| By Michael Forte
Photo courtesy of Getty Images

 

Douglas Henderson’s 2010 book, Endeavor to Persevere: A Memoir on Jimmy Connors, Arthur Ashe, Tennis and Life, chronicles his life growing up in the Bronx in the late- 1960’s, discovering his love for tennis and being involved with some of the greatest players of all-time, including body guarding for Jimmy Connors.

Henderson, a New York City native, now works as a lawyer at a trust and estates firm in Manhattan, and spent 18 US Opens with Connors. I sat down with Henderson to discuss his book and life in tennis.


Forte: How did you first become involved in tennis?

Henderson: When I was in high school at Horace Mann, I played on the varsity football, basketball and baseball teams. I was pretty good at them and felt I needed a new challenge. In the July of 1974 I watched Jimmy Connors play Ken Rosewall in the Wimbledon finals, I had never seen tennis like that! My idea of tennis was a wealthy sport for the “elite”, but Connors brought attitude to the game!

That summer I signed up for summer camp tennis at my high school with Skip Hartman, I had only played the sport a few times in gym class. I asked Skip to play one day and he told me, “sure, on the condition that the loser has to clean up the court!” 

I played tennis nearly every day and read every article and book I could find. I met a guy named Bill Brown who suggested, if I’m really interested in tennis, I go to the US Open. So, I did, me and my buddies went – it was much cheaper back then – down to the Open, it was still being held at West Side Tennis Club in those days. There was a gate for club members and we managed to befriend the guards enough to let us enter that way into the clubhouse. We went in, hung out in the men’s locker room watching Chris Evert on the practice court down below, and a voice from behind us called out, “hey, mind if I come watch?” It was Jimmy Connors! We couldn’t believe it! He was the nicest guy to us, [he] didn’t even know us but Jimmy got us in to watch his match; I grabbed his bags for him and walked him to the court.


And that’s how you started working for Jimmy?

Well, that’s how it started but it was more of a friendship. So, after he went on to win that tournament in 1974, he gave me his phone number to stay in touch. The next year rolled around and we met again at the Open—I was with him for that tournament, he lost in the final to Manuel Orantes. I worked with him for 1974 and 1975, and then in 1976 when he beat Bjorn Borg in a great final; that’s when it was played on clay! Jimmy lost in ‘77 to Guillermo Vilas—all the while we were friends. In 1978, it moved to Flushing Meadows and changed to “cement”; Connors won that first tournament there. I was with him until his last tournament in 1992, around 18 US Opens!


Your book is filled with many fascinating stories, some of them unbelievable, what inspired you to write it?

I’ve always liked writing; I was a writer in high school and college. I’ve actually ghost written five or six books on health and nutrition and I’ve written for magazines and newspapers. I feel like I was privileged enough to live through the “Golden Era” of tennis, with so many fascinating individuals, like Ilie Nastase from Romania: so unbelievably talented and entertaining, he also became a good friend. I felt it was time to get my story out to people.


What’s the most unique experience working with and being a friend of Jimmy has brought you?

There was the time we came back to the hotel after a day at the Open and President Nixon was there! Jimmy introduced me and his wife to him. I was never a fan of his politics, but he was still a former president! The next morning, I went down to the lobby to get the daily paper and I hear someone call my name, and I turned around it was Nixon! What impressed me was that my back was to him, he could’ve just kept walking by me, but he saw fit to call me over and that always stuck with me.


In your book you also speak extensively about Arthur Ashe. Tell me about your relationship with him and how his passing affected you?

I met Arthur Ashe over the phone, actually; his number was listed in the Manhattan directory! In 1975 I called him, and we started talking and developed a good relationship. When I was with Connors at the Open that yea, he played and won his first-round match and Arthur was the next match on. He came on court and looked at me in the stands—you have to understand that there weren’t that many black people around in tennis at the time. I always imagined Arthur was thinking “man, I knew Connors was crazy but damn, what is going on here?” But out of that, we developed a great relationship that lasted right up until his death. He wrote my college recommendation for Clark University, my first college! 

Arthur and I remained close through the years; we always spoke at least once a week. He announced to the world that he had AIDS in April 1992, but I had already known—Jimmy had told me. Through my research and some of the books I had ghost written on alternative medicines, vitamins, minerals and that sort of thing, I knew a doctor who was seemingly treating and curing patients of AIDS. I told Arthur about this, before his announcement, and Arthur didn’t believe it. He met with the guy but never went through with the treatment. We were really close, he died on February 6. That Thursday before, I called him and his voice was really weak, we spoke for only 15 minutes and that was the last time I spoke to him, it was really sad.

I’d say Arthur was the most intelligent athlete we ever had, both on and off the court. I think he could’ve been a senator or run for president. He was principled and took a stand for what he believed in. He stood against apartheid in South Africa when no one else would. One of the first things Nelson Mandela did when he got out of jail was say he wants to speak to Arthur!


What was living the 1991 US Open with Jimmy like?

So, a bit of back story first: Connors took the 1990 US Open off due to a wrist injury, but he decided almost last minute that he wanted to play in 1991. He needed match practice, so we went up to New Haven to play the warm-up event there. Jimmy lost first round to MaliVai Washington in straight sets and it wasn’t close! So, we had dinner at the hotel that night; Vitas Gerulaitis was there. Jimmy said to me, “if I get on a roll, someone is gonna get hurt at the Open”.

So, we went down to the Open and Jimmy practiced with Vitas every day. The draw came out and we see he’s playing McEnroe—not John, but his brother Patrick. The stadium was full, and Jimmy was down two sets and 0-4, but he somehow came back. The crowd got behind him and he was pumping himself up. In the Round of 16, he beat Aaron Krickstein in one of the classic matches ever, 7-6 in the fifth set. In the quarterfinals he played and beat Paul Haarhuis in a tremendous night match. But father time is undefeated, and he ran out of gas and lost to Jim Courier in the semifinals.

But it was the most incredible run, to do that at 39-years-old was completely remarkable. He’s called it the best tournament of his career, and he didn’t even win it!


What advice do you have for people graduating high school or college and starting their adult careers?

I was always a big fan of the late, great Richard Pryor—Jimmy and I would watch his films from time to time. He and his wife Patti ran into Richard Pryor at a restaurant in Los Angeles, and got him to send me an autograph. It says, “To Doug, enjoy life”. I really, really think that coupled with a quote from a great professor of mine at Sarah Lawrence College named Joseph Campbell, “follow your bliss”. It’s important to realize all that glitters is not gold”. It’s the simple things in life that make it worth living. Everybody wants to be a master, but nobody wants to be an apprentice! You have to be an apprentice before you can be a master.

 

 

Michael Forte

Michael Forte is a certified USPTA Professional and USPTR 10 & Under professional who currently works at USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. He is a journalism/philosophy double major at CUNY Lehman College where he plays #1 singles for the men’s team.