“To know anything well is to be unhappy.”
—My criminology teacher at Queens College, 1968
I guess that I have contributed enough articles to Long Island Tennis Magazine to allow me to have a little “fun.” Before retiring, I was a history teacher (I know, its “Social Studies,” but I am old school) for a third of a century. It was a great job, but there are always speed bumps on the highway of life. I also build wooden model ships as a hobby, and I am about to embark upon the RMS Titanic. I decided to combine all of these disciplines and compose a column that includes all of their relationships with tennis. I guess I am pampering my inner Andy Rooney. This is one part Yellow Brick Road and one part Twilight Zone.
A brief history of tennis
The history of tennis dates back several thousand years. An Englishman, Major Walter C. Wingfield, invented lawn tennis (1873) and first played it at a garden party in Wales. Henry VIII was an avid tennis player (when he was not busy dispatching his wives). The oldest ball game court (tennis court) in the world is the tennis court that Henry VIII built at Windsor Castle in 1529. Because it was played by royalty, some people believe the term “tennis court” comes from the term “Royal Court.” The tennis racket as we know it today, but with a lopsided head, thick gut, and longer handle was being used in 1750. The shape of the racket enabled the player to scoop the ball out of the corners (floor and walls were considered in-bounds) and also to put ‘cut’ or ‘spin’ on the ball. In tennis, zero score is love. You pronounce a score of 6-0 as six-love. "Love" is generally taken as being derived from the French "l’oeuf," the egg, symbolizing nothing, but the term "love" can also be said to come from the English phrase "neither for love nor for money," indicating nothing.
Between 1859-1865, Major Harry Gem and his friend Augurio Perera developed a game that combined elements of rackets and the Basque ball game pelota, which they played on Perera’s croquet lawn in Birmingham, United Kingdom. It was brought to the United States via Bermuda. During the late 1800s-early 1900s, male players wore long-sleeved shirts and trousers, and women wore ankle-length dresses.
Today, tennis attire is much more relaxing and comfortable to wear (except if you are Nadal, who has to pull at something before every shot. Rene Lacoste, known as the crocodile, is credited with designing the modern tennis shirt ,as well as the modern metal racquet in 1963 (later made popular by Jimmy Connors). A wooden racket was last used at Wimbledon in 1987. The Championships, Wimbledon, commonly referred to as simply "Wimbledon," is the oldest major championship in the sport of tennis and is widely considered to be the most prestigious. The very first Wimbledon Championship was in 1877 when it was watched by some 200 spectators. It only took more than 120 years for the audience to increase, and in 1999, an additional 999,999,800 watched it live and on TV satellite all over the world for an approximate total audience of one billion.
During the World War II, a bomb ripped through Centre Court at the All-England Club and 1,200 seats were lost. Fortunately, they weren't filled at the time. Play finally resumed in 1946 but it wasn't until 1949 that the area was back in top shape.
The idealized and the real
Note that much of this section comes from an article by Joe Dorish published in 2009 in Tennis.
Tennis is supposed to be a civil game played by gentlemen and ladies. But throw in big money and big events and shocking moments are sure to happen. Here are the most shocking tennis court moments in history.
►During the 1996 Wimbledon Men’s Final between Mal Washington and Richard Krajicek, 23-year-old Tournament worker Melissa Johnson streaked through centre court. She wore an apron which she promptly lifted giving those in attendance a nice view of her anatomy.
►During the 1977 U.S. Open in Forest Hills, N.Y. John McEnroe (playing in his first U.S. Open) was playing against Eddie Dibbs in a third round match. A commotion in the stands forced the umpire to call over the two players. “Someone has been shot in the stands,” the umpire told them. Dibbs response was to say, “I’m out of here.” The umpire called him back and said it was a mistake, someone was in shock not shot. McEnroe won the match and then the umpire fessed up and told the two players a spectator in the stands had indeed been shot from a stray bullet from the streets of Queens. The year 1977 was the Son of Sam Summer in New York City, and the last year the U.S. Open was played in Forest Hills.
►At Wimbledon in 1995, Tim Henman (often referred to as “Gentleman Tim” for his high level of sportsmanship), accomplished what no other player had ever done at Wimbledon. During a doubles match with partner Jeremy Bates, Henman lost a crucial point in the fourth set tie-breaker. Angry with himself, Henman picked up the ball and without thinking smashed it down the court. The streaking ball connected squarely with the ear of 16-year-old ballgirl Caroline Hall, who was running across the court at the very same instant. Hall went down like she was shot and the umpire immediately disqualified Henman & Bates from the match. Henman is the only player in Wimbledon’s long history to be disqualified from the tournament.
►On April 30, 1993, Monica Seles was the number one female tennis player in the world and playing in the Citizen Cup in Hamburg, Germany against Maggie Maleeva and was up 6-4, 4-3 when she sat down on her courtside seat during the changeover. A 39-year-old unemployed German lathe operator named Gunter Parche then leaned over the three-ft.-high barrier and stabbed Seles in the back with a 10-in. long knife. Seles let out a scream, clutched her back and stumbled on to the court. The attack took place in front of 6,000 fans in the arena. “He held the knife with both hands as he stabbed her in the back,” said one eyewitness. Seles was rushed to the hospital and treated for a one half inch knife wound in her upper back. Luckily, the knife did not affect her lungs or shoulder blades. Parche was immediately subdued and apprehended. He turned out to be a mentally disturbed fan of Steffi Graf and stabbed Seles to help Graf regain the number one ranking in the world. It took Seles two years to get back to tennis and she was never really the same player again and never regained her number one ranking. Parche was given just a two year suspended sentence.
►Richard Wertheim was working as a linesman during the 1983 U.S. Open Boys Tournament when a shot by Stefan Edberg hit him in the groin and knocked him backwards and he fractured his skull on the hard surface and died shortly thereafter in the hospital. Edberg went on to win six Grand Slam Singles Titles and three Grand Slam Doubles Titles, and even though he did nothing wrong, he will always be remembered for this incident.
Every high school coach’s nightmare: The tennis parent
Believe me, you won’t believe me. My personal experience with this came as the tennis coach. One of the tennis parents hired a local teaching pro to “spy” on my practice sessions. They were unsatisfied at the position I had given their child on the team. Little did they know that I had worked with this pro earlier in the summer. We had a good laugh and he made a little extra money.
Note: A bulk of this section comes from an article by John F. Murray, sports psychologist, Johnfmurray.com.
“Consider the Williams sisters. As the story goes, their father, Richard, upon learning of the lucre that women’s tennis offered, decided to make his next two kids into tennis pros. He taught himself the game, coaching his protégés on rotten courts where their sessions were sometimes interrupted by gunfire before shipping them to a Florida tennis academy for refinement. While his girls racked up Grand Slams (17 singles titles and counting), he made headlines with his histrionic antics at tournaments, erratic ramblings and general weirdness—he insisted on meeting his daughters’ first hitting coach at a public carwash because he believed the FBI had bugged his car and house.”
Obsessive, overbearing and downright insane parents are not a new phenomenon in tennis, nor are they uniquely American.
►Frenchwoman Suzanne Lenglen was the product of a taskmaster father who withheld jam for her bread if she practiced badly. Under Daddy Lenglen’s tutelage, and occasionally fortified with the cognac-soaked sugar pieces he provided during matches, Lenglen won 31 Grand Slam titles between 1914 and 1926.
►In 2000, Jelena Dokic’s father and coach, Damir, who has admitted to hitting Jelena, as he said, “for her sake,” achieved three legs of an ignominious Grand Slam, getting ejected from the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Since Jelena cut ties with him, he’s threatened to kidnap her and drop a nuclear bomb on Australia, where his daughter now lives.
►Maria Sharapova’s father, Yuri Sharapov, is currently so reviled for his cheating (blatant coaching during matches) and belligerence (making a throat-slitting gesture from the stands) that Anastasia Myskina refused to play in the Federation Cup if her countrywoman was named to the Russian team.
►Mike Agassi, is a self-described “crazy Iranian from Las Vegas who browbeat his kids into mastering tennis.” Mike indoctrinated his son Andre by hanging a tennis ball over his crib and taping a ping pong paddle to his hand.
►Stefano Capriati boasted that his daughter Jennifer was doing sit-ups as a baby and had a racket in her hand as soon as she could walk.
►Though Jim Pierce had no tennis background, he pulled daughter Mary out of school to train her full-time, working her up to eight hours a day, sometimes until midnight. He also punched a spectator at the 1993 French Open and was so unruly that he led the women’s tour to add a provision for the banning of abusive players, coaches and relatives. In an act of solidarity, Richard Williams later called him “one of the best parents I have ever known.”
►I guess every tennis fan knows that before Andre Agassi was married to Steffi Graff, he was married to Brook Shields, but how many know that Brooke's grandfather was Francis Xavier Shields, who was an American tennis player. His accomplishments include being a Wimbledon finalist, being ranked eight times in the U.S. Top Ten, including number one in 1933 and number two in 1930.
Tennis and the Titanic
The information cited here is from Wikipedia.
Karl Howell Behr was also a well-known lawn tennis star, playing on the U.S. Davis Cup team in 1907. Behr, with Beals C. Wright, was also runner up in the men's doubles at the 1907 Wimbledon Championships, losing to Norman Brooks & Tony Wilding in three sets, 4-6, 4-6 and 2-6.
In 1912, Behr booked first-class passage on board the RMS Titanic. His main reason for traveling was due to his pursuit of fellow first-class passenger Helen Newsom, who was a friend of Behr's sister. Newsom's mother, in an attempt to discourage the relationship, tried to separate the pair by taking her daughter on a grand tour of Europe, but Behr followed them under the guise of a business trip. Behr occupied cabin C-148 during the voyage.
Sometime after the ship hit the iceberg, Behr met up with Helen, her mother and stepfather, Richard and Sallie Beckwith; and another couple, Edwin and Gertrude Kimball, on the boat deck. Gertrude Kimball asked J. Bruce Ismay if all of their group could enter the boat. Ismay replied, "Of course, madam, every one of you." As a result, Karl Behr and his friends were rescued in Lifeboat #5, the second boat to leave the ship.
After the rescue, several newspapers reported that Behr had proposed to Miss Newsom in the lifeboat. Behr continued his tennis career after the sinking, and went on to win the Davis Cup with fellow Titanic survivor, R. Norris Williams. In 1915, Behr defeated Maurice McLoughlin, considered the world's best tennis player, in straight sets, 8-6, 7-5, 7-5. Williams is best known for his two victories at the U.S. Championships in 1914 and 1916. He was also on the victorious American Davis Cup team twice: in 1925 and 1926 and was considered a fine doubles player. He also had a reputation in singles of always hitting as hard as possible and always trying to hit winners near the lines. This made him an extremely erratic player, but when his game was sporadically "on," he was considered unbeatable.
Williams also gained fame as being a survivor of the RMS Titanic disaster in April 1912. He and his father, Charles Duane Williams, were traveling first-class on the liner when it struck an iceberg and sank. Shortly after the collision, Williams freed a trapped passenger from a cabin by breaking down a door. He was reprimanded by a steward, who threatened to fine him for destroying White Star Line property, an event that inspired a scene in James Cameron's 1997 film Titanic. Williams remained on the doomed liner almost until the very end. At one point Williams' father tried to get a steward to fill his flask. The flask was given to Norris Williams and remains in the Williams family.
After being washed overboard by a wave that also took off Colonel Archibald Gracie, fellow Philadelphian Jack Thayer and Second Officer C.H. Lighttoller, along with several others, the 21-year-old Williams made his way to the Collapsible Lifeboat A holding on to its side for quite a while before getting in. When Williams entered the water, he was wearing a fur coat, which he quickly discarded along with his shoes. Those in Collapsible Lifeboat A who survived were transferred to Lifeboat # 14 by Fourth Officer Lowe. Although abandoned by the Carpathia, Collapsible Lifeboat A was recovered a month later. Amazingly, on board the lifeboat was the discarded fur coat which was returned to Williams by White Star.
Even after entering the lifeboat, he spent several hours waist in freezing water. RMS Carpathia arrived on the scene to rescue survivors. His father was lost in the disaster. The ordeal left his legs so severely injured that the Carpathia's doctor wanted to amputate them. Williams, who did not want his tennis career to be cut short, opted instead to work through the injury. The choice worked out well for him as later that year, he won his first U.S. Tennis Championship, in mixed-doubles, and went on to win many more championships.
Remember, it is the journey, not the destination. Thanks for joining me on mine.