As he sat in a wheelchair directly below the honorary plaque that hung above him—including a wonderful photo that depicted him beautifully—Collins greeted friends and colleagues from near and far. Among the writers, the renowned Mike Lupica and John Feinstein were there. Estimable players including Martina Navratilova and Tracy Austin showed up. Speaking eloquently about Collins were USTA President Katrina Adams, Billie Jean King, former New York Times columnist George Vescey, and Tennis Channel CEO Ken Solomon. Their brief remarks were elegantly presented, varied in tone and texture, and deeply poignant. Perhaps the defining moment in the proceedings was when Collins asked Adams—a former top 50 player—if she was a left-hander. Adams told him that she was not. “Well”, he said without skipping a beat, “you should have been.”
That piece of sharp wit drew loud laughter from those who were standing close enough to hear it. But, as festive as this ceremony was, as much as we wanted to lighten things up, there was something unmistakably somber in the air. This was not the essential Bud Collins of years gone by, the man who luminously walked into a room and took it over effortlessly, the gifted communicator who made you think, probe and feel, and the raconteur of all raconteurs.
Having battled severely debilitating health issues across the last five years, he displayed immense bravery at this thoroughly deserved ceremony. Clearly, he was weak, disoriented in some ways, yet taking it all in as best he could. I am certain others who attended the Collins tribute that day shared my gut feeling that we would never see him again. It made me grateful that he had managed—with the unflagging support of his indefatigable wife Anita—to be there in New York despite his daunting ailments.
But that, sadly, was his last hurrah. “Collini”, as he liked to be called, is gone, moving on to that universal tennis court in the sky, leaving behind a remarkable legacy as someone who irreversibly altered the landscape of tennis with his fierce individuality, high intelligence and far reaching accomplishments. Think about it: Bud Collins brought tennis into the living rooms of countless Americans as a commentator, fired their imaginations as a print reporter, and in many respects changed the way fans in this country thought about the game through the force of his personality and the scope of his accomplishments. He did not take the sport too seriously and refused to look at himself with undue seriousness either; his healthy irreverence blended irresistibly with his unbridled and infectious enthusiasm, high-toned professionalism and enduring reverence for tennis.
The Collins resume was prodigious. After working as a reporter for the Boston Herald, he moved to the Boston Globe in 1963, the same year he broke into the tennis broadcasting field for WGBH, a Boston outlet of Public Television. His call of the U.S. National Doubles Championships five set final between the Americans Dennis Ralston and Chuck McKinley and Mexicans Rafael Osuna and Tony Palafox was a landmark development for the redoubtable Collins, who made such a deep and lasting impression among close followers of the game that he inevitably travelled toward other triumphs behind the microphone. From 1968-72, he was a superb play by play announcer for CBS at the U.S. Open. He also commenced his NBC career in 1972, starting with that network at Wimbledon during that memorable season. He remained with NBC until 2007, commentating at Roland Garros as well as Wimbledon over the years.
Meanwhile, Collins enjoyed a golden stretch working at all of the summertime events for PBS, calling Monday night finals all over the circuit with Donald Dell, doing expansive interviews with all of the leading players over the course of the seventies. He would lend his talent to a number of other networks through the years, establishing himself as one of the sport’s ubiquitous figures. At one time or another, he shared the booth with Billie Jean King and Chrissie Evert, John McEnroe and John Newcombe, Mary Carillo and Virginia Wade, Jack Kramer and Bjorn Borg. In numerous ways, he became the face of tennis, and his fame and impact surpassed that of any other announcer. Meanwhile, his writing was distinct and dynamic. His Boston Globe work lingered powerfully through the decades, and he loved contributing to magazines, including the esteemed World Tennis from the 1960’s into the nineties.
Lost in the shuffle of the Collins biography was this: he was also a very good player and coach. From 1959-63, he coached the Brandeis University tennis team in Massachusetts. As a competitor, he flourished as well, winning the U.S. Indoor Mixed Doubles crown with Janet Hopps in 1961 and reaching the final of the 1975 French Open Senior Doubles alongside Jack Crawford. I was taken to the cleaners by Bud more times that I would like to remember. His kick serve bounded up high and set Bud up for winning volleys, and his technique was superb. I once watched him hitting with John Newcombe at a small club across the street from Wimbledon in 1977. The congenial Australian was blasting forehands at Collins, playfully trying to intimidate him. Bud was so stellar up at the net that he stood up to that barrage of shots from a great champion strikingly well.
I met Bud in 1969 at Wimbledon. My father had met Collins many years earlier, and he was with me at the All England Club that June. I was 17, and my Dad knew how much I wanted to become a tennis reporter, so we went in search of Collins in a small press room. We asked one of the guards where to find that media center, and he directed us up a flight of stairs. We knocked on a door in the corridor, and an affable Collins emerged from behind a typewriter to greet us. My father informed Bud about my aspirations, and Collins was, as always, personable, charismatic and encouraging. I remember him telling me something like, “You picked the right game to write about. Stick with it. Good luck and stay in touch.” Later that summer, I saw him again at the U.S. Open. I was seated in the old Grandstand at Forest Hills, watching the highly anticipated quarterfinal between Nancy Richey and Billie Jean King, sitting alongside the distinguished Edwin Baker of the USTA. Bud came by but I didn’t think he would remember me.
I could not have been more wrong. He reached out to shake my hand, and said, “Hi, Steve, how have you been? And how is your father?” I was impressed, and was immediately put at ease. As I finished high school and went on to college, I would keep running into Bud at tournaments and was fortunate to make my mark with him, primarily because he realized I had a photographic memory about tennis. My mind would collect information about the game that would be locked inside the chamber permanently. I was fully aware of what a walking encyclopedia Bud was himself, but fortunately for me he found a way to use my skills to help supplement his considerable stock of knowledge. In the process, he was instrumental in allowing me to realize my goal of becoming a full time tennis reporter.
In 1972, I worked behind the scenes with Bud on his NBC telecasts from Wimbledon and on his CBS shows from the U.S. Open, serving as a statistician. I would also try to assist him with his daily columns for the Boston Globe. I learned immeasurably from watching him pursue his craft. I found out that above all else, Bud Collins left no stone unturned in pursuit of the pertinent facts. And I discovered that he had as large a heart as anyone in his trade. At that 1972 U.S. Open, the imperturbable Arthur Ashe collided with the always entertaining yet often unruly Ilie Nastase in the final. Ashe was ahead two sets to one and led 4-2 in the fourth set, standing two holds away from a second title at the championships of his country.
Nastase distracted the stoical American with some boorish behavior, and he rallied to win in five sets. When it was over, Ashe held his head in his hands as he sat waiting for the presentation ceremony, fighting in vain to hold back the tears. I had provided the statistics for Bud as he called that match for CBS with the estimable Jack Kramer. When it was over, I was supposed to join Collins in the press room to help him with his column, but I disappeared for a while, taking a walk back to the clubhouse to find a private moment to release a few tears of my own. It took me a long while to compose myself. When I arrived back in the media room, Bud asked me where I had been. I told him I had taken the Ashe loss hard and admitted that I had been crying.
He would have had every right to lecture me for irresponsibility, but Bud realized I was in a transitional period between being a fan and becoming a reporter. I was still only 20. He was very sensitive about the situation. “I understand, Steve. Don’t worry about it. That was a tough loss for Arthur. You will be fine.” I was relieved that Collins had been so decent and compassionate, and that was how he conducted himself as long as I knew him. The public identified with Bud Collins as that colorfully dressed character with the beaming smile and the zany pants that he wore to distinguish himself on television. In private, his excellent sense of humor was always one of his primary virtues, but Bud was a man of deep sensitivity and unimpeachable character.
In 1974, I landed a full time job at World Tennis Magazine in New York, probably in large measure because of my association with Bud. I continued working with him as a statistician on his PBS and NBC telecasts into the 1980’s, and from 1985-90 we even shared the microphone at Madison Square Garden as commentators with Carillo and later JoAnne Russell during the Virginia Slims Championships for MSG Network. He could not have been more generous in that capacity, writing me a laudatory note after one of those events about my insights in the booth. In another instance, after I had done an ESPN telecast with the venerable Jim Simpson—another former partner of Bud’s—Collins sent me a postcard that simply said, “I watched your Memphis telecast and was very proud of you. All the best, Collini.”
I took that as a big compliment. His praise was ever genuine, and here was an announcer who had done such crucial work in the industry. I have many powerful recollections of him behind the microphone and in front of the camera. I was in the NBC booth with him doing the stats when Bjorn Borg halted John McEnroe in the epic Wimbledon final of 1980. Collins was working with Dell on that historic occasion, and it may have been the finest work of his entire career as a broadcaster. His play-by-play call throughout the stirring five set skirmish was outstanding, but particularly in the signature fourth set tie-break.
McEnroe saved five match points in that astonishing sequence. The pendulum of momentum kept swinging from one player to the other. That tie-break was as difficult as it gets to follow factually, even for the most learned and effusive fans. This was long before graphics were used as liberally and skillfully as is done these days. Collins was unshakable in the booth, keeping everyone impeccably informed, providing just the right dose of drama. He never stumbled verbally, not even once. He gathered his facts magnificently. This was a staggering feat. McEnroe eventually took that spellbinding tie-break 18-16, but lost the match 1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7 (16), 8-6. To me, it was the “High Water” moment of the Bud Collins television career. His grasp of essential detail and deep appreciation of what he witnessed was a shining moment in his career.
What I also recollect just as vividly was the extraordinarily deft touch he brought to the post-match Wimbledon interviews he did after the finals for NBC year after year. In those days, the BBC did not conduct interviews after the finals, and so Bud was annually the first to speak with the players when they left the court. He would get the two finalists immediately after the ceremony. His rapport with the players was always evident during those memorable interviews as he talked with everyone from Borg to Connors, Evert to Navratilova, Agassi to Sampras, Ivanisevic to Federer, and right on down the line. Collins had the gravitas to step in and be empathetic with the loser, and be reverential yet endlessly amusing with the winner. Those interviews were absolute gems, not only to me but to all tennis observers. I never understood why someone didn’t put together a DVD package with all of Bud’s post-match, final round interviews. No one could have done it better.
He also set himself apart with his written words. His Boston Globe columns were enormously entertaining, filled with the rich flavors of his unique personality, demonstrating the breadth of his knowledge. Some of the magazine work he did was outstanding. He wrote a courageous cover story for World Tennis in 1976 called, “Are the Pros Conning Us?”, which dealt with instances he had witnessed of players not giving full efforts in matches held outside the majors. Bud was on the magazine’s cover, and that was a rarity. Almost always, well recognized and accomplished players appeared on the cover, but Bud was such a high profile person and so popular that he could pull off that feat. Moreover, the notion that he would be constructively critical of the players to that degree caught some off guard and made others sit back and reflect. He was tremendously respected by the people who played the game for a living, so taking a stance like that was a gutsy move for the dean of American tennis writers. It was a commendable piece of journalism.
In 1994, Bud was inducted deservedly at the International Tennis Hall of Fame at the age of 65. It was an honor he deeply appreciated, and he had the time of his life at Newport, Rhode Island that weekend. I sat with him at his table the night he received that honor. He invited me and my wife Frances to join him that evening, and regaled the attendees with classic Collini stories, many of them involving the amiably rambunctious Nastase. He had achieved an awful lot by that stage of his career, having written on the game for more than three decades, having appeared on the air for 32 years. By then, he had already published a few editions of the Bud Collins Modern Encyclopedia of Tennis.
But over the next 15 years or so, he published several more of those encyclopedias, meticulously researching all of them, improving each volume with more and more valuable information delivered with his own unmistakable brand of prose. That encyclopedia was renamed and vastly improved and expanded in later versions as The Bud Collins History of Tennis. Earlier in his career, Collins wrote autobiographies of Rod Laver and Evonne Goolagong, and released a fine book entitled, “My Life with the Pros” in 1989. His devotion to the sport never waned. And until 2010, his schedule was extraordinary. He would travel with Anita Ruthling Klaussen Collins everywhere, and she was a tower of strength and unwavering support and love for him. Anita would join him in the press room, help him with all of his work including the encyclopedias, gather material for his articles, and take very good care of him.
During the U.S. Open of 2010, he took a bad fall at his hotel room, and had to leave the tournament early to go home to Boston for an operation on his injured leg. That operation led to many more, and he was put under anesthesia too many times for his own good. It messed with his mind, and damaged his memory in different ways. He had to cut back decidedly on his travel; when he skipped Wimbledon for the first time in decades in 2012, we all missed him terribly. He was a good sport about it all, but over the last five years his physical and mental condition deteriorated, and he was no longer what he once was—and not even close.
To me, it was very saddening to see him go into decline. I was stunned when we watched an Andy Murray semifinal at Wimbledon in 2013. Murray and Jerzy Janowicz were well along in a second set tie-break when he turned to me and asked, “Are we in a tiebreaker?” But he carried himself to the very end with enduring grace, and his sense of humor was ever present. It dawned on me recently that without Anita, Bud could never have lived out his life so comfortably these last five years.
She bolstered him in every way, guided him where he needed to go, and somehow managed very much against the odds to get Bud to New York for that last hurrah. Over his lifetime, Bud was married a few other times, and a few of the women he cared about most lost their lives when they were far too young. But his union with Anita was surely the most rewarding relationship of his life. Especially in his latter years, she was a saint, and Bud loved her spunk, assertiveness and verve. I attended their wedding in 1994. It was a September union, held at an idyllic outdoor setting in a garden. I got there early with my wife, before most of the guests had arrived. Bud walked out in advance of the ceremony to survey the beautiful scene. He turned to his best man with that trademark smile, and deadpanned, “I guess there is no way out.” We all knew that was nothing more than a throwaway line.
So this column is in honor of Bud Collins. I stand in a long line of people who benefitted from the wit and wisdom of Bud Collins; we achieved more than would ever have been possible if he had not been there guiding, challenging and even imploring us to be better, to move beyond ourselves toward loftier places, to celebrate tennis in the fullest way. He was always there for us and for the game. I am convinced that Bud Collins will remain invisibly in our corner, silently urging us on.
So long, Collini. We will miss you more than you will ever know.