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Steve Flink: McManus, THE QUIET CHAMPION

1/3/2011 1:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

Tennis has benefitted immeasurably over the years from the leadership and virtues of a wide range of people. Most of these high profile individuals have relished standing beneath the bright lights, celebrating the opportunity to be front and center, either on or off the court. They have embraced being among the well known, grown comfortable with a certain degree of fame, found contentment as public figures. But the sport would never have achieved such a prominent place in society without stalwart characters working diligently behind the scenes, doing the hard tasks, selflessly pursuing goals that make their superiors look better than they may really be.

Enter Jim McManus, one of the unsung heroes of the tennis world for the bulk of his lifetime. McManus is 70 now, and recently he wrote and compiled an essential book entitled simply, “Tennis History”. McManus has taken on a nearly impossible challenge and pulled it off, tracing the history of tournaments of all kinds, from the Grand Slam events to Challenger events, from WCT to the old Dewar Cup circuit, from tournaments that are still flourishing to those that no longer exist. It is an invaluable resource for the tennis historian, an enlightening educational aid for the fan and students of the game, and a book that belongs in any serious observer’s library. McManus provides the results of all singles and doubles finals from the tournaments, but also includes a brief historical written overview describing the evolution of the event. I was flattered when McManus handed me a copy of this wonderful book at the U.S. Open three months ago. I will treasure it forever. (If you want to purchase a copy, contact the author at McManus at macatpvb@aol.com)

But before we delve more deeply into “Tennis History”, it is time to consider how much McManus has accomplished across his productive lifetime. As a player growing up in Northern California in the 1950’s and early 1960’s, he was a disciple of the renowned Tom Stow, a singularly admired teaching pro back in that era. McManus was a crafty left-hander who was just a cut below the top platform of players in his country. For three consecutive years—from 1968-70 at the outset of the “Open Era”—McManus was ranked among the top ten in his nation, finishing 1968 at No. 9, 1969 at No. 10, and 1970 at No. 8. That was his prime time as a competitor, and he remembers it fondly.

As he told me in an interview conducted recently, “I went to Australia for about three years at one stage and had a lot of fun there, and learned a lot. I put in my time on the court and had a very good coach in Tom Stow, who took me up to a certain level and taught me a lot of good things about the game and inspired me a lot.”

During that span from 1968-70, he had some impressive wins, defeating the likes of Cliff Richey, Tom Okker and Jan Kodes, holding his own with a lot of top notch players, achieving some fine results. In 1967, he won the “Wimbledon Plate”, a consolation event reserved for first and second round losers. In 1968, he made it all the way to the semifinals of the U.S. National Championships at Longwood before losing in four sets to eventual champion Arthur Ashe. “That was a good effort,” he recollects. “I beat the players I was supposed to beat, and lost to Arthur, who was expected to beat me. The best part of my game was that I was an attacker. My weakness was I didn’t have one big shot like a lot of other players did. I couldn’t rely on a great serve or a big forehand and pull that out as you would see from Marty Riessen or Clark Graebner or Charlie Pasarell or Arthur Ashe. I don’t know if I had the confidence that I could really take out the No. 1 guy. Maybe I had a block in my mind. I certainly played mental gymnastics with a couple of players ranked from maybe No. 4 to No. 7, but that was how it was.”

McManus did indeed like to attack, and here is how he was described in the USTA Yearbook of 1971: “Left-hander. First and second serve usually but not invariably medium paced spin or wide slice with forehand grip, always followed to the net. Continental forehand drive, two-handed backhand drive, both with overspin. Thumb of left hand around handle on backhand drive. Hard-hit ground strokes, particularly the backhand.”

I asked McManus about a comment Clark Graebner (No. 2 in the U.S. and No. 7 in the world in 1968) once made about him. Asked in an interview about players he liked to compete against, he selected McManus as someone he was very comfortable facing. Graebner said he could virtually pick the score when he played McManus. The comment was not meant in a derogatory way; he simply liked the way his style blended against his fellow American’s, and candidly explained why he was so confident playing the left-hander.

McManus says, “Clark had a good forehand and a big serve, and he knew how to volley, but he also exuded a self confidence I may have wished I had. He was the guy with the chest puffed out who would strut around the court, and you looked at him and you just knew he was better. Maybe he put on a bit of a façade but I don’t think that was really it. It was just Clark knowing how good he was. With Arthur, in many respects what was intimidating was how he could raise his play and make shots that would cause you to say to yourself, ‘Come on Arthur. You can’t do that. You pulled that out of a hat. You could never hit a shot like that in your life.’ But he did. He did it all with casual ease and confidence, too.”

When asked if he saw Ashe becoming a towering world figure and someone who would transcend tennis in many ways, McManus replied, “Arthur was probably the most knowledgeable person on the circuit the way he would research things. Once we played a late match in Richmond and we were going to Salisbury, Maryland for the next tournament. Arthur needed a ride and I had a car so we drove together. It was about two or three in the morning and we were on the road and Arthur turned to me and said, ‘Jim, don’t stop.’ I said, ‘Arthur, what are you talking about?’ He said in kind of a pleading manner, ‘Jim, whatever you do, don’t stop. They don’t like whites driving blacks around in this part of Maryland.’ When I said, ‘Come on, Arthur,’ he mentioned he had read in Newsweek about how the [Ku Klux] Klan was big around Cambridge and Georgetown. I told him he had to be kidding, but he was absolutely serious. We did drive without stopping. But maybe he felt so strongly because he had read up on this. It was the same much later when he had a heart attack and he had so much knowledge then about his heart from reading about it.”

All through the early stages of the Open Era, McManus was frequently mistaken for the redoubtable Rod Laver. As the gifted scribe John McPhee wrote in his 1971 book, “Wimbledon: A Celebration”, “McManus has the same build that Laver has, much the same nose, and similar freckles as well. Players practicing with McManus easily fantasize that they are hitting with the Rocket himself, and thus they inflate their confidence. McManus is the favorite dummy of everyone who has to play against Laver.”

As McManus recollects now, “Several times I was mistaken for Rod Laver. The first memorable case of this was in Australia once when I got to the final of Sydney in the mixed doubles. I flew to Melbourne and got in an elevator and a lady started saying how well I had played and I thanked her. She was congratulating me and saying it must have been a hard match and she kept going with the compliments. Finally, her last comment was to ask me what I was going to do with all of the money. I realized then she thought I was Rod. “

During Wimbledon, the players frequently went to a restaurant in London called Ponteveccio. McManus recalls, “I was eating there one night and they thought I was Rod. They gave me a nice table. Rod came in later and sat down at a table and I asked them to send over a complimentary drink from Jim McManus. I knew Rod and we were always good friends and we travelled on the WCT circuit together in the seventies. We had a lot of fun together. I think he was aware that people sometimes thought I was him and occasionally he would pass me and say, ‘Hi Rod.’ He was a really humble guy and he would treat you on and off the court just as nicely.”

McManus could just as well have been describing himself when he made that assessment of Laver. In any event, after playing into the mid-1970’s, McManus shifted into the administrative arena. He became a founding member of the ATP in 1972, and worked for that organization for no fewer than 28 years. During that long stretch, he was an indispensable behind the scenes contributor, ever the voice of integrity, always understanding the viewpoint of the players, ceaselessly offering leaders like inaugural Executive Director Jack Kramer the benefit of his quiet wisdom and comprehension of the game’s intricacies.

What stands out to McManus about the nearly three decades that he served the ATP so significantly? He answers, “I was very dedicated to it and liked working with Jack Kramer. I realized how great he was at understanding the big picture after all the things he had done in the game as a player and pro promoter and Davis Cup coach. I tried to bring a semblance of organization to the tour when I worked with Jack in Los Angeles for a couple of years. Then Bob Briner came aboard after Jack and I went with Bob. I realized I was the only tennis knowledgeable person he had hired at the time until a couple of others came on that knew the ins and outs of tennis. I believe I was able to make contributions to the establishment of a pension plan and with the computer ranking system. We started the rankings in 1973 and the pension plan in 1980, which was called the Jaime Fillol Plan because he was President of the ATP at the time.”

McManus would work for other powerful leaders of the ATP including Butch Buchholz and Hamilton Jordan and Mark Miles. How does he believe he fit in with his sensibilities to the shaping of the ATP? “I brought a background of experience,” he says. “I was on the ATP board for a while as Secretary or Treasurer or whatnot, and I guess I helped with some of the directions we went in.”

How does he feel about what the ATP has become, and the commitment of the players toward the association? “The players have a lot to do to be more a part of the game that has helped them. One of my pet peeves would be to see them all wear collared shirts, and I don’t care what color that is. When I think of the PGA, everybody has their shirttails tucked in and they all dress to a certain uniform code. Only rarely do you see anybody out there in blue jeans. I feel tennis has become a teashirt society and it gets to me when I am out at Indian Wells and I see Pete Sampras and a couple of others come out of the locker room and hop in a go-cart in teashirts and they all go out to practice. Maybe that is the way it is, but you look at the teashirts and wonder if they are advertising that tournament or one that is two months down the road or three months passed. I feel the players could be a little more presentable and so forth.”

McManus—wanting to maintain his independence—published his book on his own. He explains, “I never even approached the ATP to publish it. When I made up my mind that the book should be published I questioned if I should go to the ATP and ask their permission. I wanted them to know about it and felt they did from looking at the work I was doing at the office, but did they want me to report in the book that Butch Buchholz solid his [Miami] tournament [to IMG] for a reported $33 million? I didn’t ask and felt I didn’t have to ask. I just did it myself. I felt that was the best way for me to go with the book.”

How rewarding is it in a psychic sense to have produced a book that so comprehensively explores the history of tournament tennis? McManus responds, “Now that it is out I am elated and feel I have accomplished a lot. It was fun to look at the history; for instance, how long was the Alan King tournament in existence? {The answer is 12 years--- 1972-83]. The fact that the wives [ of the players][ had a tournament, the story of Jim Westhall in North Conway and all his ups and downs, Marilyn Fernberger with the U.S. Pro Indoors, the history of the Hamburg tournament--- all of it fascinated me.  There is an interesting story behind every tournament.”

Jim McManus can be proud of so many aspects of his life in tennis, both on and off the court, in and outside the arena. The extraordinary leaders he served know that he was an invaluable ally and a friend of the sport who has devoted himself to it unconditionally. McManus stands for the best that tennis has to offer. He has never sought to glorify himself or his achievements. The closest he comes in the book to openly confirming his pride about his part in tennis history is a brief comment he made in his introduction.

After explaining his rationale for the book in three other areas, McManus states, “Fourth and lastly, my ego got into the act…. Being the doubles winner of the Queen’s Club tournament and having my name on the same list as Bob Hewitt and Fred Stolle, or Neale Fraser and Lew Hoad, certainly didn’t make me their equal, but it did make me feel good.”

As well it should. That is hardly a burst of ego. It is simply a man who is proud of having been an estimable achiever in his field, a fellow who realizes he worked hard at his craft, and above all else a tennis devotee who can smile widely at what he has done and how earnestly and ethically he has gone about his business. “I have stayed interested in the game through my whole life,” says Jim McManus, “and being in it for that long has been a thrill for me.”

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