Saturday, December 12, 2009

From Tony Trabert to Bob Ryland...... my tennis heroes

It was sometime in the late 60's I think at the Armory Field House at the University of Cincinnati(UC). My dad had told my brother Dave and  me that we  were going to see his old high school mate Tony Trabert play in an exhibition match .I don't remember any of the match. But after it was over dad brought us up to the court to meet Tony. As Tony reached out to shake my hand I remember dad telling me not to wash my hand because I was shaking the hand of a legend. I knew very little about tennis history or it's greatest players other than Rod Laver and the ones I saw on television.
Marion Anthony"Tony" Trabert was a graduate of Walnut Hills High School in 1948.My dad Richard "Dick" Weiland was class of '47 at Walnut. Tony won the state high school championships 3 times while at Walnut.
He went on to UC where he won the NCAA title in 1951.After this it was onto the world stage where in 1955 alone he won 3 of the 4 major events .The French,Wimbledon and US championships.
Okay enough facts and numbers.I had been playing tennis for a few years and meeting Tony was a life changing experience for me.Hitting against the backboard or hitting with my neighborhood buddy Josh Harkavy took on new meaning. Josh was a lefty and tactically very smart with great quick hands. Josh had that tricky lefty serve and I would imagine I was Trabert fighting hard to win points against the two-time Grand Slam year to year champion Rod"The Rocket" Laver.
For me every time on the court with Josh was a victory for us righties.My dad is a lefty so I had to keep this fact on the down low.
Maybe Josh thought I was a bit overly competitive.....I was that way at everything.In 1972 Josh (unseeded) made it all the way to the finals of the Boys under 12 city championships.
I will give his coach some of the credit.But competing against myself,Stevie Brown(see earlier writings) and Jeff Zinn (google Penn State men's tennis) toughened Josh up for his run to the finals.
So Josh "Laver" Harkavy had done it.A few years prior to this my big bro got to the finals in the under 12 and under 14 divisions.Trabert from Walnut Hills had  won Wimbledon!, Dave got to the city finals, Josh 'The junior rocket" as well .
I practiced even more against the wall on the back of our house.Tony won a bunch of imaginary championships in the spring and summer of 1972-73 in my backyard.
I did get to the Boys under 12  final in 1973 only to see a familiar face across the net....Stevie Brown.
See the entry "Searching for Stevie Brown but finding Bob Ryland " to get the rest of that story.
I have heard it said you learn more from your losses than wins. Ask Tony Trabert about that one.
He is a world champion and learned how to channel adversity into ultimate success.
I know after losing a match I usually work five times as hard to make sure it never happens again.
Stevie were you dreaming Trabert dreams like me? Even into my mid-teen years I remember as I would practice and compete that I would imagine what it was like to be Tony.I really never saw him play save that one exhibition. I never saw his technique but my dad kept the bar high  by mentioning Tony whenever I got a little too over confident. Had I won a state title dad would remark. No, I would reply .I would go back out to the wall to bolster up my strokes.
After my move to New York I went into the tennis business as a full time coach.It was in New York that  I  met  Robert "Bob" Ryland at the Midtown Tennis Club where we both worked as  teaching pros .
If you google Tony Trabert you will see that there are many entries on the great champion from Cincinnati.
The International Tennis Federation  has an event named after Tony.There is a sweater named after him! Tony has been on the cover of Sports Illustrated.  Tony was the lead commentator for CBS' US Open coverage for many years . Tony worked incredibly hard to achieve his titles and all the recognition that came along with them.Tony was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1970.
Bob Ryland traveled a similar but much different road. If you google Bob Ryland you will see my website set up for Bob and a couple entries about Bob from NBC-Philly and the Arthur Ashe Tennis Center.
Bob worked every bit as hard as Tony growing up. Bob's dream was to be able to compete on the world stage in tennis. He had the skills but his skin color got in the way. Bob's mother was black and this was enough to keep him out of the whites only genteel sport of tennis.
Bob won the Chicago boys high school prep title in 1937 and was the finalist in the Illinois High School championships in 1939. Then it was on to college for one year before he entered  World War Two where Bob served in the Army Air Corps special services. In 1945 Bob was stationed at Selfridge
Two times Bob won the American Tennis Association championships. The first time Bob was champion there is a picture of Bob with his proud father looking on. It reminded me of the photo of Arthur Ashe with his father after he won the 1968 US Open and his proud father embraced him.
 However there would be no opportunities for Bob or any black tennis champions to compete at Wimbledon, the French or the US championships. Eventually tennis opened it's doors to the black players.
Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe are very recognizable names that have transcended the sport of tennis.
Bob Ryland? The Jackie Robinson of tennis ? I guess so. Sad that Bob has to be referred to as the Jackie Robinson of tennis.
That's right Bob Ryland was/is the first black professional tennis player.
Bob was not allowed in to the US championships until he was well into his 30's as an amateur player.
He lost in the first round of his first tournament ever on grass.
Bob kept competing while working his day job at the post office and practicing with the great Pancho Gonzalez. In 1959 a promoter named Jack March made history in Cleveland,Ohio when he selected Bob to compete in the World Pro Championships at the age of 39. Most tennis pros have already packed it in and are off playing golf by the age of 39. Bob eagerly competed in his second opportunity on the world stage.
He did lose that match but by helping to break down the color barrier in tennis he had won so much more.
In 20007 the International Tennis Hall of Fame(ITHF) hosted an exhibit at the US Open called  "Breaking the Barriers". Bob was included in the exhibit.
His picture was featured in the center of the exhibit and he was interviewed for a documentary for the exhibit.
As the two week event drew to a close theere was a cocktail party to celebrate the exhibit.
Mayor David Dinkins gave a short speech. As I surveyed the room I noticed that Tony Trabert was seated near the front door. My two tennis heroes in the same room ! Tony was representing the Hall of Fame in his role as President of the ITHF.
If I could have only gotten these two great champions together then my night would have been perfect.
 A short while after the presentations were over I noticed that Tony was heading outside to make his way to the Ashe Stadium. I introduced myself as Dick Weiland's son. I had met Tony the previous year with my son at the Open but I am sure that he meets many people. I mentioned my dad was sick and Tony showed genuine concern for his classmate from Walnut. That was where our discussion ended. I regret not bringing Bob and Tony together.
After the exhibit closed I filled out a form to nominate Bob for the Hall of Fame. Many great champions have been blessed to be inducted into our sports Holy Grail.
It is now 2009 and I have a distinct feeling that Bob will never ever be enshrined in the Hall at Newport.
Bob is 89 and it seemed  as though 2009 was the perfect year since it was the 50th anniversary of when he broke the pro tennis color barrier.After the list of inductees was published I noticed no Bob on the list. I was told by someone at ITHF that he 2010 was a possibility. Will Bob's day ever come? To be excluded from the sport because of skin color during his playing days was hard enough. Now is the time for all the honorable members of the selection committee at the ITHF to do what is right and place Bob into the Hall of Fame.
I looked over the list for 2010 and Bob is still not there.
If not now then when?
Bob is a proud man. Since the day I met him he has always told it like it is.As Bob would say ,"that's the way it is Fred". I asked Bob if he was ever bitter that he never got to prove himself in the big leagues of tennis.
No he said," not bitter". This was as much a loss for the sport of tennis as it was for him.Now is the time to make amends. So to my two heroes let's get together on this thing. To fellow Walnut Hills High School Alum Tony Trabert and the ITHF  selection committee  I say, "do what's right".
Tony my hero.... make me proud.
To my coach,mentor and friend Bob Ryland I say, " keep the faith".
From the wall in back of my old house in Cincinnati I started dreaming of tennis greatness. Although I personally never achieved those heights it is now my dream that another can reach the summit.