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Copyright 2016 by Paul Fein

Bud Collins:
An American Original

"Few people have had the historical significance, lasting impact and the unqualified love for tennis as Bud Collins." – Billie Jean King

Arthur Worth “Bud” Collins, Jr., who passed away March 3 at age 86, enjoyed a lifelong love affair with tennis. And no sport has loved a media superstar more in return. Last summer, the US Open honored Bud by naming its Media Center after the renowned journalist and TV commentator.

This love affair began when Bud was 13 in the small Ohio town of Berea. With his pals, Bud sat transfixed as they listened for the first time to a radio broadcast of the 1942 United States Nationals final between Ted Schroeder and Frankie Parker from Forest Hills, New York. He imagined what kind of place this mysterious Forest Hills was and tried to picture what a game of tennis was like on grass. Ten years later, television would replace radio for the Nationals, and that new medium would later make Bud far more famous than his journalism.

While Bud was doing graduate work at Boston University in 1955, he got his first newspaper job at The Boston Herald. It was a perfect storm, or rather marriage. Tennis was in the doldrums, getting little media coverage. When Bud, a part-time copy boy and the lowest man on the totem pole, was told by his boss to cover the Massachusetts Women’s Tennis Championships, he was thrilled. By 1959, he would become The Herald’s lead sports columnist.

When Bud moved to The Boston Globe in 1963 to write a sports and travel column, his diverse talents were unleashed. Bud covered everything from tennis to baseball to boxing, including the famous Ali-Foreman “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire. He even covered the Vietnam War where he was shot at. His perceptive, pungent, and amusing tennis articles lightened up the then-sometimes stuffy sport.

That same colorful personality and pioneering spirit were perfect for TV. In 1963, Bud broke in at WGBH, Boston’s educational station, doing tennis matches out of a trailer, and the next year he covered the U.S. Championships for NBC. In those pre-Open days the U.S. Championships weren’t televised every day, but the National Doubles at the Longwood Cricket Club near Boston were, and Bud handled the commentary alone. His CBS, NBC, and PBS broadcasts helped popularize tennis before the mid-1970s Tennis Boom arrived in America.

Not only was Bud a pioneer, historian, author of four acclaimed tennis books—The Education of a Tennis Player, Evonne On the Move, My Life with the Pros, and Total Tennis: The Ultimate Tennis Encyclopedia—and an unofficial roving tennis ambassador. He was also an effective advocate for causes he championed.

Harry Kirsch, a longtime friend of Bud and former president of the New England Lawn Tennis Association, recalled Bud’s strong support of Open Tennis in the 1960s. “In 1968 he supported NELTA’s efforts in this long-awaited revolution,” recalled Kirsch. “Just prior to the crucial USLTA meeting where Open Tennis was approved, he wrote a pro-Open Tennis article for Sports Illustrated. In it, Bud called the USLTA administrators before Bob Kelleher, the first president to favor Open Tennis, ‘old goats’. In other words, he used the power of the pen to advance the drive to make Open Tennis a reality in 1968. He was always progressive about everything.”

As a member of the exclusive and somewhat exclusionary Longwood Cricket Club in the1960s, Bud, the middle-class son of a college athletic director and coach, fearlessly criticized the club’s lack of minority members. “Today’s Longwood does have a diverse membership,” noted Kirsch. “In fact, neither gender nor ethnicity has been a barrier to holding club leadership positions, including the presidency.”

In 1968, Bud asked Arthur Ashe, another trailblazer and the first African-American man to capture a major, the inaugural US Open that year, how he felt about winning a championship at a club [The West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills] which he couldn’t join. Ashe replied, “I don’t like the situations in these clubs. I’m uncomfortable, but right now they’re the only places where I can play important tournaments.”

Bud accompanied Ashe, who had been previously denied a visa to visit South Africa, during his highly publicized trip there in 1973, and wrote about how Ashe, temporarily at least, brought pride and dignity to black people oppressed and brutalized by apartheid. In his “My Ad” column in World Tennis magazine, Bud reported what a black South African told him after Ashe lost in the 1973 South African Open final. “It was enough that he came and showed our youth how good a black man can become. That is important.”

In a 2007 commencement address at his alma mater, Baldwin-Wallace College, Bud denounced our military misadventure in Iraq along with other Bush administration policies on education, gun control, energy, and health care. Some attendees booed and heckled him, but Bud didn’t shy away from controversy when he felt protest was the right course.

Bud also criticized misguided pro tennis reforms, such as the ATP Tour’s badly flawed “Best 14” ranking system, which threw out the results of as many as 10 or 15 tournaments for some players. Bud rightly likened it to not counting Boston Red Sox first baseman Mo Vaughn’s going 0 for 5 in his batting average or a Red Sox losing streak in the standings.

Irreverent Humor

Bud’s irreverent writing was a bit ahead of the times in the early 1970s. When teeny-bopper girls chased and squealed at 17-year-old Bjorn Borg during Wimbledon, Bud called that “Borgasms.” But the catchy phrase was censored and never made it into The Boston Globe.

His colorful, often alliterative nicknames did though, and the best ones caught on: The Bucharest Buffoon (Ilie Nastase), The Brash Basher (Jimmy Connors), Fraulein Forehand (Steffi Graf), Count Dracula (Ion Tiriac), The Barcelona Bumblebee (Arantxa Sánchez Vicario), Chris America (Chris Evert, as in Miss America), and Sisters Sledgehammer (Venus and Serena Williams, as in Sister Sledge). Billie Jean King especially liked her “Mother Freedom” moniker.

The unsung net judges, who kept their hand on the net to determine service lets, were nicknamed the fictional “Fingers Fortescue.” And Bud often and fondly referenced his inimitable Uncle Studley. We never knew if Studley was really Bud’s uncle. But Bud did say, “My uncle always described his first marriage as an unforced error.”

Bud was a master at the quick quip, too. Asked why sex symbol Anna Kournikova graced the cover of so many magazines despite her never having won a singles tournament, Bud wisecracked, “Because her backside is better than her backhand.” On the ever-evolving Andre Agassi, he quipped, “I’d say he went from punk to paragon.”

Bud knew tennis inside and out. That was partly because, unlike many sportswriters, he played tennis, and at a fairly high level in doubles, to boot. Though he self-deprecatingly called himself “a hacker,” he was an acrobatic volleyer and loved to play barefoot on grass courts. Bud won the US Indoor doubles championship in 1961 with Janet Hopps, and reached the French Open senior doubles final with Bostonian Jack Crawford in 1975. He also claimed a lesser scalp when he beat me at a fun US Open media doubles tournament with both of us teaming with much-weaker partners.

On his encyclopedic tennis knowledge, which Bud graciously shared when budding sportswriters asked him questions, the New York Times’ Harvey Araton wrote, “In the press box, Collins was Google before it existed.” Dan Shaughnessy, an eminent sportswriter for The Boston Globe, told Tennis Channel, “No one was more famous or better to the young writers than Bud Collins.”

Personal Tragedies

Bud suffered plenty of slings and arrows in his life, though he somehow remained cheerful. His first wife divorced him in 1978 because he was traveling so much. Bud called his relationship with sportswriter Judy Lacy “love at first sight,” but she died two years later from a brain tumor. His next marriage to Mary Lou Barnum, his high school sweetheart whom he met at a reunion, lasted just four years when she also succumbed to a brain tumor. His final marriage to photographer Anita Ruthling Klaussen, which she called “magical,” endured until his death. Frank Deford, the celebrated Sports Illustrated scribe, summed it up best on Tennis Channel: “Bud held the game together. Tennis held his life together.”

Perhaps his outrageously colorful clothing helped keep his spirits up. Bud started wearing Technicolor trousers, his trademark, at the 1966 Davis Cup in Cleveland. He called it “wearing the unwearable.” He had 50 pairs of the custom-made, eye-catching pants and said each one had a special story. Like his writing and commentating, they amused and lightened up others. “Bud’s pants cheered me up right away,” remembered Chris Evert, even when she suffered heartbreaking losses to archrival Martina Navratilova in Grand Slam finals.

Bud never forgot his roots or his legion of friends and acquaintances. “When Bud was doing a TV match, he always went out of his way to mention many people who would usually go nameless,” recalled Bucky Adams, a longtime friend and former Boston teaching pro. “He would point out that the ‘out’ line call was made by umpire Jane Smith, who happens to be an outstanding local player, and he’d mention many other local people. He knew if he included a lot of local tennis people it would help popularize tennis in the area.”

 His generosity even touched me. Seven years after his 1994 induction into The International Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island, Bud was kind enough to write a wonderful foreword to my first book, Tennis Confidential: Today's Greatest Players, Matches, and Controversies.

Always modest, Bud liked to call himself “a scribbler and a babbler.” This scribbler, or more accurately, incomparable wordsmith and raconteur, was rated the No. 1 tennis writer in the world by Tennis Week magazine in 1991. In my estimation, he and Allison Danzig, the distinguished New York Times journalist from 1923 to 1968, were the two greatest tennis writers of the 20th century. In 2006, Bud received the nation’s highest sportswriting honor, the Red Smith Award.

For four decades, he was also considered one of the best TV tennis commentators. This mere “babbler” in the TV booth was enshrined in the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association Hall of Fame in 2007. His witty, authoritative observations attracted a new generation of tennis fans. “People watched tennis then because they wanted to hear what Bud had to say,” all-time great Navratilova told Tennis Channel.

But his winning personality was equally important. “Bud was colorful and likable,” recalled Don Ohlmeyer, then NBC Sports producer. “Those are two of the most important things in television.”

Bud starred when NBC started its first live telecast of Wimbledon—called “Breakfast at Wimbledon”—in 1979. It started at 9 a.m. on the East coast and at 6 a.m. on the West coast in America. The debut broadcast faced a big problem, though. Wimbledon tradition decreed that the gentlemen’s singles final between Borg and Roscoe Tanner must start at “2 p.m. precisely.”

But NBC could not start its telecast with the first point of the match and without five minutes to introduce the players. Bud, who loved to tell juicy anecdotes, later revealed that Donald Dell, then Tanner’s agent, told Tanner to stay in the men’s room for five minutes at 2 p.m. and lock the door. For once, Wimbledon did not start at “2 p.m. precisely.”

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then other writers and commentators couldn’t help but want to emulate this tennis icon in one way or another. After all, the inscription on the plaque at the Bud Collins US Open Media Center reads: “Journalist, Commentator, Historian, Mentor, Friend.”

“His writing, his keen observations, and his sense of fun formed all my own ideas about how to cover tennis,” said Mary Carillo, America’s top TV tennis analyst. “He so genuinely loved the sport and the life it gave him, and his joy was palpable. He was special, and he made everyone else feel special too.”

A journalistic and broadcasting giant and an even better human being, Bud was a unique gift to the tennis world, and indeed to the world. Like so many other friends and admirers, I will miss him very much.

There will never be another Bud.  


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