Mr. Wonderful

Bud Collins had a writer's soul and contagious joy, and he couldn't help but make viewers love tennis

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The first time I met Bud Collins was in a German restaurant in Milwaukee. He recommended the wienerschnitzel. I have no idea why he and his wife were in Milwaukee and no memory of why my wife and I were there either. But we both remember that he was wearing pink and red-and-white checkered pants, a pink jacket and a pink bowtie. And we both remember that he lit up the room.

There is something inspiring about the sports true believers, something that gets inside you. When Dick Vitale talks basketball — and this is true no matter how you may feel about him — his energy rumbles your chest as if the bass on his voice is maxed out. You can’t help but FEEL excited because he’s so exicted. This was always true about John Madden doing football too. When Doc Emrick does a hockey game, when Vin Scully does baseball, when Andres Cantor does soccer, the magic surpasses the beautiful words they say, and it surpasses the artful delivery. It’s corny, sure, but the rest is love.

We love sports a little bit more because they love sports so much.

That’s how it was for Bud Collins and tennis. He made me love the sport long before I ever even thought about picking up a racquet. I was a kid in Cleveland when Bud Collins first entered my world. I was the son of a factory worker; I don’t think I’d ever even seen a tennis court. But there, bursting through the static of our 1970s television was London. There was Breakfast at Wimbledon, strawberries and cream, that stirring music. And here was Bud Collins wearing his loud colors and expressing his unrelenting enthusiasm for this sport.

He loved words, alliteration, poetry, puns, terrible puns, horrible puns — who can forget when McEnroe ended Borg’s reign at Wimbledon on July 4, 1981: “Stick a feather in his cap and call him McEnroney.” Who else but Bud Collins would (1) Think to say anything like that and (2) Actually say it.

(I think of another time when, talking of Michael Chang, he said something to the effect of: “There he goes, the little train that could, Chang Chang Chang!”)

He said stuff like that because he loved tennis so much, nothing was too silly to say. Watching a tennis match with Bud Collins was like sitting courtside, a bit tipsy on champagne, and marveling at the wonder of it all.

Remember the nicknames? Borg was the “Angelic Assasin.” Ion Tiriac was “Count Dracula.” Jimmy Connors was the “Brash Basher from Belleville.” Chris Evert was “Chris America.” Years later, Steffi Graf was “Fraulein Forehand,” and Rafael Nadal was “El Nino.”

My favorite nickname, though, was reserved for a left-handed topspinner from Argentina named Guilermo Vilas. He used to hit every shot one-handed, so much so that his right arm looked more or less normal but his muscular left arm had more or less the same circumference as a Sequoia redwood. Bud called him “Young Bull of the Pampas.”

Collins’ joy was so contagious, it filled you up. Watching the actual tennis at Wimbledon in the 1970s was laughable, especially in the men’s and women’s finals, long after the grass had died. The balls were white, the playing surface was the color of a cloudy day, and our televisions were terrible. In other words: You couldn’t see the ball. At all. It was like watching two blurs miming a tennis match.

But Bud Collins always made the action seem vibrant, significant, historic. This player could taste victory. That player was fighting her demons. The other player was thinking of his late grandfather who had told him that one day he would be a champion. Then the camera was pan the crowd, and Collins knew every single person in the shot — there’s the Royal Duchess of Whatever, there’s the great Rod Laver, there’s the still beautiful Maria Bueno, there’s the Grand Duke of Someplace, there’s Louise Brough, oh, let me tell you about Louise Brough.

When my family moved from Cleveland to an apartment complex in Charlotte, it actually had had a tennis court. And the very first thing I wanted to do was learn how to play. That was Bud Collins’ gift to me. I used to imagine the nicknames he would give me when I became the No. 1 player in the world. I have never played tennis well. But I play it enthusiastically.

(Collins, should be noted, often called himself a hacker, but he was actually a superb tennis player who won the U.S. Indoor Mixed Doubles with Janet Hopps. It is said that he loved playing barefoot on the grass, which is exactly as I would have imagined).

Collins had the writer’s soul. He never stopped writing — newspaper columns, travel pieces, magazine pieces, books. Collins, though, was one of the first sportswriters to make it on television, and that is because his pizzazz and charm crossed all forms of communication. If you read him, if you heard him, if you saw him, to borrow from Dave Eggers, you would know Bud’s velocity.

I did not know him well, but I saw him fairly often over the years, and he was always kind, and he was always joyful, and he was always excited about the next match. Even the last time I saw him, after he had slowed down considerably, he was still a force.

“Did you hear the Siberian Siren today?” he said; Collins was referring to just how loudly Maria Sharapova was shrieking during the match. “I couldn’t even hear myself think!”

More than anything, though, I will always remember running into him at that German restaurant the first time. He didn’t know me at all then, but he acted as if he had just been hoping my wife and I would walk in. He wanted to know what we were going to eat, wanted to know how we like Milwaukee, wanted to know. “I just remember how he just lit up the room,” Margo said Friday when we heard the Bud had died at age 86. “And I remember he wore pink.”

It was later that I told Bud he, almost singlehandedly, had made me love tennis. He said exactly what you would expect him to say. “Isn’t tennis wonderful?” he asked.