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Joel Drucker: Frank Deford Sure Knew Tennis

It was sad indeed to hear of the death of Frank Deford. To come of age as a sports fan in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s was to occupy a world he didn’t just cover. Frank Deford greatly defined what it meant to shape a sports story. As a major writer for Sports Illustrated during that time, Deford wrote wonderfully nuanced portraits of people, places, events – the whole spectrum during a golden age of magazine writing.

Tennis happened to be one of the sports he set his eyes on during those decades. In 1965, Deford described the Richey family – father George and top players Cliff and Nancy – as living in “an atmosphere of despotic togetherness.” A 1978 portrait of John McEnroe prior to playing Davis Cup: “brown curls and red neck framing his Idaho-potato head and one or another of those marvelous Irish pug faces—will shake off the bonds of latent delinquency and become an authentic American hero.” That same year also saw the publication of Deford’s seminal assessment on the psyche of Jimmy Connors, “Raised by Women to Conquer Men,” a story that concluded with these words, “It is strange that as powerful as the love is that consumes the Connorses, Jimbo has always depended on hate in order to win. And all along that must have been the hard way. There is no telling how far a man could go who could learn to take love on the rise.”

Deford’s exceptional empathy also made him adroit at collaboration, his nimble prose seamlessly enhancing books authored by such tennis notables as Don Budge, Jack Kramer, Arthur Ashe and Billie Jean King.

I was fortunate to work with Deford at HBO for its production of Wimbledon in 1998 and 1999. Keen to find a quiet place to write, we often each retreated and shared space in a small voiceover room. From the start, he was accessible and curious, friendly and unpretentious – in many ways, a breath of fresh air compared to many others of prominence. Five years later, as I completed my book about Connors, Frank graciously agreed to write a blurb. But of course I’d be lying to emphasize any particular connection I had to him. Unquestionably, I was one of hundreds of colleagues – and millions of readers, listeners and viewers – who had the chance to take in this man’s sparkling capacity for kindness and engagement.

Read more articles by Joel Drucker

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