Best seat in the house
You saw him a hundred times, yet you never saw him.
He was in the middle of nearly every huge U.S. Open tennis match during the past two decades, yet he went unnoticed.
He is bodyguard James Rickenbacker, an eclipse of a man, and he probably has seen more great tennis up close than any person alive -- and never paid a dime for it.
Rickenbacker, 57, is a personal guard for Donald Trump 50 weeks of the year. But for two weeks every September from 1995 until 2009, he also stood guard behind nearly every great player -- man or woman -- at the U.S. Open. He was a kind of human canvas against which great Open matches were played, standing there behind dark sunglasses, motionless, waiting on trouble.
He never got much, except from the players.
"Pete Sampras?" says Rickenbacker, a former semipro fullback. "Man, he was a tough guy. One time, at Louis Armstrong [Stadium], I was taking him down the stairs before a match, and a cameraman was coming up. And Sampras bumped right into him! On purpose! Just took a shoulder and knocked the man sideways. Maybe he was getting his mind right, but wow, I was shocked."
Rickenbacker saw a lot of that kind of thing.
"Venus and Serena [Williams]. Those girls weren't the least bit friendly. They didn't even say hello. They were all business. Focused, man."
Remember the infamous bump in 1997 between Venus and Romanian Irina Spirlea? He says Venus did it on purpose. "I saw her bump that girl, just give her a bump -- boom! -- right into her. And the girl didn't even do anything about it. I was like, 'Ooh, Venus is going to kick your ass today!' (Williams won in a third-set tiebreak.) But it's funny, 'cause their dad was always so nice."
Rickenbacker's job was to escort the players from the locker room to the court and guard them during changeover breaks. When they went back on the court, he sat in a chair in the corner. If there was a delay or an injury break, he'd escort them back to the locker room. So he saw players in every emotional and physical state. He was a witness to their every neurosis, fear and peccadillo.
"[Rafael] Nadal. Man, he's so fidgety. He's gotta have everything just so
I mean, the label on the water bottle has to face a certain way, and his towel has to be folded a certain way and his rackets have to be sitting a certain way. And if anything happens to his stuff, he keeps fiddling until it's right. And then as soon as they tell him the break's over, he'd -- bam! -- sprint back out on the court."
He remained detached from favoritism, except for one player -- Andre Agassi.
"He was the kindest man, nicest player I ever worked for. He was real. Genuine. Not the least bit stuck on himself. Same for his wife [women's tennis player Steffi Graf]. Every time I'd see her, she'd come up and give me a big kiss. So many tennis players are spoiled. But not them. They're the best people."
Agassi remembered Rickenbacker in his autobiography, "Open":
James has been at the U.S. Open almost as long as I have. He's led me down this tunnel before and after glorious wins and excruciating losses. Large, kind, with tough-guy scars that he wears with pride
He's one of the first people I look for when I walk into [Arthur] Ashe Stadium.
James always makes sure to be the one behind my chair. During a grueling match, I'll often catch James looking concerned, and I'll whisper, Don't worry, James, I've got this chump today. It always makes him chuckle.
Anybody else make you chuckle?
"[Novak] Djokovic," Rickenbacker says. "That man's hilarious. He'd mutter stuff to himself. And he'd do impressions all the time. He could do Nadal perfect. He could do anybody."
Friendliest woman? "Probably Lindsay Davenport. She used to bounce the ball off my back."
Meanest? "That guy from Germany -- [Boris] Becker. He was kinda mean. Man, he'd get on the line judges."
Biggest entourages? "Oh, the Williams sisters, by far. They always had a big group of people with them. And celebrities. Janet Jackson, you name it."
Insecure? "Monica Seles, I guess. She was just a very nervous girl. Not confident at all. Always asking me, "Where am I supposed to go now? What am I supposed to do?'"
Understandable, of course. The on-the-court stabbing of Seles during a match in Hamburg, Germany, in 1993 was what gave Rickenbacker his job in the first place. That's when tournaments began posting guards between the players and the fans.
Rickenbacker quit the Open job last year after being diagnosed with prostate cancer. "Just didn't think I could stand out there in that sun all day for two weeks," he says. He's fine now -- 100 percent in remission -- and is considering a comeback.
Until then, he has Trump's back, and front, and side.
"Very nice man," Rickenbacker says. "Lets people take his picture and everything. But you gotta know -- Mr. Trump is a businessman. He don't play around. He ain't playin'."
Sounds as if Trump would like Sampras.