Pioneers in Tennis: Bud Collins
An American Original Who Helped Tennis Boom
It took Bud Collins only a few minutes after seeing a young teenager named Steffi Graf swing a racquet for him to dub her “Fraulein Forehand.” He had a similar epiphany in re-naming Spaniard Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, an effervescent spitfire, the “Barcelona Bumble Bee.” When 16-year-old Chris Evert captured the nation’s collective heart, she immediately became “Chris America,” according to Collins, and when Venus and Serena walloped their way into the nation’s imagination, they earned the moniker “The Sisters Sledgehammer.”
In 1985, when a tornado spawned on the grounds of the USTA National Tennis Center during the US Open, shaking and threatening to topple an overhead press box filled with members of the international media, Collins simply looked up, chuckled and shouted, “What a boon to the Columbia School of Journalism.”
Collins may have been implying that if the press box collapsed that day, plenty of sportswriters’ jobs would have to be replaced. But the truth is, there is only one truly irreplaceable member of the tennis media corps, and that is the colorful Collins himself.
IT WAS 1956 WHEN Collins, then a first-year public relations graduate student at Boston University working as a copy boy at the Boston Herald, was sent by his sports editor to cover the U.S. Doubles Championships at the Longwood Cricket Club.
“They didn’t have anyone else to do it,” says the 83-year-old Collins of that most fortuitous day in his now 57-year career. Collins had already been to Baldwin-Wallace College in his native Ohio and served in the Army before deciding to follow a friend to Boston for grad school and a hopeful career. In order to pay his way, Collins began knocking on the doors of the then eight daily newspapers in Boston. The Herald hired him to cover high school football for $5 every Saturday. If he came to the office and also answered phones, the pay would escalate to $10. It took Collins exactly two Saturdays to know what he would do with the rest of his life.
Though a straight-A student at BU, Collins never finished his graduation thesis; he was too busy traveling the world covering breaking stories — first for the Herald and then for the Boston Globe — from the Vietnam War to Muhammad Ali’s Rumble in the Jungle boxing bout with George Foreman. Throughout his illustrious career, Collins has produced thousands of articles, as well as more than a dozen books, including biographies of Rod Laver and Evonne Goolagong, the “Bud Collins Tennis Encyclopedia” and “Bud Collins History of Tennis,” a multi-edition set that can best be described as the Bible of the game. At major events, Collins, joined by his wife, photographer Anita Klaussen, can be seen hawking books around the grounds and affectionately signing every one for the bevy of friends and fans he has coveted over the years.
IN 1963, COLLINS was approached by PBS’s Greg Harney to do his first network tennis broadcast. “We’re going to televise tennis,” he was told. His reaction? “Why?” “Because the people who run the station are all preppies who play tennis,” was the answer. That was a good enough reason for Collins, who realized early on that getting tennis on TV would be a boon to the sport. It was a disastrous TV start for Collins — with equipment failures from an old school bus that had been converted into a TV truck, a disinterested broadcast partner and skeptical players — and after his first show, his then-wife advised him not to sell his typewriter.
But Collins has continued to cover the sport live now for some 50 years. He’s broadcast tennis for every major network and cable outlet, including for 35 years with NBC, where his colorful trousers worn during interviews at Wimbledon caught the attention of everyone from players to generations of British Royalty. Once, the Duchess of Kent put her hand on Collins’ shoulder and wished him a happy birthday on the air.
Collins can lucidly recount a gaggle of favorite matches over the years, including a 1976 match in Stockholm, Sweden, between Arthur Ashe and Ilie Nastase during which an argument arose between the players. “Nasty was up to his usual tricks,” says Collins, recalling the event as if it were yesterday. “Arthur got peeved, finally said ‘That’s enough,’ threw down his racquet and headed to the locker room. The referee tried to coax Arthur back on the court but he wouldn’t come. Nastase had already been defaulted but now they had to default Arthur, too. It was one tennis match with two losers. The next day Nastase brought Ashe a bouquet of roses.”
THROUGH HIS WRITING and his work on TV and radio over the decades, Collins has helped to popularize tennis in the U.S. and helped the sport grow, inspiring untold legions to pick up a racquet and play. And, despite running for many years a fun amateur event called the “Hacker’s Classic” at a resort in Florida every December, Collins himself was no slouch on the court. He won the U.S. Indoor mixed doubles championship in 1961 and was a finalist with Jack Crawford in the French Senior doubles in 1975. He also was the tennis coach at Brandeis University from 1959 to 1963 (where one of his players was the political and social activist Abbie Hoffman).
Throughout his career, Collins has been honored with countless awards, including the prestigious Red Smith Award in 1999 by the Associated Press Sports Editors, and with his induction into the Sportscasters and Sportswriters Hall of Fame in 2002. He also received the tennis world’s highest honor in 1994, when he was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
But perhaps his greatest legacy is the many friends he has acquired through his goodness of heart and generosity of spirit. Virtually every young journalist in every tennis press room around the world can relate a time that Collins, though writing on deadline, has stopped to answer a question or do a quick interview.
As for how he would like to be remembered, the ever-humble gentleman, dressed in pink and green trousers and matching pink Crocs on his feet, tips his straw hat off his bald head and says with a sly grin, “I want to be known as a good-humored guy who made a lot of friends and who loved tennis, but didn’t take it too seriously.”