Feinstein: I Love Tennis; I Don't Love Covering It

John Feinstein recounts the difficulties of covering tennis – like the time he almost got arrested in Paris trying to interview John McEnroe

John Feinstein
May 23, 2018 - 10:55 am

USA Today Images


I have always loved tennis. It was the one sport my parents played and enjoyed, and I have fond memories of going to the Meadow Club in Southampton with them every summer when the top players in the world came there to play during the U.S. summer season.
I still remember seeing Jerry Cromwell, who would go on to be an excellent doubles player, shock Roy Emerson in the round of 16 there, 9-7, 6-3. Yes, I remember the scores and feeling as if I’d witnessed history, since Emerson was the No. 1 player in the world at the time.
I also remember a final there between Chuck McKinley and Gene Scott. In those days, if you played a final—anywhere—it was best-of-five. Scott won the first set; McKinley the next two. Then McKinley went up 5-1 in the fourth and the end appeared to be near.
Suddenly, Scott broke to 5-3. Then he broke again to 5-all. The crowd, pulling for both the underdog and more tennis, was going crazy. As McKinley walked to the chair after Scott had held serve to lead 6-5, he looked up and said very clearly in his Texas twang, “Hey, y’all I’m trying like hell here too you know.”
He ended up winning 8-6 and the crowd gave both players a huge ovation. Boy, was it fun.
As soon as I was old enough to ride the subway to Forest Hills, I began going see the U.S. Championships there. Most of the time I could buy a ticket for $3 and sit near the top of the bowl—still a good seat. I saw the very first U.S. Open final in 1968—the year tennis finally abandoned the ridiculous notion that players like Emerson, McKinley and others were amateurs—and began letting the so-called "pros" – those getting paid over the table rather than under it – into the four Grand Slam events.
Rod Laver had won all four Slams in 1962 and then turned "pro," meaning he missed five years—20 Slams. He won the Slam again in 1969 after tennis finally went Open. He ended up winning 11 Slams in all. One has to wonder how many he would have won if not for those five lost years.
Laver didn’t make the Open final in 1968. Arthur Ashe and Tom Okker did. It was played on a Monday afternoon because of rain delays and I was there. Ashe won in five sets; Okker won the $14,000 first prize because Ashe, who was in the Army at the time, was still an amateur. He was stationed at West Point.
Back then, the umpires always referred to players as Mr. or Miss or Mrs. when calling the score. When Ashe won a game the umpire said, “Game, Lieutenant Ashe.”
Little did I know, sitting there as a 12-year-old that I would end up covering Ashe as a Davis Cup captain and become a friend. All I knew was that an American had won at Forest Hills for the first time since 1955 and I’d seen it and that was cool.
Nor did I know that day when Bud Collins did the post-match interview for CBS wearing pants that almost blinded me that someday I’d write a tennis book and co-dedicate it to Bud.
I never played tennis especially well—I still have a few trophies I won as a kid—but once I started swimming, I pretty much gave up playing except for hit-and-giggle with my dad and my brother and occasionally with a friend.
But I loved to watch it, in person and on TV when it became a TV sport in the '70s.
When I got to The Washington Post, one of my goals was to someday cover tennis. Barry Lorge was the Post’s tennis writer and, put simply, I wanted to someday be Barry Lorge. Every year, he would head for Europe in May to cover what Bud Collins liked to call, “the old world triple: The Italian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon.
Lorge was a wonderful writer, although I would come to find out that he fought his typewriter and then his computer to make words come out of them the way someone might fight a rabid dog. Barry was the clear definition of Red Smith’s description of writing: “Just open a vein and begin.”
When Barry left the Post to become a columnist in San Diego, he continued to cover tennis and became famous for missing deadlines—with an eight-hour lead time--from Wimbledon. The words were always great, but few people knew how Barry, the most gentle of men, sweated to produce them.
Barry’s departure in 1984, opened up the tennis beat. Tom Boswell was sent to Wimbledon that year and Jane Leavy and I went to the U.S. Open together. The next spring, George Solomon, the Post sports editor told me I’d be going to the French Open and Wimbledon. No, he said, I wasn’t the tennis writer. We’d see how I did.
I KNEW I was going to kill it. I knew the sport and the history of the sport. One thing I didn’t count on was how difficult it was to get access to the players. You couldn’t go into the locker room. I almost got arrested in Paris walking into the players' lounge to meet John McEnroe because in spite of my attempts to explain in my less-than-perfect French that Monsieur McEnroe was expecting me, the security people refused to believe me.
I was probably about to make an ugly-American comment about not bothering to call us the next time the French were losing a war, when McEnroe, hearing the commotion, rescued me.
I did well enough that summer to get the tennis job. What clinched it, I suspect, was Katherine Graham, the iconic Post publisher, who was a huge tennis fan, telling Solomon how much she enjoyed reading me on tennis. She never told him to give me the tennis beat. She didn’t have to—George got the message.
The next six years were both a joy and a constant headache. I became President of the U.S. Tennis Writer’s Association and battled for better access. I got nowhere. Most of my colleagues—Pete Alfano of the New York Times, who was viewed as my co-conspirator, being the notable exception—were perfectly happy to sit in interview rooms and talk to players that way.
In 1990, I finally achieved my dream of following Lorge in covering the Old World Triple. I travelled everywhere that year to write a book called, “Hard Courts.” Some of it was great fun—I spent a month in Australia; went to Monte Carlo and did the entire grass court circuit in England. There’s never been a better setting for tennis than the Queen’s Club—apologies to Wimbledon.
Because I’d been covering the sport for six years, I was able to get time and access to players—from the stars like McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl (who I’d bashed for years but still cooperated with me, proving he’s a better man than I am), Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf, Chris Evert, (who’d just retired) to a lot of players who were non-stars but had stories to tell.
I tried to get access to Jennifer Capriati, then 14 and the ‘next Evert’: attractive, charming and a remarkable young player. Her father told me one morning over breakfast that HE was going to write a book about how HE created Jennifer and maybe, if I was lucky, he’d let me write it.
Little did I know I was dealing with the Earl Woods of tennis. The difference was that Tiger was tough enough to overcome his father; Jennifer had to quit tennis and then come back with her father pushed to the background to become a star.
The access issues never let up. In Philadelphia a guard told Pete Sampras he couldn’t bring me into the players dining area. Pete had to get the tournament director to grudgingly give an OK. In Rome, I was literally shoved by a security guard while talking to David Wheaton. Even at the U.S. Open, the one tournament where the media WAS allowed in the locker room (no more today) I had a screaming fight with a player named Dan Goldie who told me I wasn’t allowed in the locker room.
“I spent 20 minutes right there talking to McEnroe yesterday,” I screamed at him. “You don’t know the rules and you’re not worth my time.”
"Hard Courts" became a bestseller, cresting at No. 4 on the New York Times' list. Four years later, I wrote "A Good Walk Spoiled," which got to No. 1 and I never went back to tennis—not because of sales, but because covering golf, where the access to the players was easy and most players get what the media does—made it a joy to cover compared to tennis.
I thought about all this earlier this week when I saw that the French Tennis Federation refused to seed Serena Williams for next week’s French Open. Williams is in the early stages of coming back after having a baby. She left the sport a little more than a year ago ranked No. 1 having just won her 23d Grand Slam title—most in the Open era, which now dates back 50 years.
Because she hasn’t played much yet, Williams is ranked 453d in the world. Anyone out there think she’s not one of the ten best players heading to Paris? She could play left-handed and be good enough to be seeded.
But no, the French will follow the computer rankings.
Sadly, nothing has changed in the years since I loved wandering to outside courts at the majors to watch players no one had ever heard of play.
The access for the media remains awful. Tennis is a dead sport in the U.S. except during Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. There are far fewer tournaments here than there used to be and, sadly, the International Tennis Federation, doesn’t really care because the sport still thrives in Europe.
The Davis Cup was once a huge event in the U.S. Now, with the U.S. in the semifinals, almost no one knows or cares. Doubles has ceased to matter—most tournaments don’t even play a third set in best-of-three, they play a 10-point tiebreaker. No one plays best-of-five, except for the men at the majors and in the Davis Cup. The U.S. hasn’t produced an important player since Andy Roddick, the last American male to win a major—in 2003 at the Open.
It’s a shame, because it is a wonderful game—especially in the critical stages of a great match like Scott-McKinley all those years ago in Southampton or Ashe-Okker at Forest Hills.
But the sport is still run by a bunch of pretentious bureaucrats and covered, for the most part, by a bunch of pandering sycophants who aren’t willing to fight for access or to attempt to do the dirty work of being real reporters.
Tennis fans despise me when I say these things and insist their sport is still robust and healthy. Once, in the '80s, it was far more than a niche sport. Now, it’s lucky to be even that.
John Feinstein’s most recent non-fiction book, “The First Major—The Inside Story of the 2016 Ryder Cup,”—was a New York Times bestseller for five months. His latest Young Adult book, “Backfield Boys,” was selected by the Junior Library Guild as one of the best books of 2017. His next YA mystery, “The Prodigy,” set at the Masters, will be published in August.