Norris would soon be hired by a wide range of tournaments, by Lamar Hunt’s World Championship Tennis and the United States Davis Cup team, the Indian Davis Cup squad, and the ATP World Tour. All of the leading players from Rod Laver to Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have been treated at one time or another by the singularly gifted Norris, who was always on the cutting edge in his field, setting standards and guidelines for everyone else to follow, earning a reputation for utter integrity and unmistakable decency, playing a pivotal role in the evolution of sports medicine and training.
In so many ways, Norris has been an indispensable force in tennis, and that is why I am delighted he has released a highly entertaining and informative book suitably entitled “Pain, Set And Match”. The book is double-edged, in part a memoir of his tennis experiences and interactions with great players stretching across different generations, and in addition an instructional manual regarding injuries of every sort and how to prevent them. Through it all, Norris maintains a sense of decorum; this is not one of those ’Tell-All” books that he could probably have done easily.
But that is not how Norris conducts himself; he regales us instead with stories and anecdotes that are enticing but ever tasteful. His book is proof that a man of stature does not need to surrender his integrity if he wants to come forth with something that intelligent people will surely want to read. Collaborating with the esteemed and vastly experienced British journalist Richard Evans, Norris refuses to step across any lines of fairness or restraint. And yet, his recollections of decades spent administering to the health, well-being and state of mind of tennis players are presented alluringly.
Take the chapter on John McEnroe, for instance. Norris holds McEnroe in high regard, and indeed the New Yorker wrote a thoughtful Forward for Pain, Set And Match. Be that as it may, Norris strikes a terrific balance between praise and constructive criticism about his friend. He recalls a potentially explosive moment one year long ago in Milan. The way Norris remembers it, McEnroe was not playing with his frequent partner Peter Fleming on this occasion, joining forces with Peter Rennert instead in the doubles.
They took on Steve Denton and Kevin Curren. Denton was a big Texan often lauded for his friendly manner. But he took exception to McEnroes conduct during a heated contest, and was infuriated. As Norris writes, ”On returning to the locker room after the match, Denton grabbed McEnroe by the throat and had him up against the wall. Curren, a lean, steely-eyed South African who had quite a short fuse himself, looked as if he might join in and I thought I better do something before my work load was increased by the need to patch up combatants. Before stopping to think what the consequences might be, I flung myself between Denton and McEnroe and yelled at them to stop it. Come to think of it, perhaps that is why John and I are still friends. Maybe he thinks I saved his life! ”
Norris gives other examples in that chapter of how and why he tried to help McEnroe not only maintain his body but also keep his mind stable and his priorities straight. Norris writes of another incident in Cincinnati during a Davis Cup tie when McEnroe went berserk at a cameraman who was shooting courtside.” McEnroe shoved the camera so hard back into the man’s face that the poor guy had rivulets of blood running down from his forehead. Norris screamed at McEnroe, What the hell do you think you are doing? The guys doing his job! You have no right to behave like that.”
There is even a section about how McEnroe’s court conduct caused Tony Trabert to cut short his tenure as U.S. Davis Cup captain, a job that Trabert valued immensely. Yet Norris makes it absolutely clear that his admiration for the nobler side of McEnroe never wavered. He writes, “It is not good enough to brand McEnroe a brat any more than passing him off as a great guy would do justice to this incredibly complex human being. He can be rude and courteous; compassionate, caring and hugely generous as well as abrupt and forgetful
. The simmering temper can explode at any moment and his performances on the ATP Champions tour these days are often marred by a foul mouthed tirade. In his younger days I dont think he could help himself and was often regretful afterwards. Now I think that he believes that a blow-out is what is expected of him, indeed what he is paid for, but sometimes he still loses control. So it is not always an act.”
Addressing McEnroes ability to keep injuries largely at a distance over the years, Norris writes, “Early on he had very few injuries and I rarely had to do much for him other than offer manual therapy on his lower back and forearmand help him stretch. Inevitably that started to change by the time he reached his mid-twenties and the thought finally dawned on him that a little extra training might be necessary. He actually went as far as equipping his Malibu beach house with a gym, complete with wall climber, and slowly started to take greater care of his body. The transformation in recent years has been startling. McEnroe has turned himself into one of the fittest fifty-something athletes in the world
. In some ways, John could now act as a poster boy for this book because there could be few finer examples of how to do the right things in order to remain competitive in middle age.”
In his chapter on Jimmy Connors and Andre Agassi, Norris is every bit as insightful. He lumps these two all-time greats togetherboth Americans claimed eight Grand Slam tournament singles titles across their storied careers. He writes, ”The intensity of their focus was unequalled by anyone I have ever known. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are extremely focused before their matches but both can be cordial to other people in the locker room in a distant sort of way. Heck, Andre didnt want to be in the locker room at all and often wasnt. Jimmy stayed in his corner, like a boxer preparing for a fight, surrounded by those from his small, intimate circle like Lornie Kuhle and Doug Henderson. Agassi was so keen on his privacy that he found other places to change before a match. At Roland Garros, before the players area was re-built, there was a little room, not more than a cupboard, near where the athletic trainers worked and Agassi used to go change in there
. Both [Connors and Agassi] were great showmen, crowd pleasers, ticket sellers, headline makers, and, as a result, great assets to the game of tennis. I was very fortunate to work with these two champions.”
He also was deeply impressed with the work ethic and prodigious achievements of Ivan Lendl. He discusses Lendl’s unending stream of jokes, most of which would make peoples hair curl. “His line of humor is, you might say, indelicate and would certainly not be to everyone’s taste. But he is funny and has a very good mind. When you had him on the treatment table, you found yourself discussing world politicsnot a topic that was rife in most locker rooms I worked in.”
Norris says of Lendl, “He was an innovator, too, bringing new methods of strengthening exercises to the tour. He was the first to utilize mountain bikes and the rather more exotic idea of running with a small weighted parachute strapped to his back to increase wind resistance. His zeal was quite incredible and he was always tinkering with new ideas to build on the explosive power he developed as a result of his efforts
Working with Ivan as a therapist was always a pleasure because he was such a perfectionist and so dedicated.”
One of the more riveting sections in this book concerns the young Boris Becker, who burst into prominence spectacularly in 1985 when he became the youngest ever to win the mens singles crown at Wimbledon as a 17-year-old. Yet Becker was close to bowing out of the tournament in the round of 16 against the American Tim Mayotte when he seriously injured his ankle. But Norris came to the rescue and determined that Becker could try to finish that contest. The previous year, Becker had made his mens main draw debut at the All England Club, and he was forced to retire against Bill Scanlon with an ankle injury on that occasion.
Norris had that lingering in the back of his mind when he was summoned to examine Becker out on Court 14 in 1985. The expert trainer found out that Becker had come within a whisker of retiring from that match before his manager, Ion Tiriac, and his coach, Gunther Bosch, implored him to ask for an athletic trainer. Norris discovered when he looked at Becker “that there was only minimal soft tissue swelling, which was a good sign. So then I started maneuvering the ankle laterally and then up and down by pushing from underneath the toesall the while looking straight into Beckers glacial blue eyes to gauge his reaction. He had full range of motion on the ankle and my immediate thought was that he was not feeling any great pain and that he would be able to continue. Nothing is ever certain in life but this is the sort of decision you can only come to by virtue of experience
. I just made sure that the ankle passed the test for stability; sprayed it with a little ethyl chloride (a topical cold spray), taped the ankle and told him that he could get back on court.”
Becker recovered to win that battle in five sets, and went on to win the tournament by toppling Kevin Curren in a four set final. In the final analysis, Bill Norris’s poise, know-how and indisputable expertise pulled Becker through at a crucial moment, and reading his account of that encounter was among the most enjoyable parts of the book for me.
Still, there was much more to savor. Norris wrote poignantly about Arthur Ashe and the experiences they shared when Ashe was a player and again when he was captain of the American Davis Cup team in the 1980s. Norris commends Ashe for his capacity to withstand his share of physical ailments during his playing days, writing, “Because he was not the complaining type, few people realized how much pain Ashe suffered from a calcaneal bone spur in his heel. This is the bone that attaches to the Achilles and when it is irritated like Arthurs frequently was, it feels as if you are walking on a thousand tin tacks. He wore those Dutch-style clogs which have no back to free him of some of the pain, but it was an ongoing problem for him. ”
While he always did his best to make Ashe physically comfortable before he walked on court, Norris was perhaps even more concerned about Ashe’s psyche when he was serving as captain of the Davis Cup team and dealing with complicated personalities like Connors and McEnroe. Norris was well aware of Ashe’s heart problems and concerned about the man holding on to so many emotions internally. Norris writes,” With team members who either hated each other or felt intimidated by the star power of the top two [McEnroe and Connors], Arthur was juggling practice times and generally walking on egg shells. The stress was considerable and whenever I could, I grabbed him for a few minutes to try and relieve the knot in his taut shoulders and neck muscles, which were like boards, with deep tissue therapy and some manual therapy. That offered only temporary relief. Through it all, I was worried about his heart
Looking back to those years, Arthur suffered from hypertension. As much as we tried to relieve this condition, it was a day to day battle to help him. He was a rare person, always concerned about the less fortunate and trying to make a difference in many peoples lives. There is not a day that passes that I dont think about Arthur. I miss him terribly.”
That is the nature of Norris, a compassionate man who has always looked at all of the players and people involved in the sport as his extended family, as a fraternity of sorts. Therefore, his chapter on the current Golden Era of tennis is a good one. He generously salutes Federer, Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray and admires all four men unequivocallyas athletes and competitors, people and personalities, drawing cards and individualists.
Pointing to Federer’s astonishing capacity to avoid lingering, serious injuries, Norris writes, ”Given the beating the body takes as a result of the ever increasing physicality of the sport, it is difficult for most players to survive uninjured for that long, let alone play well enough to reach the semifinal [at Grand Slam events] each and every time [as he did for so long]. Federer has managed it because he puts less pressure on his body than most players. He is a light runner as opposed to someone like Nadal, who is a heavy runner. Roger skims the surface with those dancing feet which, when he is on song, always get him to the ball precisely at the right moment.”
On Nadal, Norris is no less effusive. :We watched him grow from a skinny kid into this heavily muscled athlete, and the first problem I had to deal with concerning Rafa was an ankle sprain. It was his left ankle and I think that injury ultimately started to affect his left knee. He had struggled a little with his right knee, too, from time to time but it was always his patella tendon on his left knee that needed extra support with some tape just below the knee cap
. Rafa may look fierce on the court but he is one of the nicest, most polite young men you could ever wish to meet. He is also quite generous, too, and has helped more friends and charities financially than one would ever know. He’s a gem.”
He continues, “I am also a huge admirer of Djokovic. Like Nadal, Novak is always wanting to learn and will talk to anyone, including lower ranked players, in an attempt to swap experiences and glean little bits of information. Even a player ranked 200 might have had a brush with greatness, a little moment that might open the jar of knowledge, and Djokovic is the type of guy who feasts off every tidbit.”
Turning his attention to Murray, Norris recollects treating the young player when he suffered from an ankle injury back in 2005, reminding the reader that Murray made certain to protect the ankle with a brace that he still uses these days. He writes, “Andy has always been a very amenable and approachable guy to have around but it helps if you understand his very dry Scottish sense of humor. I like to pride myself on being pretty with it on the humor front but you have to be quick with Andy. I think one of the reasons Lendl proved to be such a vital addition to Team Murray is that they enjoyed each others sense of humor.”
The author clearly injects plenty of humor, sprinkling doses of it liberally across the pages of his manuscript. But there is also a considerable amount of sober material that he draws on as he looks back over the landscape of his very successful life. He is self-effacing and proud when reflecting on some significant honors that have deservedly come his way, most notably a distinction he earned earlier this year. ”It is always nice to be recognized, he says, and I was thrilled to be the recipient of the International Tennis Hall of Fames Tennis Educational Merit Award in March, 2014.”
All through his life and career, Norris has set himself apart with the constancy of his character. That is why his wide legion of boosters residing in the inner chambers of the sport was so convinced more than a decade ago that Norris would emerge from a controversy with his stellar reputation untarnished. As he explains in the book, “There was one moment in my career when a great wave of turbulence hit pro tennis right where I lived in my training room.”
ATP drug testing found that more that in 2003 more than 40 players had failed to meet the two nanogram limit when tested for the anabolic steroid nandrolone. This baffled and even startled everyone in the tennis community, including Norris. As he explains in “Pain, Set And Match”,” As the senior sports medicine athletic trainer I was not only in charge of this but I was the actual provider of the tablets. And the most perplexing thing was that I had been doing it for thirty years. And not just thatthe tablets had been coming from exactly the same source for thirty yearsa company called Champion Nutrition that was based in Arlington, Texas just outside of Dallas. It was little more than a Mom & Pop outfit run by a woman named Kaye Droke and her husband. They had no more than three or four employees and were as legitimate as can be
. The truth is that Champion Nutrition never made products that contained nandrolone or any other steroids.”
Read the book, and you will discover how the matter was cleared up and why. It was determined indisputably that the electrolyte tablets were clearly not the reason the players were testing over the limit for nandrolone; it came about because nandrolone was produced in the bodies of players. Norris was completely vindicated, which was unsurprising to all who knew him well and understood his value system.
Looking back on that period, he writes, “In a career spanning more than forty years, I have been incredibly lucky to have avoided major controversies and nasty arguments. I like to think that, apart from luck, my temperament has had something to do with that. I am not, by nature, a confrontational person. I am quite the opposite in fact.”
Invest in “Pain, Set, And Match” and the authenticity of those words will be demonstrated irrefutably. Let me leave you with something John McEnroe writes in the forward that gets to the heart of Bill Norris, and makes the case persuasively for why this book belongs in your library. “Bill Norris is a one off, a real original,” says McEnroe. ”I have been treated by quite a few athletic trainers during my rather alarmingly long career, but there has never been anyone quite like Bill.”
<Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve’s latest book “The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time” here.
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