Monday, March 7, 2016

BUD COLLINS - ONE OF A KIND

They don't make 'em like Bud Collins anymore...they really don't.  I like to say, and often tell myself, that I love the game.  And then I think about Collins and the integral role he played in brining the US Open to television, the multiple and essential books on tennis history that he penned, and the thousands of hours he spent on television, over the last 50 years, putting the "color" in color commentary.

And he kind of makes me feel like I don't know what the meaning of love is.

I don't want to bore you with an obituary - the idea of attempting to sum up the life of a man, so varied, so mercurial, in so many words is as intimidating as it is useless.  That doesn't tell you who the man was.  I my opinion, the devil is in the details.  The way he spoke, the way he wrote, the way he pondered before asking questions of some of the greatest players in the history of the game, a history with which he was so intimately familiar.

To me that's what I remember and have always loved about Bud Collins.

I grew up with "Breakfast at Wimbledon" on NBC - the tradition of the tournament mirrored by the inviting familiarity of the format - the magisterial intro and the somber yet celebratory close - and I can honestly say that I enjoyed the idea of Collins interviewing first the runner-up, then the champion, every year as a perfect bookend to the overall experience of the tournament.  The reason I enjoyed his interviews was not for what he did, but for what he didn't do.

He didn't presume the answers in the question.

He didn't presume himself in the question.

He didn't patronize the runner-up.

He didn't gush over the champion (...well maybe just a little...).

The master interviewer is often confused with asking obvious question, but the question is only obvious if you presume the answer.  And Bud Collins never did.  Most interviewers (myself included)  are insecure, and feel compelled to justify their presence before a great player, and it is precisely that desire the elicits the worst questions and the most boring answers.

"How did you find the reserves of character and the mental strength to overcome losing such a close set?"

"How good does it feel to prove the naysayers wrong that said you couldn't win the big one?"

"We talk about all the things that make you who you are, but really, it's what's between the ears that makes a champion, right?"

"How great was the crowd support tonight?  Did you use their energy to spur you on to victory?"

These are all exactly the wrong ways of asking questions.  But notice the subtle and brilliant charm, the genuine humility and obvious admiration for, and love of, the players that make the game what it is, in this selection of interviews of Wimbledon champions and runners-up over the years.

Borg v McEnroe 1980

This interview is brilliant.  Following their titanic final in 1980, he got both McEnroe and Borg to admit that they were each certain that Borg would lose the 5th set.  And in so doing, revealed and buried the absurdity of the notion that one must believe they're going to win in order to win.

Note the simplicity of the question he asks Borg after he admitted he thought he would lose the match.  "Why did you win?"  Isn't that the question that should always be asked of the victor?  How often do you hear that asked, couched with qualifiers and presumptions, rather than stated plainly?  And Borg's answer revealed itself to be both elucidating and educational - for that matter McEnroe's as well.  In fact, McEnroe's answer, cathartically rational as it was, must have done much to help him deal with the pain of the loss.  After all, how can you win an advantage set without any break points - obviously Borg won because he shut the door with his serve, and McEnroe opened his.

Evert v Mandlikova 1981

In this interview with the women in 1981, he demonstrates his candor and his compassion in the simplest of questions to Hana Mandlikova, who clearly wasn't at her best on the day, and closed the interview just as soon as he realized she just couldn't take it anymore.  And as she parted, as was his way, Collins said goodbye to her in probably the worst Czech accent in the history of Czech accents, but I guarantee she didn't mind.

And while some (like Billie Jean King) cringed at his question to Evert about her becoming the first 4-time consecutive runner-up in history, her response demonstrated her grace and perspective, so effortlessly you almost forget the question.  King, on the other hand, as a tennis player and analyst, insisted on imposing her view of Chris' movement in her question, which was almost immediately dispelled.  And Collins' closer, "What did you do best today?" drew out the obvious, "I didn't choke." as well as the analytical, "...she's so unpredictable that I was determined to win in 2 sets, because if it had gone to a 3rd set, it would have been out of my control."

Navratilova v Evert 1982

Now this one I really love - I don't know whose idea it was to have them interviewed simultaneously, but, note the prescience of Navratilova insisting that Bud interview Evert first, and his gentlemanly acquiescence.  Hey, nobody's perfect, but he didn't shy away from asking a couple of doozies, nor did Evert shy away from answering them.  The look in her eye, when she refuted the notion that Navratilova lost the second set due to an attack of nerves, was all you need to know about her as a competitor.  "No, I didn't - you know I think I played exceptionally well in the second set and won it fair and square."  But his follow up allowed her to go into tactical details that gives insight into her state of mind - she came in more often, approaching on her backhand, because that's her weaker side, and the difference came when she lost her serve - from there she couldn't recover.

He started the interview with Martina by addressing the assumption that she would choke, after she lost 5 games in a row, and entreated an analysis and explanation from her of how she turned it around.  And Navratilova admitted that she tried to play it safe and it nearly cost her the match...in fact, she was choking by playing it safe, and it wasn't until she returned to the mind set that the match still had to be won that she returned to the form that delivered the victory.  Finally, knowing the woman as well as the player, he insisted on reminding her, and everyone watching, that this was her first title as a American, which would have been so important to her, and certainly was to him.

Connors v McEnroe 1982

Now, McEnroe was ungracious in escaping the obligatory interview, which isn't obligatory at all.  It should be pointed out that Borg did the exact same thing the year before, when he lost to McEnroe, but Collins handled it graciously on both occasions and moved on to the champion.  Here, Collins inserts the qualifier that Connors nearly lost the match serving double faults up to the fourth set, and Connors responded by pointing to his concentration on the toss as his solution.  Collins returned to the assumption that Connors was too stubborn to change to compete with McEnroe (where have we heard that before?) and Connors returned to the changes on his serve, and the previously rarely seen serve and volley, to refute that.  Finally, the simplest question, was my favorite, "What do you think is the single biggest reason you're here as champion?"

McEnroe v Connors 1984

Here it was Connors turn to eschew the scrutiny of the runner-up interview, but Collins really hit it out of the park on this one.  First, with a simple statement, he allowed McEnroe to expound on the the key to the match, which was the quality of his serve, where he accurately guessed that he had served 70-75% first serves in the match.  Collins then revealed to him that he had only made 2 unforced errors, in the entire match, which surprised him, and led him to analyze that Connors, on the other hand, was not feeling as comfortable and nimble as he was.  Collins returned to the ignominy of McEnroe's defeat at Roland Garros, from 2 sets down, simply asking what the loss did do him, rather than imposing the assumption that it was a crushing defeat that he had to overcome.  McEnroe proceeded to reveal that he didn't let things bother him along the way, and Collins followed up by asking if the calm demeanor he displayed on the day helps his tennis, which McEnroe dispelled - deciding not to allow things to bother you is more important than not expressing one's emotions:  the chicken before the egg.

Navratiolva v Evert 1985

The technical analysis from both players in this one is so complete that Collins has to interrupt them with follow-ups, but they are perfectly appropriate.  First to correct Evert's recollection of a point he thought was pivotal, but once he realized she didn't think enough of the point to even remember it, he didn't belabor it.  As for Navratilova, he let her know that she had come in on nearly every point of the match, which Navratilova noted was how the men do it, so why should she do it any differently (good point).  After Navratilova mentioned that Evert had been favored by many to win the match, Collins wanted to know if it surprised her, Navratilova explained that although she was playing well, every match is it's own self-contained entity, and Evert hadn't faced anyone like her.  He closed with a little history and a compliment to the champion.  What a gentleman.

Becker v Curren 1985

Here Collins interview of the vanquished really says something:  first he asks the simple question, "Not an easy afternoon for you, what will you remember about it?"  The next question really zeroes in on Curren's biggest issue, the failure of his serve, and Curren explains the difference between McEnroe and Connors return and Becker's - the topspin kept the ball down and compromised his first volley.  And the hilarity of Collins obsession with Becker's scuffed up knees is classic Collins.  Becker, for his part, is very analytical for a 17-year old, and his gracious showing of Becker's parent's reaction was so different, and so good.

Agassi v Ivanisevic 1992

Ivanisevic's interview consisted of two questions in 60 seconds - the first, the most obvious, what was the difference in the match, to which Ivanisevic proceed to give the keys to each set individually.  Collins interrupted once, for his second question of what happened at 4-5 in the 5th, where Agassi broke to win the title, and in his simplicity, Ivanisevic revealed that the wind kicked up, he was nervous and he choked, essentially.  But imagine if he had been asked if he had choked?  Brilliant.


Sampras v Courier 1993

Here Collins reveals some multi-tasking:  in the middle of his interview with Courier, he hears Sampras say that he was tired, which may have informed his question to Courier of whether he thought a fifth would favor him.  Sampras then reveals that his fatigue was due, in part, to feeling sorry for himself, from which he quickly recovered.  With his simple question about the difference in the match, Sampras revealed it was his second serve return.  He then revealed that he had seen the semi-final with Edberg where Courier was teeing off on his second serve returns, so he mixed up the second serves.  That also happened to be Courier's assessment:  that Sampras was hitting two first serves, while he was hitting only one.

Isn't it amazing how, with simple questions, both interviewees basically confirm each others' analyses?

Final Thoughts

In 2009, Andy Roddick lost a 6-hour, five set Wimbledon final to Roger Federer - his third final, all loses to the same player, but this one painfully ended with only his second break of serve throughout the grueling encounter, 14-16 in the final set.  Reporters packed the room to ask innumerable questions and Roddick, while gracious with his time (if not always his behavior on court) did what men do under the circumstances and answered every question honestly, analytically and completely.  By the end of the press conference it seemed he was more fatigued from talking about it that from the match.  Although he had suffered a debilitating hip injury during the match (which he never mentioned), Bud Collins had to know that he was hurting physically and in his heart, and that by the end, he he needed nothing more than for it to end.


The human in him insisted that his "question" be that last, in his own inimitable way, when he interrupted yet another question with this suggestion:

"Bud Collins:  Liberate this man.  Well done, Andy
Andy Roddick: Thank you."

I have a feeling that Roddick's "thank you" was directed at Collins for doing just that.

Speaking of the human in him, my father met Bud Collins once years ago at a book signing, where Collins addressed him as "Citoyen" which is the french word for Citizen.  Why would he do that?  Because Bud Collins was a man first, and a journalist second, and he knew that people from the Republic of Zaire (as the Democratic Republic of Congo was known then) addressed each other formally, as "Citizen".  He knew this, of course, because he had been to Congo to cover the Muhammad Ali heavyweight title fight in Kinshasa against George Foreman in 1974, and he would have known to say this to my father because...well, he asked him where he was from.

Book signings are a way to sell books for the author - nothing gets buyers in the store like a chance to breath the same air, so to speak.  But even though it may have cost him a minute and a dollar, he spent it finding out one simple thing about him before obliging him with an autograph.  And in that brief moment, he gave my father, a man who picked up the game of tennis at 30, and still plays it 3 times a week at age 74, a thrill that he still talks about today.

And I suspect that the reason Bud Collins was so good at what he did, at least in part, was because of how good of person he was.  I doubt anyone who had the pleasure of meeting or knowing him would disagree.

And there's nothing better you can say about a man on the occasion of his passing.
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