I have never been a fan of reading encyclopedias. So it was with some trepidation that I opened Randy Walker’s book On This Day in Tennis History. The thought of reading about things that happened in tennis from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31 through the years sounded slightly, but only slightly, more fun than curling up with a set of the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Boy, was I wrong. The format still seems kind of odd. Do you read it from January to December? Do you just look up whatever day it is, to see what cool things happened in tennis history that day? I’m a pretty obsessive tennis fan, but not quite that devoted. Or, you can just skip around in the book, trolling for the fascinating tidbits and stories that Walker has packed in. I recommend this diving in and out approach. But, however one overcomes their “what am I doing reading a reference book” prejudice, it is well worth the effort because Walker has written a fascinating portrait of the game and its many eccentric characters.
I came away from the book with a ton of new insights that will make me an even more valuable conversational partner after a weekend doubles match at my club. Yes, there’s still the problem of my shaky second serve, but Walker doesn’t claim his book will work miracles on the court.
For example, does the average Long Island Tennis Magazine readers understand that Ivan Lendl dominated John McEnroe from the middle years of their rivalry on. The head-to-head record of the two men is 20-15 in favor of the Czech Lendl.
Then there is the way that reading Walker’s book can balance the New York City metro area reader’s knowledge of odd little bits of the history of our international game that he might not be aware of. If something happens at a Grand Slam or in the U.S., we may read about it or see it. But if it's in a non-Grand Slam event on the other side of the world, we might not have heard about it.
A lot of tennis fans will grin knowingly if someone mentions the story about Marat Safin dropping his shorts at the French Open in May 2004. In a fourth round match against Spaniard Felix Mantilla, Safin celebrated a winning drop shot by pulling his shorts to his thighs while leaning over the net. He felt it was unfair that he was penalized a point for his gesture.
The beauty of Walker’s book is that it puts Safin’s display into perspective by reporting that Jeff Tarango topped the Russian in on-court stripping and did it 10 years earlier. I can only think that Tarango's performance didn’t get noticed because it happened in a non-Grand Slam event in Japan. The story Walker tells is that in the second round of the 1994 Seiko Championships in Tokyo, Tarango, in the words of Britain’s Daily Record, “pulled his shorts down, raised his arms, and waddled to his seat courtside with his shorts around his ankles and his underpants in full view.” He earned a code violation and a $3,000 fine, but the important thing is that thanks to Walker’s book, the discerning tennis fan can see that Safin’s unveiling was not an isolated moment in tennis history. You could also conclude that if a player pulls down his shorts a little as Safin did, he can still win, though it was a two-day, five setter over Felix Mantilla. Throw in the waddling, as Tarango did, and it resulted in a loss as Tarango retired at 1-4 in the third after his walkabout giving opponent Michael Chang the win.
Another story Walker tells is about the 1943 U.S. Nationals Championships final between Jack Kramer and Joe Hunt. On the last point, right after Kramer hit a forehand long, Hunt crumpled to the ground with cramps as he approached the net to shake hands. As recounted in the Bud Collins book, History of Tennis, Kramer said, “If I’d kept the ball in the court, I think I’d have been champ by default.”
But Walker’s book isn’t only a collection of tennis trivia, there are important points made about serious moments in the game’s history, as well such as Arthur Ashe’s U.S. Open win in 1968 and Stan Smith’s outstanding performance in the U.S./Romania Davis Cup final in 1972. Smith clinched the Cup with his second singles win of the tie, beating Ion Tiriac 4-6, 6-2, 6-4, 2-6, 6-0 in Bucharest.
In all, Walker converted me to an appreciation of his book’s structure and I can recommend it heartily to tennis fans whether for its moments of high drama or slapstick comedy.