Concrete Elbow by Steve Tignor - Book Club: Higueras Unhinged
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Book Club: Higueras Unhinged 04/14/2008 - 6:15 PM

To mark the 30th anniversary of its publication, this week I’ll be discussing Peter Bodo’s book, "Inside Tennis: A Season on the Pro Tour," with editor Kamakshi Tandon.

Hi Kamakshi,

2008_04_14_it_blog I sort of laughed to myself when I wrote above that we would be marking the anniversary of this book, because we will almost assuredly be the only people doing so. For some unfortunate reason, Inside Tennis has been lost in time, unlike Pete’s more famous Courts of Babylon or other tennis-tour books like Handful of Summers and Ladies of the Court.

Of course, Inside Tennis is older than most of those types of books—it covers the tour in 1978—and out of print. Which is a serious loss for any fan of tennis, or sportswriting, or photography, or book design, or just thoughtful observation in general. For those without access to it—there are a few copies still available at Amazon—I’ll start with the design. It’s a mix of paperback and coffee-table book, with slightly oversize print and lots of full-page, mostly black-and-white action photos. It works for the fan who wants to read an in-depth account of the season just past, or the fan who just wants to keep it as a memento and leaf through it. All of which makes me wonder why it couldn’t be done every year at the end of the tennis season.

As for the content, Pete and photographer June Harrison began at the Italian Open in Rome and went on to thoroughly cover, in words and pictures, Paris, Eastbourne, Chichester, Wimbledon, Indianapolis, and the first Open at Flushing Meadows (or, as Pete and Bud Collins have always maintained, Flushing Meadow, without the “s”).

I’m about halfway through, so I’ll start where Pete and June started, at the Italian Open. I wrote a blog from Rome last year and was surprised by how much my sense of the event matched Pete’s from three decades ago. I guess the Foro Italico is timeless—it certainly could use a facelift, or a good dusting, or at least brighter lights on the stadium court, but that’s a story for another post. Pete gets the tournament’s sense of always-impending chaos down just right, but he was also helped by the particularly chaotic tenor of those days in Rome. Back then there were Italian players vying for the title, and a hooligan-like mentality took hold of the fans when they played. This was the Italian where Jose Higueras was hit by a “one-hundred lira coin” (in Pete’s beautifully specific words) from the stands and eventually walked off the court and defaulted his semifinal against local hero Adriano Panatta. Along the way, Higueras gave the crowd the equivalent of the finger. This prompted them to take up the thunderous chant of “Buffoon!”, which in turn inspired the chair umpire to yell, “Silence, cretins!” Lesson No. 1 from Higueras to his new student, Roger Federer: Don’t flip off the crowd.

HiguerasThe only problems I had with this section were a few of those, “I wish I would have written that” moments. Here’s Pete on the first page of the book, talking about the end of opening day at the Foro:

The birds have fallen silent. The roses lashed to the trunks of the parasol pines surrounding the Foro Italico are still visible; each bloom stands out like a bright drop of blood against the gnarled bark.

Nice, nasty little bit of foreshadowing there. Pete’s even better describing the players. Here he is watching journeyman Mike Fishback (he had invented the outlawed spaghetti string racquet a year earlier).

Fishback is a bearded youth who likes to wear a heavy, embroidered, Mexican sweater suggesting illicit south-of-the-border liaisons. He falls often; nothing gives him greater satisfaction than diving for and returning an impossible ball. Clay cakes Fishback’s body; mineral water bottles, racquets, a few spare shirts, and a mound of sawdust are scattered around his chair. He is that rarity in this decorous game: a sloppy fellow.

Here he watches Higueras play:

The Spaniard cannot match Panatta’s elegance; his service motion is studied and downright unathletic. He prepares for his forehand with a baroque, looping backswing; his style suggests that he is impersonating a world-class player, but his steadiness and accuracy are uncanny. All Higueras lacks is that vital spark of genius that the deity breathes into the most attractive players.

Who does that last line remind you of? Federer perhaps? Maybe they’ll make a good team on clay—Federer has the genius, he just needs a little more of the uncanny accuracy.

I’ll talk more about Pete’s writing, and Harrison’s excellent photography, and the stories about the players later. For now, I wanted to ask you, Kamakshi, if you think this book could possibly be written today. Pete had very good access to second-tier American players like Bill Scanlon and Billy Martin. Here’s a conversation with Scanlon about the racquet he’d been using during a recent losing streak.

“I’m not in Fila’s good graces,” Scanlon confessed with a laugh. “I haven’t won a tournament and I don’t use their racquet.”
“Is the racquet bad?” I asked.
“I tried it for four tournaments,” he shrugged. “What can I say? You’ve got to play with something you like.”

It’s hard to imagine that conversation being published today.

At the same time, Pete was scraping to get two minutes alone with Bjorn Borg, the same way reporters do with Federer and co. now. Do you get the sense that this was a more “innocent” and open time in tennis? Or could this book be written by someone today who was willing to log in the hours on tour? As someone who has covered these events, just reading Inside Tennis can make me tired. I know the amount of time and work and energy that must have gone into it. No wonder it’s never been done as well since.



Posted by omar 04/14/2008 at 06:30 PM

First one. Yes. First time that's happened.

I have a copy of this book. Found it at a used book store for $1. Very good deal. Great book, by the way. Especially loved Pete's description of the day he saw Borg practicing with Jose Luis Clerc in preparation for either the Italian or the French, I can't remember which.

Posted by Sam 04/14/2008 at 07:02 PM

"his style suggests that he is impersonating a world-class player"

Great line. Thanks for the excerpts, Steve.

Posted by Syd 04/14/2008 at 07:30 PM

Steve: Thanks for the post.

Why not indeed? It could be written every year. Shame that it hasn't been written in the last five. How about starting with Monte. Go for it.

Posted by beth 04/14/2008 at 08:45 PM

I second Syd's suggestion
we need another new book like this one
featuring the current tour players

Steve - go for it !

Posted by jhurwi 04/14/2008 at 08:54 PM

If anyone would like to buy a copy of Bodo's Inside Tennis, is offering used copies of the paperback edition from $2.08 up

Posted by felizjulianidad 04/14/2008 at 11:31 PM

I'm becoming more and more convinced Bodo is an NF, but more importantly an F, according to the MBTI.

Guys, I've been having so much fun with the two-handed backhand lately. I think I'd have more than a few detractors here--I get more pleasure out of extending the run with hardhitting, grinding rallies, than I do in sealing the deal.

I think it's because competitive as I may be, exhausting, long tennis gives me an excuse to not have to sprint or jog or go to the weight room in order to stay in shape in the (few) free hours of the day that I have.

Posted by SwissMaestro 04/15/2008 at 09:51 AM

Let's see what the clay season brings to Federer, hope is all good news...

Posted by Robin (Feedforward) 04/15/2008 at 10:08 AM

Andriano, Andriano, Andriano.

I doubt there has ever been as dramatic and melodic a chant as when the Italian crowd urged on Panatta by repeating his wonderful name.

Too bad they turned ugly at times.

As I said in another post, Gilbert would call Andriano Andy (after all he refers to Nadal as Ralph). While some names almost need to be Americanized so they can be pronounced, why do we have to take out the poetry in so many good names?

And while we are reminiscing, the best tennis shirt ever made was Borg's Fila pinstripe made out of Italian cotton. It cost almost a $100 even then, but was worth it. I tell you this--you never saw Borg adjusting his shirt like Roddick does.

Thanks for reminding us how long Pete has been a writer who brings so much to our game.

Posted by Joel Drucker 04/15/2008 at 12:22 PM

Inside Tennis is a superb book that I have read and, at the risk of being too fawning, reread sections of frequently.

First-hand experience writing about tennis tells me that repeating Peter's great effort of '78 is a no-go in today's world. So many factors -- the growth of player posses, bigger venues that create distance between players and spectators (including media), cable TV-descent of print's significance -- all contribute to a vastly different world than the one where Peter was very much front and center. Sad.

MBTI-wise, I'd daresay Peter, like many at the mother ship, is an INTP.

Posted by Rolo Tomassi 04/15/2008 at 02:07 PM

Love this tribute to Inside Tennis. Funny, but that description of the area around Fishback's chair reminded me of what Sampras' chair-area sometimes looked like. Sad that the early consensus is that a book like this could not be written today - but not terribly surprising...

Posted by 04/15/2008 at 02:36 PM

I think this book could be written, but it couldn't come from your protypical "journalist" like Pete, Steve, Joel, etc. It would have to come from someone with much greater access to the players. An insider, who compiles the book, but then leaves the inside and publishes the book. The access objective wouldn't be to reveal dark secrets, but simply to have the access needed to provide the color the book would demand.

Posted by Matt Van Tuinen 04/15/2008 at 02:39 PM

That last comment was mine...

Posted by Pete 04/16/2008 at 02:16 PM

I second Beth's suggestion - Steve,get your passport in order!

Posted by jrstriker12 04/16/2008 at 03:28 PM

Just a thought...Beyond the question of whether this could be written today – in the age of online video coverage of ATP events and daily web updates from many tennis sources, including players blogs, I wonder how many fans would go want to go back and read a whole book on the season they just watched? Maybe so or maybe not. Just a thought.

Posted by Core Drill Bits 10/29/2011 at 04:03 AM

Probably it must be..Because it requires lot of practice and strength as well..

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