Friday, October 29, 2010

Appreciating Bud Collins

NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 01: Rafael Nadal (R) of Spain presents Bud Collins, journalist and television broadcaster, with the Ron Bookman Media Excellence award for his long-standing contribution to the game of tennis during Day 8 of the 2008 U.S. Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 1, 2008 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)

I was raised in a culture in which old people are not necessarily venerated, but certainly are treated with a tremendous amount of respect. As a child, whenever I passed Mr. or Mrs. Geriatric in the street, it was expected that I would pipe up clearly and wish them a “Good Morning” or “Good Afternoon”. Passing them straight and going about my business was considered a sign of rudeness. So too was waiting for them to acknowledge me first. The general thinking was that simply by having survived to old age, these individuals had earned the right to be treated with a certain level of courtesy and regard.

So when in 2007, after 35 years of serving as a premier tennis sportscaster for NBC, Bud Collins announced that the media giant had decided not to renew his contract, I found myself going “Ouch”. The decision smacked of disrespect. It felt as if NBC was saying that it had had enough of the aging Bud Collins, that he had seen better days, and that it was time to put him out to pasture.

Bud Collins is 81 years old. By most indices, he has had a lengthy and successful career as a tennis commentator and journalist. Most people in this country retire well before his age. But it must hurt like hell not to be able to do so on your own terms after so many years of dedicated service. It must be galling to be told that you have to leave before you’re fully ready to go, to have to pretend to bow out gracefully even as the Young Turks start stamping their feet impatiently, raising dust in your face as they practically shove you off. Yes I’m probably being a bit dramatic. But I felt for the guy.

But if I am honest I will admit that I was never a fan of Bud Collins the tennis commentator. I found his lengthy wind-ups rather annoying. I always felt impatient that he took so long getting to the point. I didn’t mind the wacky clothing, but it always irked me that he seemed to put more energy into coming up with the stupidest nicknames for tennis players than into making intelligent tennis commentary.

Bud Collins the nickname generator is in a class all by himself. Whereas most tennis fans go for a simple shortening of the players’ names – such as Fed, Rafa, Djoko, Vee, Caro, and the like, Bud would come up with these cumbersome, multi-syllabic nicknames that made sense only to him. For example, his nicknames for Federer were, “Lord of the Swings”, “Basel Dazzle”, and “The Swiss Who Can’t Miss”. I mean, what the hell?

Other players suffered similarly under Bud’s overly wordy mouthfuls. Gael Monfils became known as “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”. The only way that made any sense to me is that he probably mistook Gael for Whoopi Goldberg in the movie of that name. He called Justine Henin, “The Paper Tiger”. I’m not even going to put the energy into figuring out what the heck he was talking about. Sharapova was “The Siberian Siren”. “Siren” I get, although I would personally prefer “Banshee”. But she is not from Siberia. And Marat Safin was inexplicably dubbed “The Headless Horseman”. No really, it’s too much. I give up.

But I didn’t mean to write this entry to diss Bud. After all, I mentioned before that I was raised in a culture that tried to venerate its older folks – (in between episodes of robbing and raping them, but I digress).

My real appreciation for Bud Collins stems from the fact that he is the only person I know who has made an attempt to comprehensively document the history of tennis, to include vivid portraitures of its players. For this alone he deserves an honorable doctorate. Not that he will ever be allowed to use it by calling himself Dr. Bud Collins. (Hear that Ms. Maya Angelou? Getting an honorary doctorate does not make you a doctor. And I mean this with no disrespect to you as a member of the geriatric posse. And once again I digress).

I own the third edition of Bud Collins “Tennis Encyclopedia”. It is a massive book with almost 700 pages. From time to time, I open random pages and read about people of yore who played this sport that I love without reason. Like Henri Cochet who won Wimbledon in 1927. There is a 1923 photograph of Helen Wills defeating Kity McKane in the inaugural match at the new stadium in Forest Hills. And there is Helen Wills Moody sobbing as she defaults to Helen Jacobs at her last appearance at this tournament in 1933. Not to mention the late Althea Gibson, eyes on the ball, serving like a champ despite the racism of 1957.

History comes alive in this book. Bud has compiled lists of all the winners of all tennis events long before the Open era. The only thing marring the book is his relentless penchant for nicknames and silly turns of phrases. But I find it easier to ignore these as I let myself be transported back into tennis’ past. And I can’t help but wonder who will follow Bud’s lead and embrace the challenge of documenting its future.

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