by Steve Flink
No one in the history of tennis has been a more enduring top flight figure than Gardnar Mulloy, who is 96-years-young and still going strong. The motto of tennis as “a game for a lifetime” has been demonstrated over and over again by a sterling cast of players all through history, but Mulloy stands in a league of his own as a competitor who succeeded on different levels across an astonishingly long span. Here is a man who cracked the American top ten in singles in 1939 when he was 26, and spent no fewer than 14 years in that exclusive territory among the best in his country; the last time he resided in the U.S. top ten, he was 41.
There is more. Mulloy captured five major titles in men’s doubles, winning four of those prestigious prizes (all U.S. Championships) alongside the elegant William F. Talbert, becoming a member of the oldest men’s team ever to triumph at Wimbledon when he won that championship in 1957 at the age of 43 with Budge Patty, who was ten years younger. Between 1946 and 1957, Mulloy represented the U.S. in Davis Cup competition in seven different years, going unbeaten in three singles matches, securing victories in eight of eleven doubles contests, playing important roles on three American championship squads. Mulloy subsequently became one of the standout American senior players in every age category, including the 90-and-over division. His long term excellence as an American player has been unparalleled.
Mulloy has recently released a book entitled “As It Was” (Reminiscences from a Man for All Seasons), which I finished reading over the weekend. It is the essential story of his life, but Mulloy does not conform to the standard chronological summation of his experiences. Rather, he writes with typical candor, forthrightness and amusement in a free-wheeling manner about the people and events that have made his life journey so memorable, giving the reader a chance to bounce around with him as he puts it all in perspective. At times, the ride is disjointed and jarring, but never is it dull; Mulloy has crossed so many paths and known so many compelling people and personalities that he commands respect and attention throughout his book. A “Man for All Seasons” indeed!
Above all else, Mulloy tells us precisely how he feels about a good many landmark figures in the sport. A case in point is Bobby Riggs, a champion he believes has never been fully appreciated. According to Mulloy, “I could write a book on Bobby Riggs alone. Bobby Riggs, in my opinion, is the most underrated player of all time. Although he won Wimbledon’s hat trick (singles, doubles, and mixed) on his first try [in 1939], which had never been done before, Bobby was better known as a first-class hustler. Not only did he bet with the bookies that he would win all three titles, Bobby got great odds and bet everybody in sight. Everyone, even the bookies, thought he was crazy. He got tremendous odds and walked away with a bundle of English pounds. The USTA disapproved of all this hanky-panky and almost suspended him from tennis, but since betting is legal in England, there was not much they could do.”
Mulloy explains in “As It Was” that he and Riggs were polar opposites. He writes, “Riggs and I were good friends even if I couldn’t trust him as far as I can spit. If the adage is true, ‘unlikes attract and likes repel’, then we were best buddies as Bobby gambled on everything and I will hardly risk a dime. He drank, I didn’t. He stayed up all night gambling, and I needed sleep.”
Mulloy played several practice sets with Riggs leading up to his showdown with Margaret Smith Court in 1973 on Mother’s Day, when Riggs routed the Australian in straight sets. He writes of what he witnessed in Riggs as the great showman prepared for his infamous loss to Billie Jean King at the Houston Astrodome in the “Battle of the Sexes” in September of 1973. Mulloy flew from his hometown of Miami to Houston to see the match. When he arrived in Houston, he went to see Riggs, who told him, “There is no way that broad can beat me.” He heard that line repeated in the days leading up to the big match, but he sensed Riggs was not training properly or taking the challenge as seriously as he should have.
After Riggs bowed in straight sets to King in the much heralded battle, Mulloy went to visit his friend in his hotel room the next morning. “ Gar,” said Riggs, “ I guess I blew it. I have a return match clause in our contract, and we’ll have a much bigger and better show next time.” There was, of course, no next time for Riggs. King wisely rested on her laurels and would not agree to another confrontation. But in assessing what happened that night in Houston, Mulloy writes, “Don Budge swears he had proof Riggs bet on Billie Jean to win. I wouldn’t put it past Bobby, but I don’t believe Bobby tanked, but it’s not inconceivable knowing Riggs like I do that he might have bet on Billie Jean King and deliberately failed to train to lessen his chance of winning so he wouldn’t need to dump the match. He could have relied on his return match agreement in case he lost. If so, in his mind he had a goldmine. Who knows? But I do know this: Once you face an opponent on the court, you put your reputation on the line, and there is no excuse if you lose.”
Addressing his old friend Tony Trabert--- an all-time great player who won five major singles titles, the former U.S, Davis Cup player and captain, and current President of the International Tennis Hall of Fame--- Mulloy writes, “ The friendliest player with the best sense of humor in tennis and one of history’s best is Tony Trabert. His record of championship places him in the class with legends Laver, Budge, Tilden, McEnroe, Borg, et al. I could name other players, but I only consider those who also participated in doubles and are ‘Davis Cuppers’, therefore defining true champions.”
But perhaps Mulloy reserves his highest praise for the late Arthur Ashe. He writes, “Of all the tennis players or athletes I have known, I admire Arthur Ashe the most. Being born black, he had many trials and tribulations to overcome in this world of bigotry.” Mulloy describes an incident that occurred at a tournament that the young Ashe was playing in Jacksonville, Florida. Mulloy had helped Ashe to get into that event. When Mulloy checked in at the tournament desk to find out about his lodging, he was given a cottage, as was the case with the rest of the competitors. But Ashe was told he would stay in Jacksonville’s “black town”, which deeply offended Mulloy.
Mulloy demanded to know why Ashe was not staying in a cottage like everyone else, and was told, “Negroes are not allowed in this complex.” An enraged Mulloy responded, “Well, if Arthur Ashe is not welcome here, then neither am I, and I am leaving and taking Arthur with me.” The issue was resolved when Mulloy’s wife Madeleine said, “Arthur, why don’t you stay with Gar and me, as we have an extra bedroom in our cottage.” Ashe consented. Mulloy had acted honorably, but competition is competition, and Ashe defeated Mulloy 6-4, 6-4 in the final of the tournament.
Mulloy regales us in the book with his frankness on the subject of John McEnroe. He writes, “If ever there was a situation where a bad guy comes out on top, John McEnroe takes the cake. He was considered the worst sport ever except for Bobby Fischer (chess champion). But to John’s credit, he admits his failings in his book, ‘You Cannot be Serious.’ If it’s possible to dislike a person for inappropriate actions that are irritating and at the same time admire him, then John McEnroe is the man. During his brilliant tennis career, John often created havoc in his matches with unnecessary and outlandish outbursts against on-court officials’ decisions…..John McEnroe has the dubious distinction of outclassing Pancho Gonzales, Ilie Nastase and Jimmy Connors in temper tantrums that changed tennis from a ‘gentleman’s game’ to a ‘win at any cost’ syndrome, which seems to be the attitude prevalent in most endeavors today.”
Mulloy has a few terrific anecdotes about personal altercations he had with McEnroe through the years, and then adds, “I admire John McEnroe. He is the only person I disliked that I also admired. Since I have already raked John over the coals because of his sour countenance (similar to mine) and his objectionable performances I detest, he has mellowed… John is both smart and intelligent, which is very rare in a person… John ranks with the best three announcers [on tennis] Dan Maskell, Tony Trabert and Cliff Drysdale. John McEnroe also continues to support the game by participating and supporting senior tennis and charity events, making him an icon and one of the superstars who never left the game that gave him so much. My hat is off to him.”
Mulloy also tips his hat to the 88-year-old Pancho Segura, another of the game’s all time most underrated players and an unassailable authority on tactics and strategy. Mulloy graduated not only from the University of Miami but also its law school. He played a crucial role in helping Segura--- a native of Ecuador—to get a scholarship to the University of Miami and “Segoo” was a star performer in that venue, capturing the NCAA Championships in 1943, 1944 and 1945. Segura would later turn pro and performed brilliantly in that capacity.
But Mulloy good-naturedly points out in the book that Segura made it into college without graduating from high school. Segura kept telling the admissions department that the high school transcript was on its way, but it never arrived. In any case, as Mulloy writes, “ Pancho was by far the most popular student at the University of Miami, and upon graduation was enshrined in UM’s Sports Hall of Fame. At the ceremony banquet it was my honor and privilege to introduce him with a speech ending with ‘Pancho Segura is the only student in history to be graduated from a college with a high school diploma, majoring in underwater basket weaving, banana peeling and Spanish!’”
In his acceptance speech, Segura said, “Had it not been for Gar Mulloy, I would be somewhere in South America climbing for coconuts and chasing alligators for a living!”
Concluding his chapter on Segura, Mulloy writes, “In my humble opinion, he is the most astute authority on tennis other than myself!”
The book is reflective of the man, filled with amusing anecdotes and the striking honesty of a singularly important player in American tennis history. Mulloy writes compellingly of his humble upbringing, his service during the second World War in the United States Navy, his (with rare exceptions) vegetarian diet that has carried him so healthily through a lifetime, and his devotion to and for the game of tennis.
Toward the end of “As It Was”, Mulloy writes, “Tennis is the perfect outlet which can serve you best at middle age, and if you don’t quit before you are 50, you are gloriously hooked for the rest of your life.” He adds, “Tennis is so interesting, emotional, intricate and enjoyable but so constructed that anyone can play.”
In “As It Was”, Gardnar Mulloy calls it just as he sees it, with no holds barred. I read it with pleasure.
Order "As it was" in the Tennis Channel Book Nook.
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