Concrete Elbow by Steve Tignor - A Second Handful
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A Second Handful 10/02/2006 - 4:30 PM

155821566201_aa240_sclzzzzzzz__1This week, in the first installment of our website's monthly book club,'s editor, Kamakshi Tandon, and I will be talking about Gordon Forbes' 1996 memoir "Too Soon to Panic."

Hi Kamakshi,

Let me start with a story that I’ve told here in the past, but which illustrates the strength of Gordon Forbes’ writing. Last year, TENNIS Magazine did a countdown—perfectly, I might add, no matter what anyone says—of the 40 greatest players of the last 40 years. One was Aussie legend and Forbes friend Roy Emerson. I was assigned to do the short tribute to Emmo that we wrote for each of the players. I remembered the vivid descriptions of his larger-than-life personality from Forbes’ A Handful of Summers and decided to end my write-up with one of them:

Statistics aside, Emerson will be remembered as one of the game’s all-time great personalities. Player and author Gordon Forbes described his friend like this: “An unbelievable disposition—perhaps the perfect combination of kindness, humor, determination, and ruefulness. Tremendous lust for life—Emerson.”

For the next few months, pretty much everyone I knew who read TENNIS Mag. mentioned that they liked the tributes we did on the great players, especially “the one you did about Emerson.”

“Oh yeah?’ I would respond, knowing what was coming next.

“Yeah, loved the ending.”

And that was basically the extent of their appreciation for a year’s worth of articles: the two sentences that Gordon Forbes wrote.

Not that I blamed my friends and tennis partners. Those adjectives about Emerson—kindness, humor, determination, ruefulness, lust for life—are very carefully chosen and give you an immediate picture of a terrific character (which by every account Emmo is).

Summers, a memoir of the amateur era that was published in 1978, is full of other descriptions—both of unique characters and very funny moments—that are just as good, so good that I’d say it’s the best book ever written about tennis (Levels of the Game by John McPhee and The Courts of Babylon by our friend Peter Bodo are next on my list; do you subscribe to these sports-nut “greatest-ever” lists, Kamakshi? Somehow I doubt that you do). It’s also perhaps the best book by an ex-athlete in any sport (are there any others that come to mind?). But I think Forbes matched it with Too Soon to Panic.

Forbes, a South African, was a second-tier player on the international tennis circuit in the 1950s and 1960s before returning home to become a lighting-fixture salesman in ’64 (his son is IMG tennis agent Gavin Forbes). We learn in Panic that Gordon was more successful as a salesman than he was as a player. He eventually started his own business and sold it, and in this book he reappears on the tour in the early 1990s as an international man of leisure who has the time simply to watch tennis and write down his observations.

I must say I’ve always been apprehensive about trying Too Soon to Panic. I didn’t want to take a chance on breaking the spell that Summers had cast, and the title sounded like Forbes had succumbed to the jargon of contemporary pop psychology. So I was glad that right up front, on page 26, we find out the real meaning of the title, and it fits perfectly with the Forbes I know.

It comes from his diary notes from Berlin in 1962. Like Summers, this book alternates between the present and the diary Forbes kept for years on tour (and which must have been edited into shape afterward, because no one in the world has ever kept such an hilarious, perfect-prose diary). In this entry, he’s just arrived in Berlin on a Monday for a Davis Cup match with teammates Cliff Drysdale and Abe Segal. Segal, known as Big Abie, is the de facto hero of both of Forbes’ memoirs, a colossally unruly, one-of-a-kind character. The two are scheduled to play the doubles at the end of the week, and they’re practicing together, badly. Forbes, who is admittedly a nervous player, throws his racquet, which hits a pole and smashes to pieces.

“Crap-almighty, Forbsey,” says Abie. He comes over to my side and takes me by the shoulders. “Listen,” he says, “What day is today?”
“Right,” he says. “Monday. The match starts Friday.”
“So what?”
“So it’s too soon to panic. Just be with me. I’ll tell you exactly when to panic.”

They play the dubs against the Germans and it goes to 4-3 in the fifth set. The South Africans have a break point, with Forbes to return in the ad court.

Bungert [their German opponent] gets ready to serve and the court goes dead quiet. As he’s about to serve, Abie holds up his hand and stops play. Bungert waits, and Abie walks over to me and put his lips right next to my ear. “Okay, idiot,” he says, “panic now!” and in spite of everything I have to laugh.

The Germans think we’ve got some terrific play worked out, so that when my return goes down the middle they’re busy watching the lines. “Game, South Africa,” says the umpire.

There’s plenty more hijinks where that came from, but I’d like to start this discussion by talking about the thing that initially struck me about Summers, and which is in evidence once again here: Forbes’ ability to describe what it feels like to compete in a tennis match (not just a sporting event, but a tennis match specifically), which is the truest account I’ve read.

In Summers, Forbes said that winning a tennis match involved “Loneliness, plus Courage, Patience, Optimism, Concentration, a Calm Stomach, and a Quiet, Deep Fury.” Losing meant “Loneliness, plus Fear, a Hollow Stomach, Impatience, Pessimism, Petulance, and a Bitter Fury at Yourself.” Both are pretty much dead-on, in my experience. It’s a tough sport that requires seemingly unlimited resources of willpower. It also seems to attract loners.

Forbes revisits the subject with a lighter touch in Panic. He describes some pick-up senior doubles at the British embassy in Pretoria, South Africa, the setting for what he calls “surprisingly tense, though sometimes technically iffy, tennis matches.”

The Greek ambassador, Lucas Tsilas, is on the other side of the net from Forbes. He’s a brash trash-talker—“We make a big surprise, partner, like Pearl Harbor,” he says as they warm up. As they continue, he has an excuse for every mistake and is always the picture of optimism. Before he steps up to serve, he yells out “ace warning!” at Forbes and his partner.

Eventually, Forbes and his partner beat the Greek and his partner in a tiebreaker. To which the Greek says, “They have all the lucky breaks. Now, we go have a nice cup of tea.” Forbes adds,

Which, of course, is the ultimate weapon of all natural competitors like Lucas. They dispense with the need to panic. Having stuck their necks out, done their best, and failed, they put the failure right out of their minds and have a cup of tea.

Like Forbes, I’ve always wished I could be like this—try your best and forget about it when it’s over. But also like him, I know that when it comes to serious tennis, or at least serious singles, it’s just not part of the game. As he says in Summers, the emotions you go through by yourself on a court are simply too strong, too deep, too varied, to shrug off easily.

You’ve read both books as well Kamakshi, and you told me recently that you thought that Panic was significantly different from his first book. How so? I found them to be similar in tone and quality for the most part.

And speaking of tennis players as scribes, what did you think of Roger Federer’s first blog entry from Japan this week? I enjoyed it, and I’ll say this: It must be nice when the adjective you use most often about your life is “incredible.”



Posted by yuttchan 10/02/2006 at 08:28 PM

I thought Roger Federer's first blog entry is great: it sounds just like him. The post is very much like what we are used to reading in his interviews, i.e., authentic!

Posted by Heidi 10/02/2006 at 10:41 PM

I don't know much about tennis history (tennis I didn't watch, so say before the mid-80s), so it seems like this book might be one to put on my list. Thanks Steve.

I also really enjoyed Federer's post. He does have a great life in many ways, but he seems to appreciate that and give back a lot to the sport and charities, so I am unresentful. Considering the adjectives that he most frequently uses seem to be 'nice' and 'fantastic,' I suppose that moving on to 'incredible' is a new phase!

Posted by Lynn 10/03/2006 at 05:11 AM

The Greek anecdote is insightful and thought-provoking. Mentally perhaps we try to convince ourselves at times of failure that man proposes and God disposes, but more often than not we give in to emotions and let them control us.

Will it be possible for you, Steve, to discuss briefly the emotions that a player experiences on court?

Posted by Toms 10/03/2006 at 10:35 AM

I've read the first of his books, and I remember it being hilarious. I ddin't even know this one existed, but I will find it!

I don't know of any other ex-athletes who write this well. It is somewhat incredible. 'Ball Four' was also funny by the Yankees guy, but it wasn't as deep

And Federer's blog is nice, but do you think he really sits down and writes it?

Posted by tommy 10/03/2006 at 11:07 AM

I would like to read a tennis book written by an agent.
They seem to be involved on every level except on the court itself

Posted by JR 10/03/2006 at 12:00 PM

I haven’t read many tennis books (other than the “how to” variety), but over the years I’ve kept seeing glowing references to “A Handful of Summers.” This morning, when reading Pete’s blog, someone mentioned this blog and Gordon, and I decided, “it’s time, and I bought it used on Amazon. Those days were a special time in tennis--so unlike today--and it’s nice to know I’ll have a follow-up to look forward to.

Are there any other tennis book recommendations from fellow posters? A couple I have enjoyed in the last few years were “Jimmy Connors Saved My Life” and a Bobby Riggs bio (title forgotten).

Posted by Jaz 10/03/2006 at 12:01 PM

Big Abie sounds like a character for sure. That kind of stuff is something like 'Ball Four' for tennis.

What does Forbes have ot say about tennis today? Probably not as fun as it used to be right?

Posted by Marcelo 10/03/2006 at 07:23 PM

Yeah, Roger´s blog its really nice, I love reading the players´s blogs, and as a big fan I´m enjoying reading his posts.

Posted by Liz (for Federer) 10/03/2006 at 08:48 PM

Keep 'em coming Roger. I'm glad to see you blogging.

I'm still chuckling over "Captain Wasabi"--I'm dying to know how Mirka is going to get him back.

Posted by Joe Stahl 10/04/2006 at 02:17 AM

Steve, you'll be glad to know that one of the all-time greatest players ever agreed with your assessment of Gordon Forbes' A Handful of Summers. When I used to visit Lew Hoad in Spain in the 1980s and '90s, and the subject of Gordon's book came up, Lew used to say, in his typical Australian pronunciation, "It's the grytist book on tinnis evah writtin." And it really is. I had the pleasure of interiewing Gordon on Radio Wimbledon in 1997, and as always he was a delightful talker.

Posted by chloe02 10/04/2006 at 07:48 AM

I've ordered the Forbes book but it's not arrived yet (come on, Amazon). A poster from the TW tribe pointed up an article by Charles Bricker on Vince Spadea's recent offering. First positive thing I've heard about it after everything that James Blake had to say...,0,4354400.story?coll=sfla-sports-tennis

Posted by Fan of Tennis 10/04/2006 at 05:49 PM

Posted by Toms 10/03/2006 @ 10:35 AM
I've read the first of his books, and I remember it being hilarious. I ddin't even know this one existed, but I will find it!
I don't know of any other ex-athletes who write this well. It is somewhat incredible. 'Ball Four' was also funny by the Yankees guy, but it wasn't as deep
And Federer's blog is nice, but do you think he really sits down and writes it?

Yes, according to everyone, Roger actually writes it via his lap top! He probably has help with the wording, sentence structure, etc., but he said he was actually writing & typing it! Look at the last post with Tursunov standing over Roger's shoulders. Put your mouse on Roger's mouse in the picture and you'll see exactly what Roger think of Tursunov standing over his shoulders!

Posted by Lance Knobel 10/05/2006 at 03:25 PM

Wonderful idea to start a book club, and certainly appropriate to start with Forbes. But "best book by an ex-athlete in any sport"? I'd have to pick A False Spring, by Pat Jordan ( A wonderful, elegiac memoir of a failed talent.

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