NEWPORT, R.I. — NOTED tennis scribe and broadcaster Bud Collins once dug ditches for the highway department in his hometown of Berea, Ohio. That was in 1949 and he claims, ``I haven't worked since.''
Nonetheless, he has racked up enough newspaper bylines and on-air TV time to earn his way into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. He recently was inducted at the Newport, R.I., shrine, along with Hana Mandlikova. Mandlikova, of Prague, put away her racket in 1990 after winning four Grand Slam singles' titles.
For Collins, the band plays on. He doesn't miss a beat on his journalistic ``beat,'' so filled with travel that he's only had five home-cooked meals all year.
Even the day before his Newport induction, Collins was not content to bask in adulatory comments. He simultaneously played gracious honoree and tireless reporter at the Hall of Fame tournament.
During a Monitor interview, he suddenly deputized his fiancee Anita Klaussen, whom he'll wed in September, to be his eyes and ears on a match that he couldn't witness himself. Then the moment our interview ended, he joined a small post-match press conference to catch the comments of a player who had just won his match. Collins's antennae, it seems, are always up.
``I sometimes feel sorry for the athletes,'' he says. ``When they're inducted, everybody tells them how wonderful they were. But in my case, this isn't a reward for a career that's now over. I think I'm hitting my prime. I think I'm probably the luckiest person ever inducted.'' Surely, he must be the only one to bang out a tournament story the same day he's named one of tennis's all-time greats.
It's a wonderful life in so many ways, Collins says of his beloved occupation. And only rarely is it hazardous duty.
One of those rare times is the subject of an amusing anecdote from Collins's vast collection of stories.
The incident grew out of his penchant for giving players nicknames as colorful as his attire, another personal trademark. He took to calling Betty Stove, a strapping Dutch player, Big Bad Betty Stove during the 1970s. She didn't like it and told Collins to stop using it in print and on TV. He tried to explain to her that in this context ``bad'' meant ``good'' and ignored her desist order. But when they next met in Palm Springs, Calif., six months later, Collins got quite a surprise when he went to shake her hand.
``She flipped me over her back onto a concrete sidewalk,'' he says. ``As I was lying there, looking up, she said, `I really don't want you to use that nickname anymore,' to which I replied, `It's not likely I will.' '' He and Stove, incidentally, have been friends ever since, he says.
OLLINS'S less inflammatory nicknames include: the Brash Basher from Bellville, Ill. (for Jimmy Connors), Teen Angel (for the young Bjorn Borg), and Senorita Topspin (for Conchita Martinez). The nicknames, his quips, the loud pants and shirts are all consistent with Collins's style. ``My guiding principle is that tennis is only a game, and it ought to be fun,'' he says.
Many tennis fans are most familiar with Collins through his work for NBC at Wimbledon and the ``Breakfast at Wimbledon'' telecasts. He says he receives letters from some viewers complaining about broadcaster babble. He writes back, suggesting, ``Turn off the sound and put on Mozart. Why do you need me?''
``I talk too much. All broadcasters talk too much,'' he admits, explaining that commercial TV doesn't lend itself to a quieter pace.
Collins began in the less-hyper world of public television in Boston - during the ``educational'' television era of the 1960s. He pioneered in tennis telecasting when WGBH producer Greg Harney enticed him into cutting a pilot telecast of a local exhibition match in the '60s. In Collins's opinion he and the telecast were awful, but Harney saw the potential and invited Collins to go on the air, calling the national doubles tournament at the Longwood Cricket Club in suburban Boston.
That launched Collins as a TV personality, but he remains a ``two-headed monster,'' serving both the electronic and print media. The split assignment can be ``very frustrating'' at times, but he says he'd feel ``bereft'' if he only did one. ``If I didn't write, I'd feel incomplete,'' he says.
He came to Boston on GI Bill of Rights money during the early 1950s to pursue a graduate degree in public relations at Boston University. He hooked on with the Boston Herald as a copy boy. Not long afterward, he picked up the vacant boxing beat when boxing was big in the city. He relished the opportunity to write about the ring's many ``great characters'' and eventually covered most of Muhammad Ali's bouts.
Tennis was such a ``secret sport'' at the time that the sports editor apologized to Collins when he needed to dispatch the young reporter to cover the national doubles at Longwood. Collins actually was delighted, having played tennis in college. He soon became an integral part of the tennis scene, even winning the national indoor mixed doubles title with Janet Hopps in 1961.