Vanity Fair, October 1916
A GREAT COMING TENNIS MATCH
A Little Amateur Affair Soon to be Settled on Long Island
DEAR Vanity Fair: An enthusiastic follower of tennis, it was with a good deal of interest that I perused the extremely thoughtful article in your magazine last month regarding the National Championship Tournament at Forest Hills. But, while there was, no doubt, a great deal of excitement concerning the above jousts, I cannot feel that the writer has exhausted the fascinating subject of tennis. I should like to say a few words on the more local, but no whit less tense, struggle which will take place on our courts at Glorious Gloomport (the holiday-maker’s Paradise) a little after William M. Johnston has finished serving hot ones to Maurice McLoughlin and C. J. Griffin has done trying to get a curly return past R. N. Williams.
As anybody in Gloomport will tell you, the silver cup (presented by mine host of Ye Jolly Olde Inne and strongly suspected, by one school of thought, of being pewter) lies this year between four men—Rollo Murgatroyd, Elmer J. Binns, Archibald Twirling and John Jasper Jones. It is with the form of this quartette that I propose to deal in the lines which I am about to write.
A FEW weeks ago, had I been dealing with this topic, I should doubtless have confined my observations entirely to the first-named. It would be idle to deny that Rollo Murgatroyd, when he first appeared in our midst, created a veritable sensation. It was his appearance that did it. No such complete tennis-expert—sartorially speaking—had ever been seen in the Gloomport arena.
His beautifully modelled throat swelled up from the folds of a pre-eminent sport-shirt like Venus, so to speak, arising from the foam. He had a lovely tan, and there was no spot or blemish either on his snowy trousers or his dazzling shoes. Add to this the fact that he had a lip that curled superciliously at the sight of our local talent, and carried his racket in a case, and it will be readily seen that here was no ordinary man.
It is a well-known fact that Ed. Judkins of the village grocery-store was so impressed by the spectacle that he offered four to one on the newcomer, and found no takers.
THIS first favorable impression, however, time has to a certain extent diminished. No one can deny that Rollo is a dashing player. Nothing like his first serve, the fast one, has ever been seen in Gloomport. It created a profound impression, and it was only recently that critics arose to point out the undeniable fact that it had never, in the memory of man, succeeded in getting over the net.
It obtained its effects purely by moral suasion. It was a species of frightfulness. Rollo, in his first serve, favors the McLoughlin method. Briefly, he leaps about seven feet in the air, hurls the ball into the clouds, swats it with a blasting force, and then comes to earth again with a grunt.
His pallid adversary, cowering on the other side of the net, was apt to be so unnerved by this performance that his unstrung nerves refused to allow him to return the second serve, which was of a milder and more semicircular order. Recently, however, opponents have been plucking up heart, and the second serve has frequently been killed.
Nevertheless, Rollo Murgatroyd is a man to be reckoned with. Everybody knows that his second cousin once nearly played for Harvard. This in itself is a good deal.
ELMER J. BINNS is a player of a different order. His years—he is fifty-three—tell both for and against him. They diminish the youthful sprightliness which he exhibited in the early eighties, but on the other hand they give him a poise and steadiness much to be desired. Furthermore, he has lived all his life at Gloomport—he is the local real estate agent—and has a familiarity with our courts which is in itself a great asset.
Few know better than Elmer Binns the bumps and hollows which punctuate the smoothness of the arena. And in our Gloomport tournaments to know the terrain is half the battle. The village children earlier in the year selected the tennis-court for their baseball diamond, and the place is full of the holes where they used to dig their heels, thinly filled with loose sand. A ball which strikes one of these spots does not bound as is the custom with balls at Forest Hills and elsewhere. It sometimes stops and tries to bury itself, sometimes trickles off at right angles.
Any man, therefore, who is as familiar with the topography of the courts as is Elmer Binns must have a more than sporting chance of victory. Local opinion, it is true, is to some extent prejudiced against Elmer because he plays in his Sunday trousers and a stiff shirt, and rarely removes the derby hat which is his inseparable companion during business hours: but looks are not everything in tennis.
ARCHIBALD TWIRLING, the third on our list, brings to the game a steadiness which has served him well in his profession—the medical. You cannot rattle Archibald. He is a man of resource, and invariably treats all ailments with a medicine of his own invention, consisting largely of ipecacuanha. Sometimes it does the trick, sometimes it does not: but Archibald goes on supplying it just the same. So with his tennis. Whether his opponent be a Rollo Murgatroyd or an Elmer Binns, his method never varies.
He stands at the back of the court and lobs. If his opponent smashes Archibald lobs. If his opponent tries placing, Archibald still lobs. The longer the game goes on, the higher he lobs, until his antagonist, losing patience or perhaps forgetting that he is engaged in a game of tennis, omits to return the stroke. Then Archibald shifts his chewing-gum from left to right, or vice versa, calls out the score in his best death-bed manner, and goes on lobbing.
It is probable that he would never have been beaten had not some pioneer of the game discovered that he was physically and mentally unable to deal with a back-hand stroke. Achilles had his heel. Archibald Twirling has his back-hand. It is an interesting and a pitiful sight to see him when a crisis arrives which can only he met by a judicious application of the back-hand. There was a time when he would dive at the ball and try to lob it in the constrained attitude which had been forced upon him. After lobbing a hundred balls into the sea, however, directly at right angles to the spot which should have received them, he decided to treat such crises as Acts of God. Today, when a ball comes at his back-hand, Archibald just stands and looks at it sadly.
This of necessity diminishes his chances for the championship, and if it were not for the peculiarly maddening nature of his methods one might rule him out of the race. Persistent lobbing, however, has worn down many a fine player, so we must accord Archibald Twirling at least an even chance in the great meeting.
FINALLY we come to John Jasper Jones. He is a dangerous man. As regards service, he is undoubtedly the superior of any of his rivals. He lacks Rollo Murgatroyd’s dash and abandon, but on the other hand he has frequently been known to get his first serve over the net and on one or two occasions even succeeded in depositing the ball in the right section of his opponent’s territory. He does not slash at the ball as does Murgatroyd. He prefers to throw it a few inches in front of him and then to give a sort of stabbing lunge at it. He holds his racket quite close to the bulgy part—I allude to the portion where the strings are. This lends steadiness and accuracy to his service. No one who has not played at Gloomport can understand the moral effect of a first serve that gets over the net. One might almost say that it is etiquette not to return it. And while Jones does not intentionally put any spin on the ball, the irregularities of the ground, referred to above, frequently cooperate with him so happily that the ball becomes unplayable.
In addition to this, he is a complete master of the back-stroke, if given plenty of time. I speak a little loosely. To be absolutely accurate, John Jasper Jones has never made a back-hand stroke in his life, and never hopes to. But, Nature having made him ambidexterous, he has found a way of meeting the difficulty. If the ball comes to his left hand, he rapidly shifts his racket from one hand to the other, and before his startled adversary can brace himself to cope with this new development the ball is well on its way back over the net.
THE only flaw in Jones’ game is that he serves nothing but foot-faults. This might at first sight seem to reduce his chances of the silver cup to nil; but the resourceful man has found a way of overcoming this difficulty, too. Only a week ago he became engaged to the elderly sister of the cup’s donor, mine host of Ye Jolly Olde Inne, who is to act as umpire in the tournament: and few of the cognoscenti doubt that blood will prove thicker than water. It is a significant fact that, two days back, when I tried to get even money against Jones, the best they would give me at our barber’s, was three to two on.
SUCH then, are the four men who will do battle on September the twenty-eighth. I shall be glad to receive money-orders from patrons of sport who wish to take a little flutter on the event, and will place them as directed at the most favorable odds, and remain, with deep respect, your tennis lover and loyal subscriber,
Note: Revised and expanded as “Prospects for Wambledon” in Strand, August 1929, and in Louder and Funnier (1932).