Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
Walter Redondo. Day after day, Momita and a carful of Redondos arrived at Morley Field shortly after 3:00.
Fourteen. Do you remember that age? What I recall: No longer a child, far from maturity, my brain and body scattered by hormones, acne, braces, and the painful beginnings of an endless, awkward adolescence. It’s an age of experimentation, where risks are taken affordably, hobbies picked up and abandoned, friends gained and lost, ambitions declared and jettisoned. It’s the last age when a complete lack of focus in all categories is not just accepted but expected.
Peter Herrmann (with racket). In the summer of ’74, vacationing at Glorietta Bay with my parents, I saw Herrmann hitting two courts over from where we were rallying. I dared not speak to him, since he was so good and I was but a speck.
But for four San Diegans, 14 was anything but an age of disarray. All were celebrated tennis players, blessed with that puzzling attribute known as talent, as well as the even more mysterious quality of diligence. Peter Herrmann of Bonita was so aware of how high he stood that he sensed his inevitable decline. Walter Redondo of National City was chomping for his chance at the big time. Karen Hantze of Pacific Beach hardly knew or cared where tennis could take her, but, like Herrmann and Redondo, at 14 no American her age was her equal. Gigi Fernandez, then growing up in Puerto Rico, later living as an adult in Del Mar, was not highly ranked in America, but on her island she had been a celebrity since she was 10. At 15, she would carry Puerto Rico’s flag in the Pan-Am Games.
At the age of 12, attending the prestigious Pacific Southwest Open at the Los Angeles Tennis Club, Redondo had a chance to hit with Clark Graebner, one of the world’s top-ten players.
How nice, you might say. From a distance, tennis appears a genteel activity, often played at elegant clubs and wholesome parks. Unlike, say, football or boxing, tennis always meets with parental approval: a lifetime activity, a nice skill, a fine way to meet the right kind of people.
But in its competitive form, tennis has far more in common with football or boxing than you might think. “Me and you, baby, across the net, trying to take each other apart,” says Carlsbad resident and tennis Hall of Famer Pancho Segura, who was tennis director for a quarter century at La Costa Resort and Spa. The swank setting, even the mildly competitive player knows, belies the austere contest. Tennis is cockfighting for civilized people, a dance where you try to trip your partner. The minute you stop believing that principle, expect the next ball to compromise you severely.
At the La Jolla Recreation Center, Karen Hantze Susman came under the wing of Eleanor “Teach” Tennant, a legendary instructor who had coached San Diego’s greatest player ever—Maureen “Little Mo” Connolly.
These four grasped the meaning of tennis at a young age — and by 14, were better than 95 percent of the people who’ll ever pick up a racket. I, too, have been playing tennis for much of my life. I began at 12 and quickly saw how savage tennis could be. Take a prodigy like my peer Peter Herrmann, who’s played tournaments since he was 7. Were we football players, we might well have collaborated. Sure, his greater skills would have made him quarterback, while I protected him as a guard. Either way, as teammates we would technically be equals.
Gretchen Rush Magers: “When I was on the tour, we’d ask, ‘Would you rather have a child who’s normal or different?’ On the tour, we’d all say, ‘normal.’ But now, retired, back at home, we want ‘different.’"
But in tennis, our relationship was adversarial and hierarchical. In February 1974, I entered a 14-and-under tournament in Whittier. It was played at a high school, on a bank of white-gray courts with metal nets. My first-round opponent was Peter Herrmann. He beat me, 6-0,6-0 in 45 minutes. The funny thing is, I played quite well, flicking several half-volleys, lunging for several backhands, even getting in a goodly number of first serves. But at 13, I was an adolescent, playing the match but also contemplating a post match bacon cheeseburger at Denny’s. Herrmann was a young professional, displaying the single-minded attention of a dentist drilling a cavity.
“In tennis, you always have your destiny in your hands,” Jimmy Connors once told me. Tennis helped these four grab destiny by the throat. Their journeys fascinate me. Herrmann was the lord of the junior world where I was barely a serf. During that same time, I witnessed the precocious majesty of Walter Redondo, two years my elder. As a student of tennis history, I’m mystified by the story of Karen Hantze. As a journalist for two decades. I’ve witnessed Gigi Fernandez’s entire career, earning battle scars when she once yelled at me.
While much has been written about the character-forming aspects of sports, this literature usually addresses team sports, highlighting how athletics helps people work toward a common goal by playing respective roles to achieve a shared objective. Basketball and football have been deployed repeatedly as tools for building character in battle and business.
Individual sports is a different creature. Tennis carved its way deeply into the sensibilities of such top-grade players as Herrmann, Redondo, Hantze, and Fernandez. What did it give them? What did it take? Just how complicated are those gains and losses? Watching 17-year-old Martina Hingis play, a colleague who never played tennis lamented how she was missing out on so much of adolescence— conventional peer relationships, classroom activities, the prom. Looking back two decades, I countered: the prom wasn’t so hot. If I could do it over again, I’d put more time into my serve. Then again, life is lived forward, but read backward.
There are other questions about these players’ post-tennis lives. Did tennis help or hinder their maturity? As early as 25, the age most careers are barely out of first gear, athletes begin contemplating mortality. In many ways, they die twice: once when they retire, and again, possibly after spending decades reflecting on their zenith, they die as we all do. Was an activity most of us play for fun utterly stripped of its joy? Speaking with a former junior champ, I could tell her reluctance carried this subtext: Once upon a time I was trained to be an assassin, not just an athlete, or a prodigy, or an artist, but a trained killer. Please don’t make me go there again. What kind of arc defines such a life?
Peter Herrmann: Bonita's Boy Genius
“The instinct to please and to belong are the two strongest instincts,” says Stacy Margolin Potter, a former touring pro who used to come to Coronado to play with Herrmann — the two hardly exchanging a word—and who has since become a psychologist. “And when you are at the age of 11 or younger, it is very strong and you think your parents are God and you will do anything to receive their love and acceptance.”
Peter Herrmann never speaks of seeking parental approval on a tennis court. But he does reveal an interesting act taken by his father, a doctor. Herrmann started playing tennis at 6, immediately smitten with the process of hitting tennis balls. One year later, he was improving rapidly and on the verge of beating his dad for the first time. For any player, vanquishing a parent is a critical rite of passage. Even John McEnroe remembers when he turned the tables on his father.
On this day, Herrmann’s father thwarted his son’s advance, coming back to win the match. Subsequently, though, according to Peter, “He did a great thing. He never tried to beat me.” By letting Peter beat him, Dr. Herrmann wrapped his son in the armor of success.
But it was also a chimera, a denial (albeit one infused with love) of the gruesome reality of competition. In contrast, for example, Jimmy Connors’s mother once fought back to beat young Jimbo and afterward told him, “You see, Jimbo, you see, if you let up, even your own mother will hit the ball down your throat ” Tough love made her boy a champion. It also made him a narcissist who I’m told has not a single friend.
Peter’s rivalry with his father was but one of dozens. The young boy loved tennis so much that he played imaginary matches with himself in the back of his parents’ car. Like many players who came of age in the late ’60s and early 70s, his hero was the dashing Australian Rod Laver, a left-handed shotmaker so brilliant he frequently turned the rectangle of a tennis court into an artist’s canvas.
Herrmann’s game was more straightforward. Short but gifted with exceptional hand-eye coordination, Herrmann built his game by hitting with two hands on both the forehand and backhand, a baseballbatting technique that gave him tremendous power and control. The narrow, pragmatic style borrowed much from trench warfare. Herrmann would camp out near the baseline and, with metronomic precision, grind his opponents into oblivion. “I didn’t miss,” he says. Since tennis matches at all levels are won more by errors than winners, it’s a highly effective strategy — even more so for a young, small player who has not matured enough physically to play a game that uses various spins, paces, and parts of the court.
By age 7, Herrmann was playing tournaments at Morley Field. He reached the semifinals in his first junior event and was instantly consumed by the competitive bug. Also at 7, he reached the finals of a men’s B event — a playing level as high as a top-quality recreational player.
A year later, he lost a match at Morley to a player who had never won a match. Peter bawled like a baby. Dr. Herrmann suggested that if tournaments were going to cause so much agony, Peter should consider giving them up. No way, came the response, no way at all.
“I was really, really competitive,” says Herrmann. “This old coach, probably as old as I am now , he said to me,‘Look! There’s one thing you’ve got to remember. There’ll always be somebody better than you.’ I didn’t want to hear that. I didn’t want anyone walking around saying they were better than me.”
Few were. Yet, like many players (including McEnroe and Connors), Herrmann is double-faced about the amount he played as a kid. He says he played only three times a week for an hour. But he was entering at least seven tournaments a year, which if you’re doing well translates into at least 25 matches annually. Play 50 tournament matches by the time you’re 10 and you’re one seasoned warrior.“It’s brutal out there on a court,” says veteran touring pro Michael Chang, who spent his childhood playing in San Diego. “You’re a small kid, and here you are, learning to play this individual sport, all by yourself, with no on-court coaching.” The contrast between a child’s capacity for play and a professional’s work ethic surfaces constantly when Herrmann talks. “No way I wanted to be a pro,” he says of his childhood. “Once, before a match, I found a penny in the parking lot. That was neat.” But then, if indeed he was only in it for the fun, why would he also say, “Once, playing a match, I thought, if I lose this game, I quit. I was that emotionally tied to a match.” Naturally, he won it. The hungry 7-year-old soon became a high-ranked 10-year-old. By the time he was 11, Herrmann was among the elite 10 to 15 Southern Californians (from Bakersfield on south) considered good enough to play national tournaments. Journeying all over the country during the summers was similar to playing the pro circuit. In the summer of 1973 in Nashville, Herrmann won the national 12s — the premier championship in the United States for boys 12 and under.
Tennis is one of the few sports where even if you’re good, you’re not necessarily considered an athlete. A photo of Herrmann moments after winning that prestigious event confirms the stereotype. With his black-framed glasses, headband, and shaggy, early-’70s hairdo, he looks like a computer geek trying to hoist the heavy trophy.
But Herrmann was indeed an athlete, able to mow down one opponent after another. His double-fisted strokes were lasers, consistently driving deep into the corners. Even at that young age, to a seasoned observer like Segura, Herrmann conjured up visions of the great Connors.
Earning points against him was a mighty effort. The proper strategy for detonating a baseliner like Herrmann is to get him off-balance and attack him from the net. But unless that strategy was executed with proficiency, Herrmann would rip net-rushers to shreds. Pop up a weak ball and Herrmann would gun it down your throat. I wasn’t the only one Herrmann made short work of that week in Whittier. He won five matches — ten sets — with the loss of only two games, blitzkrieging several players who were far better than I. Week after week for Herrmann was one Whittier after another.
Good as he was, Herrmann stood high enough on his mountain range to look at the next peak and see how ill-equipped and limited he was for future success. In those days, as players matured into their teens, they began broadening their arsenals, mostly by trying to rush the net and use their volleys to force opponents into errors. Herrmann’s style, coupled with his relative lack of speed, left him camped on the baseline, a narrowly focused technician. But perhaps there was also a certain fatalism lurking in his head, a belief that he’d reached the top so quickly a fall was inevitable.
To his peers, this was hard to detect. In the summer of ’74, vacationing at Glorietta Bay with my parents, I saw Herrmann hitting two courts over from where we were rallying. I dared not speak to him, since he was so good and I was but a speck. While my shots floated gently like Frisbees, his were cannonballs.
But then, that evening, strolling with my parents by the Marie Callender’s on Orange Avenue in Coronado, I saw Herrmann walking the streets. He wasn’t wearing his tennis clothes. At that moment, for a millisecond, I realized he wasn’t simply a tennis god, but, like me, just another goony teen. And whoever thought tennis meant something anyway?
“I was number one in a sport that doesn’t exist,” he says. Yet he had invested millions of emotional dollars in it. The next summer, walking out to play the title match in the national 14s, Herrmann knew he’d never again reach another major final.
Walter Redondo: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Professional
Peter Herrmann saw himself as nothing more than the king of a sandbox, enduring a finite reign. During that same period, Walter Redondo, two years Herrmann’s elder, saw infinite possibilities every time he walked on a court.
Family was the bedrock of Redondo’s tennis experience. For a player to succeed, his family must become immersed in tennis. Baseball, basketball, football, and in recent years, soccer, are group-oriented. Parents are involved, but in large part, in team sports, parents entrust others (whether they be coaches or other parents) to direct and monitor their children’s activities.
But because tennis is an individual sport, a player is often exceptionally dependent on family members to handle everything from transportation to tournaments to even scheduling practice matches. While such heavy involvement may create pressures, it can also be an emotional fortification against the loneliness that accompanies playing an individual sport.
Walter was the fifth of nine children (three boys, six girls). His father, Taquio, was a Navy man. His mother, Martha, worked at the Broadway department store. With both parents busy, Walter’s maternal grandmother, Sophia Custado, more commonly known as Momita, took charge of the children.
Momita’s sweetness masked her drive. She loved the idea of finding an activity all the Redondo children could enjoy. Initially, she considered music. But something about tennis captivated her imagination and competitive nature. She particularly liked the American champion of the ’20s and '30s, Helen Wills Moody. Moody — immortalized in a mural by Diego Rivera — epitomized the classy refinement Momita sought for her grandchildren.
Piling all the Redondos into her car, Momita trekked daily to Morley Field. For 8-year-old Walter, the combination of Momita’s love and the quest for victory was intoxicating. “We all loved our grandmother so much,” he says. “She kept us focused. She kept us in the right direction.”
Like virtually every tennis player I’ve ever met, Redondo vividly recalls his first tournament. He was 8 and reached the finals. For most players, earning a runner-up trophy would be considered a fine effort. Walter was devastated. More than three decades later, speaking of the loss, his face turns ashen.
Defeat motivated him to eat, drink, and sleep tennis. Day after day, Momita and a carful of Redondos arrived at Morley shortly after 3:00. Walter loved every minute — practicing his strokes, playing against juniors, picking up another match with seniors, “striking” (his word) a few against the wall, hitting hundreds of practice serves, taking lessons from Robert Lansdorp. Lansdorp was a boisterous drill sergeant of an instructor who would later teach three number-one-ranked players (Tracy Austin, Pete Sampras, and Lindsay Davenport). On some of these afternoons with Lansdorp, Walter, all of 11 years old, would spend as much as one hour working on a single technical aspect of a stroke. Imagine a chef spending 60 minutes honing his garlic-chopping technique and you get the idea. Around 7:30, the Redondos would head home.
Walter recalls many nights when he’d tell Momita to wait just a few minutes for him to practice more serves. There was so much he wanted to learn, so much ambition in his head and heart, that he couldn’t help but obsessively try to absorb the lessons of dozens of great champions — and in the process, build his own trademark style.
“There was nothing else in my life but tennis,” says Redondo, freely admitting that he barely gave a thought to school. “Only tennis, tennis, and more tennis. I wanted to be the best. I believed with my heart that I could do it.”
At the age of 12, attending the prestigious Pacific Southwest Open at the Los Angeles Tennis Club, Redondo had a chance to hit with Clark Graebner, one of the world’s top-ten players. This rarely happens in today’s tennis world, but back then, the intimacy and country club insularity of tennis made it common for a top player to spend a few minutes performing a good deed by hitting a few with a youngster. Standing in a line of 50 kids in a Century City parking lot, I once hit three balls with Arthur Ashe and thought I’d gone to heaven.
In short order, Graebner learned he wasn’t just being a kind citizen by hitting with Walter Redondo. The child was proficient enough to make it vigorous. The two worked out for 30 minutes.
Like Herrmann, Redondo had also witnessed the great Rod Laver at the San Diego Sports Arena. Laver’s record was staggering: He’s the only player in tennis history to have won all four Grand Slam titles in a calendar year on two occasions. Every bit as daunting was Laver’s capacity for creative shot-making. Aware of his limits even as a preteen, Herrmann could only stare in awe at Laver. Redondo believed he could replicate Laver’s brilliance. Unlike the pragmatic Herrmann, Redondo had his eyes on bigger quarry. Let Herrmann pick up coins and toy with quitting. Walter Redondo was a young pro in the making.
Amazingly, he was able to pull it off. As early as age 10, Redondo was playing an all-court attacking game that most players (including the likes of Pete Sampras) didn’t dare attempt until later in their teens.
“I’d walk out on the court, and the only times I’d look at my opponent was when we walked on the court and when we shook hands,” he says, echoing a statement made in the 1930s by all-time great Don Budge. “I was involved with what I needed to do to make my game succeed. I enjoyed the climb. And as we started to improve, I was now holding the cup, and even starting to face the pressure of being expected to win. I enjoyed knowing that people were gunning for me.”
Redondo’s use of“we” is no accident In 1972, Walter’s older sister, Marita, was number one in Southern California (and the nation) in the girls’ 16s division. His younger sister, Marisa, was number one in the Southern California 12s. Walter was number one in the boys’ 14s, also winning the national boys’ 14 hardcourts. “We were all together,” he says. “We made our grandmother proud.”
To have seen Walter Redondo at junior tournaments in the mid-‘70s was to witness an icon in the making. Nicely bronzed (his father was Filipino), fully comfortable in his body, adored by adults, swooned over by girls, touted by equipment and clothing companies, envied by his peers.
“We were all zit-faced yo-yos, but Walter was physically more mature than the rest of us,” says Chris Dunk, a Santa Ana-based contemporary who eventually became a pro. “He was the best — the quickest, fabulous, just ripping the ball and looking so effortless. He had that confidence. I had no chance against him when I was a kid.”
In addition to his obsessive discipline and technical proficiency, at an early age there was something else in Walter’s game that can’t be taught. Young Walter played with artistic flair. His strokes weren’t just executed cleanly; they had panache. Nothing seemed mechanical. Everything flowed. Even at 12, Redondo was a purring Porsche in a sport filled with Oldsmobiles. His effort to outdo Laver might actually succeed.
Segura, ever watchful of San Diego’s rising players, saw potential magic in Redondo’s hands and feet. Just as in boxing, the objective of a tennis player is to rob his opponent of response time. There are two ways this is accomplished. The first, obviously, is to hit the ball harder. This is customarily done by waiting for the ball to reach the peak of its bounce, just as all players are taught to do, and more efficiently using the hips and shoulders (not the arm or wrist, as many think).
The second means of reducing response time is to hit the ball sooner. Rather than wait for the ball to reach the peak of its bounce, a player strikes the ball as it ascends, ostensibly shorthopping the ball in the fasthanded manner of a Ping-Pong player or fast-charging shortstop. Do both — harder and sooner — and you’re at a pinnacle scaled only by such champions as Budge, Jimmy Connors, Andre Agassi, and Monica Seles. According to Segura, the teenaged Redondo was equally adept.
By 16, just about the only thing Walter Redondo hadn’t learned on a tennis court was how to lose.
And then he lost Momita.
Karen Hantze: Swan with a Serve
The career of Karen Hantze raises an unanswerable question: Does the individual make history, or does history make the individual? Grasping her short-circuited journey requires knowledge of the economic and cultural realities that governed tennis for most of the 20th Century.
Prior to 1968, tennis was primarily an amateur sport. The term “tennis bum” derived from the typical player’s need to scrounge a living from meager expense payments and capricious under-the-table arrangements.
No matter if they were champs or chumps, amateurs survived at the mercy of stuffed-shirt officials, haughty club presidents, and insolent club members. A scant few, including Segura, declared themselves professionals. The price of pursuing economic solvency-was banishment from prestigious events such as Wimbledon and Forest Hills. Much like Negro League baseball players, Segura and his colleagues—and only the very best amateurs were offered pro contracts — barnstormed the globe, playing in dingy arenas, gyms, and even on cow dung. The standard path of a tennis player called for a few years on the circuit, followed by a business career, often in a crony-granted job in the world of finance.
Women were taken even less seriously, overlooked by top coaches, shunned by tournament directors, and added to events primarily as an attractive ornament. Pro offers, rare enough for men, were 50 times less frequent for women, who were expected to hit a few balls and then retire to breeding. This was the world Karen Hantze occupied when she played the game in the ’50s and early ’60s.
Only years after Hantze’s prime — spurred in part by a United States Lawn Tennis Association meeting in Coronado in early 1968 — did the Byzantine world of tennis decide to make the sport “open.” Corporate money flooded in. Players began signing pro contracts for thousands of dollars. Witnessing this possibility, Walter Redondo was drawn like a moth to the flame. Though Herrmann stresses repeatedly that he never considered becoming a pro, the presence of money in the ’70s added a new flavor to the expectations of a high-ranked junior. No longer was tennis an intrinsically oriented avocation. Tennis was now a world where you could earn the same financial goodies as other athletes. The motivation was now mixed with extrinsic desires.,
Making money from tennis was as unthinkable to Karen as it would be for a tiddledywinks player. To her, tennis was little more than a game, and a darn simple one at that.
Like all sports, tennis has a peculiar relationship to intellect. On the one hand, the strategic athlete is valued. Sports fans revel in Muhammad Ali’s “rope a dope” that beat George Foreman. Padre star Tony Gwynn’s methodical review of videotapes shows there’s more to hitting a baseball than standing and whacking.
But there’s also a view that too much thinking is dangerous, that if the mind interferes with the body, havoc will ensue. It’s a sport, not the SAT, right?
Karen Hantze never let her mind get in the way of athletic prowess. “Go with the flow, that’s always been my philosophy,” she says. Born in 1942, the only child of a schoolteacher father and homemaker mother, she grew up in Pacific Beach. An exceptional athlete, she was a tomboy, playing all sports, riding her bike, enjoying her friends.
Why Hantze picked up tennis is a mystery even to her. Maybe it was the solitude of being an only child, or maybe it was San Diego’s weather and facilities, or maybe, as a doubles partner of hers would reveal decades later, it was the sober truth that tennis was one of the few sports where women were permitted to compete and earn prestigious titles.
At the La Jolla Recreation Center, Hantze came under the wing of Eleanor “Teach” Tennant, a legendary instructor who had coached San Diego’s greatest player ever—Maureen “Little Mo” Connolly, who in 1953 became the first woman to win all four Grand Slam singles titles in a calendar year. Connolly is still considered one of the game’s five greatest players.
Others soon recognized young Karen’s talent. The Kellogg family, the multigeneration dynasty that ran the La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club, gave her a complimentary junior membership, precisely the form of noblesse oblige that tennis operated under in those years. A friend from the rec center would drive her to La Jolla from Pacific Beach. Connolly offered coaching tips, as did such notable San Diego instructors as Ben Press.
As increasingly involved in tennis as Hantze was from age 11 on, she speaks of the sport at arm’s length. “My friends weren’t into competitive tennis,” she says. “It was my focus, but still, I took my lessons, and then I played just three times a week, maybe a total of two hours a week on the court. My life was still very balanced. I had lots of friends who had nothing to do with tennis.”
Most of all, she had herself. Her parents left her alone. Their divorce when Karen was in high school only left her more autonomous.
Hantze was so good— winning virtually every junior tournament she entered—that her expenses to the big national tournaments back East were paid for by a consortium of San Diego tennis patrons and the Southern California Tennis Association.
The majordomo of the association was a longstanding tennis servant named Perry Jones. From his base at the Los Angeles Tennis Club, Jones determined which juniors would get more funds, which would earn the favor of equipment and clothing companies that provided increasing amounts of free merchandise for top players, and which would be recommended to college coaches and prospective employers.
It was a classic old-boy network, affirmative action for clean-cut WASPs who would bring glory to Southern California’s empire — a region that until well into the 70s was far and away the leading breeding spot for American tennis champions. Even now, the likes of Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi cut their teeth playing the same Southern California events as Bobby Riggs and Jack Kramer did in the ’30s. Jones, a fastidious dictator in the manner of J. Edgar Hoover, ran it all with an iron fist In the late ’50s, Hantze was one of his favorites, smoothly fitting in.
Everything about Karen blended in nicely, from her auburn hair and sleek nose to the way tennis clothes hung on her delicate, feline body in precisely the manner a designer intended. Her male contemporaries speak of her with a wistful, fond swoon. Off the court, her manner was fluid, hardly forthcoming, but never rude.
On the court, she flowed majestically, one of the few women even top male players enjoyed watching. Her serve — a shot often considered the most idiosyncratic stroke in tennis — is still regarded as one of the most rhythmic deliveries ever. True to her tomboy past, Hantze enjoyed rushing the net and striking hard, deft volleys into comers. To play someone so unflappable, so liquid smooth, is rather disturbing. Hetfe you are, running, jumping, scratching, and clawing, while across the net your opponent is as balanced and poised as a fashion model. How do you break down that game?
The funny thing about Hantze’s proficiency was that it personified the definitive tennis paradox: the setting belies the contest. Though tennis is played at elegant venues and witnessed by upper-class smoothies, the contest is at root cockfighting for the civilized. Hantze never speaks about it that way. Given her dominance over the junior circuit in the ’50s, there wasn’t much need for her to get dirty anyway. By 14, she had already won the national girls’ 18-and-under championships. Had that happened today, she would have been scouted by agents, offered endorsement contracts, and photographed for oodles of magazine covers.
Back then, at least to Karen, it was about as intense as a slumber party, a nice bunch of girls giggling and hitting their way across friendly clubs. Sipping iced tea, bringing'a sandwich from home, checking in with the matronly chaperone; these were the activities bracketing the competition. Be nice to Mr. Jones and he would be nice to you. Send thank-you notes to families that housed you across the country. And eventually you’d meet Mr. Right and get on with the business of raising a family.
One contemporary of Karen’s saw it differently. Billie Jean Mofiitt, a spunky, chunky kid from Long Beach 11 months younger than Hantze, was chomping to make tennis a big deal. As early as 11, Moffitt was bristling at Jones’s elitist stuffiness. But even she would adhere to some of the era’s orthodoxy: Only once she was married and known as Billie Jean King would she revolutionize sports.
To young Billie Jean, a fine player in her own right, Karen was “a goddess. She was just so good, so smooth, so much the queen of our world. You could tell it in the way she walked, in the way she talked — which wasn’t that much — and most of all, in the way she played. She was the big kahuna.”
Every year, the kids from the greater L.A. area would come down to Morley Field and play San Diego’s top juniors. San Diego usually won. One year, Billie Jean played what she recalls as “unbelievably good tennis” and earned her first win over Karen, 6-3,6-2. On the way back north to L.A., her peers were amazed. “We all couldn’t believe that I’d beaten Karen,” says Billie Jean. “We were staggered. I still can’t believe it ”
And this is where it takes the likes of Billie Jean to reveal one of several secrets Karen won’t disclose. “Oh, she was smooth, and she was pretty, and she could roll her way through opponents and make it all seem nice and good,” says King. “But I’ll tell you this: Karen hates to lose. Hates it, hates it, hates it.”
By 18, Hantze was not only America’s best junior, but its second-ranked woman player, reaching the quarterfinals at Wimbledon. The relationship with Billie Jean also took a turn. For years, Hantze had played doubles with fellow San Diegan Kathy Chabot. But one ritual of tennis states that once someone has beaten you, her stature rises. So it was with Billie Jean. Revenge? Respect? The mix differs among players, but in the spring of 1961, weeks before heading off to England to play Wimbledon (the game’s biggest tournament), Hantze asked Billie Jean to be her partner. “I thought I was going to die,” says King. Walking out to play a preliminary tournament at the L.A. Tennis Club, the new doubles team flipped a coin to see who would receive in which court. “I was the senior member of the team, but it was Billie Jean who made me feel I could play even better,” says Karen.
“All we would do was laugh and laugh and laugh,” says King. “With Karen, you better be alert. You’d sit around and giggle all day long, and then if you played her—POW!”
When Billie Jean and Karen arrived at Wimbledon in 1961, Billie Jean could hardly contain herself, bouncing all over the grounds, recalling past players, talking about great matches of bygone days. Hantze, the veteran who’d played there a year before, was cool as a cucumber, admitting she had “no historic sense. I didn’t take much of it in.”
Laughing through one match after another, the two went on to take the doubles. For Billie Jean, it was the first of what would eventually be a record 20 Wimbledon titles. She and Karen had no idea that Wimbledon concluded with a champions’ ball. Unable to afford it, they were feted by a young writer named Bud Collins (who would eventually join Billie Jean in the International Tennis Hall of Fame), who took them to an Italian restaurant in Chelsea. “Karen, she was a wonder, on and off the court,” says Collins. “She was the only person I know besides Jackie Kennedy who could pull off that bouffant hairdo. But Jackie couldn’t serve like Karen.” In September 1961, Karen Hantze became Karen Susman, marrying Rod Susman, a world-class player from St. Louis three years her senior. The two had been dating since 1959. Rod was balancing the touring life with studies at Trinity University in San Antonio. Prior to meeting Hantze, he’d been dating an American Airlines stewardess two years older than he was. The 16-year-old Karen struck him as so serene and compelling that the stewardess became history.
Following their marriage, the Susmans returned to San Antonio. Rod continued school, while Karen worked as a file clerk at an insurance company for $1.25 an hour. During the school year, from September to May, Rod estimates that Karen hit tennis balls no more than twice a month — and at that, mostly for less than an hour with Rod on a sleepy Sunday afternoon.
Arriving in England in 1962 for the Wimbledon tune-up tournaments, Karen proceeded to lose three straight tournaments in the first rounds. Though seeded eighth at Wimbledon based on her prior efforts, she hardly gave winning it a thought. It was now late June, and she hadn’t won a competitive singles match since the previous September.
But when Billie Jean proved a helpful ally by eliminating top-seeded Margaret Smith (later known as Margaret Court) in the first round, Rod grew eager about his wife’s possibilities.
“I guess I was playing some good serve and volley,” she recalls. Not losing a set, Karen was in the finals.
On the eve of the big match, Rod was a wreck. He’d established a series of rituals revolving around his coffee, Karen’s wake-up time, and their morning practice session. Barely sleeping all night, he woke up at 5:00 a.m., an hour before the coffee shop opened. The plan called for waking Karen at 8:00. She said she’d be ready in 20 minutes. Rod waited, but after 30 minutes, no Karen. Turns out she was still asleep. Okay, another 20, she says. No Karen. Still asleep.
Finally, at 9:30 a.m. on the morning of the biggest match she’d ever play, Karen Susman was awakened by her husband. “I’m going ballistic, trying to coordinate the car that’s taking us there, the practice, everything,” says Rod. “Karen, she has a mind of her own.”
In 57 minutes, she won the final as easily as if she were walking around Pacific Beach.
“I guess if it was these days, I’d pump my fist,” she says. At the Wimbledon Ball, as was the tradition, she danced with the men’s champion, Rod Laver.
Had Karen Susman won Wimbledon in 1972 rather than ’62, she would likely have been on the cover of every magazine, a veritable athletic Jennifer O’Neill — cover girl with a volley. “Imagine a Chris Evert with an even prettier game,” says King. It was King, of course, who acted as the catalyst in the women’s lib movement of the early ’70s, throwing herself into the cause of making the women’s game thoroughly professional. In 1971, King became the first female athlete to earn more than $100,000 in a single year. King’s success was the fulfillment of the unbelievable vision she’d shared with Karen and all the other Southern Californians back in the ’50s and early ’60s.
Billie Jean’s ambitions were as compelling to Karen as the prospect of space travel. “Billie Jean was always upset about things, about the way we were treated, about the lack of money, about the way people paid more attention to the men, about how snobby tennis was,” recalls Karen. “That wasn’t my thing.”
Karen’s thing was Rod. Eager to display Hantze like a prized swan, the United States Lawn Tennis Association was vexed by the marriage. In a curious way, marriage was her form of rebellion. Taken from another angle, the relationship between Karen and Billie Jean resembles the 1977 movie The Turning Point, which is set in the world of ballet. Anne Bancroft, like Billie Jean, is the trouper, the one who envisions being something more than an ingenue and ends up giving her life to her craft. Shirley MacLaine, respectful of the boundaries of her time, takes the common road of love and marriage. Karen knew she wanted to have a family, and “I’m not a partway person”
Nothing much changed in the lives of the Susmans after the Wimbledon victory. Rod finished at Trinity. Karen, pregnant, didn’t return to Wimbledon to defend her title. In October 1963, she gave birth to a girl, Shelley. The Susmans returned to St. Louis, Rod’s hometown, so that he could earn his MBA and start a business career. In 1964, with Rod’s parents looking after Shelley, Karen and Rod took one last trip around the world circuit.
Even Rod can’t remember how Karen did at Wimbledon that year. Don’t bother asking Karen.
The San Diego Syndrome
So here you have the tennis journeys of three San Diego-raised athletes. They threw themselves into tennis at a young age, in a wholesome, high-quality community that provided year-round opportunities (a big factor in the days before indoor courts). Displaying the narrow focus of a savant, they rose quickly, ruling their American peers by 14. Redondo and Hantze did so with awe-inspiring grace and athleticism. By the end of their teens, their best on-court days were behind them. Why? Talent? Choices? Events?
Is it the curse of Maureen Connolly? In the summer of 1954, shortly after winning her third straight Wimbledon, dominating like the New York Yankees, the 20-year-old Connolly was riding a horse near the area that’s now occupied by Qualcomm Stadium. A cement-mixer truck scared the horse. Connolly was thrown off. Her leg was fractured, ending her tennis career. Fifteen years later, Little Mo died of cancer. She remains the only San Diego-bred player in the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
Or is there something about San Diego that makes players unable to ascend farther? The history of tennis is filled with tales of players eager to get the hell out of town and conquer the world. “Why would you want to leave an area as nice as San Diego?” asks King.
Then again, what price greatness? Many of those who do become champions — King, John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Pancho Gonzales, Andre Agassi — find that success at the highest level tilts their lives out of balance. “You’ve got to be sort of a madman, very, very narcissistic to be a champion,” says Segura. “You’ve got to make all sorts of sacrifices, with your body, with your friends, with everything.” Hours away from playing a friend in a tournament match for the first time, Evert once sent an intermediary with a message: Chrissie doesn’t want to talk with you now, but she’ll be in touch later.
Alas, San Diego’s emphasis on quality of life blunts that edginess necessary for success.“I didn’t like the person I was becoming when I kept getting obsessed with tennis,” says Gretchen Rush Magers, a Pennsylvanian who moved to San Diego in the middle of her career and has since created a website for ex-pros. Is it preferable to become a better player or a better person? If you’re from San Diego, the answer may well be the latter.
Gigi Fernandez: Big Fish in a Small Pond
Gigi Fernandez, legally named Beatriz when she was born in 1964, is introspective enough to ask that question and remain uncertain of the answer. Since Fernandez was not raised in San Diego, though, her quest assumes a different flavor. She moved here at 30 — three years before ending her pro career, one that saw her win 17 Grand Slam doubles titles and earn more than $5 million in prize money. For Fernandez, San Diego has become a place to escape from the extensive commitment she made to tennis for 15 years.“Play tennis?” she asks. “That’s like asking me if I’d want to jump off a bridge.”
It’s hard to believe this is the same Gigi who began playing at age 3 and, upon turning 7, asked her parents for tennis lessons.
Geography is a critical part of Fernandez’s story. Had she grown up in a tennis community as large as San Diego, she would have been one of many, immediately thrown into highly competitive waters. But Puerto Rico, a tiny island where the small cluster of upper-middle-class families (her father, Tuto, was a doctor) all know each other, gave her a chance to rapidly become a star — and to do so with an indifferent work ethic. Rarely playing more than three times a week — and often no longer than 30 or 45 minutes due to the island’s brutal heat (or her own laziness)—Gigi was so talented that she was written up in local newspapers at the age of 10. It’s interesting to note that in discussing herself even at this young age, Fernandez cites external goodies such as fame rather than the intrinsic matter of her tennis game. Then again, if you’re number one in your community, carrying the flag in international team play, why should you think there’s a need to dig inward? Redondo and Herrmann saw Laver. Hantze saw Connolly. All Gigi saw was Gigi.
Only once as a junior did Fernandez lose to a Puerto Rican her age or younger. It was a different matter when Gigi journeyed each summer to the mainland for national junior events. Stylistically and emotionally, she was a misfit. In an era when most girls (and even boys such as Peter Herrmann) were playing a passive baseline game in the manner of Chris Evert, Fernandez favored the serve-and-volley style of Billie Jean King—a game that in her admittedly lazy hands displayed more fancy shotmaking than the sustained, disciplined aggression that made King a champion.
Doted on her entire life, Fernandez hardly gave her future a thought. She was a girl with a captivating face, charismatic smile, quick wit, and charming, rolling Puerto Rican accent. Fernandez enjoyed her friends, loved mixing tennis and volleyball in high school, and cared less about tennis than turning 16, getting her driver’s license, and zipping around town in the black Camaro her parents had given her. “All hell broke loose,” she says of that time, noting that the two-door car fit seven.
It was a dual existence. At home, she was a celebrity, spoiled, indulged, and regarded as a great athlete. Off the island, she wasn’t much more than a curiosity, another tennis brat who wasn’t even that good.
While adroit volleying made her a precocious, captivating doubles player, Fernandez was far too erratic and mentally combustible to be particularly successful. Coming to New York to play the U.S. Open juniors, Fernandez felt so ashamed of her playing that she declined to book a practice court lest others see how bad she was. Her final year in the 18s she was ranked 25th in the country, high enough to generate reasonable college scholarship offers but hardly considered big-time pro material.
Most kids from Puerto Rico attended universities in the Boston area. None of those schools contacted Gigi. Receiving offers from four Southern colleges, she settled on Clemson, deep in South Carolina. “I liked the idea of going to a school where I’d be a small fish in a big pond,” she says.
Reality proved less engaging. “Clemson was complete hicksville,” she says. “My teammates and I couldn’t understand each other, what with their Southern accents and mine from Puerto Rico. That collegiate sports life was very structured. You eat, you sleep, you practice.” It was quite a contrast to those Puerto Rican days where a few minutes of tennis was followed by a picnic on the Fernandez family boat.
Clemson’s hermetic environment helped her tennis. Fernandez surprised everyone when she reached the finals of the intercollegiate singles championship in May ’83, losing in a third-set tiebreaker to USC s Beth Herr, a highly touted prodigy who had been number one in the 18s and was already 27th in the world professional rankings.
By the fall of’83, Fernandez had beaten a top-ten pro and felt she was marking time at Clemson. Not only was she feeling unchallenged on the tennis court, she was downright angry (a frequent Fernandez feeling) at the coach, who demanded she earn the number-one spot on the team.
In November 1983, at 19, Fernandez opted to turn pro. This was light-years removed from Karen Hantze’s world of chaperones, lodging at club members’ homes, and the occasional $20 bill slipped into your locker. The upside was that there was lots of money seeping into the sport, not just for champions but also for rank-and-file newcomers like Fernandez. The downside was that it was a lonely, geographically sprawling world. Tennis had grown big enough to become populated by groupies, hangers-on, and stalkers.
That fall, Fernandez spent 40 straight hours flying coach from Tampa to Dallas to Los Angeles to Hawaii to Sydney to a tournament in Brisbane. Upon disembarking, in the manner of Scarlett O’Hara, she vowed she would never fly economy again on an international flight.
As she had with peers in Puerto Rico and its local tennis scene, Fernandez slid glibly into the pro scene, earning $59,000 her first year on the circuit. Most notable was a close loss to top-five player Pam Shriver. Doubles results added nicely to her bank account.
She describes those early years in two directions. On the one hand,“It wasn’t hard. I was playing well, I was a pro, I was making more money than anyone in Puerto Rico, certainly more than any female athlete there ever.” Then, sitting behind her desk in Del Mar, holding and squeezing two plastic “worry” balls, she admits, “Those first four, five years were tough for me.”
So what was good and what was bad? Six simple words: “Tennis became my way of life.” This was a challenge for Fernandez, who had never felt committed to anything other than personal pleasure. The pros forced her to confront her indifference.“I started losing,” she says. “In the juniors, you’re so used to winning, but on the tour, you get your butt whupped. It’s the biggest nightmare.”
But others paid attention to her. Fernandez loves pointing out that those others were big-time stars. In 1985, the great Martina Navratilova, at the height of her powers, sent Femandez a motivational note. Evert always said hello. Billie Jean King told her to get disciplined. What does she mean? Fernandez asked herself. The concept of discipline was as remote to her as Einstein’s theory of relativity. Her temper tantrums, punctuated by broken rackets, shaken umpire stands, and frequent yelling, were so predictable that one year she sent the WTA Tour a check in advance to cover the first few hundred bucks of her fines.
Top players weren’t the only ones frustrated Watching her emotional struggles in a first-round singles match at a tournament in Albuquerque, a fan yelled out to her, “Grow up!” Fucking bastard, she thought. She went on to win the match and, later that week, took the prize — her first pro singles title.
By the summer of ’88, the 24-year-old Fernandez felt miserable. The previous year, she’d earned more than $100,000. Seventeen years earlier, surpassing that figure had made Billie Jean King a worldwide icon. All it did for Fernandez was place her 34th in the singles rankings and, more notably, 15th in doubles.
While she wasn’t quite considering quitting — from fried mozzarella sticks at restaurants to free rackets, clothing contracts and, as always, celebrity status in Puerto Rico, Fernandez enjoyed the perks of a jock’s career—she certainly wasn’t advancing. And in sports, complacency is dangerous. You may not want to leave the tour, but other, hungrier competitors can make the choice for you, pummeling you so often that your ranking drops one rung at a time. In an individual sport like tennis, you can’t glide by on the high-quality efforts of your teammates.
At the ’88 U.S. Open, Fernandez lost in the first round of singles for the fourth time in a row, a desultory 6-4,6-0 waxing by a 32-year-old veteran a decade past her prime. But she was still in the doubles with San Diegan Robin White. Fernandez’s agent suggested she meet with Jim Loehr, a sports psychologist who worked with many tour players. Fernandez had no idea who he was but figured it was worth meeting with him anyway. No doubt aware of Fernandez’s love of the spotlight, he told her to act, assuming the role of a perpetually happy tennis player.
So for two weeks, hating it but complying, Fernandez pretended to be happy, grinning at ball boys, shrugging off tight calls, and constantly laughing no matter what the circumstances. She and White picked up steam, beating the top-ranked team of Navratilova-Shriver in the semis and handily winning the finals to earn her first Grand Slam title.
Jubilant, calling her father with the good news, Gigi couldn’t believe the response. All he wanted to know was why she wasn’t in the top ten in singles. Back home, they still wondered why Gigi didn’t bother playing the Puerto Rico Open.
And then, a light went on. Whether it was in response to the public adulation a Grand Slam winner generates, or the money, or perhaps even pride, Fernandez realized it was time to turn her life around. It also helped that the Open win launched her into the A-list of desired doubles partners. She and Navratilova won the U.S. Open in 1990.
The precocious, hedonistic underachiever became a late-blooming, hardworking champion. She began seeing a clinical psychologist, Herb Hamscher, who helped uncover the source of much of her anger. “I was negative,” she says. “My parents are negative. I grew up in a negative environment.” Just because you’re spoiled doesn’t mean you’re treated like a human being.
A fruitful relationship began with Julie Anthony, a tour player in the ’70s who held a doctorate in psychology and, from her base at the Aspen Club in Colorado, directed Fernandez in everything from on-court emotions to fitness, nutrition, and meditation. Fernandez, a gypsy who’d owned homes in Florida and Texas, relocated to Aspen. Good-bye mozzarella sticks. Hello to a steady diet of spiritual discovery, including trips to such places as the Deepak Chopra Center, which Fernandez attended, she points out, with big stars King and Navratilova.
There’s a musical-chairs quality to pairings in women’s doubles that combines emotional soap opera, coldhearted lack of confidence in the other partner’s skill, and the misunderstandings that plague any relationship. So it was that in 1992, these factors led Fernandez to begin the most productive partnership of her tennis career.
Russian Natasha Zvereva dripped with more talent than Fernandez, having cracked the top five in singles by age 17 and then floated down. Like Fernandez, she managed these gifts poorly, drifting in and out of singles tournaments, posturing as a lover of Russian literature, dancing on tables in a red leather miniskirt, practicing with minimal intensity.
The two filled in each other’s missing puzzle pieces. As flippant as Zvereva appeared, she’d been raised in Russia, disciplined so heavily on and off the court that when she was 10, Fernandez was staggered to learn, Zvereva had donned military fatigues and practiced combat maneuvers. A peculiar empathy, a belief that maybe life in Puerto Rico had been pretty darn good after all, further kicked Gigi’s butt into gear.
Zvereva-Fernandez played with spunk and brilliance. Were they angry at their underachievements in singles? Were they glad they could earn hundreds of thousands without making the all-consuming commitment of a Navratilova? Was their edgy hostility a private joke? Were they mad at fans who, even when they enjoyed doubles, thought of it largely as a sideshow? All of these issues made their matches sparkle. True, it wasn’t the big-time arena of singles — just a must-see lounge act.
The on-court music they created was heavenly. Fernandez’s quick hands, deft volleys, and consistency on returns and serves was a perfect meld with Zvereva’s inspired counterpunching, variety, and bewitching spins, chips, and dips. One year they won Wimbledon when Zvereva hit a winner from a near-supine position. The two became close friends, constantly consulting with Anthony and smoothing over rough spots by meeting with other psychologists.
Even as Fernandez still shrieked at officials and lost her temper, her rough edges were tempered by victories and pleasure. Years before Brandi Chastain whipped off her T-shirt on the soccer field, Fernandez and Zvereva impishly donned sports bras for a U.S. Open awards ceremony.
The alchemy of cynicism, anger, passion, and success helped Fernandez enjoy the process of competition more than she ever had. Her mind sharpened. In 1992, researching a story on doubles, I sat with Fernandez as she scouted two opponents, dissecting their tendencies and weaknesses with the skill of a football coach. Opponent A always returned this way, particularly on second serves. Opponent B hit the serve into a specific corner on big points. Opponent A couldn’t volley as well off one side. Opponent B never lobbed. Three days later, she and Zvereva beat that team 6-2,6-0.
“Winning is a great medicine,” says Fernandez. “Winning can definitely fix a lot of problems. Natasha and I had an uncanny ability to come through under pressure. Later in my career I knew that I was lucky. I never thought I’d win a Grand Slam. My God! It’s a big deal, to win a Grand Slam. You get the sense that you’re doing something special. Even when I’m playing on Court Six, people are watching.” And Gigi, as always, enjoyed that attention.
From ’92 to ’97, Zvereva-Fernandez won 14 Slams, a mark that will in due time earn them a spot in the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Each won millions. Fernandez also won two Olympic gold medals at the ’92 and ’96 games, representing the United States with her fellow Puerto Rican, Mary Joe Fernandez (no relation). While Fernandez knows that the Olympic tennis event is rather moribund, she loves the clout Olympic gold carries with non-tennis fans.
Singles remained a roller coaster. Doubles was Puerto Rico — the smaller pond where Gigi was not just great, but a star. Singles was the mainland all over again — a place to eat humble pie. In 1994, her ranking sinking to an abysmal 99 in the world, Fernandez surprised the world by reaching the semifinals of Wimbledon and the quarters of the U.S. Open. Despite finishing that year ranked 32, by the end of ’95 she was sinking again to 65.
Why Fernandez retired in 1997 — a year she and Zvereva won the French Open and Wimbledon — remains mysterious. She officially claims,“I wanted to go out on top and move on to something else.” But there are also rumors in the tennis community that she and Zvereva were bickering. One source close to both thinks Zvereva had grown tired of Fernandez’s temper and wavering work ethic. Another believes Zvereva claimed she didn’t want to play anymore and that Gigi was seeking another partner—when in fact Zvereva was trying to dump Gigi and find another partner. Zvereva’s own moodiness and resistance to ambition is a factor too. “I was tired of the gypsy lifestyle,” says Fernandez. Moments after she and Zvereva lost the US. Open final, the 33-year-old Fernandez announced her retirement during the awards ceremony. “I had to do this publicly,” she says. “If l didn’t. I’d be tempted to come back. I wanted to close the chapter.”
But did she? Is it possible to seal yourself off from past experiences? And why should you? Trey Waltke, a former pro who once played doubles with Redondo, recently told me he was convinced that if you did something well, you felt compelled to do it again and again. And why not? Or is it indeed best to move on? The post-tennis lives of Herrmann, Redondo, Hantze, and Fernandez paint a complex picture.
Peter Herrmann: Then What?
Peter Herrmann claims he lacked the stamina and speed necessary to be a professional tennis player. At 14, he quit the game for a year. Between 15 and 16, he grew from a compact 5'6" to a gangly 6'2". His aura of greatness gone, he began losing to players he’d dominated in the 14s. “Once you quit,” he says, “God help you! It was up and down. I really sucked, it was awful.” In the 16s and 18s, he failed to qualify for the nationals.
Rationally, Herrmann knew his physical gifts were limited. Emotionally, he didn’t know whether to abandon or commit himself to tennis. He was an adolescent existentialist. “Once you go from number one in the 12s to nothing,” he says, “nothing bothers you.” Then again, perhaps after you’ve been number one, nothing engages you either.
He sprinkles his reflections with wacky fatalism. “Everything after 14 was a fluke,” he says. He was, after all, good enough to play college tennis at USD while barely taking his school-work seriously. “I never gave any thought to what I was going to do,” he says. “Who does?”
As bad a player as he thought he was, Herrmann continued floating in the tennis world. After finishing at USD in the early ’80s, he headed out on the satellite tour, tennis’s version of the minor leagues. It’s never clear in talking with Herrmann if he truly believed in himself or not. But there he was, fighting his way through Europe. Winning a big match in Norway, he felt elated.
“I belong! I belong! I will always belong!” he says as he recalls that win. “I know I can beat anyone.” Ten minutes later, he declares, “I didn’t enjoy a single minute of anything I did.”
What is this guy doing? In the same way he jerked around many opponents, he takes delight in jerking around an interviewer. It’s obvious he enjoys talking in circles, all the while revealing a puzzling love-hate relationship with tennis.
So be it. Herrmann’s actions speak louder than words. For most of his 20s he played tennis for money. Herrmann traveled the world, competing at small events in Tijuana and Fallbrook and obscure tournaments in Europe. In Germany, he participated in Regionalliga, a form of professional league tennis wherein local players compete against clubs from other communities. One foreigner was permitted per team. “I was under a lot of stress,” he says. “You play for a team in Villingen, Germany, it’s like Davis Cup every day. Lose one match and everyone thinks there’s something wrong. There were a lot of nice clubs in the Black Forest.”
Then he came back to San Diego. With the help of his father’s broker, Herrmann landed a job as a stockbroker in Coronado. His allegedly photographic memory proved an asset. (Herrmann forgot our interview and is sketchy about the chronology of his tennis career. Years roll back and forth, months are jumbled, opponents forgotten.) When it came to Wall Street, though, Herrmann brought the same savant intensity that made him a child champion. Though managing others’ money soon bored him, Herrmann enjoyed jockeying his own portfolio. “I took $40,000 and turned it into $200,000, then into $35,000, now it’s $55,000,” he says.
The stock market became just another plaything. As he neared 30, Herrmann knew tennis was still an odd part of his life. In 1990, he took a job as a head pro at Morgan Run Resort in Rancho Santa Fe. These days, he teaches ten hours a week at Morgan Run, five at Fairbanks Ranch. Far more focused on match strategy than stroke technique, Herrmann loves the interpersonal connection and the way he can help people improve. He feels that all of his improvement had occurred by the time he was 14. It’s been more than a quarter-century of downhill sledding. “I love teaching,” he says, sitting in the clubhouse at Morgan Run, “of course, I love it 15 hours a week.”
Life, I asked him, has it been a roller coaster for you?
“Yes! Yes! Life is a roller coaster, absolutely,” says Herrmann. His fingers traipse up and down. “You can smooth it out with marijuana, but the bad thing about life and tennis is that tennis is totally fair. It’s a sport, with rules, and you compete. But life is unfair. You have to get used to it.”
Walter Redondo: Boy into Man
Momita died while watching the Redondos play a tournament. In honor of her, each of the children won his or her respective age group. Walter was preparing for the national 16s. Blinding himself to pain, he went on to win the tournament. At the end of the year, he was ranked number one in the boys’ 16s in the country. A photo in the United States Tennis Association yearbook shows Redondo striking a backhand volley. Notable in the photo are his smooth features and cool, jet black 70s sideburns.
Months before Momita’s death, he’d made his case for becoming a professional immediately. He was turning 16, he was dominating (a considerably less evolved John McEnroe was ranked seventh), he was working out with such pros as Brian Teacher of La Jolla. Ten years later, an entire generation — Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Michael Chang — would all enter the pros in their midteens. But in Redondo’s era, even such hell-bent upstarts as Jimmy Connors and, later, McEnroe, attended college for at least a year. Momita insisted he wait.
Redondo may have thought he was ready to play a man’s game, but a closer look at the photo — and an even deeper probe into his psyche — reveals what a boy he still was. “I was finding myself a little bit lost with it all,” he says of the days and months following Momita’s death. “The desire was to know where she went. Her love opened up our eyes. Where did she go?” The very sensitivity that made him so creative with his racket triggered thoughts, concerns and, most dangerously for a tennis player, doubts. All that discipline, all that sacrifice, all those hours; and to have the person he’d done it for suddenly snatched away, it seemed so unjust. Even years later, as a 42-year-old man, aware that Momita was, after all, in her 60s at the time of her death, Redondo was struck by the pain of having her taken away. What, Redondo continues to wonder, is the point of our lives?
For all the good metaphysics may do for your soul, emotional introspection does little for your tennis game. “Her death, everything else that was going on, it started to expose a thread in my life, a possibility of failure,” he says. Coincidentally, the age of 16 is a critical time in the development of a player. “We were at last starting to grow into our bodies and feel comfortable in ourselves,” says Chris Dunk. “Walter had grown early and had that head start, but by the time you’re 16 or 17, it’s catch-up time.”
As the pace horse for so many years, Redondo felt the wind at his back. “I’m losing it, I’m not the top dog, it’s going down,” he recalls. “I had no perspective on it all. The expectation of being ‘Walter Redondo’ was weighing on me. I figured since I’d always been in the top one or two, it would always be that way. But that’s not how it works. It started to snowball down into a failure.”
The year after Momita’s death, Redondo’s first year in the national 18s, he was ranked fourth in the country. But then, during the second year, he tumbled out of the top ten, plummeting to 14 in the national rankings.
It may seem silly, all this talk of numbers and placement on something as arcane as tennis rankings. After all, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open have seen their share of American competitors ranked far below 14 (albeit no champions). Were you to see a 17-year-old ranked this high, you would think he could play pro tennis immediately.
Yet consider How does the high school honor student feel when she gets a B? What does a middle manager think when after years of earning 15 percent raises he’s given half that amount? For a decade, Redondo had aced every exam, and with such style that his world-class success was taken almost for granted.
As much as he tried to inspire himself by day, his soul bore a heavier weight by night. Bringing flowers to Momita’s grave at Fort Rosecrans in Point Loma, he would talk to her, sharing his feelings of abandonment. Why did you leave, Momita? Angry, he separated himself from the family that had nurtured him toward success. Years later, he would recognize this isolation less as pride and more as arrogance. But he would also value the way he became more vulnerable and open to life off the tennis court. Taking time away from the competitive world of tournaments, he took up solitary endeavors such as painting and fishing. The tranquillity of the water proved comforting.
Introspection hurt his tennis. Vulnerability is blood, and tennis players are sharks. The better a player is, the more skilled he is at smelling weakness and angling in for the kill Redondo became a marked man, a treasured scalp to those who had once been vanquished by his majesty. The difference? He holds his thumb and forefinger a quarter-inch apart. “Confidence,” he says.
He soldiered on. College was out of the picture. He was still young enough to make a go at the pros. Trying to play his way into Wimbledon, he beat a talented top-50 player whose resume included a win over Connors. “Walter Redondo’s still great,” Redondo recalls thinking after that win.
But then, in the last round of the Wimbledon qualifying event, Redondo suffered a loss punctuated by numerous bad line calls — all of them at his expense. I didn’t win this match, said Redondo’s opponent Upset, Redondo tossed his racket into the fence, at which point the umpire told him,“You will end up sweeping streets.”
Looking back at the loss years later, Redondo acknowledges that perhaps he was sabotaging himself. I asked him, what would Momita have made of that match? “If someone was cheating me, she’d say, ‘Are you good enough to get better — to rise to the’ occasion?’ ” he says.
The funny thing was that by then Redondo was one of the top 300 male players in the world. In doubles, he’d won several rounds at Wimbledon. Much like a tennis version of Bull Durham, a baseball movie about minor-league life, Redondo was a young prospect, in the hunt, trying to make his way up to the big leagues, suffering the bad and hoping to squeeze all the joy from the good.
But for Redondo, given the urgency and expectation of his youth, beating the backwoods seemed more regressive than progressive. McEnroe had rocketed out of the juniors into the world’s top ten. Many of Redondo’s peers — underlings back in the junior days—were becoming college All-Americans. Even while other pros urged Redondo to persevere, he felt an overwhelming sense of fatalism and dread. Like his fellow San Diegan Karen Hantze, he was much more eager to stay home than hit the road.
“I’m driving crosscountry in a gray VW van, and there I was going from Indianapolis to Canada, and I kept thinking,‘It’s not happening, it’s not happening,’ ’’says Redondo. “I kept having the sense that I’d given up part of my life for tennis, and I wasn’t sure if those trade-offs were worth it. I never jumped across enough to think that I deserved to be on the pro tour. I wasn’t open to friends, and it was more in my mind than my heart. Everyone had told me that this was what I was supposed to be doing, but how could people understand where I’d been?”
Turning 27 in 1985, Redondo felt he was wasting his time trying to be a pro. Returning to San Diego, he got married, had a son, Luke, and began giving tennis lessons at Fairbanks Ranch.
It was an odd transition. The intellectual work of teaching wasn’t the problem. The emotional cost was significant Once you’ve been on the pro circuit, it’s a comedown to be standing on a hot court with a ballhopper. For 30 to 40 hours a week, Redondo taught children, homemakers, and executives — very few of whom possessed the drive he’d had as a child.
“They were nice people, they were well-off people, and it started to change my perspective on tennis,” he says. “The parents just wanted their kids to get involved, and I needed to accept that not everyone wanted what I’d wanted from the sport. I started to care more for the person as a person. I also found out that I could enjoy myself. I’d learned quite a bit about this game.”
Others he’d been close to were dying during these years too. One of his closest tennis coaches committed suicide. An aunt and uncle who’d provided emotional and financial support for the Redondos died.
Desires and interests that Redondo had kept under wraps as an aspiring pro began playing a larger role in his life. Searching for spiritual answers while driving from one tournament to another, Redondo turned to the Bible. “ ‘Trust in your head with all your heart’ was a proverb that rang true to me,” says Redondo.“I was thinking about God all the time. I wanted to preach the Word.”
Instead, he began communicating through another medium. Painting had been a Redondo hobby for years. In the past two years, he has spent hours painting— rich, abstract, textured canvases, layered with his emotions. Over the past two years, he has sold a painting a week, exhibiting in such local galleries as Sumner and Dene. He phased out of Fairbanks Ranch and now teaches 10 to 15 hours a week at Frog’s Club One in San Diego.
His first marriage ended in divorce. Redondo has since remarried. He credits his current wife, Maureen, with “helping set me free from the things that held me back from tennis,” he says. “I had to let go of so much, of so much of that-expectation and anger. I used to think it was a weakness to watch people break down, because that’s what you weren’t supposed to do on a tennis court. I’m more vulnerable now, more able to see it from the right perspective. I once thought my mission in life was to play tennis or do my art. But those are only tools. They’re just means to an end.”
In Redondo’s studio, located in a nondescript subdivision, only one tiny trophy lets you know of his tennis achievements. A massive bookshelf filled with religious books occupies one corner. Redondo hasn’t played a singles match in five years. Tennis pays the bills, but art fuels his heart. “Look at this gold,” he says, pointing at an in-progress abstract. “Those colors, that’s all about healing.” Sitting in a flannel work shirt and blue jeans, his once-long hair shorn down to a buzz cut, Walter Redondo admits he’s happier these days than he’s ever been.
Karen Susman: The Plate and the Tuna
To reach Karen Susman you head up I-5 into the world of picket fences and horses. You enter Fairbanks Ranch, where every driveway looks like the entrance to a country club. You drive down the hill past a few sedate tennis courts. The clubhouse at the base of the courts sits on a lake. Susman loves this peace. She admits that Billie Jean King might like it too but would probably go insane after a few hours.
Wearing a Lacoste jacket that’s so retro it appears hip, Susman resembles a movie star. Her nose is as sleek as ever. Her short blond hair shines. Her green eyes sparkle. She carries herself with perfect posture, walking with nothing resembling haste or compulsion. None of this is affected. It’s just Karen.
“If Karen hadn’t played tennis,” says Rod, “she would have married and raised a family and been somewhat nondescript. She wouldn’t have taken what other talents she has and done much with them.”
Instead, for a few brief moments, she became a champion. As Robert Frost put it, “And that has made all the difference ” To sit in this clubhouse at Fairbanks Ranch and think of all the people who have ever held a racket, all the people who have played tournaments and earned rankings, and advanced far at places like Wimbledon, and then to-see Karen Susman hardly give it a moment’s thought — it only enhances her charisma.
Once she stopped playing in 1964, Karen devoted herself to raising Shelley. Rod began selling life insurance in St. Louis, his intensity in tennis transferred into growing a business. In 1972, prodded by Karen’s subtle nudging, the two relocated to San Diego.
Tennis? Karen likes to say she didn’t play at all. She did play one match at the U.S. Open in 1969, and Rod continued competing in local events. The Susmans’ involvement in tennis, though, was minimal.
Soon after Shelley turned ten, the bug bit Karen. She’d lost contact with King but of course was aware of the way women’s tennis had blossomed in the early ’70s.
It was time for a comeback.
Turning away from the lake at Fairbanks Ranch, Karen declares herself in the same smooth, emphatic manner that marked her game: “I prefer to think of it not as a comeback but as a return.”
“Karen didn’t really think she had a‘career’ career,” says Rod. “If she had, then it would be a comeback, but foe her, it really wasn’t that way. It wasn’t the money, or the fame. She just wanted to see what she could accomplish.”
At 30, Susman worked harder than ever. For the first time in her career, Karen drilled — the activity wherein a player hits one ball after another to the same place for long periods of time. This requires a much different degree of concentration than strictly competing. The problem solving of match play creates dozens of new, engaging situations, making it easy to immerse oneself in simply playing. Drilling requires hitting one ball after another similarly. Susman enhanced her new found on-court discipline with running, weightlifting, and stretching.
Her first competitive effort came in early ’74, when she played a Virginia Slims event in San Francisco. King also gave her a chance. Billie Jean King had created World Team Tennis. It was 180 degrees removed from the old days. Held at indoor arenas, with fans encouraged to cheer and boo, World Team Tennis was the game’s biggest attempt to take tennis to working-class sports fans.
Nervous as she was about competing after such a long exile, Susman won several matches. She began earning enough ranking points at smaller events (held in remote locales such as Boise and Portland) to gain entry into bigger pro tournaments. At 30, though, with the comfort of family and home behind her, Susman lacked the incentive to become a full-time road warrior. “I didn’t want to do that at that stage of my life,” she says. “The physical part wasn’t as hard as it was being away from home.”
Despite earning several impressive wins during her four-year “return,” Susman admits she lacked the drive necessary to be a contemporary professional.
“I suppose,” she says, looking out over the lake at the trees, “that I regret not being born ten years later. I would have enjoyed being a professional athlete. The money would then have been part of the picture. Rod was into tennis, and he would have enjoyed the business aspect of tennis.”
But deep in her soul, she also knew she had proved something to herself. And that, as the few who know Susman will tell you, is good enough for her. “I didn’t want the fishbowl, didn’t want the fame, didn’t want the notoriety,” she says. “None of it ”
If you win the Wimbledon singles, you are made an honorary member of the All-England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. All of Wimbledon’s singles champions, including Karen, participated in a Centenary Parade at the 1977 event. Despite receiving annual invitations from the club to attend the tournament, Karen has not been to Wimbledon in 24 years.
“It drives me crazy,” says Rod Susman. “But I’ve known this about her for 40 years. It’s also what makes her who she is. Karen would go to Wimbledon if it was just her, without the tournament going on, sitting in the stands, walking around, with no fanfare.” Equally modest about the good and the bad, Karen neglected to tell me about a battle she faced scarier than any opponent In 1988, she was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Rod called all over America to find a surgery location. San Diego proved the best locale. Just as at Wimbledon in ’62, Rod couldn’t sleep the night before the procedure. And just like finals day at Wimbledon, Karen slept like a baby.
The tumor was benign. World Tennis, the sport’s leading magazine, had erroneously printed her obituary. Seeking to atone for this faux pas, the magazine offered to run a full-page story by Karen. She politely declined.
This Garbo-like quality makes her infinitely compelling. In an era when teenagers like Anna Kournikova are plastered all over magazines without having won a single tournament, Karen Susman’s victory and exile are an enchanting tonic. In a world where sports are overrun by artifice, she is genuine. Whether winning the sport’s biggest tide as a teenager, or facing brain surgery, Karen Susman embodies the words of Kipling that are posted outside the doors to Wimbledon’s Centre Court: “If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat these two impostors just the same.”
The Wimbledon women’s champion is given a replica of the large, platelike trophy (the original is housed permanently at the All-England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club). For a few years, Karen misplaced hers. It hardly mattered. She kept meaning to hunt it down, but she was always forgetting or getting distracted. Recently, she found it. The most important award in tennis was buried in the pantry, down near a few cans of tuna.
Gigi Fernandez: No Regrets?
In 1998, the year after Gigi Fernandez left tennis, as she puts it, “on top, without a regret,” she couldn’t believe she was no longer playing. During Grand Slam events, she became obsessed, continually checking scores on the Internet, e-mailing buddies on the tour, wishing she was still out there.
The next year, upon turning 35, she was invited to play senior doubles events at the Slams. “It was so depressing, playing with the old farts, feeling like the best player on the court,” she says. “At Wimbledon in ’99, I’m playing the seniors, and next to me in the main event I’m watching these teams play, and they’re just choking. Hello! I know I could do better than that. No more senior events for me.” What’s never clear is what she missed more: the playing or the adoring eyes of the public. “Don’t you understand?” says a former Fernandez friend. “Gigi didn’t love tennis. She loved fame.”
Bored with tennis, Fernandez took up golf. Within a year, she’d whittled her handicap down to one. She wasn’t eager to grind it out on another professional sports circuit.
Soon after moving to Cardiff in ’94, she earned a real estate license, primarily to-manage her own transactions. Figuring she’d try selling houses to others, she rapidly became frustrated. “In a week, I saw it wasn’t for me. I couldn’t handle these, these clients. I’m not going to wait two years for someone to make a decision. What’s the word to describe these people?” Persnickety?
“That’s it!” Opportunism, such a vital ingredient in the success of a doubles player, would help her Find the next big thing. Witnessing the rise of the Internet and its overnight millionaires, Fernandez thought she could make a killing. In 1999, after forgetting her father’s birthday, she came up with the idea of Planesia, a website. According to its online description, “Planesia has created a hassle-free online shopping experience, by eliminating the process of entering the same information ” The idea, at least in part, is that Planesia’s technology can help you arrange for the purchase and delivery of products on a timely basis; for example, by telling Amazon in January that you’d like your father’s birthday book delivered in May. The plan was to sell Planesia’s technology to other Internet sites.
Fernandez was a natural at luring capital. Tennis had given her entree to wealthy investors. Most significantly, she backed up her desires with half of her life savings.
“The more money you have, the more money you want,” she says. “It’s just about having more toys — a private plane, a yacht, houses. Money doesn’t buy happiness, but it sure buys freedom ” Having earned more than $5 million in prize money (and probably several hundred thousand more in endorsements), one wonders just how much freedom Fernandez requires.
“When my grandchildren asked,‘What were you doing during the Internet revolution?’ I didn’t want to say I was just doing e-mail and looking at my stocks.”
This may sound original, but I’ve heard these exact words at least ten times from Internet executives.
The point isn’t so much to criticize Fernandez as to attempt to pierce her facile veneer. Having been a public figure since she was 10, she’s mastered the ability to seduce reporters with charm and the illusion of candor. Profiling her in 1994, I encountered one player after another who praised her volleys and declined to talk about anything else. “I wouldn’t want Gigi to get mad at me,” said one former partner. The credibility gap between Fernandez the champion doubles player and Fernandez the intimidator made it complicated to sort out her statements from her actions.
For as freely she admits, she is a volatile, impassioned person who is exceedingly difficult to understand. She loved tennis but recoils in near-anger when the idea of playing it is raised. She speaks of a career with no regrets but constantly wonders if she should have quit She cherishes the relationship she had with Zvereva but enjoys pointing out that Zvereva hasn’t won a Grand Slam tide since they broke up. She sends thoughtful, soul-baring e-mails, confesses to years of therapy, but then decrees what she thinks should be discussed and what should be left out of any stories about her. She confesses to the ways she frittered away her talent but then shouts, “I’m very demanding on people. I don’t have a lot of sympathy. I don’t know any way but fully committed I know the winners and the losers. People who put the effort in, and people who don’t.”
When she started Planesia, the Internet was riding high, and you can bet your house Fernandez envisioned an 18-to 24-month product-development cycle, at which point Planesia s technology would be so ripe and juicy that a larger firm would buy it out for millions, providing Fernandez the chance to engage the “exit strategy” popular among soldiers of fortune.
It hasn’t worked out that way. With the Internet revolution bogging down, Planesia has yet to reach the critical mass Fernandez and her investors expected. After expanding to 30 employees, Fernandez had to lay off an untold number, an act she calls “the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.” In mid-January, the man she hired to run the company as its president walked into her office and announced he was leaving. Fernandez hasn’t been able to find him since that day. “I put too much trust in him,” she says of the vanished executive. Fernandez personally guaranteed a loan for $500,000 to keep Planesia afloat. The bank has since called in that loan and is currently in litigation with Planesia. “I didn’t know what I was signing,” she says of the loan. “Some asshole at the bank decided to do this. Why they want to close us down is a mystery to me.” Then again, she notes, Planesia has hardly any customers.
One Friday night, near the end of a 14-hour workday, Fernandez sent me an e-mail: “I have really amazed myself at the amount of determination I have that I didn’t think I had. Sometimes I wish I had the guts to quit, but believe me this is one situation where it takes more guts to quit than to keep hanging on. I guess despising to lose and knowing what that feels like is coming in handy because it has given me an incredible amount of will and guts.
“So that is the story from here. Someday I will look back and know this experience made me a better person. I can’t help but continue to be amazed at how clueless I was about how easy‘Life on Tour’ really is. Give me all those plane trips and schleps and practice sessions and rain delays and hours in the gym. Beats this with a stick and I don’t care what any successful business person says or thinks, the life of an entrepreneur or business can never even begin to compare with the life of professional athlete. I guess that is why so many people dream of being athletes when they are kids. Did you ever hear a 10-year-old say they want to be a CEO when they grow up?”
Watching Navratilova, eight years her senior, make a comeback in doubles, Fernandez toys with the notion of a return. She even considers reuniting with Zvereva. “We have a good relationship,” she says. “We don’t communicate. All she' has to do is ask and I’ll be there.” But her attentions return to Planesia. “Martina, she’s process-oriented,” she says. “I’m results-oriented. I want to see Planesia through.”
In late March, Fernandez officially left San Diego, moving to Tampa, Florida. Managing the company with frequent commuting, she hopes to keep Planesia alive long enough to find an appropriate suitor for the technology and to settle with creditors.
If you become very good at tennis in your youth, you enter a bubble. The bubble offers much: public recognition, free equipment, trips to faraway places, respect from your peers, increasing latitude from teachers, and the chance to meet well-connected people who, seduced by your prowess in one field, will open doors to others.
Most of all, the bubble’s collegial protection counters tennis’s lonely, competitive jungle. On the court, these four were exposed to the rawness of competition at the highest level. It made them aware of the need to be disciplined, alert, focused, pragmatic, and even, in an appropriate way, fatalistic. Some say the greats can’t accept losing. I’d argue the opposite, that the better a player, the more able he or she is to wage war and come back yet again for another fight. For many, constantly climbing the hill proves intoxicating, and as a residual benefit it can provide valuable life lessons. “What made us succeed on the tennis court can help us succeed in anything else we do,” says Gretchen Rush Magers.“We worked so hard there that we can apply that dedication to anything.”
Tennis also offers a case for a belief in exceptionalism. “It’s funny,” says Magers. “When I was on the tour, we’d ask,‘Would you rather have a child who’s normal or different?’ Different was what we were because we were living this pro tennis lifestyle. On the tour, we’d all say, ‘normal.’ But now, retired, back at home, we want ‘different.’ I want my kids to be superstars in whatever they do.”
But the bubble’s protection can also prove deleterious. Adolescence is a time of experimentation, a period where you can investigate various careers, behaviors, and beliefs. You can ponder one future and ditch it a month later. Since most children aren’t put up on such narrow pedestals as these four tennis prodigies, they’re forced instead to enter the randomly democratic chaos of peer relations and a variety of activities. This may not be any more “normal” than playing junior tournaments. But it does provide frequent opportunities for empathy without competition, exploration without a scorecard, and a growing awareness that success in life is considerably more multifaceted than winning the next match.
Virtually every world-class tennis player I’ve ever interviewed has emerged as underequipped for life’s subtle forms of emotional interaction. These great tennis players, so well-poised on the court, were curiously off-balance when faced with the neuroses and foibles of others. Between the lines the rules were clearly spelled out. Other aspects of life aren’t so carefully marked. The isolation of sports gives tennis players—who even fail to be socialized by playing on teams and learning to cheer on others—a Peter Pan aura, a continuous youth (which isn’t necessarily bad) and a potential escape from responsibility. Did Gigi Fernandez think her titles would shield her from financial accountability? I’d like to think not, but I wonder.
San Diego has also played its own role. Great weather, ample facilities, and the region’s heavily middle-class economy depolarize tennis, blunting country club snobbery and turning tennis instead into just another California outdoor activity. For the likes of Herrmann, Redondo, and Susman, San Diego created a wonderful environment for local competition. “Morley Field, that was it, baby, the place,” says Billie Jean King. Amid so many players and such fine facilities, it was easy to improve and enjoy the game without ever journeying too far.
But the San Diego Syndrome seduced its players with provincialism, creating such a cozy atmosphere that there was little desire to bust out and conquer the world. For Herrmann, for Redondo, and even for a Wimbledon champ like Susman, once a certain peak was hit, it was best to shuffle off the bigger stage and eventually return to San Diego’s comfortable embrace. Besides, what could be gained from turning tennis into a blue-collar, dirt-under-the-nails activity anyway? That’s simply not fitting San Diego’s culture of smooth, easy living. It would be hard to envision a San Diego-bred product duplicating Fernandez’s feat of reinvigorating herself five years into her career. It’s interesting to note that Fernandez moved to San Diego as she began winding down from tennis.
“Go with the flow, that’s my style,” says Susman, wise enough to know that pursuing more tennis in her youth might have short-circuited her chance to be a dedicated parent. Fair enough, but how enchanting it is to imagine what would have occurred if the extraordinarily gifted Susman had pursued tennis as her friend Billie Jean did. Greta Garbo or Bette Davis? Then again, I circle back, realizing that in wanting her to have played longer, I’ve denied her the right to pursue a “normal,” balanced life.
Just how much tennis is enough, anyway? I don’t have the answer, but this much I do know. One night, I visited Walter Redondo at Frog’s Club One. Located behind a hotel off I-8, it’s hardly elegant, just a series of courts at the back of a fitness center. It was a miserable, chilly evening. Rain had soaked the courts. Redondo and I started drying one. Forty-five minutes later, picking up a random racket, wearing baggy shorts and a T-shift, he asked, “So, you want to strike some?”
Big-time players hit what’s called a “heavy” ball. The technique looks effortless, but when the ball arrives on your racket it feels like a brick. As Redondo coiled and released his one-handed backhand, I watched the harmony of his hips, shoulders, arms, and head. As one shot after another flew off Redondo’s racket, I was mesmerized. Each was a yellow missile. Technique plus inspiration. It was beautiful.