As tennis observers around the world gather together at Flushing Meadows in a few weeks for our approaching National Tennis Championships, an older observer of the scene keeps returning to a collection of chapters and essays in an outstanding and historical narrative about the sport, written by an extraordinary reporter of champions.
In an age that boasted such writing stalwarts as Damon Runyon, Grantland Rice and Heywood Broun, Al Laney in “Covering the Court” assists the reader on a sentimental journey back through the mirrors of time. Laney was the night editor at the Paris Herald during most of the 1920s and later became associated with the New York Herald Tribune as an enriching correspondent in the realm of tennis and golf.
Turning to the pre-World War I era, focus is directed toward the fabulous Maurice McLoughlin, our own champion in 1912 and 1913. He was billed as the “California Comet” and stung the ball in those days better than most. The “Comet” became the author’s hero and tennis then became a natural outlet for this writer.
The book’s many touching and dramatic moments center on such unusual champions, men and women who were able to maintain a level of professional style and grace while facing tremendous pressures.
Post-World War I introduced the flamboyant William “Big Bill” Tilden of Philadelphia, who was the finest practitioner of the game between 1920 and 1930. Tilden won six consecutive U.S. titles, from 1920 through 1925. He was upended by one of the four French Musketeers, Henri Cochet, in the semifinals at Forest Hills in 1926, but came back a few years later and won again in 1929.
Tilden viewed the court as a stage and accepted the plaudits of his public more often than his many contemporaries. He was by far a very intelligent player who perfected the cannonball service, which always helped him during difficult moments. Tilden scored more important victories coming from behind than many other competitors of his day, although no historian has yet been able to explain one of his heartbreaking defeats in the 1927 Wimbledon final after leading, 5-1, in the concluding set.
The rise of the four Frenchmen in 1924 — Cochet, René Lacoste, Jean Borotra and Jacques Brugnon — brought viewers sensational matches over the rest of the decade as Tilden faced them 18 times between 1927 and 1930, winning eight while coping with birthdays that slowly nudged him to the back side of the hill. His last amateur title, at 37, included a stunning Wimbledon semifinal match over Borotra in 1930 en route to an easy winning final over Wilmer Allison, who later became our national titleist in 1935. By the way, most champions of this era realized that failure at Wimbledon, the holy of holies, dims beautiful triumphs elsewhere.
Women champions, as well, play a significant role in this book, especially in 1926 at Monte Carlo, where “glamorous people wandered about pathways decked with flowers.” Cocktail and dinner parties became foundations for social and business success. This enclave of aristocracy, centered at Cannes, produced one of the most memorable ladies’ matches in 1926, between world champion Suzanne Lenglen and Helen Wills (later Moody), a rising young player from California known as “Little Miss Poker Face.” The unusual description of this pulverizing match must be read to be appreciated in its fullest drama. The author reports that the French champion arrived at center court “unusually dressed in a bandeau of many colors.” Mademoiselle Lenglen placed women’s tennis on the map and barely prevailed in this confrontation. By 1933, Wills had won Wimbledon six times and was French and U.S. champion four times, losing only one set during that run.
The writer addresses eloquently the eras of Fred Perry, the exquisite English champion, and J. Donald Budge, who by the late 1930s was the highest-ranked men’s player in the world. Budge may have had the finest backhand the game has ever seen. If it weren’t for a training camp mishap in the early 1940s, Budge might well have achieved additional laurels. His triumphs during his playing days led to the distinctive Grand Slam in 1938, an enviable achievement that moved him close to the top of our century’s distinctive champions.
Laney discusses the so-called “big game,” i.e., serve and volley made popular by Jack Kramer during the 1940s that really was utilized by the better players of the late 19th century. There is a wonderful chapter on the difference between a first-class player and a champion. A champion maintains greatness without touching it and sets up an opponent with a series of shots before the final error or winning point.
For latter-day historians, there is additional commentary on Ken Rosewall, Lewis Hoad, Richard (Pancho) Gonzales, Gottfried von Cramm, Rodney Laver, Alice Marble, Helen Jacobs, Maureen Connolly, Maria Bueno and Margaret Smith Court. This is a book about singles and brings to interested readers the historical achievements of these wondrous players and their fine contributions to a sport first called lawn tennis in 1874.
The writer played varsity tennis at Boston College from 1948 to 1952.