In normal times, the French Open would have just concluded and the tennis world would now know if there was a player in 2020 with two major events under their belt on their way to winning a calendar grand slam in tennis.
Many of us would be on the phone, planning trips to these events and discussing the various players who might be in contention. We would be watching in amazement on a large-screen television at Bob Hush’s Bethany Club Tennis or Sea Colony.
Winning all four of those grueling two-week events on different surfaces makes walking through the eye of the proverbial needle fairly easy in comparison. But these are not normal times, and the French Open was canceled and has been rescheduled later in the year, and Wimbledon has been totally canceled for the first time since World War II.
I thought you might like to read — while it is a very sad substitute for the real thing — about my behind-the-scenes experiences at Wimbledon.
Wimbledon is played over the fortnight — the meaning of which came down over the centuries from old English meaning 14 nights, or two weeks. Like a fortnight, I’ve broken this recap into two — Week 1 and Week 2.
Week 1, Wimbledon
In normal times, the grounds at “The Championships, Wimbledon” are always packed, and millions of others watch from their homes, taverns, tennis clubs and airports. Although I do not have recent statistics, a billion television viewers worldwide once joined together in watching the championships during the tennis boom. ESPN reported 877,000 last year.
To be clear, this is not a commercial or advertisement for the brands I will reference in this article, because Wilson Sporting Goods, Prince and Wimbledon have been through multiple ownerships and operate under different business models today. But most readers will recognize those brands from the ’70s and ’80s.
My wife calls me “the Forrest Gump of tennis.” For several decades, I had very unique access to the grounds of Wimbledon and that very special group of world-class participants who gather there each year. Movies have been produced and books written, but they never come anywhere near capturing the aura and charm of Wimbledon.
Center Court humbles even the most arrogant superstar and transcends tennis as one of the most important social events in England, along with Royal Ascot and Cowes. The Masters in golf and the Kentucky Derby are the only sporting events even approaching the majesty of Wimbledon.
One July morning, very early, I walked into center court, many hours before that day’s matches. I sat alone in the old Center Court. It was silent, painted forest green, and the grass courts were beautifully manicured. I could almost hear echoes of the crowds from great matches played decades earlier still reverberating around the stadium. I always tried to exhibit good sportsmanship, but on that morning, in what I consider the temple of sportsmanship for all racket sports, I became a disciple.
Sport should be an example how to live our lives, with gusto, discipline and responsibility, but also with humility and example for others.
In my last University of Maryland match against a North Carolina team, the opposing coach sat next to me while we watched my teammate play, and he complimented the way I had conducted myself the prior four years. He pointed out that the two players we were watching were not just playing a tennis match, they were practicing how in life they should handle adversity, as well as success.
I reflected on that conversation as I sat in reverence in the altar that morning. Folks who now play pickleball, or any other racket sport, should respect that all racket sports share this DNA. Wimbledon is their grandfather, and this is why it distresses me to see tennis speak unkindly of pickleball and vice-versa.
Wimbledon is actually a suburban village just outside London. It’s where, late for a meeting, I dropped into a corner bank and converted several hundred American dollars to English pounds, and so involved was the process that I took off up the hill afterwards, leaving my English currency at the teller’s window. Halfway up on a very hot day, I heard an Englishman calling after me. The bank manager, dressed in a fine wool suit and huffing and puffing, was chasing after me to give me my English currency.
That’s Wimbledon, a friendly place, and it is the location of the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club, which hosts the famous tournament. It is where the tournament has been played since 1877, when only 22 male players competed in front of several hundred spectators. Today, an army of unseen workers produce this fairytale event, which unfolds with military precision over a fortnight.
There’s more to the story…
Oh, yes — grass courts. Lush, whisper-quiet grass courts. A field of green grass in the center of a darker green wood stadium.
The courts were wonderfully maintained each year and were pitch-perfect on the first day of Wimbledon, only to be torn apart by the miles of running, sometimes in spikes, leading up to the finals. Looking down onto the court was a very specific “Member’s Enclosure” periodically filled with ladies wearing hats in all the colors of summer flowers, and men wearing traditional navy blazers. Gentlemen are expected to wear light woolen blazers, regardless of summer heat, until the duke, president of the club, surrenders his.
My favorite personal memorabilia is a photograph taken from spectator seats inside the famous Center Court as two of my Wilson girls played the ladies’ finals. Both Billie Jean King and Chris Evert later autographed and presented this to me.
The entry to Center Court, to the temple of sportsmanship, is a special portal. Call me an old softy, but I get chills every time I think of the first time I saw that portal. I stood there thinking of all the great players who passed under it. Above the portal are the two famous lines from Rudyard Kipling’s “If.” These two Kipling lines are the very essence of what sportsmanship should be. Actually, those lines are the essence of a quality life.
“If you can meet with triumph and disaster, and meet those two imposters just the same…”
Perhaps I was hypersensitive to the history of tennis because the small department at Wilson where I worked was involved in the production of the 100th Anniversary of Tennis. We invited all the living legends of tennis, as well as an army of the celebrities who then had recently adopted tennis, and gifted our guests with Wilson tennis balls in crystal crafted by Tiffany. It was a grand event, and we staged it not in any run-of-the-mill tennis center but in the famous Chicago Soldier Field.
The great Donald Budge was one of our guests. In 1937, Budge, the top player in the world, played on Wimbledon Center Court in a Davis Cup tie with Germany in what was reportedly, up to that point, the greatest tennis match ever played. Budge played Germany’s Gottfried Von Cramm, an aristocrat and crowd favorite.
Von Cramm used his public popularity to stay out of the clutches of the German SS, who had proof that Von Cramm was gay — a criminal offense in Germany. Adolf Hitler telephoned Von Cramm in the locker room moments before the match, telling him that losing was not an option. Von Cramm played the fifth set as if his life depended on it, and it did, and Budge raised his game to equal brilliance.
The German held off five match points before losing 8-6 in the fifth. The following year, Von Cramm was snatched off the street by the SS and put into prison. Once released, he was drafted into the army and sent to the Eastern Front.
The history and setting of Center Court inspires greatness. In the July 6, 2008, gentleman’s finals, Roger Federer played Rafael Nadal in a seven-hour, including rain delays, final. The 22-year-old Nadal, then the crowd favorite, was hitting incredible shots. Federer, then five-time Wimbledon champion, responded with even more brilliant shots.
Nadal finally prevailed 9-7 in the fifth set in the darkness of twilight well past 9 p.m. As they politely left the stadium that evening, the spectators knew they had seen the best finals match ever played up to that point. A roof was installed the following year, and rain delays would no longer figure into the suspense of finals.
Arthur Ashe, who I played as a junior, told me that he was greatly humbled by Centre Court. As he was waiting to be presented the Wimbledon Gentlemen’s Singles Championship trophy, he reflected on some of the players who he always respected growing up in tennis, thinking they should be there instead. He then told me he was primarily thinking about my one-time doubles partner. Thankfully, he then did not look at me and say, “…And oh, you, too — what’s your name?”
There is a variety of different events played during those two weeks of Wimbledon, but the two feature championship finals are the ladies’ singles, best two out of three sets, and the gentlemen’s singles, best three of five sets.
Five-set tennis matches are not as common today as when I played, but they are fairly common at Wimbledon. By the fourth hour and the beginning of the fifth and final championship set, lights are likely flashing in each player’s brain. “Out of gas,” “Battery dead,” “Oil low,” “Engine overheated.” That fifth set is nothing but pure human determination. After a lifetime of training, it is on the hallowed Wimbledon Center Court where two warriors will push themselves to the very limits of human endurance.
The All England Lawn Tennis Club membership consists of some of the most privileged men in England, who typically were invited to join only after the death of their fathers. They call the process “Dead Man’s Shoes.” It’s their immense wealth and love of tradition that has enabled the All England Club to preserve this special place in the world of sport. I appreciate them because of this wonderful venue, but faulted them for then not adjusting to the needs of the players in a world transitioning from amateur to professional tennis.
This attitude by a few reached back into the days of amateur tennis, before the Open era, when players were not allowed to take prize money. The national tennis associations picked up some of the player travel costs, but just enough to exert tight control over players. To give you an idea of what the players left on the table, the top three male professionals today have prize money potential in the $125 million U.S. range, and that’s a pittance to their combined endorsements. Pro tennis and the men’s and women’s player associations changed much of that.
The tennis establishment didn’t just open the door and invite pro tennis into the room. I had the privilege of joining my boss, Gene Buwick, in a late-night dinner in New York City during another Grand Slam event, the U.S. Open. We had arranged dinner between the famous tennis legend Jack Kramer and the professional player’s representative Jim McManus when the players asked Kramer to help them establish the Association of Tennis Professionals.
Kramer was closely associated with my department because of his lucrative endorsement contract with Wilson Sporting Goods, and I consider working with Jack one of my great life privileges.
The following year, Billie Jean King used her star power to help the ladies create the Women’s Tennis Association. Gene Buwick, my sidekick Don Juenemann and I were smack in the middle of these heated political events. Bill Riordan, the tennis promoter who helped me get a start in tennis, was simultaneously establishing his own player’s union and was constantly in contention with Kramer.
The three of us, Buwick, Baker and Juenemann, somehow managed to remain neutral in the swirling and maddening tennis politics of the ’70s and were trusted by all parties, often conduits for peace offerings.
While the tennis politicians conducted late-night closed-door meetings at the various London hotels, thousands of English from lesser social backgrounds would spend the previous night sleeping on the sidewalk in a queue stretching as far as the eye could see so they could gain entrance to the Wimbledon championships. The All England Club then allowed 30,000 of them to enter the grounds at any one time, and there always was a mad rush like a raging river when they opened the gates precisely at the announced time.
Most of the officials I interacted with at the All England Club were outstanding individuals and conducted themselves in a style that would no doubt have pleased Kipling. But there were a few — there are always a few in every group — who had confused Wimbledon’s success with their own sense of self-worth. These officials were loyal to the English brand Slazenger, and when I, the American from a rival American company, requested a pass, they knowingly gave me a pass that had no significance and absolutely no access to the players.
Wilson Sporting Goods was a Chicago-based company, and when we recruited players to endorse our products, we agreed to support them with professional-quality equipment at the major tournaments around the world. More than half of the players were then endorsing Wilson in return for this pledge.
Day 1 at Wimbledon
I was outside the gates of Wimbledon, being jostled by the crowd, with two Jack Kramer Autograph rackets under my arm, specifically for a young American player, in his first Wimbledon, who desperately needed them, as his were broken. He was scheduled to play the first match at Wimbledon that year on the fabled Center Court, and my watered-down pass would not allow admittance.
All those years of training, and our young American played the most important match of his life with broken rackets.
I pledged to myself I would never allow that to happen to another American player.
If you follow Wimbledon, you then know they are famous for their adherence to volumes of rules. Well, that was true until a country boy from the Eastern Shore called them out for their indifference to players. I couldn’t change the system, but I could call attention to the warts underlying the public glitter.
Over several years, things did change, but then I was in the crosshairs at Wimbledon because I kept ignoring or bypassing their rituals.
Later that first day, I finally gained access to Wimbledon with my watered-down pass. But then I was ironically invited to a very fancy tented location on the Wimbledon grounds for tea, strawberries and cream. I thought they must be trying to wear me down with the good guy/bad guy routine.
When introduced to a fellow — a retired general who apparently held an office of some note, with the prerequisite mustache, stiff upper lip and grease on his club tie — I lodged a very civil protest. Then, laughingly, I suggested I was going to rent a hot-air balloon from which I would toss rackets to my players, and pay for it by giving rides to all the ordinary people waiting in line.
Another old gentleman, dressed in an equally old military uniform, was sitting at the same table, and he became upset at what he considered my insolence, stood slowly and said that if I did install the hot-air balloon, he would bring artillery and blast it out of the air. A bunch of funny quips went through my mind, but I only said, “Oops, bad idea.” But even those three words seemed to serve as a declaration of war.
Later that evening was the first time I met Leo. I could not understand his cockney accent nor he my Eastern Shore accent, but we became good friends. Perhaps we hit it off because we were the only non-privileged working stiffs working around the grounds late that evening.
Leo was then the head locker room attendant for all three locker rooms, and custodian of “A” Locker Room, which then was only a few feet from where Rudyard Kipling stood guard over the portal to Center Court. The players ran Leo ragged over the fortnight, but then he was given the honor of carrying the bags of the Wimbledon finalists to center court each year.
He was a small man, always smiling, and sharp as a tack. Later, I learned his wife managed the kitchen, so perhaps she had already told him about the international incident and declaration of war in the tea tent.
The configuration is different today, but then the “A” Locker Room was reserved for the very top players, and it had massage tables and an area for the tournament doctor. By that evening, Leo was then well-aware that the young American went onto the court without adequate equipment.
I told Leo that kid had trained and worked hard all his life for this moment to play Wimbledon and how I had let him down in the unfair treatment directed toward my company. Leo’s answer was to give me a locker I could use to store rackets for players. There was Borg’s Locker and then my locker.
Leo did this at great risk to his job security, but he did it in the essence of fair play. I think he would have made Kipling proud.
The word spread among the other worker bees at Wimbledon. Although Wilson was owned by Pepsi, the fellow responsible for the Coca-Cola concessionaire at Wimbledon for the fortnight introduced me the next morning to his staff so I could cut through their underground facilities and pop up anywhere I needed on the grounds to support my players. I could sit and rest in their caverns, and, yes, even have a free Coke.
That weekend, he and his wife invited me to a very famous hotel in southwest England overlooking the English Channel, for a Coca-Cola management party the following weekend, at which I was laughingly presented as a corporate spy. Well, we were in the brotherhood of sugared water!
And then there was Red, the undercover SAS commando pledged to the queen as the last line of protection for the players. During the year, he trained new SAS soldiers how to subdue armed terrorists in confined spaces, such as airplanes.
It took over a decade’s friendship before he told me about the time he hospitalized two SAS soldiers who tried to surprise him in a close-quarters fight demonstration. All he would say for several years was that he was ashamed that he lost control and apologized to the queen.
But, for what, I kept asking.
Finally, “For breaking their arms and legs when they fired a pistol with blanks next to my ear.”
“Red — play this over in your mind and tell me ‘start’ and ‘finish’ so I can time it.” I counted 7 seconds! In 7 seconds, he had broken the arms and legs of two very fit commandoes.
Afterwards, I always bought lunch and tried to remember to say, “Sir.”
One day, a very suspicious character entered Wimbledon among the 30,000 spectators, and Red invited me to watch from above. I won’t speak in detail, since I don’t want to reveal any techniques, but suffice it to say this ruffian got jostled around in the fast-moving crowd until Red said, “Now” — I think to his cufflink — and poof, Mr. Bad Guy disappeared. I couldn’t help but think someone was probably feeding him a Coke in the subterranean chambers with the cap still on.
And how did I get in the door the second day, since I still only had my watered-down pass? A good friend and famous tennis player — a member of the All England Club by virtue of his tennis prowess — put on a chauffeur’s cap and jacket and drove his late-model Rolls Royce along Church Road to the VIP entrance to the club.
All of those thousands of people waiting to enter that day were excited and waving to me. My friend told me, despite the challenge he thought it would pose, to look important and not disappoint those people. Who is that in the back seat? Elvis? Elton John? He, of course, was the one who they really wanted to see, and could have seen if they were not fooled by the uniform.
As he pulled up to the impressive gate of the All England Club, the steward stopped the car and started to ask for my ticket. My chauffeur started inching forward and said something like “Guv waits for no one, open that gate.” Hey, I was already beginning to settle into this lifestyle.
Note how my description went from “my friend” to “my chauffeur.” He inched through the grounds perhaps 40 yards to the VIP entrance, where a military honor-guard protected the entrance. When he stopped, I mockingly said, “Wait here, driver.” My driver, with cap pulled down on his forehead, came around, and opened the door.
Following his instructions, I slipped in with my racket bags like I owned the joint, and darted into “A” Locker Room, where, of course, I had a locker. Leo had a great laugh when I told him how I got into the club that day, but we soon got on with our chores.
Part of Wilson’s service for the endorsement players was to hand-select and set aside frames by exact weight and balance, and even preferred handle shape. (“Tennis frame” is the correct word to use when they are unstrung, but they are described as rackets once strung.). We had a tennis cage in Chicago that was maintained by a fellow who could string racket frames to exacting tensions.
Some players selected their own; more trusted me to hand-select the frames best for them. I had some of those frames shipped to Europe in advance and on Day 2, one of my chores was to pick up rackets from my stringer and take them over to some of the women players.
In the 1970s, the women’s locker room was in a separate location built into the back of a grandstand, but I delayed, because if I encountered one of the two officials who had issued my watered-down pass, they might have a steward drag me out by my ear.
Leo spoke with someone, who spoke with someone, and I soon had an official Wimbledon admittance pass to the Ladies Locker Room. The joke, of course, was that this undesirable American from Chicago had the only pass to the Ladies Locker Room ever issued to a man.
The previous weekend, an English reporter had shown me his American/British dictionary. In America, tennis players will say they are going to “hit a few,” while in England they went out on the courts for a “knock-up.”
The girl I was visiting in the locker room laughingly made sure everyone inside was covered, and then invited me to see the large sign in her locker room that said, “Knock-Ups Limited to Five Minutes.”
I had pledged to never disappoint the participating players again, and by the second week, I was brainstorming a tactical plan to work around Wimbledon’s antiquated rules about representatives servicing the players. Hold in mind — not only did a company like Wilson or Nike have a contractual arrangement to service the players, those same players had a contractual requirement to appear in center court or on television with our equipment.
The New Zealand Cricket Club was once located adjacent to the All England Tennis Club but has since been gobbled up by the expanding Wimbledon venue. I noted there was not much activity at New Zealand, as they probably suspended operations during the Wimbledon fortnight when the entire area is a giant roadblock. With a few silver coins and significantly more liquid gold, I was able to talk my way into a special membership that entitled me to rent their locker room.
Wilson’s existing business in England was managed by an American who also never accepted the word “no.” To provide better service, he had moved Wilson’s sales offices to the village of Wimbledon. He secured several of the best racket-stringers in England, and we put them to work in the New Zealand Club locker room, just a few yards from the back gate to Wimbledon where tons of food and drink products entered every day. Television had their operations just within the back gate, and it was the hub of support activity.
I procured several smocks that looked like the garb of various official delivery men. Each morning as players needed freshly-strung rackets, I wore a different jacket and then entered the grounds as a deliveryman or postal clerk to deliver rackets to players in the locker room.
Apparently, that American from Chicago was driving these minor officials into fits. No one broke their rules!
By now, most of the logistical workers were well-aware of the difficulties my Wilson players encountered, and my daily pass was just a wink and a smile. I was the friendly deliveryman, then postman.
Toward the end of the first week and the weekend, the majority of the players were out of the tournament, and the London restaurants were always fun. Each year, a new favorite restaurant would seemingly become the choice of the players, and someone would ask me to tag along.
Those restaurants would typically go over the top to entertain their tennis customers who had come from all points of the compass. There were also weekend lawn parties held at some of the wonderful old tennis clubs where all the English ladies wore the fancy hats and dresses, and some of their men got soused. The draw for the visitors like me, of course, was a chance to play on their grass courts.
Week 2 at Wimbledon
Until now, I have only written about ground passes, but tickets are even more difficult to find.
Once, I managed to buy one ticket in Center Court, behind a column, the worst seat in the house, for a businessman flying over to England. In the ’80s, it was in excess of $1,500, and he was glad to have it. I understand the equivalent today would be in the $5,000 range.
Periodically, a player would invite me to watch their match, and it is a special moment to be sitting in Center Court in the players’ box. The crowd is pensive and excited, and the entire theater so quiet you can hear a pencil drop. You use body language to support your player while the TV camera pans the box, describing the occupants. It probably sounded something like, “There is the mother, the brother, and then there is what’s-his-name.’
One evening toward the end of the second week, I put on a big impromptu party at the adjoining New Zealand Club. It was for all the soldiers, security, stringers and other unappreciated behind-the-scenes people who really keep everything moving along properly. I told them my “Guv” wanted to thank them and sat in the crowd, talking with the folks, never letting on that I was actually the person who organized the party.
One of the events traditionally played in the second week was started in 1947, and is known as Junior Wimbledon. The top junior players around the world are invited to compete among one another. A junior sensation out of a major metropolitan area, like Chicago, might appear to be unbeatable, until they compete against other sensations from other parts of the world.
At Junior Wimbledon, I could get a better feeling as to how well they competed and how much work they were willing to put into their game. Talent alone is never enough. When endorsement-contract time eventually arrived, we already had a fairly good handle on which players would best represent our brand. The aura of Wimbledon had to be a positive influence on every junior player about ready to break into the big time.
I was always tennis player first, business executive second, and made my decisions in that order relative to the players. Having played and with an appreciation for match preparation, I had a sense of when to approach players.
I could ill afford to watch an entire match, because invariably some player had some type of equipment request. America was then dominating the world of tennis, and possibly a hundred or more different players might be trying to contact me over the fortnight.
My first years at Wimbledon were the last years of wooden racket years, when every racket was slightly different and I would use tricks of the trade to match them up in swing weight. They were quality rackets but took rigorous abuse over those two weeks. The rackets were strung with gut, which was highly sensitive to moisture and abrasion from the grass stains.
I often made my unofficial office in the restricted Player’s Tea Room, where players could track me down. It was centrally located, and if there was a particularly exciting match, there were two outside decks from which we could look down onto the major courts. When a match went to the fifth set, word passed among the players like lightening, and all business stopped and everyone watched the match.
I had tea with some of the most interesting people of the day who had been invited as a guest, usually by some top player. The television personality from NBC or CBS almost always spent a little time there, trying to get a flavor of the tournament that year. But other than the top TV personality, the press were forbidden, because the tearoom was where players could relax with their friends and families.
While some of the sports-company people got intoxicated with the bright lights, I never got my role confused, and as a result, I was very effective. While they sometimes liked to share their player secrets with the press, I treated all my conversations with players as confidential. I even transferred personal notes between players when romances were blooming under intense press attention.
Early on, when immediately leaving the locker room, a well-known correspondent asked me an innocent question, and my response was (intentionally) taken out of context for the next day’s newspaper. Lesson learned!
Frank Perdue and a special shandy
All the high-flyers and deal-makers in the world of tennis descended on Wimbledon so it, like the U.S. Open, was a place to conduct a great deal of business. My conversations ranged from, “If you use the Wilson ball in the XYZ tournament, I will give you AB and C.” Or “If your son or daughter continues to play Wilson now, they are planning to turn professional — what kind of money are we talking about?” Agents, on the other hand, were just beginning to pop up in tennis, and I imagine their conversations were different than mine, because they wanted a cut of the player’s money.
I spent most of my time speaking with player coaches who unintentionally gave up a great deal of information. As endorsement money got larger, players more frequently asked me to speak with their agents. I might have wished the conversation would go like this. Player: “Please talk with my agent.” “Who is your agent?” “He is that fellow sitting on your immediate right who you refuse to look at.” I turn, maybe throw an elbow under the table, and say, “Get lost, Jack.” Actually, I was always civil, but wondered where they found some of these characters.
I quietly conducted my business and was careful not to abuse my tearoom privilege by parading my own friends and acquaintances and making painful introductions to players who were trying to stay mentally focused.
Once, I did gain entry for our own local poultry legend Frank Perdue, who desperately needed a tea and snack. Another time I asked Red, my SAS commando, to keep an eye out for a young tennis player from Chicago who had particularly impressed me with his dedication to practice. When his right arm exploded on him, he learned to play left-handed and took his performance to the same level as he had right-handed. In part because of this experience, he became one of the best sales managers in the American tennis business.
We did not have all these electronic devices to record information in those days, and it was imperative that I keep my mind crystal clear for so many varying deals and arrangements. I made it a policy of not drinking during the entire fortnight unless it was an end-of-day pint with one of the coaches.
Well, until that one day in 1976.
Brian Gottfried and Raul Ramirez, two of my Wilson boys, were fighting tooth-and-nail against two equally tough Australians in an exciting five-set doubles final. Captain Mike Gibson, the long time Wimbledon referee, was standing next to me in the hot sun, watching from the deck of the tearoom.
Gibson had, under his mustache and stiff upper lip, a mischievous humor, and offered to buy me a beer after my boys won the long third set. There was at least another hour of competition, so I asked for a lemonade instead, and we continued to watch in that hot sun.
It was exciting tennis until I made the mistake of saying, “This lemonade tastes good, Mike, is it a British brand?” “Yes, it is the Shandy brand, and I will get you another.”
Gottfried and I were to have breakfast the next morning, and he arrived before I could find his scores in the newspaper. I sheepishly asked how the finals ended. He was absolutely floored that I was not aware of his great Wimbledon victory. I explained that Captain Gibson, as a practical joke, had the bartender load several shandies with extra beer, which tasted good in that hot sun until... “so who won?”
A rockstar in the tennis world
Otherwise, I was always on good behavior at Wimbledon… except that one other time when... I did threaten to hang an agent by the loop in the back of his shirt collar on a nail on the wall outside of the players’ tearoom.
We had a contract with a player he represented, the flashy Vitas Gerulaitis, who had suddenly emerged into the tennis world’s floodlights and was now ducking me. For several days, I told Vitas I wanted to refresh the red W on his strings before his semi-final match, and he seemed very ill-at-ease while offering lame excuses.
His agent finally approached at the very last minute and wanted to renegotiate the Vitas contract simply because a billion people were going to be watching on the telly. What’s a billion here, a billion there? Some people just don’t have a sense of humor. After all, the nail wasn’t that far up the wall. He would have eventually been able to get down.
Below the tearoom, there were barricades and soldiers to limit access only to people with proper credentials while the Wilson or Nike representatives negotiated with agents about terms of contracts above. If you descended the stairs from the tearoom to ground level to make your way to one of the courts, you could count on being swept along in the crowd as if you were in a flood.
Sometimes I would have to close up shop if I needed to meet a friend or a member of the press. We would meet at the entrance at ground level of the players tearoom.
One afternoon I was to meet a young man who I had helped get a job writing for one of England’s premier tennis magazines. I stood behind the barrier, flanked by soldiers, with another fellow I did not recognize. The crowd on the other side of the barrier, just a few feet away, was more excited than usual, all asking for autographs.
The other stranger and I had one of those polite say-nothing conversations while we waited, and then I explained to him that the crowd probably wanted my autograph because they thought I was a player.
Finally, I spotted my young writer, excused myself, and ducked around the barrier and through the crowd before they could mob me. My young friend was also excited when I arrived and said he was impressed I knew British rockstar Cliff Richard, who at that moment had still sold more records than Elvis Presley. I responded “Who?” He said, “The fellow you just were talking with.”
A chance meeting with the queen’s husband
My days were very long — especially that first week, when the maximum number of players were in town. I would make calls from my hotel room as late as midnight.
By the second week, I had time to exercise, and usually that was to be up at 5 a.m. for a run in Hyde Park, where I jogged alongside the Queen’s Life Guard while they exercised their horses.
When relations between the Soviet Union and America were at their worse, I recruited Russian tennis star Olga Morozova to play with Wilson. I would sometimes jog in the morning with the Russians, and their coach and I would play tennis at random tournaments during the year, and periodically I would send the latest new racket with him to the Kremlin for their top leader. Russia wasn’t a big market, but it was my simple opinion their leader, their premier, would not start a war if they had to give up free sporting-goods equipment.
Then there was that chance meeting with the queen’s husband. When the masses suddenly fell in love with Chris Evert, just getting to the clubhouse around the Wimbledon grounds could take forever.
One day when I needed to quickly fetch a racket for a player from my locker in “A” Locker Room, the crowds were backed up in every direction. I ducked into Center Court, which was empty pending an afternoon match. Swiftly dodging around the seats and aisles, I popped through the Kipling door where victors normally returned from their matches. Two security guys suddenly appeared as I came face to face with this tall fellow who looked vaguely familiar.
I said, “Hey, how you doing,” and we exchanged some small talk before I darted into the locker room. Soon one of those security men was asking Leo about that fellow who just came in. “Who? Oh, that’s just Vaughn.”
Andre Agassi, Prince and a temporary Camelot
The years passed, and each Wimbledon was similar to the others only in they were packed with tennis upsets and victories. Fantastic new players arrived each year only to lose that first week in some long four-hour heavyweight contest. But that isn’t always the case.
Flashy, long-haired Andre Agassi, one of the few to play with the larger Prince tennis racket, showed up to his first Wimbledon and played his way into the quarter finals in Week 2 where he lost in five sets.
As some background, Wilson wanted me to return to America and introduce a new sport — racquetball. I wanted to remain in tennis, so I returned to America and created my own consulting business with my wife, where I specialized in assisting sport companies in the international markets.
One of those was the oversized Prince tennis racket invented by Howard Head.
I was no longer a friendly racket deliveryman, but now I was Baron von Baker (another story for another time) where I was spoofing a society that wrongly valued celebrity over merit. It was six fast years with Prince tennis, doubling sales year after year, flying internationally once or twice a month, sometimes traveling for six weeks at a time.
In fact, standing on the tearoom deck with Sam McCleery, also from Prince, we suddenly became the story. The inventor of the first aluminum laminate skis, Howard Head, had just sold his second invention, and the company Prince in New York City and the tournament were abuzz with speculation.
Fast-forward a few more years and, in his second attempt at Wimbledon, Agassi played his heart out the entire fortnight and won the coveted gentlemen’s singles. With his win, traditional wood tennis rackets were now destined for the trash.
I had already witnessed the disappearance of various wood tennis rackets as they were replaced by larger graphite fiberglass composite rackets. The Prince frames were then manufactured in Taiwan, and the fellow who manufactured them, and Wilson frames as well, asked me to join him in the worldwide introduction of the Wimbledon tennis racket line.
Yep, that’s right, I joined them! I bought a tie in Germany that was quite similar to the official All England Club tie, spilled a little gravy on it, and bingo, I was almost one of them. I became CEO of the company now selling the Wimbledon tennis rackets.
Two knights, a large field of green
Results between the two, unforeseen
Suddenly the bad boy from Chicago, the troublemaker who tied knots around some of the staff but eventually helped Wimbledon see how antiquated their player policies were, was now operating as a licensed agent for the All England Club.
There was the duke, and another duke, and lord, so many lords. After entering the men’s room as a guest in the members’ enclosure with my new German tie, the two fellows who had initially made the road so rocky for me years before said loudly to one another, “Look at the tie. They will let anybody in here now.” I turned, and in my best Delmarva farmboy accent said, “Nope, I’m one of you all now.”
Mark McCormack was the legendary super-agent and author of “What They Don’t Teach You in Harvard Business School” who represented the All England Club and negotiated the various contracts that created lorryloads of revenue for this exclusive club.
He had started out representing Arnold Palmer some 15 years earlier, and now, a billion dollars later, represented the pope and celebrities in every field. Bjorn Borg, my locker room mate, was just one of his many clients.
McCormack wanted, understandably, to control communications between the All England Club and the various licensees, but unlike the other products, such as sport bags and polo shirts, the Wimbledon tennis frame was, in their mind, the most sensitive product they licensed. They had a committee who directly approved every brochure, and every new model. They all had strong opinions, so McCormack just tried to stay in the picture without drowning in the minutia.
Mark’s company, IMG, set up a tent city at Wimbledon reminiscent of knights and damsels at a chivalrous tourney in the 15th century. It encompassed the entire southern section of the club grounds. Here, he entertained clients, and would-be clients, on tables set with white linen tablecloths. There was plenty of champagne, strawberries and cream. It was enchanting. The entire temporary complex was a beehive of the world’s latest batch of celebrities du jour that McCormack liberally sprinkled throughout the complex.
The manufacturer of the Wimbledon tennis racket, the Chinese tycoon, and his partner, that American troublemaker with his hot-air balloon, were guests of McCormack. We didn’t quite make it to the inner circle with the nice-looking table attendants from the Playboy Club, but we were invited to eat fried chicken — actually chicken wings — on a white linen tablecloth-covered table set near the drawbridge of his tented Camelot castle.
Across from me and to McCormack’s left was English racing legend Jackie Stewart. During our entire conversation, we were continually interrupted by guests introducing themselves to Stewart and McCormack. I definitely had the feeling we were positioned by the entrance to impress my China tycoon, but that all fell apart when cultures collided.
The tycoon, as he had learned in his culture, spit the remnants of a just-finished chicken wing on the ground next to our table, followed by a loud belch of approval. Some people would be shocked at such a display. McCormack was definitely aghast. But I always try to look at the good side of things.
It was actually a rather well-aimed projectile over my plate, and then Stewart’s plate, reaching maximum velocity somewhere above the racing legend’s left ear, then as it lost velocity, started to tumble down to the ground with pinpoint accuracy. It was impressive, and I remember wishing that old artillery colonel could see me now. Now I know where he might have gotten the idea to write the book “Never Wrestle with a Pig: And Ninety Other Ideas to Build Your Business and Career,” but the chicken wing thing was apparently not included.
He looked at me in shocked disbelief, mumbled a few less-than-gentlemanly American words, and we were evicted out of Camelot faster than Sir Lancelot could say Guinevere.
A near miss with the queen’s husband
A membership to the All England Club is invaluable to any British businessman because he has access to the most powerful men in the nation. Therefore, and it should be noted in a handbook somewhere, that businessman needs to be very careful who they invite and associate with.
Associate with? Somehow I bet you anticipated my name was going to come up next.
It was the second week, and a member of the All England Club invited me and a mutual friend from Holland to watch a match on Center Court. The three of us rendezvoused outside the member’s gate, where he proudly went to great lengths explaining Wimbledon procedures and that no one, including members, could ever get into the grounds until the appointed hour when the gates officially open.
I had already been inside for over two hours that day and hoped that none of the worker bees on the inside would yell through the fence and ask why I was now outside, or if I had been thrown out again.
Suddenly there were only two, not three, of us, and the gates would open precisely in two minutes. The Dutchman, where is the Dutchman? He was missing, and we started looking around. I spotted him but didn’t mention anything to the All England Club member, because he would have had heart failure and dropped to the ground, where he would be trampled by the thousands entering that day.
The Dutchman, like only some Europeans can do with a straight face, was relieving himself on the grass at a tree line near the gate as thousands scurried past him.
Another year, I took my daughter to the Wimbledon championships for her 16th birthday, and the first evening we arrived, Tony Pickard — English champion and the coach of the best tennis player in the world, Stefan Edberg — asked us to join the entire Swedish Davis Cup team for dinner.
In a decision I have never been allowed to forget in my family, I politely declined because I needed a good night’s sleep. But I was somewhat forgiven the next morning when she sat on a bench immediately next to then-teenage sensation Boris Becker as we had breakfast.
After lunch one afternoon, I left my daughter in a back room near where cute models were changing Wimbledon wardrobe for a catalog shoot, and when I returned several rooms of people, including the models, were all abuzz.
Since that isn’t a response I normally get entering a room, I asked what was happening and they all said, with glittering eyes, that the queen’s husband had stopped and asked to meet me, and several of them wanted to chase after him. Of course, the reason he wanted to meet me was to hear about the worldwide introduction of the licensed Wimbledon line. I resisted because I never got into curtseying and was actually afraid he might challenge me with a secret handshake now I was traveling around as Baron Von Baker.
In one of my last years to attend Wimbledon, I was working on a project in Taiwan, and Hamilton Jordan, previously President Jimmy Carter’s chief of staff, asked me to meet him the second week at Wimbledon. Hamilton had recently taken over as chief executive of the Association of Teaching Professionals (ATP), and I had been doing some strategic thinking with him about the road the ATP might want to follow.
Hamilton was 18 months younger, born in North Carolina and lived in Georgia. He was easy to take, but it was that friendly laidback demeanor the press liked to attack. I can tell you firsthand that when he started to think out loud logically and strategically, he was absolutely brilliant.
On this trip to Wimbledon, as soon as I landed from Boston, he gave me a lanyard with every possible pass and ticket possible. Now, I thought, that’s more like it! I thanked him and asked if my passes included the ladies’ locker room.
I am not sure he understood, nor was there time to explain. He was besieged with people he knew. I needed to introduce him to all the characters in the tennis world, but he seemed to know everyone in the bigger world. He insisted we go to the Hard Rock Café that evening, where celebrities lined up to get into our booth.
While Hamilton chatted with what seemed like all of London, a couple of the gals playing Wimbledon that year invited me to sit with them. There was a well-known actor there, with his baseball cap pulled down on his head. Well, he was well-known to everyone but me. And the gals quizzed me about his name as if he wasn’t sitting directly in front of me.
It wasn’t until I returned home that my daughters became excited because they knew from my description that it was actor Rob Lowe. I explained to my daughters that if they didn’t have a world-class forehand, there was little need to junk up my memory banks.
Hamilton’s asides about political characters as we listened to news while we traveled were a riot, but what I most enjoyed was his sense of humor and his not being a prisoner to his own celebrity. Rudyard Kipling would have been especially proud of Hamilton Jordan.
Hamilton enjoyed my stories about those first years climbing over and around the gate at Wimbledon, but now he held the strongest hand Wimbledon ever faced.
Without players, Wimbledon was a non-starter, and Hamilton was basically the head of the labor union representing them. Hamilton was the right man at the right time, as the expression goes.
The Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), as well as Billie Jean King’s Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), helped the players share more of the tennis revenue pie. They could now afford better hotels and their own stringers, as well as their own agents. Equipment companies could drop-ship equipment to those agents and let them sweat the logistics. That part of the player’s professional lives improved.
‘Just cold, calculated business’
After several whirlwind days with Hamilton, I jumped on a plane and continued my trip eastward over Syria, the Middle East and on to Asia, where I had several meetings with racket manufacturers. It turned out to be an exhausting 10-day trip, always circumventing the world eastwards. At the conclusion, I had to conduct a national sales meeting for another sporting-goods company, which included playing a celebrity tennis pro/am with Dr. J.
Several years ago, I made a day trip to the U.S. Open and was walking around the grounds when I saw a tsunami of people moving quickly toward the locker room from the practice courts, and one of the people was none other than my chauffeur from earlier in the story.
He was then coaching a new tennis sensation. When he saw me standing in the crowd, he waved, and I could sense he was trying to calculate when and how he could pack me into his insane schedule, but then he quickly yelled something and turned to avoid the advancing crowd of celebrity worshippers before they stampeded him.
Not knowing if he currently has any endorsement contracts, I won’t identify him other than to repeat his words. “It’s not fun anymore, Baker... just cold, calculated business.”
My chauffeur was referring, of course, to the earlier years at the beginning of the tennis boom, when there was a fraternal relationship between the players, promoters and those involved in the business side of the game.
A good example involves the legendary Australian John Newcombe during the second week of another Wimbledon.
John won Wimbledon three times (1967, 1970 and 1971), seven grand slams in men’s singles, and three of the four grand slams (Australian, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open). He was ranked the best tennis player on the planet in 1967 and 1974, and won 17 more grand slam men’s doubles events, and three in mixed doubles. His scores in the 1971 Wimbledon, defeating American Stan Smith, were 6-3, 5-7, 2-6, 6-4, 6-4, which speaks to the physical demands of winning one grand slam, let alone seven.
Through this very talented Australian, you suddenly begin to appreciate how very difficult it is winning one, let alone all four grand slams in the same year.
John and I both had been fleetingly involved with a particular Belgium company, and at Wimbledon, the Belgium owner told me he was attempting to romance a very wealthy Belgian businessman to invest in his firm as a last-ditch effort to save his business. He asked me if I would escort his potential investor to my lofty office in the players’ tearoom to impress him.
I knew many of the families connected with this Belgian company who would suffer if it failed, and even though I was now competing against them with the Prince tennis racket, I took both gentlemen upstairs and explained the unusual situation to Red, the SAS commando. I probably said something like, “Let them in and don’t break any bones, please!”
Afterwards, the Belgian owner asked if I would join them for dinner in London to help entertain his potential investor, and I asked John Newcombe if he could also attend. Hold in mind that neither of us had any official affiliation with the company, nor to each other. Newcombe was a very busy fellow, with multiple responsibilities to the Australian Tennis Association, as well as his various businesses.
Kipling would have been proud, because we both attempted to help without any agenda other than to help a struggling company in the world of racket sports. Once seated at the restaurant, Newcombe turned up the charm and captivated the dinner party like a puppeteer at a kid’s birthday party.
At one point, he quietly gave me the famous Newcombe wink and then was gone to his primary commitment. I faded into the darkness soon after, leaving them to enjoy their evening in London.
What had disappeared from modern tennis was this friendly fellowship among that generation of players who loved their sport, played hard, partied hard and did whatever it took to promote their sport.
During my years in the tennis business, I would visit Wimbledon at other seasons of the year, and visit Leo, as well as the small fulltime staff at the All England Club. I still have Leo’s Wimbledon official badge as a memento. I suppose it was a remnant of some closed door or gate I needed to pass for a player in need, and Leo one final time had helped me.
Several times, I was told my unorthodox antics helped improve how Wimbledon embraced visiting competitors. It’s been two decades since my last Wimbledon, and more than a decade since my broken-down legs allowed me to play my own National Grass Court Championships. But the memories are etched into my brain.
The members of the All England are responsible stewards of the alter of sportsmanship. It is a well-maintained facility, and for one fortnight every summer (well, except this one), it glitters like an exploding star.
If you happen to be watching Wimbledon on television sometime and see some guy or gal, with a load of rackets under-arm, scurrying across those beautiful green courts, with muscled soldiers or an old artillery colonel chasing them, as if on “Monty Python,” it’s probably just someone like me, a once-upon-a-time player, without the appropriate credentials, trying to get equipment to their player. After all, the show must go on.