The classical music station was playing “Pavane for a Dead Princess,” by Ravel.
It was beautiful, and I didn't know it, and I wondered why WQXR-FM was playing it on the second day of September while I was driving home from the US Open.
Then I remembered: the Open of 1997, and another princess who died on Aug. 31, and how I saw her once at Wimbledon.
Journalists see public figures, even on the sports beat: Jimmy Carter under the stands at Turner Field. Lyndon Baines Johnson on opening day in Washington, D.C. Hillary Clinton visiting the press box in Wrigley Field. And John F. Kennedy, Jr., right in front of me in Madison Square Garden. Coolest guy in the world.
And Princess Diana at Wimbledon. I’ll never forget the eyes.
The old press tribune was directly alongside the Royal Box. Princess Diana was on the guest list one day in the late ‘80s. We all checked her out early, and went back to our business.
Later, I turned my head and caught those piercing eyes, looking back at us. Perhaps she wondered who that raffish lot was, as we chattered and gestured our way through the afternoon – a fitting Shakespearean upstairs/downstairs balance to the swells in the Royal Box.
She should have heard some of the Brits with lurid commentary, imitating plummy royal accents. I’d like to think she would have laughed.
Her two little boys were scuttling around the box, watched by helpers. Their mom was checking things out, with the curiosity we read about, her concern for the underclass, that is to say, us. I don’t know that she cared much about the tennis. She certainly seemed to be a seeker.
* * *
One evening in the mid ‘90’s, John F. Kennedy, Jr., was sitting in front of me at the Garden, a couple of rows up, behind where Spike Lee sits, facing the Knicks bench.
He arrived late, wearing a nice suit, probably just came from work. He was by himself, and he appeared to be starving, keeping one eye on the game as he devoured a hot dog. Then he went to work on a large sack of fries.
Just to Kennedy’s left, a boy around ten years old was staring at him. Either the boy knew who was sitting next to him, or he was salivating from the proximity of the fries.
Kennedy popped in a few more fries. Did not turn his head. Did not smile or try to ingratiate himself with the boy. But like a point guard making a blind pass, Kennedy held out the bag of fries and shook it.
The boy knew a good thing, took a handful. I don’t think he said a word but then again, JFK, Jr., was not looking for thanks. That was not necessary between a couple of guys who understood each other perfectly. The pass. The dunk. Kennedy understood hunger; the boy understood generosity.
* * *
After hearing Ravel’s “Pavane” on the car radio, I came home and googled up the music, written in tribute to a patron from the Singer sewing machine family, Winnaretta Singer, who was in a lavender marriage with the Prince de Polignac.
Our age has few princesses, few princes, worth noting. I remember Diana’s piercing eyes, and how JFK, Jr., could see out of the corner of his eye.
Strictly by coincidence, the Times has a feature on the Op-Ed Page Saturday about the vanishing storefronts of New York, victims of rising rents.
I was already planning my ode to the vanishing landmark of Queens, the house of upsets, the cramped, smoky pit known as the Grandstand.
Once upon a time it was the second court at the United States Open, an afterthought grafted onto the main arena, Louis Armstrong Stadium, itself a tennis improv. But now in the name of modernity, the Grandstand has been phased out. It is serving as Practice Court 6 for this year’s Open but then will be bulldozed, gone, like ancient temples destroyed by vandals.
The Open is one of the two best sporting events in my home-town, along with the one-day phenomenon of the Marathon in the fall. I can look past the money and the privilege and see the Open, with its roots at the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, as still very much a Queens event, right off the No. 7 elevated train.
This year the Open has a new retractable roof over Ashe Stadium to keep the show moving when the monsoon hits. The Armstrong will be replaced by a new second stadium. The Open also has a new generic bowl, called the Grandstand with 8,200 seats. I am sure it has more amenities than the old Grandstand but it does not exactly have the feel of an Elizabethan bear-baiting den.
For many years, the players had to inhale the meaty fumes from a restaurant suspended above the west stands. Something was always out to get the favorite at the Grandstand:
In 1985, Kevin Curren, the fifth-seeded player from South Africa, was bumped off in the first round by upcoming young Guy Forget of France. Curren promptly emitted a Hope Solo solo, blaming the site for his troubles.
“I hate the city, the environment and Flushing Meadow,” Curren said. “There is noise, the people in the grandstand are never seated and it takes an hour and a half in traffic to get here. It’s sickening that with all the money they get from TV, the USTA doesn’t build a better facility. The USTA should be shot. And they should drop an A-bomb on the place.”
Curren was not the only player to get bushwhacked in the Grandstand. On Friday I ran into a former player who had benefited from the blood lust of the fans.
In 1981, Andrea Leand, all of 17, met second-seeded Andrea Jaeger in the second round – in the Grandstand.
“Andrea was up a set and 5-2,” Leand recalled. “I could hear a broadcaster saying, ‘That’s it, she’s done.’”
Then again, you could hear everything in the Grandstand. “I heard a man asking his son, ‘Do you want a hot dog?’”
The mob began howling for a new victim to be sacrificed to the Grandstand deities. “The sound went right through you,” Leand recalled with a beatific smile. She beat Jaeger, 1-6, 7-5, 6-3. It could happen to anybody, and often did.
The litany of Grandstand upsets is long – best left to an expert like Randy Walker, who last year wrote a farewell to the Grandstand, well worth reading:
The great thing about the ramshackle center of the 80’s was that reporters could watch Grandstand matches from the back of the press box in the main stadium. One match turned into a heavyweight fight -- Roscoe Tanner, one of the hardest hitters on the tour, and Chip Hooper, a big fellow, trying to drill each other, up close and apparently quite personal.
This being the yappy borough of Queens -- Trump! McEnroe! Archie Bunker! -- the fans egged them on.
Competition was also nasty in the lines as fans tried to get into a match that had suddenly turned epic. I visited the old den the other day – a few fans watching John Isner and a hitting partner whacking the ball around, but no yelps from fans seeking a new victim.
The Grandstand could have served forever as an anarchic, irregular heirloom – a tribute to history. But Open executives can still revive the gritty aura of the old place: pipe fumes from the grille directly onto the court. Kevin Curren would feel right at home.
For so many years, the schedule of a sports columnist took me far from home on the birthday of my country, on my own birthday.
“Do you remember all the places you’ve been?” my wife asked. Sometimes she was with me. Sometimes she wasn’t.
Companions get used to journalists being away -- weekends, nights, holidays, birthdays, anniversaries. My wife recalls my taking a day's drive to the mountains on our first month in Kentucky -- and being gone for New Year's after a mine blew up in Hyden. (After that, I kept a change of clothes in the car.)
Reporters head toward danger, not totally unlike police and fire officers. But I was a family guy and could be hard to find by the office when a child had a big game or we had company. But sports reporters often work on scheduled events and cannot avoid being away holidays and weekends.
It's easier for a man than a woman to forage for a meal on the road. In her Sunday column, Maureen Dowd describes the snooty reaction to a single female diner in a Paris hotel. Alas, her good meal was spoiled by the rancid presence of Boris and Donald in her active mind.
My birthdays were often spent on the road. When I was at Wimbledon, I would scan the Times, which ran a daily box of birthdays of notables. I never expected to see my name – and never did – on July 4 but I was always happy that George Steinbrenner was a non-person in the UK, and I hoped Pam Shriver would be mentioned.
I never mentioned my birthday to colleagues; why draw attention in a press room? But in the age of the blog, here are birthday highlights of a travelling journalist:
1939: Born the day Lou Gehrig delivered his farewell speech in Yankee Stadium, I was a Brooklyn Dodger fan at birth.
The ‘60’s: a blur of Mets and Yanks, three children being born, great times. Was I in Minnesota…or Shea Stadium….or home? Can’t remember.
1970: We took the family to Italy for a glorious month. I can’t remember where we were on July 4 – possibly the side trip to Switzerland – but I do know that on July 9, Corinna’s birthday, my wife arranged a cake on the hotel patio, off the Via Veneto.
1976: Bicentennial Day. Now a news reporter, I was assigned to a destroyer in the Hudson, where Henry Kissinger was on board. Asked about the raid on Entebbe the night before, the Secretary of State said in his gravelly accent, “You people know more than I do.”
1982: I was alone in Barcelona, covering my first World Cup. On the night of the Third, I went to a concert by Maria del Mar Bonet in a plaza. The next day I went to El Corte Inglés and bought a vinyl record of hers, which I still play, in memory of a lonely but beautiful night.
1986: We landed in Moscow for the Goodwill Games. A grim customs agent inspected my passport and suddenly he smiled and said, “Happy birthday” in English – the start of a lovely three weeks, glasnost in summery Moscow.
Wimbledon: The English always honor the Original Brexit with flags flying, burgers in pubs. I would buy a bag of cherries in Southfields and sit with a friend and listen to the military band play American music before the tennis began.
1990: We woke up in Naples after Argentina beat Italy on penalty kicks in the semifinals of the World Cup, and we took the train back to Rome, celebrating the day in the trattoria beneath our flat near the Piazza Navona.
1994: Tab Ramos was cold-cocked by Leonardo in the round of 16 at Stanford. I bought a great t-shirt with American and Brazilian flags; it recently fell apart. After dinner with Filip Bondy and Julie Vader in Palo Alto, I caught the red-eye to Boston for another match.
1998: Dennis Bergkamp scored in the 90th minute as the Netherlands beat Argentina, 2-1, in Marseilles. We were staying in Aix; my wife had gone shopping in a market for presents.
1999: A joint birthday celebration, for me and ace photographer John McDermott in San Francisco, with family, the night before steamy July 4 semi of Women’s World Cup, a 2-0 victory over Brazil.
2004: Alone in a motel in Waterloo, on the Lance watch, reading David Walsh’s book that pretty much convinced me Lance was cheating. (The masseuse who was ordered to lie about saddle sores!) Watched Greece beat host Portugal in Euro final and wrote paean to underdogs.
2005: Roger Federer beat Andy Roddick in the Wimbledon finals. Next morning we took the Eurostar to France to pick up Lance’s bid for a fifth. Two days later, we heard that nihilists had set off explosions in the London transit.
2006: In our hotel in Berlin, watched Italy beat Germany, 2-0, in semifinals, then went out in streets to interview rollicking fans, celebrating a good run with beer and curry and ever-present wurst.
2010: Jeffrey Marcus drove from cold, inland Johannesburg to the fresh salt air of Durban for the Germany-Spain semifinal two days later. My unexpected birthday present: chatty Indian staff and glorious smell of curry from the dining room -- a treat for a journalist who picked an odd day to be born.
(Birthday wishes to Pam Shriver, John Hewig and John McDermott, all over the globe.)
No sport carries a sense of community like tennis. Even with gigantic prize money and swollen retinues of today, the sport remains somewhat a caravan of gypsies familiar to each other, even though their occupations vary – players, coaches, hitting partners, significant others, moms and dads, agents and publicists, plus the specialists who cover the sport: the peripatetic photographers plus the scribblers and babblers, as Bud Collins called himself and his colleagues.
Arthur Worth Collins, Jr., was the center of one sport, more than any other journalist has ever been.
In his half century on the beat, tennis has been a movable feast, seeking warm spots year round – Monaco in April, Wimbledon in late June, Australia in January – jet-lagged regulars taking the rays during a desultory early-round match in some tune-up event.
Collins could doze in the sun with the best of them, as recalled by Bill Littlefield of WBUR radio, who spoke at the memorial service for Collins in historic Trinity Church on Copley Square in Boston last Friday.
Littlefield talked about Collins the writer – often overlooked amidst his garish pants and equally garish vocabulary – who could describe the sound of tennis balls being “punished,” yet make it a soft, pleasurable backdrop to life itself, like a heartbeat.
Collins was the heart of the sport for decades, back to the late 60s when he shifted from a general sports reporter who recognized the special ones, Muhammad Ali and Bill Russell and Billie Jean King, becoming a tennis maven.
He brought people together at events around the world, said Lesley Visser, once a Globe sports writer, now a broadcaster, who recalled how Collins could write a column and simultaneously answer questions from colleagues, always ending with some version of “ciao” in their native tongues.
(He addressed me as “VAY-chay,” which is how real Hungarians pronounce my name. Three Italian insiders – Gianni Clerici, Ubaldo Scanagatta and Rino Tommasi – in turn called him “Collini.”)
Collins, in failing health for years, passed on March 4 at 86, and his wife and protector and caretaker for two decades, Anita Ruthling Klaussen, spent three months preparing a ceremony -- on his birthday -- that was both elaborate and parochial in that most hamish of great American cities.
The service was both stately Episcopalian and randy jock. In the pews were familiar faces, and forehands, of Rod Laver, Stan Smith, Todd Martin and Pam Shriver, as well as tennis officials from around the world, and journalists who knew Collins both as friend and source (oh, and by the way, a very accomplished "hacker" in the tennis sense of the word.)
Two great champions spoke. Chris Evert recalled being a monosyllabic 16-year-old, feeling the kindness of Collins, and later, when she lost seven Wimbledon finals to a rival whose name she did not need to pronounce, Collins was always at courtside, doing a worldwide live interview “in those silly pants,” but with a kind smile that showed he understood the pain of being second on that day of days.
Billie Jean King, wearing a pink blazer in tribute to the people who died in Orlando a week earlier, captured the day, for me, because she was once again Mother Freedom – nickname courtesy of Collins – and like Evert she remembered being interviewed by Collins at 16 and finding she could talk to him.
King's talk was disciplined, smart and passionate. She remembered Ali once telling her that people had to always be ready for the moment. She found that trait in Collins, always in tune to the colors and tones and spins and bounces of that day, living in the moment, working hard, enjoying himself.
The congregation was elderly, many people moving slower than they used to. Hundreds of them came from a world where everybody followed the sun, hearing the brassy notes from the Pied Piper who was at the core of their world for so long, and so well.
This was at the United States Open five or six years ago. I was sitting outdoors with a couple I knew from the Deep South, tennis fans who had spent a lot of money to be in New York for a few days.
Bud Collins hove into sight, moving fast, sweater thrown jauntily over his shoulders, couple of his books he had been pushing in one hand, and wearing a dazzling pair of pants, made from material he had discovered in some haberdashery or curtain emporium in Mumbai or London or wherever.
My friends brightened at this dazzling sight and looked to me to see if I could slow him down. Bud absolutely screeched to a halt to greet the couple, tennis fans, his people.
I made the introductions, he chatted, picked up on their charming accent, tossed off a quickie memory of their home town, and then he was off, down the lane, moving fast.
“He’s probably due on the air in 30 seconds,” I said.
They were in awe. Bud Collins was the core of tennis, the man who brought it to their town via his pioneering multisyllabic imaginative narrative of tennis, the men and the women.
He came up with nicknames: the mysterious computer rankings ("Medusa"), a love-love blanking ("bagel job"), the dominant German star Steffi Graf ("Fraulein Forehand"), the ultra-composed Chris Evert ("The Ice Maiden") and the powerful Venus and Serena Williams ("Sisters Sledgehammer"). (List from John Jeansonne of Newsday.)
Bud gave life and form and history to tennis. I cannot think of any single journalist/broadcaster/historian that embodied any sport as much as Bud. He was tennis, roaming the earth, the warm places, where players cavorted on red clay or grass or synthetic stuff. Bud followed the sun, bringing his glittering wardrobe with him.
His defining moment was at Wimbledon one year when Martina had just beaten Chris (no last names needed in Bud’s world) in the finals, and Bud was working for NBC.
He stood there with his microphone, and Evert dutifully trudged over for the mandatory interview and she looked him up (ruddy face, frilly shirt) and down (pants looking like watermelons or cherries) and then, before he could launch into his introduction, she said drily, “Nice pants, Bud.” Over worldwide TV.
Bud also played tennis. Back at the dear old West Side Tennis Club in the mid-70’s, I saw him scampering around a celebrity doubles court, barefoot. He coached the sport at Brandeis years ago.
Bud was the memory of the sport, always willing to answer a question when we all were on deadline. He had once taken a spot of tea with people who had won Wimbledon decades earlier. Lefty or righty? Personable or dour? Bud would fill you in.
Bud has been winding down the last few years, in front of our eyes, Father Courage trekking to the Open with the help of his indomitable wife, the photographer Anita Ruthling Klaussen.
Last year the United States Tennis Association named the media center for Bud and Bud got there, in a wheelchair, wearing nice pants. Billie Jean King recalled Bud's respect for women’s tennis.
I recalled how, when I broke in, Bud was covering all sports for the Boston Globe, in the avant-garde of the Chipmunks, the youngish reporters who respected not only Muhammad Ali’s chosen name but also his importance. Before he was a tennis maven, Bud was a versatile journalist.
One thing I noticed that day was the women players who chose to show up for the ceremony. Bud perked up when he spied Katrina Adams, the president of the USTA, and called her a “Wildcat,” a reference to her college, Northwestern. He could see Billie Jean, of course, and also Martina and Rosie and Tracy, faces in the adoring crowd. (Harvey Araton, the Times’s resident voice of sports memory, wrote a sweet column that day.)
Since then, people have been keeping in touch, via Anita. Billie Jean King dropped in one day when she was in Boston. Mary Carillo stayed in touch. So did Lesley Visser and Cindy Shmerler, a tennis authority herself, who recalls a couple of high points of her wedding -- playing tennis with Bud in the morning, dancing cheek-to-cheek with him at the reception. .
Bud passed today – Friday morning. There will be longer, fuller obituaries, and details of a memorial in Boston around what would have been Bud’s 87th birthday, June 17. I just want to thank Bud for stopping and chatting with that couple from the Deep South, and for personifying his sport. Nice pants, Bud.
There’s a nice letter in the Sunday Times describing the kind way Andy Roddick reached out to a 13-year-old who had been diagnosed with leukemia in 2002.
The letter, from Andrea H. Ciminello, says her son, Adam Ciminello, is now a leukemia survivor and a Brandeis graduate, and that Roddick “remains a champion” in the family’s eyes.
Roddick is a bit busy this weekend, playing tennis. Then again, Adam Ciminello is a bit busy, making music in his studio. (He plays the piano and sings and writes his own songs.)
But Adam had some time on the phone Saturday to describe how he came to know Roddick, who was only 19 at the time.
Members of Adam’s family made contact with Roddick’s web site in 2002, saying that the 13-year-old tennis player and Roddick fan was undergoing chemotherapy. Blanche Roddick, Andy’s mother, contacted Andrea Ciminello and they talked, as mothers. Then the young professional, traveling all over the world, began getting in touch with Adam.
“For a while, we would talk every few weeks,” Adam said. “This was back in the day when people used answering machines. He would leave a message, and he would call back.
“We didn’t talk about ‘hang in there’ or “stay strong,’ things the hospital social workers might say with me,” said Adam. “I suppose if I had wanted to talk about it, he would have. But we talked about girls and movies and pop culture.”
One time Adam and his family attended a clinic Roddick was giving at Rockefeller Center, and he met Andy and James Blake – “another great guy.”
Another time the Ciminellos, who live in Poughkeepsie, on the Hudson River north of the city, got a call that Andy was playing in a few hours at one of Billie Jean King’s World Team Tennis events in Schenectady. The family raced upstate, not knowing how it would work out, but Roddick spotted them in the crowd and found them box seats.
“He joked with me during the match,” Adam recalled. “He would say, ‘Adam, where should I play this one?’”
A third time, Roddick spotted Adam during a practice at the U.S. Open and talked to him, without interrupting his work.
In 2003, Roddick won the Open, still his only Grand Slam championship. A few weeks later, Adam found a message on the machine, something like “Sorry I haven’t called but things have been a little crazy around here.”
Adam estimates Roddick called 15 times over three years.
“He could have given me a signed poster and I would have been psyched,” Adam said. “He never did anything for personal gain. If anything, we played it up more than he did.”
At some point, they fell out of touch. Adam played high-school tennis and then discovered other pursuits, which is often how college works.
He takes an annual blood test and EKG – “and that’s it.”
At the moment, Adam is working for his parents, Paul and Andrea, who run their own company, Ecosystem Strategies, Inc. Adam is just starting out as a musician at 23; his pal is retiring from the tennis tour at 30.
As part of his farewell press conference, Roddick made a few jokes about his sometimes testy relationship with the media. It’s his thing. I usually smiled when he dropped a sarcastic line on me or somebody else asking a dumb question. (They were always dumb questions.) I got his humor, which sometimes was meant to deflect the thoughtful guy inside.
Adam Ciminello says Roddick did not have to keep in contact. The important thing is that when a kid was lying in a hospital, receiving chemotherapy, and just dreaming of hitting tennis balls again, Andy Roddick was there to chat about all the good stuff.
I haven't been slacking off, honest. Been going to my favorite New York sports event, the Open.
Working on a piece about night matches. The players love it.
This is a bittersweet Open because Kim Clijsters played her final singles match on Wednesday. Anybody who caught her interview on ESPN2 last evening will understand why she is widely called the nicest person in tennis.
She talked about her late father, Leo Clijsters (whom I saw play defender for Belgium in the World Cup) as a role model, even if he didn't start off knowing much about tennis.
Her praise for her father matches that of James Blake, who is playing a match late this afternoon in Armstrong. He also gives credit to his late father for encouraging him. Blake is having a modest resurgence this summer.
We cannot have too many mature and gracious athletes like Blake and Clijsters.
Off to the Open.
There is nothing in sport quite so public and naked as watching a tennis star trudging off the court after a first-round elimination.
Tennis fans have seen it twice in the past week, as Serena Williams and Andy Roddick were eliminated in the first round.
No place to hide. Just blindly stuff the gear in a bag, maybe manage a wave, and vanish from sight.
This is what draws people to tennis – the loneliness of the singles player, carrying a persona, a resumé, an expectation of still being able to dig something out of muscle memory.
In no other sport is the defeat so early, so finite. Tiger Woods failed to make the cut. Yes, the words still shock, but even the-artist-formerly-known-as-Tiger is performing in the pack, just another name on the board, his score outside the Mendoza line of the second-round cutoff.
Boxing? Yes, I’ve seen a very old Joe Louis training for what everybody (including Louis) knew was going to be a demolition by Rocky Marciano. (My dad took me to Louis’ training camp in New Jersey. Louis was solemn, and miserable, and old.)
Great boxers can run out of time in front of the world. But in that violent business, every fight has the potential for danger, for sudden ends. The first round of a tennis tournament? That’s no time for a star to be eliminated.
We all know that players go downhill. One of the most poignant – and funniest – columns I ever wrote was from Wimbledon in 1991 when Pam Shriver shared the shabby details of being an unseeded player, after all those years, and having to change in the No. 2 dressing room. This most human of players described the wallpaper in the locker room -- Stripes. Plaids. Flowers. Remnants. She made us laugh. She made us cry. That’s why she’s Pam Shriver.
I’ve posted it on this link.
As merciless as time can be, it is still a shock. Baseball players and basketball players can slip downhill, finish up on the bench, get released in a paper transaction in the off-season. But marquee tennis players are out there alone.
All right, so Roddick was – past tense, sort of -- a big-serve finalist at Wimbledon, a one-time champion at the U.S. Open. He still carries that aura, although clay was never his surface, even when he was a contender.
Williams has been a charismatic and powerful champion. It’s hard to see her without thinking of her outbursts at the U.S. Open in 2009 and 2011. That’s part of the package – an intimidator, who does not encourage sympathy.
That’s the thing about stars. We know them for their sarcasm and their bluster as well as for their victories. Then one day they are stuffing racquets into their duffel bags while the true fans give them respectful applause. Still a cruel sport, punctuated by those long steps off the court, alone.
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see:
George Vecsey is Hofstra University's Alumnus of the Month! Read a Q&A with George here.