10.4.13

(U.S.) OPEN SECRETS

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(Published in Polo.com magazine, Summer, 2006)


Open Secrets

A locker-room attendant turned award-winning writer reveals how McEnroe, Connors and some happy-go-lucky Australians acted behind the scenes at the 1984 U.S. Open...By Mat Edelson

I dreamt of being lots of things growing up. NASA astronaut. Mets centerfielder. Miss Litsky’s boyfriend (2nd grade teacher. HOT!).

However, it’s safe to say that eventually becoming a men’s locker room attendant at a major (or even minor) sporting event never once crossed my mind.

As the man says, “never say never.”

When the call came from a similarly struggling but temporarily employed friend offering me said gig at the 1984 U.S. Open, I should have known better than to accept. Earlier that spring, at golf’s U.S. Open, the gods of sport enjoyed a few laughs at my expense. I was stage-managing one of the holes near the turn for ABC Sports. Just yards from my position barely off the green, Jack Nicklaus stood over a short putt.

BEEP!—BEEP!!—BEEP!!!

Great, I thought, head swiveling as the headphones muffled my directional sense, what moron in the gallery forgot to turn off his watch alarm?

As I turned back toward the green, The Golden Bear’s violent gaze informed me that I was the moron. Nicklaus’ eye-volley lasered my brand-new, never-read-the-directions digital Casio on my wrist. Panicked, I pushed all of its buttons at once. Up came the time in Tokyo, followed by the day in Spanish (Jueves!), and finally a stopwatch pleasantly clicking off the number of seconds I’d pissed Jack off.

00:08 (BEEP!)…00:09 (BEEP!!)…00:10 (BEEP!!!).

I made the mistake of looking up again, right into those searing eyes. If I’d been a pregnant woman I’d have broken water right there on the fringe. With every vital fluid in my body threatening to evacuate by the nearest exit—BEEP!—I did the only thing humanly possible.

I took off the watch and beat it to death in front of God, America and Nicklaus. Then I put it in my pocket as it expired (beep), smothering it in my closed fist (beep) while praying (bee-yoop) that Jack would both make his putt and never, ever recognize my face again.

Given that history, I should have seriously considered the trouble I was likely to foment playing Cabana Boy to the Top 16 tennis players in the world. It didn’t help that I wasn’t in awe of them, mostly because I didn’t take to the game as a kid. (Why I could crush a fastball with a round bat yet whiff on a tennis ball with a flat racquet is a mystery I decided early on not to solve in this lifetime). Yet it was this lack of reverence, my willingness to engage the players as people first, that made those two weeks so memorable.

My duties were simple and direct: When a player yelled “LOCKER!” I was to come a-runnin’ pronto, as I held the keys to the kingdom (or at least the master key to their locker). In between bellowing, I was to keep the showers stocked with soap (Ivory—99 44/100% pure) and put the appropriate liquids on ice (Gatorade and soda for all but the Aussies. They drank Fosters, oil can-size. Sometimes before matches. No lie.).

As for the players, most clearly preferred anonymity to camaraderie, barely making an appearance in the locker room. Ivan Lendl splashed in for his first match wearing a bright red Team Canada hockey jersey, but after that he became as invisible as Nicole Ritchie post-Paris. I think the Swedes—Mats Wilander and Stefan Edberg—were there, but they talked so little, who could tell?

There was also a diapered chimp named ‘Zippy’—I knew this because his blue shirt said so—standing at the locker room entrance, a shy Robert Duvall unobtrusively taking in the scene, and comedian Alan King, completely oblivious to his utter incongruity, who had somehow commandeered a locker. He even had a key he used to get tennis-dressed before leaving for—what? A quick warm-up with Martina? Doubles with Nastase? Stunned into silence, I reached quickly for a higher power. Dear Lord, if that man returns, please don’t make me have to see him naked.

Some perks of the players’ position (and mine) soon became obvious. Tennis players hate wearing worn sneakers. Now, what’s worn for you and me (say, two years) and what’s worn for a top pro (say, two sets, thank you, Mr. Shoe Sponsor), varies greatly. In a move reminiscent of mindlessly tossing the dog the burnt ends of the roast, most players could care less where their sneaker scraps end up, or with whom. Suffice to say, Sheldon (Size 12’s), Bobby (14’s), and the rest of my poverty-stricken peeps were ankle-deep in nearly new leather until Reagan left office.

As for me, I wore 9 1/2s. So did the ever-cantankerous John Patrick McEnroe, Jr. I quickly learned two things I’d never heard reported about McEnroe. First, he rips the soles out of his shoes before he plays. Second, he slices off a corner of the leather by the little toe. Of course I reported these facts dutifully every time someone asked why I was wearing sneakers with the little toe gouged out (talk about an ice-breaker). I also learned another tidbit about Mr. McEnroe.

He does not suffer fools gladly.

And I? I might as well have had a bull’s-eye on my forehead.

Returning from a victorious match, McEnroe entered the locker room wielding a racket that looked like it had been El Kabonged over someone’s head. He’d already been fined $500 for ‘abuse of racquet.’ I wondered what the fine was for ‘obliteration of racquet,’ for this beauty had experienced a mortal compound fracture. I mean the head of the racquet was bent ninety degrees through the middle. Nevertheless, McEnroe handed me the completely dysfunctional tool.

“Here,” he said, “you might want this.”

“What,” I politely replied, mouth firmly engaged before brain, “am I going to do with this?”

Somewhat taken aback—Locker boy speaks?—McEnroe looked at the racquet, looked at me dismissively, and waved towards the door. “Give it to someone out there, a souvenir or something,” he said. I headed dutifully for the door, but as I grasped the knob a random blob of information gleaned during the week bobbed to the surface.

One of the junior players had told me that to control costs, lower-ranked players generally were allotted only two racquets by their sponsors. Returning a broken racquet was the only way to secure a replacement gratis. With this helpful bit of data now accessed, I turned at the door, walked back to McEnroe, and earnestly uttered the following ridiculous drivel:

“Uh, John, uh, I understand that if you give this racquet back to your sponsor, they’ll give you a new one for free.”

McEnroe stared at me, mouth agape, as if I was a bacterium complaining to the lab tech about the way my slide had been stained.

“I am the NUMBER ONE (BLEEP’N) TENNIS PLAYER in the (bleep’n) WORLD,” he said. “I don’t HAVE to worry about my (bleep’n) SPONSOR giving me another RACQUET.”

Point, McEnroe.

This time I got past the door, handing the gift to some grateful groupie. When I returned to the locker room, head trainer Bill Norris angrily beckoned me over.

“You,” he said, “do not know your place.”

As condescending as I thought the remark was at the time, 22 years later I realize Norris was right. Still, immaturity aside, I had a blast. I even received a racquet I kept (this one had only a hairline crack), courtesy of Jimmy Connors. Despite losing a nearly four-hour semifinal match to McEnroe, Connors spent the post-midnight hours in the locker room, surrounded by family, a few friends, and a certain locker room attendant he insisted should stay and relax. At one point, Connors’ five-year-old son Brett scattered a cup of ice on the carpet, but before I could even move Connors motioned me to stay seated. “Brett,” he said, “don’t make that man pick up the ice. You go get it.”

It would be a few years before I would again return to the locker room, this time as a credentialed reporter. But if my time at the Open taught me anything, it’s that if you really want to know what’s going on behind the scenes at a sporting event, don’t talk to the players, but to the guy collecting the towels.

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