Bud Collins, for a long era, the hardest working man in tennis (and not just among the journalists), passed away last week while I was in the hospital. Tennis is just about the only sport left that I follow religiously and, though Collins hadn’t been active for a while, he’ll never stop being missed.
Imagine a reporter who revered the sport he covered without laboring under any illusion that its greatest players were worthy of obeisance or idolatry? Imagine somebody who believed everyone could stand to be taken down a peg yet managed to remain on friendly terms with
nearly everyone he skewered?
Imagine someone in a broadcast booth who was capable of being both witty and insightful about the sport he was covering?
Imagine someone who was part of every major moment for nearly thirty years in what turned out to be a revolutionary sports moment (tennis is still the only non-Olympic sport worldwide where women command something like equal attention with men) and yet wore his own legend lightly?
Imagine someone who was a fount of history and still managed to be fully invested in whatever match he was covering that day?
You probably have to be a tennis fan to really understand how refreshing all that was once upon a time and what a vacuum exists now, when announcers routinely report on a narrative that has been predetermined in their own minds while neglecting any and all evidence of what is actually taking place in front of their eyes.
Collins had his faults to be sure. He never quite accepted, for instance, that anyone could be a truly elite champion playing the style of tennis that Chris Evert made popular. I used to get mad about that and some other things back in the day. Now that a set of ever-lengthening rear-view peepers have brought me closer to his perspective, I can see how easy it was to be fooled. The sport has gone through monumental changes in the last thirty years–probably more than any major sport in the world–and, even as it’s now become a power-mad, tech-aided version of her own game, Chris Evert is still the only person who made her style work so long and so well. You can be forgiven, I think, for getting something wrong if it was truly unforeseeable..
The rest I got used to.
He was colorful, cranky, opinionated, whip-smart and merciless in the face of pretension and bogosity. As the sport he loved has descended into competition with Olympic level track and field and the NFL as the most corrupt in the world, it’s become clear that it could only have happened with him on the sidelines. When he was around, you could bet that at least a few cheeks would go unkissed and at least an occasional rock would be overturned, irrespective of what might be lying underneath.
I say let’s bring back cranky and merciless.
Even if it comes with those pants.