The decline and fall of tennis


Pine Bluff, Ark.

GEORGE DUNKLIN of Pine Bluff, Ark., was inducted into his state's sports Hall of Fame last week -- a fitting tribute not only to Dunklin but to the gentleman's game that tennis was when he was winning championships.

Now 72 and still swinging a graceful racket, George Dunklin's biggest win -- it's not easy choosing -- was probably his triumph in the Southwest Open at Little Rock in 1947. He was the "old man" of the tournament, since he'd taken a few years off from tennis to win World War II, but he still outpointed all the collegiate contenders. That was just before Jack Kramer revolutionized the game, and some time before its fall into ill-mannered modernity in the age of McEnroe.

In 1947, tennis was still inconceivable played in anything but whites. My personal theory is that the long decline of tennis, and maybe that of Western civilization, set in with colorization, which has had much the same effect on tennis as on Bogart movies: deplorable.

George Dunklin's toughest match, however, may have been here in Pine Bluff on the old clay courts at Oaklawn Park. He had come back from the University of Virginia to take on the University of Arkansas's top player, Frank McElwee. In those days they played three out of five sets, not a mere two out of three, and this contest went all the way through a shimmering hot day in June of 1939. Dunklin and McElwee had to play not only each other but the heat and humidity.

It was the kind of match made for scrapbooks and reminiscences. Friends and admirers turned out in convivial numbers, the fierce competitiveness of the game was decorously covered by exquisite manners and hushed voices. Heads turned as if they were choreographed during the sustained exchanges.

Tennis was an amateur sport then, that is, a sport rather than a business. The game was played from the baseline in long, steady returns from the back court. Flash was considered almost bad form, complaints unheard of, and a player could be sidelined for a smirk. There was still a code to uphold.

The memory of that match half a century ago still radiates. Who won? Not that it matters -- the game was all then -- but young Dunklin did, if memory and records serve. He usually did. Among his more than a score of championships are nine state singles titles over three decades (the '30s, '40s and '50s). He likes to repeat a friend's description of himself: "the Jimmy Connors of the Stone Age." (Actually, it's Jimmy Connors who's the George Dunklin of the Plastic Age.)

Even more than his titles, it is the persistence of George Dunklin's performance that impresses. And the good humor. Dunklin always has been a champion win or lose, though in his case it's usually win. Whether on clay at Oaklawn Park during a long-ago summer or senior tennis on grass at Forest Hills, he always provided interest.

George Dunklin never claimed any great talent (gentlemanly modesty, surely) but says his life on the court indicates what application can accomplish. Omnia vincit labor, or effort conquers all. But the effort must never show. That's the code.

The course of tennis since George Dunklin's heyday could be a paradigm of what has happened to much of American society: the replacement of the amateur not by the professional but by the paid (yes, there is a difference) and the substitution of flash for steadiness, anxiety for patience, boldness for subtlety, rudeness for courtesy, technology for art and power for grace. The George Dunklins of American society remain a standing rebuke to the coarsening of public sensibility not just in sport but in life.

Dunklin was an aggressive player during the latter part of his career (he wasn't sure his knees would hold up against younger players and so he aimed for the short, sweet game) but he never rushed. It would have been out of character.

Dunklin is also a nice guy and keen competitor off the court, an achievement for which tennis and its old ethic surely can take some credit. Is it too late to revive his style? Anyone undertaking such a project now need go no farther than Pine Bluff, Ark., for the best, most understated of models. Come to think, fame may be a bit tawdry for his kind of lifetime achievement. George Dunklin really belongs in a Hall of Distinction.

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