Alastair B. Martin, A.B. Martin
By James Zug
Alastair Bradley Martin, one of the greatest amateur court tennis players of the twentieth century and a leader in both court tennis and lawn tennis, died on 12 January 2010. He was ninety-four.
Blond-haired, shy and energetic, A.B. Martin (he preferred A.B. to Alastair) was raised on the North Shore of Long Island. He first learned court tennis in the late 1930s from the legendary Punch Fairs, the English pro and former world champion. Fairs taught Martin the game at the Clarence Mackay court in Roslyn.
Punch Fairs’ influence could be seen in Martin’s classic style. He cut the ball heavily, hit with brilliant length and was said to have the best volley of any player since Jay Gould. He won the U.S. Open in 1951, the first year it was revived after a thirty-year hiatus and he won three U.S. Open doubles titles (in three decades, still the only player to have done that). He won the national amateur singles championship eight times and the doubles thirteen times (with eight different partners-including both a father and a son-in four different decades). He also won the British amateur title in 1950. He won the Gold Racquets twelve times. His last was in 1962 when at the age of forty-six he overcame Jimmy Bostwick 5-6, 6-4, 6-4, 6-5.
Martin’s most remarkable records that perhaps will never be equaled came at the Racquet & Tennis Club, where he was a member since 1938. He won the tennis singles club championship four times in four different decades and he won the doubles title twenty consecutive times-with ten different partners.
Twice Martin challenged Pierre Etchebaster for the world championship. In 1950 he lost 7-0 and in 1952 he lost 7-2.
Along with his wife Edith, Martin famously collected artwork from around the world. They called it the “Guennol Collection” after the Welsh word for “Martin.” They were serious art historians and lovers, buying everything from Pre-Columbian Olmec jades and duck decoys to antique furniture and Egyptian art. Martin served on the board of the Brooklyn Museum of Art for more than fifty years and wrote a wonderful book about collecting in 1998.
A leading administrator, Martin was a founder and board member of the USCTA. He financed the 1985 history of U.S. tennis, The Winning Gallery, by Allison Danzig and he, along with Bill Clothier, raised the funds for the restoration of the Newport court in 1980 and the seed money for the U.S. Court Tennis Preservation Foundation. He was the first court tennis player elected to the U.S. Jesters, in 1958, and the only one ever to receive the club’s highest award, the Jester Cup, in 1994.
He was a founder and president of the International Tennis Hall of Fame. As vice president of the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association, he pushed to open the national championship to professionals; as president in 1970 he adopted the tiebreaker system.
A throwback to an earlier era- he was perhaps the last living person to have played regularly on the Mackay court-and a progressive, forward-thinking leader-we owe the Open era in lawn tennis to him as much as anyone else-Martin will be greatly missed. Our condolences to his many family and friends, especially his son Robin at the Prince’s Court in Washington.
By James Zug
I said, “you know, ok.” I came up here. We had this dinner. Phil Swervel, the former chairman, says, “We looked at this guy Greevy. We thought we were getting a someone from Philadelphia to straighten out our program and we got an Elvis impersonator.” Because the sideburns were all the rage those days.
The court looked like a nightclub it was so dark. The lighting was so bad and the roof leaked. There were no rugs in the Tennis House. No television. No refrigerator. It was rundown. They’d play cards in the pro shop room. The day I got here they showed me my room. It was behind the tennis court, where the workout facility is now. I said, “no disrespect, but I can’t live here.” It was awful, a real dump. My first night here, there was a party in New York. It was for Allison Danzig’s retirement from the New York Times. It was at a hotel in the city. On the way back to Tuxedo late that night, I got lost. I got turned around and went over the George Washington Bridge twice and was all turned around and then saw a sign for the New Jersey Turnpike and thought, “Screw it. I’m going home.” I drove back to Philadelphia and went straight for this bar in East Falls. Now the night before, they had thrown me a surprise farewell party at this bar. I walked back in and they said, “Hey, what are you doing here?”
I went back the next day. I stayed there that fall, that winter. I lived at the main club. They got me a room there. I was there for a couple years. I then had an apartment in the Tennis House. I think the third summer here, I met my wife on a blind date up here and that sealed my fate. She was from Cornwall-on-Hudson.
But it was Jimmy who convinced me to stay on. He was pro-American. He didn’t want an Englishman pro to get the job. I didn’t understand it until I got older. I admired him for that. He was that staunch about that. He did care.
Q: So what about Etchebaster?
TG: I was around Pierre for about three seasons at New York Racquet Club. I would split the weeks. My week would be maybe three days there and three days here. The membership was not the same and the club was really, was in really bad shape. I’d come out here. I didn’t like the commuting, too much physically. I’d manage one day off somewhere, a Tuesday, one weird day. I look back and it was tough. I’d come out here from April to October. I’d do court tennis on the weekends, but not much at all in the summers.
For me, personally, for me Pierre was like sitting down and talking to Babe Ruth. He had that accent, wherever he was from. He was funny in his way. Some people said, “Oh, he might be hard to get along with.” He wasn’t hard to get along with at all. I mean, you just give the man the proper respect. He again was like Jimmy, answering questions, you know, about the game. He pointed out to me certain players can’t do certain things. You always hear, the old cookie-cutter stuff. He’d tell me, you look at this player, he can’t do certain things, physical limitations. He was fun to be around with. I didn’t spend nearly as much time with him as I did with Jimmy. He’d retired. And I remember a couple of times playing doubles with him, worrying about him, you know, because he was older. What was I worried about? I have never seen a prettier stroke in any game.
And I remember I was practicing one time, and hitting what I call the snake ball, where you hit that slider, where you break your wrist. A lot of people don’t hit it any more. Jimmy showed it to me. You hit away from your body and go for the ground and you really do that, snap the wrist, pull the arm in. You ever hit that one? I don’t think you did. I’d show you that. Anyhow, I was in there practicing the shot. It’s meant to be hit hard. There’s nothing soft about it. Pierre, am I hitting it too hard? People thought he was just a touch player. Far from the truth, far from the truth. He says, “I hit the ball hard when I want to, when the ball permits me to.” As I got to know some of the members, he’d take somebody’s head off when he chose to. His touch was incredible, absolutely incredible.
Q: Let’s talk about your career.
TG: I played in the Opens. I never won the singles. Eddie Noll pointed out to me one time, “Geez, did you ever look at the draws here?” For a series of years, whoever I lost to won the tournament. A couple of things, players-wise I thought was hard to deal with. For one, there wasn’t the competition up here. It was hard for me to keep up for some reasons. And New York there was competition but it was hard to get in all the time with the good players. It was really tough. It was not easy. Eddie Noll worked at the Racquet Club for about two seasons in New York. We’d go in and play racquets at lunchtime. I got pretty good at it, for a club level. I had some doubles success. I loved playing. I loved it.
Q: What about some of the great players?
TG: I remember growing up in the 1950s, the players I saw, the late 1950s. AB Martin. I’ve never seen anybody with a better first stroke. Jimmy Dunn told me that everyone agreed that no one had a better first stroke. His return of serve, heavy cut. Years later he would come up here and play doubles. He learned his game from Punch Fairs. He could hit it with as much action on it as I ever saw anyone—bar none—hit the ball. Splendid. Tremendous athlete. Tremendous athlete. And he hit the ball fast. It wasn’t like it was coming over like a roller. He was a marvel. You could tell he was really—I’d have to say he was the complete player. I couldn’t imagine what he was like in his heyday, when the ball was much heavier and the racquet was heavier.
When I came into the game, they had changed the ball and the racquet. Jimmy said, that if they didn’t change the game, many felt the game would die. They lightened everything up. Like everything, we have the wider racquet, the compromise racquet. Came in twenty years ago. Howard Angus came over to play Jimmy Bostwick. Remember that whole fiasco? I got one in the closet. When you open the face, it looks like a Prince lawn tennis racquet. It wasn’t right. He was, you know, a brilliant player anyhow. But that happened and everyone got their nose up in the air. The English, U.S.—so they come up with the racquet today and call it the compromise. The things I noticed when they changed the racquets—players today will stand in spots and volley the ball where they couldn’t do it with the old racquet.
The best volleyer I saw in my time with any kind of racquet was Gene Scott. He was fun to hit against. I remember one time I played him in the Open singles. I lost 8-7, 7-8, 8-7.
It was up in Boston. They used to do that in those days, the preliminary, first couple of rounds sets were eight-game sets. The pro at this club in Boston, I guess he had some ill-feelings towards me. When he reported the score, he put 8-7, 7-8, 8-1. I could have killed the bastard if I got hold of him. Could have killed him. That’s how it appears in Allison Danzig’s book.
Gene was fun to play against. He came along and did things that I saw, court positioning, tremendous half-volley, tremendous touch, unorthodox. I saw Chuck McKinley and Gene Scott play in the Whitney Cup and Gene Scott used a T-2000 racquet—Jimmy Connors—and they beat the Knox brothers and the Bostwick brothers in the Whitney Cup. Dusted them. The next day they had a meeting at the Racquet Club and outlawed the T-2000. There was nothing on paper. Mostly in those days it was a gentleman’s agreement. I think he would have beaten anyone with the T-2000. Not because of the racquet but because of him, the way he could use it.
And Jimmy Bostwick, Pete Bostwick. Great players. Jimmy hit one of the heaviest balls I’ve ever seen. Jimmy Dunn maybe one of them. Jimmy Bostwick hit the heaviest balls I’ve ever seen. Pete, of course, was a complete player, you know. The thing in those days, for the most part, it sounds old-fashioned, but they were all gentlemen. There weren’t any, you know, not that I saw.
Jimmy Burke was like the best retriever I ever saw, bar none, bar none. Jimmy Burke started after I was gone. I knew Eddie Noll. In fact, when Eddie started I gave him lessons. I don’t know if he remembers that. I was the number one assistant at the time when Eddie came in. He developed into a fine player. Had a little, left the game for a while and then came back in and of course became the manager. Eddie could hit a ball. I used to call him Hank Aaron who he resembled physically. He didn’t like that. [laughter]
Q: Forty years here.
TG: Hard to believe. Hard to believe. It goes fast. But sometimes it doesn’t.
One year some people put a pony in the court. True story. I was living up here in the Tennis House. I come downstairs, mug of coffee in my hand, checking my book. In those days, I don’t think I had a receptionist. I am sitting down there, looking. I had a full day. I had a series of lessons because we were playing Boston Racquet Club that next weekend. In those days, the inter-club matches were taken with great interest. Come to your club. Home-and-away. I am sitting in here and getting this peculiar order—horse manure. Hay.
I walk into the court. There’s a pony in the court. A group of people were a party and thought it would be a good idea to put a pony in the court. If you ever look at the door, the entrance to the dedans, the door is very small. It hasn’t change in a hundred years. So I had to eventually call one of the member who was on the Olympic equestrian team. He sent over his trainer. It took the trainer forty-five minutes to get rid of the horse, to get it out. Shit all over the court. [laughter] I remember I had to call Haddon Tomes, who was one of our best players, kind of a character. “Haddon, You can’t play today.”
H e said, “Why, what’s the matter, Greeve.”
I said, “Well, there’s a pile of horse manure at chase six, another pile at second gallery and Gogo the pony is at chase two.” [laughter]
And the manager’s wife, they lived on this end of the Tennis House. I said to her, I said “Mrs. P—, did you hear anyone coming in?”
She said, “Well, I did, but I thought it might be you coming in.” [laughter]
Most people, except me, and the manager and the chairman of the board, thought it was funny. So, I am fuming. I am standing back there, saying “Who the hell could have done this? Sonabitch. Whoever did this, I’m outta whack ’em.”
The chairman of the board turns around to me. He says, “Greeve, if you want to whack them, whack them, because I am kicking their ass out of the club.”
I said, “thanks.”
The word went out real fast. You know what, it took decades to find out who it was, honest to God. They appointed a governor on the board, a special committee, to find out who was involved and he was one of the perps. [laughter] True story.