Recently the tennis world lost one of the good guys - I'm sure there's some fellow out there that might have a bad thing to say about Barry Mackay, but I'm just as certain that he has long since forgiven him, such was the kindness and generosity that became as much his hallmark as that endearingly long face, booming voice, and broad shoulders that stood tall for years at tennis courts around the world.
I won't belabor a semi-official biography about him - you can get that from Wikipedia or the various halls of fame where he has been, and will almost certainly be, inducted, after a long career that included an NCAA singles championship in 1957 (along with the one and only team championship that same year for the University of Michigan), a Davis Cup title for the United States in 1958, defeating the seemingly indomitable Australians in the the final, and a long career as an amateur, then as a ronin touring professional for Jack Kramer, then fully into the daylight of open tennis (although by then his best years were long behind him).
To be honest, I think what made Barry Mackay a really special person was the kind of thing that he did when I had the pleasure of meeting him in 1990 at what was then called the Sovran Bank Tennis Classic (previously the DC National Bank Tennis Classic, later the Legg Mason Tennis Classic, and what will be for the first time this year called the Citi Open). I was a ball boy for the first time, and I had been wanting to be a ball boy ever since I first came to the tournament with my family in 1981, but circumstances had conspired to prevent it for 9 long years.
When I finally did my first match, it was in the qualifying tournament, and I remember seeing Barry around the courts from time to time, saying hello to volunteers, shaking hands, and generally treating everyone like he had all the time in the world, even though he really didn't. I had listened to his commentary on television over the years, and he seemed like a nice guy, but I never bothered to introduce myself, even though he seemed to know some of the other ball kids.
One night, I was scheduled to work a doubles match that was supposed to start at about 11:00pm. All the match crew were tired after starting the day at 11:00am, and back then they didn't bother to feed us - for that we were on our own. Our only respite from the hot sun and tiring work was water, occasionally Gatorade if the players happened not the use up their allotment for a practice, and a tent near what is now the hospitality and concession area today, that stunk so horribly from ever present puddles of standing water that you could probably stand-on with all of the gunk it had in it.
But we couldn't have cared less - we were so excited to be going onto the stadium court that we could hardly contain ourselves, because it was the first night session of the tournament and none other than my childhood idol Yannick Noah was entered in the doubles. By then Noah was at the end of the best part of his career and the next year he would lead France to it's first Davis Cup title for 50 years, over a United States team that included Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and the doubles tandem of Ken Flach and Robert Seguso. But Noah was still fit as a fiddle and could do amazing things on a tennis court - especially in doubles. As we waited for the players to arrive at the tunnel, staring out at the entrance like those kids at the end of the second Indiana Jones film, I heard that familiar booming voice over my shoulder.
Barry: "Hey kids! How's it going!"
Barry: "Boy this outta be a good one yeah? Yannick Noah - any of you ever seem him play before?"
Barry: "Oh, you're gonna enjoy it - he's a lot of fun. But hey, don't let him pull the ol' hot ball trick with you - you keep an eye out for that one!"
Us: silence and blank stares
Barry: "You don't know about the hot ball?"
Us: quizzical looks and more blank stares
Barry: "You ever notice how when a player's about to serve with new balls he always shows it to his opponent? Well that's to keep from givin' em the ol' hot ball. What you do is when you get a new can of balls opened up, you take one of 'em and push it way down deep in your pocket, and always keep another ball on top of it. Then when you're up against a break point or you've got a set point, you pull that bad boy out and 'BOOM'!
Us: uproarious laughter
Barry: "Okay kids - have fun out there!"
Us: "Thank you!"
I couldn't believe it! It was hilarious, but could it be true? Was he just telling us a story, or did he really do it? Who knows...and who cares. If he wanted us to not be nervous and enjoy ourselves, he really sent us on our way. And I have to say that even though I was so tired I could have curled up and gone to sleep right behind the umpire's chair, I don't believe I've ever had so much fun on a tennis court before or after that wonderful moment.
And to me, that's what made Barry MacKay so special, and why I'm so sorry to have heard of his passing. Because there are a lot of people in tennis pretending to be nice guys - there's always a camera around when they're signing autographs or attending a charity, and it's all well and good if it helps their image.
But how many of those guys do you think would bother telling a great story like that to a ball kids crew at 11:00pm on a Monday night in Washington, DC - 3,000 miles from his own home in California and what may as well have been a million miles away from a camera? All that just to make us feel good before we went on court.
Rest in peace, Mr. MacKay...and thank you.