Hard Courts by John Feinstein Excerpts: Mary Carillo & John McEnroe, & The Agents


Excerpts from Hard Courts by John Feinstein, 1991, Villard Books, NY
Out of print, but still readily obtainable used from Amazon.com via the link above.

    Hard Courts tells the story of modern professional tennis in general. While the book follows the 1990 WTA and ATP tours, it frequently relates earlier events which provide much background information. The book well written, relatively hype-free, and Feinstein makes his points clear. Rather than focus on gossip about the top players, as John Wertheim does in Venus Envy, or dwell on sexual topics as Michael Mewshaw does in Ladies of the Court, Feinstein explains the kind of deals players have with agents, how various tourneys have fared over the years, and goes into detail in relating biographical stories of a number of players. He tells the stories of not only the top players, but also some who never reached the top 20, revealing what the tours are like for journeyman athletes.
    The clear writing, interesting tales, and background about the tours makes this one of the best tennis books of the 1990s. It should occupy a place on your bookshelf alongside Peter Bodo's similarly informative and well written The Courts of Babylon.

Mary Carillo & John McEnroe (pages 158-162)

    Mary was three days old when the family moved from Brooklyn to Douglaston, Queens. Mary got her first tennis racquet when she was nine--won it in a fishing contest at the Douglaston Pier. She picked the racquet, and old Alex Olmedo model, as her prize because she thought it would be ideal to use for crabbing off the docks. A year later, when she came down with swimmer's ear, she decided to give the prize a try as a tennis racquet, at the Douglaston Club. Once she got through picking the seaweed out of it, she found out she could play pretty well.
    She began spending hours around the club, looking for people to play with. Most people used the club to swim or to bowl, but there were three clay and two hard tennis courts. She finally found a little runt two years younger than she was who was willing to play with her all day long. His name was John McEnroe.
    They were both lefties and they both loved Rod Laver. "We played, like, fourteen sets a day, every day," Mary remembers. When Mary was twelve and John was ten, he began to grow a little and catch up to her on the tennis court. One day he beat her 6-0, 6-0, hitting all these weird, wristy touch shots Mary had never seen anyone else hit.
    After they were done, Mary looked at John and said, "You know something, someday you're going to be the best tennis player in the world."
    "Shut up," John McEnroe said.
    "My first foray into tennis commentary," Carillo says now. "And that was what my audience thought of me. I think I scared him. But he was operating in a place no one else was. Even then, he had this crazy touch game."

    Mary and John both became top junior players. John began entering junior tournaments and urged Mary to do the same. He also encouraged her to start taking lessons at the Port Washington Tennis Academy, where Harry Hopman, the legendary Australian Davis Cup coach, was in charge. "John gets me addicted to the stupid game, convinces me to go to Port, gets me playing there every day of the week, and shows up once a week," Carillo remembers.
    That was okay, though, because she was hooked on tennis and on Hopman. "If he had been teaching badminton I would have wanted to play it every day."
    McEnroe fought constantly with Hopman. One Friday night, McEnroe had everyone on his court playing all of his "touchy-feely" shots and Hopman blew up. "You want to play like a girl," he roared, "you go play on the girls' court!" Thirty minutes later, Hopman checked the girls' court and there was McEnroe, showing all the girls how to hit the same shots.
    Her senior year of high school, Carillo was the No. 1 junior girl in the East and had a scholarship offer to play at Trinity University in Texas. She wasn't sure if she wanted to do that or take a crack a turning pro. When she went to Hopman for advice, he offered a compromise: to work for him in Florida where he was starting a tennis academy.
    Mary went to Florida to work for Hopman for fifty dollars a week. She worked out and taught for several months. Just as she was getting bored and thinking about going to college, she went to the Bahamas for a tournament at a resort. It was a small, fun event, and Carillo made the semifinals. The next morning, when she went to check out of the hotel, she was told that she had run up a $200 bar bill during the week. Carillo didn't have $200. She walked over to the tournament office.
    "What's the prize money for making the semifinals?" she asked.
    "It's two hundred and fifty dollars."
    "I'm turning pro," she announced. She took the prize money and paid her bar bill.

    ...The following year--1977--the drinking man's pro played the European circuit. At the French Open, she and McEnroe entered the mixed doubles. McEnroe, still an amateur, had just graduated from high school. Glancing at the draw, McEnroe said to Carillo, "No reason why we shouldn't win this thing."
    He was right. They won, the two kids from Douglaston...
    ...Carillo never reached that emotional high again as a player. She had undergone her first knee operation in 1976, and by the end of 1977 she needed surgery again. She knew her career wasn't going to last long, so she played whenever she could, wherever she could. In 1979 she reached the third round at Wimbledon and climbed to No. 34 in the world. A year later at Wimbledon she could feel things wandering around in her knee again...

    ...That fall, she was at the Avon Championships (now Virginia Slims) at Madison Square Garden, just hanging out. There was a delay one evening before the start of a match between Tracy Austin and Evonne Goolagong. Madison Square Garden Network, the cable group televising the tournament, was desperately looking for anything and anyone to fill time.
    Peachy Kellmeyer of the Women's Tennis Association, running out of time fillers, sent Carillo up to the booth. She began talking. When the match finally started, Billy Talbert, who was doing color commentary, told the producer he wanted Carillo to stay. The producer said okay and Carillo did the entire match...

The Agents (pages 130-142)

    There are three major management companies in tennis. The International Management Group (IMG) is by far the largest and most powerful. Run by Mark McCormack, it represents everyone from the pope to movie stars to athletes and most of the major names in sports television. It is a colossus, running tournaments all over the world in both golf and tennis, even controlling the computer that assigns worldwide rankings to golfers.

    ProServ, run by Donald Dell, isn't nearly as large as IMG but it, too, has its tentacles into almost every corner of tennis. ProServ manages players, runs tournaments, produces TV for tournaments, and sells sponsorships for others. At times Dell, one of the great control freaks in all of sports, has found himself doing the TV commentary on matches in which he manages the two players, manages the tournament, and has sold the television time and the sponsorships. It is at those moments, no doubt, that he is happiest.

    Advantage is, literally, ProServ's cousin, even though it hates that label. It was born in 1983 when Dell and his partners had an irreconcilable falling out over anything and everything. Three partners, Frank Craighill, Lee Fentress, and Dean Smith, left to form Advantage. Legally, two brand new companies were formed out of one, with clients and employees split up between them. Much bitterness still lingers between the partners, although the men who work for them at the two companies tend to get along in their business dealings most of the time.

    ...There isn't an agent alive who hasn't had to beg a tennis player to do something, usually something he or she has already promised to do and then decided at the last minute not to.

    ...Agents had to make excuses when players decided they didn't feel like playing in a tournament or when they decided to skip an exhibition or a corporate appearance. Often, these were paid appearances. The players were often willing to pass up the money, though, if they didn't feel like doing anything. Passing up a $50,000 payday was no big deal anymore, not to the top names.

    ...To the players, the three management groups are not IMG, ProServ, and Advantage, but IMGreedy, ProSwindle and DisAdvantage. Almost to a man or woman, the players will tell you they don't trust agents. Just as quickly, the agents will tell you not to trust players...
    While the agents often work with one another, putting together tournaments and exhibitions and fighting such groups as the ITF, the ATP, and the WTA for power, they will fight like rabid cats over a player, especially one who is a proven big-money maker...

    ...The standard fee players pay agents when they first turn pro is 10 percent of their prize money and 20 to 25 percent for all other revenue...
    Superstars usually get their prize-money fee waived and their off-court fees cut to as low as 10 percent, occasionally even lower...

    [On Sunday, April 8, 1990, ProServ CEO Jerry Solomon and agent Ivan Blumberg met with Pete Sampras, his brother Gus, his father Soterios, and his former coach Dr. Pete Fischer, the man who had earlier convinced him to switch to a one-handed backhand. They met in an examining room in the hospital where Fischer worked. Sampras had been represented by IMG since 1988, but now wanted to switch. He had listened to Advantage's offer, and then had decided he might as well hear from ProServ also...]
    "What do you want?" Solomon said. He picked up a paper plate sitting nearby and handed it to Soterios Sampras. "Write down what you want here."
    Soterios Sampras did that. The Advantage offer had a fee structure based on earnings: the more Pete earned, the higher Advantage's fee would be, peaking at 12 percent when his earnings off court went over $1 million a year. The Samprases asked ProServ to base their fees on ranking: The higher Pete was ranked, the lower the fee. It went to 10 percent if he made the top five and bottomed at 8 percent if he reached number one.
    When Soterios Sampras was finished, he handed the paper plate to Solomon. Solomon nodded his head. "I can handle that," he said. He put the plate down on the examining room table and signed his name. "This is a contract if you sign it," he said, offering the pen to Pete and his father. Father and son looked at each other, then at Fischer. Everyone nodded. They signed. The deal was done. In two hours ProServ had wiped out months of work on the part of Advantage and two years of work by IMG.

    Note: SFX Sports Group acquried ProServ, and Donald Dell, in 1999. Advantage International was acquired by Octagon the same year. IMG, already huge, is still IMG. story

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