A dynamic figure for the sport.
Who was Gene Scott? Ask any number of people and you’ll get any number of answers. He was an outstanding player, an outspoken publisher, a mentor to young athletes, a tournament director, a prolific writer and a passionate advocate for what he considered the purity of the game. He was a devoted family man. And he was more.
“Tennis insiders thought of Gene as a dynamic figure, a cataclysmic figure,” says his longtime friend Donald Dell. “And I think, honestly, that there were lots and lots of people who knew about Gene Scott but not a lot of people who really knew him.”
In the 1960s, Scott was a world-ranked tennis player, a fierce competitor with a strong serve-and-volley game who reached the quarterfinals of the French championships and the semis of the U.S. Championships. He was rated in the U.S. top 10 a total of five times, and at one point was No. 11 in the world.
Dell, whose experiences with Scott date back to their three years together on the Yale varsity tennis team, to the pro tour, and to their enrollment at the University of Virginia law school, may have a more comprehensive view of Scott’s athletic prowess than most people.
“Gene was maybe the best athlete who ever went to Yale, and I say that very knowledgeably,” says Dell. “We would play tennis, then after each match, Gene would run across the street and high-jump with the track team, and he would win. Finally, the track coach said, ‘Gene, you’re making a mockery of this. You’re not even practicing, and you’re winning. You have to choose what you want to do.’ He chose tennis, but if he hadn’t, he would have graduated easily with 12 letters in three years.”
By 1969, Scott was still playing, but had turned his attentions to the future of the game. He was a co-founder of the National Junior Tennis League, where he mentored young players including John McEnroe.
In the 1970s, he was the face and voice that the public associated with tennis. In 1973, he served as a television commentator for the Billie Jean King-Bobby Riggs match. In 1974, he founded Tennis Week magazine, and gained great notoriety as a columnist who became in the words of Dell, “the conscience of the game.” He wrote 20 books and innumerable magazine articles, and produced TV documentaries, on the sport. Between 1973 and 1977, Scott won five consecutive U.S. Open Championships in “court tennis,” the original game upon which the modern sport of tennis is built, and in 2000, he was elected to the Court Tennis Hall of Fame.
Scott’s outspoken approach and bombastic attitude could keep people at a distance, says Bobbie Faig, who worked with him for 29 years both on the magazine and in the development and administration of pro tournaments. “He was difficult, no question,” laughs Faig, “but working with him was an unbelievable experience. He was always challenging you to learn more, and to be better.”
Scott spent two years on the USTA’s board of directors, she added, “but I felt like he was too outspoken and too strong for them. I think he actually scared people.”
By the 1990s, Scott had married Polly Eastbrook. “He was 57 when we had our first child and 59 when we had our second,” says Polly Scott, “and I have to say I don’t think he was quite prepared for it in terms of what he felt, and in terms of how much he felt. At that point, he had devoted the first 57 years of his life to tennis. But when he had his first child, it was a game-changer. He loved every minute of being a husband and a father.”
In 2006, at age 68, Scott died suddenly of previously undiagnosed amyloidosis, a rare illness in which protein fiber deposits impair the heart.
“I miss so much the lively discussions we used to have about issues in tennis and how to perpetuate the game,” says Ray Benton, former president of Pro-Serv who is now the CEO of the Tennis Center at College Park in Maryland. “Things still come up, and I think, ‘I’d like to talk about that with Gene.’”
“The children were so young when he died,” says Polly, “and I know they remember him as a father, and I know that tennis is very much interwoven into our family life. I hope that one day, Sam and Lucy go to the International Tennis Hall of Fame and see the plaque there [Scott was inducted in 2008], and to Yale and see the court that is dedicated to their father.”
Her voice catches. “If I’ve done an inadequate job of telling them the story, they will know about their father’s important and significant contributions, about how much he had given to tennis, and how much the sport gave back to them. That was the cycle of it, and we are all the very proud beneficiaries of that special process.”
See all articles by Mary Helen Sprecher
About the Author
Mary Helen Sprecher is the managing editor of Sports Destinations Management Magazine, a niche business-to-business publication for planners of sports travel events, in addition to being an RSI Contributing Editor. She is the technical writer for the American Sports Builders Association and works as a newspaper reporter in Baltimore City.