In 1968, the first year professional players were allowed to compete at Grand Slam tournaments, pro tennis was in need of an effective advocate. It found one in Arthur W. “Bud” Collins, a gregarious young newspaperman and tennis enthusiast.
Collins, who died Friday at age 86, will likely be remembered as the leading tennis correspondent of his time. But even that encomium doesn’t come close to putting his contribution to the sport into perspective or leave us with an adequate grasp of the central place he held in the game for nearly half a century. Bud Collins was as deeply woven into the history of Open tennis as the elaborate pattern in a Persian carpet.
In the big picture, Collins introduced tennis to legions of baby boomers who were thirsty for new entertainment. He played a leading role in demystifying the game, paving the way for tennis to become a massively popular participant and spectator sport. He accomplished that mainly through ceaseless efforts from his bully pulpit as a print and television journalist and author.
There can’t ever be another Bud Collins, just as there can’t ever be another revolution like the advent of Open tennis. He was the right man at the right time, and he took full advantage of all the opportunities he was afforded as the game flourished all around him. He was Zelig-like, with a critical difference: Collins actually had an impact on the people and events around him.
The first full-time job Collins took was that of a reporter at The Boston Globe in 1963. His love of tennis left him well-positioned at the paper when tennis interest began to surge during the “tennis boom” of the late 1960s. As a result, Collins pulled some plum assignments. He was the official press representative on a number of foreign goodwill tours by the U.S. Davis Cup squad, sponsored by the U.S. State Department.
The players on these public relations junkets included Arthur Ashe, Stan Smith, Bob Lutz and others. Collins formed lifelong friendships with them. He also accompanied Ashe on his historic and controversial first visit to South Africa, before the fall of apartheid. Collins recounted many of these experiences in his 1989 book, “My Life with the Pros.”
Despite the international character of tennis, Collins never forgot his Boston roots. The tennis coach at Brandeis University for five years, he retained a special fondness for Boston’s Longwood Cricket Club and the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island. Collins was a supporter of eccentric millionaire Jimmy Van Alen. (Collins dubbed him “the Newport Bolshevik” because of Van Alen’s desire to revolutionize tennis rules.) Collins’ advocacy helped publicize and eventually sell the tennis establishment on Van Alen’s pet project, adopting the tiebreaker.
Collins may have been the very first newspaperman to make a transition to television reporting, signing with CBS in 1968 to work on tennis broadcasts while still working for the Globe. He was also a mainstay of a series of Monday night U.S. clay-court tennis finals broadcast on PBS in the early 1970s — a sequence of broadcasts that helped fuel the tennis boom. But Collins was most widely known for his cheery, bow-tied presence and trademark floral-pattern trousers on NBC’s long-running “Breakfast at Wimbledon” telecasts.
The early years of Open tennis were marked by bitter battles among various factions vying for control of the game. Collins assiduously avoided choosing sides; he was friendly but skeptical of all, often likening tennis promoters to boxing impresarios. He was dismayed by the flagrant conflicts of interest that acted as a drag on the growth of the game, but he understood the underlying political realities. He never allowed disillusion with the powers-that-be to corrupt his love of the game — or his fondness for the players.
Most of all, Collins loved the players. He loved writing about the staggering panoply of characters and personalities that make up the body of elite pros. His prose was chatty and casual. Through the years, it became idiosyncratic. His columns were laden with puns, esoteric historical references and the minutiae of the game. As an interviewer, Collins eschewed the solemn approach and often engaged his subjects in a light-hearted, even irreverent manner.
He modestly but proudly described himself as a “hacker,” and he had the true hacker’s reverence for those who played the game as it was meant to be played. Although he had coached, it was the players rather than the game that bewitched Collins.
That was the secret to Collins’ longevity in the game, this fascination with the ever-changing cast of characters. It’s also the thing that kept him in journalism, resisting the allure of tennis politics or promotion. His simple love of the game and those who played it was communicable.
Collins was an avuncular figure beloved to young, impressionable journalists. By the end of his career, he spent more time being interviewed than interviewing. He had always made a point to welcome and encourage young or new reporters in the press rooms of the world. Thus almost every under-50 journalist out there has a “Why I love Bud Collins” story to tell.
The question will come up: What is Collins’ legacy? It will be difficult to come up with a satisfying, clear answer because, beyond the pun-laden prose, the kindness to his peers, the irreverent on-camera inquisitions and those loud, custom-made pants, Collins was a unique figure.
He was the right person in the right place at a right time that won’t ever come again.