Re: Behind the Scenes
WIMBLEDON TENNIS CHAMPIONSHIPS : Wimbledon Favorite? It's Not Bud Collins, but He Doesn't Care
June 21, 1987
Special to the Los Angeles Times
BOSTON — To those fortunate enough to buy, inherit or sneak admittance into the All England Club, the Wimbledon experience means the scent of summer grass, the taste of strawberries and cream and a fortnight of blaring headlines across the top of London's tabloids.
Here, across the pond, tennis fans wake up on championship morn, rub their eyes and stumble toward the television set for another installment of "Breakfast at Wimbledon." Strawberries and cream?
Raspberries at Bud is more like it.
He's not quite the Howard Cosell of tennis, and he's a tad easier on the ears than a John McEnroe tantrum, but as the Sultan of Syntax himself might put it, Bud Collins is an acquired taste. Mention his name and tennis fans immediately choose sides.
A buffoon . . . He's fresh.
A babbler . . . He's irreverent.
A know-it-all . . . He's anecdotal.
When Bud Collins talks, people do more than listen. He moves them to action--turning down the volume or otherwise--and seldom fails to draw a reaction.
--At a recent ABC party in Los Angeles for the network affiliates, a woman cornered The Times' radio-television writer, Larry Stewart. She had one request: "Is there anything you can do to get Bud Collins off the air?"
--Tennis magazine polled its readers--4,000 responded--about the best and worst television announcers. Worst announcer: Bud Collins. Overwhelmingly.
--Mail. No, not fan mail. Ted Nathanson, NBC's coordinating producer-director for Wimbledon, told Tennis that the network gets more mail after Wimbledon than in a lifetime of doing Super Bowls, and most of it is about Bud.
"One of the things we got used to is that there is a whole world that hates Bud and a whole world that likes him," Nathanson said. "The people who write are the ones who don't like him."
Collins, as one might expect, has more than a one-word answer to the criticism. Ask him about it and you'll get a long, long response--punctuated by funny stories and laughter.
"If I start taking myself seriously . . . I take my job seriously in that I want to do the best I can do. But if I start taking me seriously, and get worried . . . I can slash, too. And I've done it. I know I've hurt people. I'm not a knocker, but I've done it. You're something of a public figure when you go on television. It's fair game."
It's just before the French Open women's final between Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf. Dick Enberg, NBC's lead announcer, stands between commentators JoAnne Russell and Collins during an opening segment.
Collins, clad in purple pants and a yellow tie, looks excited.
"People are saying, 'Is this the twilight of the gods?' " he says, smiling. "Is she going to go down, marvelous Martina, just like Marvelous Marvin Hagler? A couple of left-handed sluggers!"
He punches the Paris air with a crisp left jab.
Ah yes, marvelous Martina. The first time Collins opens his mouth on the air, out slips yet another nickname. He took the art of bestowing nicknames to a new level long before ESPN's Chris Berman first uttered Tim (Purple) Raines.
Through the years, he has served up: Boom Boom (Boris Becker), the Brash Basher from Belleville (Jimmy Connors), the Ice Maiden (Chris Evert); and the Angelic Assassin (Bjorn Borg).
During Navratilova's and Graf's prematch warm-up, Collins reviews Graf's route to the final.
"She led off with Csilla Cserepy, who is a Hungarian married to a Swiss, now living in Switzerland. Two Czechoslovakians, Iva Budarova and Jana Novotna. A Canadian, Helen Kelesi. A Bulgarian, Manuela Maleeva. And finally, the Pearl of the Pampas, and what an exciting match that was. (Gabriela) Sabatini led 5-3 (in the third set). And Graf won the last four games."
Graf, too, has her own tag. Collins, who probably never met an alliteration he didn't like, calls her Fraulein Forehand.
If people think, though, that Collins sits around composing nicknames for his collection, he begs to differ, saying that they come to him at the spur of the moment.
"Usually," he said. "I don't sit up at night trying to think of them. I would say this, I have sat up at night trying to think of some and never come up with any. In other words, I've never come up with a nickname for Martina. And I've really thought about it for a long time and nothing comes up. The ones that I think people remember were spur of the moment."
During Borg's prime, Collins was particularly unrestrained. He tossed out nicknames almost as often as McEnroe tossed the ball in the air to serve. He often missed with ridiculous puns and phrases, and just generally talked too much.
That was then. Two years ago, the NBC higher-ups tried to water down Bud, to cut some of the bombast. They succeeded, so now viewers are treated to, well . . . Bud light, if you will.
"I'd like to think since we worked together (his image has) improved through the years," said Enberg, who has worked with Collins since 1982. "He has the knowledge of the historical part of the game, from who won Wimbledon in 1938 to the youngest player ever to win.
"He has the ability to see the story within the story. He'll be doing three things at once. During a break in the taping, he'll pull out his portable computer and work on his column for the (Boston) Globe. Then someone will yell, 'Bud, who won it in '38?' He'll yell back the answer and get back to what he was doing.
"I've always said that if you look up the word facile in the dictionary, they might have his picture next to it."
Enberg is used to having people ask about Collins. Mostly, "How can you stand working with him?"
"I'd like to have all those people over for a party to meet Bud," he said, laughing. "And I would guarantee that everyone would come away liking him."
Enberg maintains that the private Bud Collins and the public Bud Collins are hardly close to being the same person. At a gathering, Collins isn't always the life of the party--telling jokes and what not--he's busy laughing at everyone else's stories, Enberg said.
Often, in press boxes, Collins is more than willing to provide information for other journalists, even sometimes delaying the progress of his own column.
"That's the one we all know and like," Enberg said. "And then there's Bud, the actor. With respect to the actor in Collins, he's a ham. . . . The camera comes on and Bud comes on and he's a different person. From the pink pants all the way to the exaggerated verbiage. That's the part some fans and people respond negatively to."
Mostly, Collins laughs it off. He's used to criticism, having been before the camera since 1963, and having spent 15 years covering Wimbledon for NBC. Being a newspaperman helps, too, in understanding critics. But Collins wouldn't be human, or he'd be lying, if he didn't admit he feels the sting in the barbs.
"I really feel I can roll with the punches," he said. "I read it all. I'm curious to read it. Some of it, of course, you react to. You say, 'Well, that idiot,' (Collins laughs) or something like that. I think a critic has to fill the column and if some of them say they can't stand me . . . well, geez, I was going to say several of my wives couldn't stand me. Really only one."
It is to Collins' credit, however, or the network's, that he has been able to win over many of his critics, among them Sports Illustrated's Bill Taaffe, who, Collins says, was one of the toughest.
"He used to knock me religiously," Collins said. "He would knock me when he was with the (Washington) Star. "When the Star folded, I said, 'Maybe Taaffe will get a job selling cars. And he pops up at the (Washington) Post and he keeps knocking me there.
"Then he leaves the Post. I said, 'Well, he's finally found that job on the lot. So, he winds up at Sports Illustrated, where I've always had terrific treatment, and he continues knocking.
"One year, he called me before Wimbledon. We had a long talk and I could tell he was a little apprehensive talking to me. Finally, he said, 'Well, I think it's only fair to tell you that you're not one of my favorites. So I said, 'No kidding, Bill. You could have fooled me.' "He sounded kind of relieved. I said, 'Hey, Bill, I've got a typewriter. I knock.' It comes with the territory.
"Sam Silverman, who was one of the great old characters in Boston boxing said, 'Every knock is a boost. But spell my name right.' And he always used to say, 'And mention when the show is.' "
Away from the camera, and from the public, there's the Bud Collins most never see. He is the one who helped Enberg when Enberg felt like a fish out of water during his early tennis telecasts. You can probably count on one hand the number of broadcasters willing to do that, much less sit with someone and listen to him during practice sessions.
Now, it would seem as though there was nothing Collins could do that might surprise Enberg, not after all those broadcasts.
"This has been the wettest June here in 25 years," said Enberg last week from London. "The sun comes out for 15 minutes and then disappears. So we've had to scramble this week for (today's) tournament preview show.
"Bud wasn't feeling well, he has the flu. During a break, he regurgitates and comes back. On his feet, he does a one-take, two-minute editorial on American grass court players. Just fresh from a visit to the porcelain . . . "
Sometimes, so much attention is given to Collins' wacky and whimsical style that his ability to provide solid insights and analysis is overlooked:
--Collins on the windy, difficult conditions during the Navratilova-Graf French Open final: "It is tough. These are great conditions for Perth and the America's Cup. But not for tennis."
--Later: "Dust storms all the time. This stadium looks like a French Foreign Legion fort in the Sahara."
Another asset is Collins' interviewing ability. At Wimbledon and the French Open, he talks to the winner and loser right on the court. Collins handles both sides adeptly, without fawning over the winner or shying away from asking the loser potentially touchy questions.
Certainly, Collins' longevity helps him with the players in his NBC role, and then his television celebrity helps when he steps into his other role, columnist for the Boston Globe.
"Oh yes, no doubt about it," said the 58-year-old Collins. "I'm sort of in a dual-citizenship role as a newspaper and a TV guy. I have a little bit of an edge, being on the TV. They know me."
And he probably knows more about their tennis careers than they do. When Billie Jean Moffitt King won her first Wimbledon title with Karen Hantze Susman in 1961, Collins was there.
He saw Chris Evert shock the country by reaching the U.S. Open semifinals in 1971.
A year later, Collins read Bjorn Borg's name, accompanied by some promising scores, and decided to investigate.
Borg was playing Roy Emerson at the U.S. Open in a preliminary round on an obscure field court with only a few people watching.
"People would come over and say, 'What are you doing?' Collins said. "I'd say, 'I'm watching this match.' And then they'd say, 'Oh, it's Emmo.' I said, 'No, I came out to watch this kid.'
"(Borg) was totally at sea on grass. Emerson beat him rather easily. The thing I didn't know until years later was one of the ballboys was McEnroe."
What sort of a relationship does he have with McEnroe?
"I don't know," Collins said. "I won't know until the next time I see him. That's the way McEnroe is. . . . I was one of his earliest defenders because I kept thinking he'd grow up. . . . I keep hoping."
Here's what Collins has to say about the other top players:
--Ivan Lendl. "Lendl is interesting. Lendl is such a bright person and he is always trying to sandbag me when I interview him. Because he thinks he's got a better sense of humor than he (shows) in English. And, sometimes I'm pained for him."
--Evert, a longtime Collins foil. "I don't mind when Chrissie always gives me the needle, and it's funny. . . . Chris is a very, very special athlete. I think she's the most professional athlete I've ever covered, along with Muhammad Ali, in his days when he was fresh."
--Navratilova. "It's a tough role for Martina (being compared to Evert). I think she's a great champion and a great person. I think Martina has had a harder way to go. She is very misunderstood."
The first time Collins saw Graf play was at the U.S. Open when she was 13. An Italian friend of Collins told him about "this monster, Graf."
"These guys, Italians, don't talk about women's tennis," Collins said. "They wouldn't come into this room to see Suzanne Lenglen's reincarnation.
"So I made a point to go out there and I had a nice chat with her. She was very shy.
"I was wandering around looking at the juniors and then I heard this guy grunting and busting his serve. Well, he was playing Bill Stanley, who was one of our top juniors. Stanley was getting creamed and this kid was hitting his serve.
"A big, red-headed kid. I thought it was some Iowa farm boy. He was playing serve and volley, so I didn't think he was a European.
"Then I hear him swearing in German, and I say, 'What the hell is this? He's a German. Playing like this?' I asked a couple of people and they said his name is Becker."
Just another snapshot of tennis history from Collins. Less than two years later, he spoke with Becker after the 17-year-old had won Wimbledon.
Many consider Collins the unofficial historian of the game, which might be putting it lightly because he has co-written one tennis encyclopedia and plans to write another book, detailing the last 25 years.
Although some might embrace and enjoy the idea of becoming part of an institution, Collins says thanks, but no thanks. He prefers to remain a journalist, saying that, after all, you can't really cover something if you're part of it.
At one time, though, he was part of the scene as a player. Now, Collins calls himself a hacker, but in 1961 he and Janet Hopps won the National Indoor mixed doubles title. He also knows something about instruction, having spent 1959-63 coaching at Brandeis University.
After a lifetime of chasing tennis balls and covering those who chase them for a living, Collins rarely tires of the game.
"I never get burned out," he said. "I get fuzzed out. Tennis is a very hard game to watch. It's not like watching basketball. And it goes on all day."
As a safeguard, Collins tries to write his Globe columns about other sports when he's not on the tennis circuit. Since 1977, he has written a bi-weekly travel column called Anywhere. Last year, Anywhere's non-tennis destination was Bhutan where Collins wrote about fishing and trekking.
"I think it keeps me fresh," he said. "Once in a while, I have to write tennis. I recently wrote a tennis column, but it really wasn't a tennis column. I wrote about Abbie Hoffman and Amy Carter because I coached Abbie in college, at Brandeis.
So, what sort of style did Hoffman favor?
Collins smiled and lowered his voice. "Strangely conservative. A very right-wing game, as I wrote. He stayed on the base line, but he was very competitive. We didn't get along at all. He didn't like authority figures.
"The column was sort of a reminiscence. I said he's got a new mixed doubles partner (Carter). He picked well. She's younger, she's prettier, and she's got name value."
Although there was a time when Collins would have gone anywhere on assignment, he has reduced his schedule to spend more time with his family. Collins has a daughter in college and a stepson, 12-year-old Rob Lacy, the son of a friend who died of cancer. Lacy has been with him since 1978, and the household expanded by one when Collins got married just before last year's French Open.
Enberg, for one, wishes that the public knew the other side of Collins. The one that treated King and Hantze Susman to dinner after they had won Wimbledon because they had no money. Or, the Bud Collins who took it upon himself to become Lacy's father.
"I don't know how many men would consider doing that," Enberg said. "Then there are fans that say he seems so insensitive. That's so inaccurate, probably the most inaccurate thing you could say. It's almost like calling the Rock of Gibraltar Jell-O."
Collins would describe such talk as merely part of the game. And he would shrug. As he says, just get the name right.
Which brings us to Bud's continuing problem with Boris Becker.
"Boris always says to me, 'You're the guy I always talk to after I win Wimbledon,' " Collins said. "He doesn't know my name!
"I said, 'I'm the guy. And I'll be there again.' "
Maybe a nickname would help, Bud. Something catchy, something for the kid to latch onto.
Boom Boom, meet the Viceroy of Verbosity. The General of Jabber. Mr. American Magpie.