did not convert. A soft drizzle was falling in the latter stages of a high quality contest, and Clark was wearing glasses, wiping them off repeatedly between points for clarity of vision. He was having great difficulty coping with the damp conditions. An anguished expression spread across his face during the latter stages of his gallant skirmish with Roche.

Meanwhile, Clark had laryngitis, and when he tried to say something a few times to Carole, it was impossible for his wife to hear him. Carole died a thousand deaths during that encounter. My father was sitting next to her, and I was a row in front of them. After tense points down the stretch of that match, Carole would be so overwhelmed with anxiety that she would inadvertently dig her nails into my father's leg. Friends who saw the BBC television close-ups of Carole wondered why my father looked in such discomfort. If only they had known!

On a much lighter note, I recall riding out with Clark and Carole from New York City to South Orange, New Jersey in the summer of 1971 to watch Clark play the grass court event there. Clark was the driver, Carole sat with him up front, and in the back seat I was joined by the young Davis Cup doubles player Erik Van Dillen. When we arrived in South Orange and got out of the car, Clark walked over to Carole and they passionately kissed. Van Dillen feigned embarrassment, turning to Carole and saying sarcastically, "Do we have to watch this public display of affection?" Carole laughed, playfully firing back, "What's the matter, Erik. Are you jealous? Do we need to find you a girlfriend?" Van Dillen laughed freely, enjoying Carole's spunk, realizing she had punched a crisp volley well out of his reach.

I have vivid memories of celebrating my birthday during Wimbledon as I moved through my late teens and headed into my twenties. My father would always invite players to join us in London for dinner--- Stan Smith, Bob Lutz and Gardnar Mulloy are a few names of those who attended that spring to mind-and Clark and Carole were with us numerous times. I remember one of these occasions in 1970. In the eye of my mind, I see Carole addressing a bunch of us and saying, "The players feel strongly that John Newcombe has the best second serve in the game. By far." I loved those moments; it was as if I was getting a free tennis education. And Newcombe made Carole Graebner look good when he won his second of three Wimbledon singles titles a week after she made that comment, demonstrating emphatically that his second serve was indeed the best in tennis at that time.

The years passed. The Graebner's divorced in 1974. I started working full time in tennis that year at World Tennis Magazine and I would see Carole around and about at New York press gatherings, and at tournaments. In that span she started working for Tennis Week magazine as director of national advertising. Fast forward to 1992, a year after World Tennis had gone out of business. I began writing for Tennis Week, so now Carole and I were partners of sorts. I did not go into the office, preferring to send my stories from home.

But I would often see Carole at tennis functions. Every year during the holidays over Christmas, Gene Scott--- the late founder and publisher of Tennis Week--- would host a lunch in New York that I would attend. Over a 15 year stretch from the early nineties until a few years ago, I would go to that festive occasion and Carole would invariably be seated next to me at the long table. One year, as we caught up during that meal, I said, "Carole, we always seem to end up sitting next to each other at these occasions." She grinned and responded, "Do you think that happens by accident? Don't you know how much pull I have?"

On another holiday occasion, she noticed during lunch that my tie was not tucked under my shirt collar in the book, and with customary directness she needled me about it, perhaps because she still saw me in many ways as that 16-year-old kid she had met so many years before. "For heaven's sake, fix your tie," she said. " Your father would never let that happen."

She always enjoyed her work for Tennis Week, but her world was wider and deeper than that. She became a member of the U.S. Olympic Committee, and established herself in a big way as chairman of Fed Cup in the U.S. She used her considerable powers of persuasion to establish excellent rapport with Lindsay Davenport, Monica Seles, Jennifer Capriati, the Williams sisters and other players. Off the record, she would tell me about her interaction with those players, taking great pride in her relationships with them, clearly relishing the opportunity to remain important in the universe of tennis. And the depth of her knowledge of the game never waned, as I would find out every time we would talk about tennis.

The last time I saw Carole was in late December of 2006 at the annual Tennis Week holiday lunch in New York. Gene Scott had passed away nine months earlier, but his lovely widow Polly hosted the meal. As our group left the restaurant, Carole was in good spirits. I remember her pointing out to a bunch of us that she had turned 63. She wondered how the years had gone by so swiftly, and, just before saying goodbye and heading up Madison Avenue, a philosophical Carole Graebner said, "I guess I haven't done too badly."

As was the case almost across the board with this remarkable woman, she got that right.

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