Jose Higueras: from ball boy in Barcelona to success on pro tour

Pro tennis star Jose Higueras is built along the lines of Mark Belanger, the former Baltimore shortstop who covered so much ground that it seemed almost impossible to hit a ball he couldn't reach.

Higueras is also a retriever - and one who has learned to hit a tennis ball with such decimal-point precision that the emotion he unlocks most among his opponents is frustration. At times, Jose seems to have as many arms as an octopus.

Whether the man across the net is serving well, charging in on every point, or hitting deep to the baseline, Higueras is there with a message that says: ''We might be here all night and, you know what, I don't really care. This is why I often practice four and five hours a day.''

The Spanish-born Higueras, who grew up polishing his game on clay, already has played the two longest matches in Grand Prix history. In the finals of the 1982 German Open, he needed more than five hours to dispose of Peter McNamara 6- 4, 7-6, 6-7, 3-6, 7-6. By the time that match was finished, the spectators looked more tired than the players!

An even better story is Higueras vs. Ivan Lendl in the 1982 finals of the Volvo International in North Conway, N.H. This one took a mere 58 days to complete.

When rain halted the match with Lendl in command, Jose's chances of pulling things out appeared so minimal that everyone expected him to take the $16,000 runner-up money and vamoose. But his nature is such that he couldn't do it.

Two months later Higueras returned, after fulfilling previous commitments, to complete the match. Lendl, playing just as well as before, finished the job in fewer than 10 minutes. Yet to Jose, coming back was the only honest thing a man could do.

After Jimmy Connors beat Higueras (the defending champion) in three sets in the semifinals of last month's Congoleum Classic here, Connors told reporters:

''Although Jose is a baseline player who tries your patience with his consistency, you can't ever get careless with him. If you do, he'll come in to the net and suddenly put the ball away on you. His passing shots and his anticipation are among the best in the game.''

While Higueras is not exactly unknown in the United States (he lives in Palm Springs where his father-in-law is mayor), his baseline game is much more suited to the slow clay courts of Europe and South America. There he just grinds down his foes until they either lose out of frustration or come apart physically.

When Jose was nine and living outside Barcelona, he was one of many youngsters invited to become ball boy at the plush Real Club. The boys were given meals, a modest education, and very little pay for working eight hours a day.

But if one made friends with a teaching pro, got there early enough in the morning, and stayed late enough at night, there was always a chance he might get in a few hours of free tennis - or even a used racket and some tips about the game.

When he outgrew the ball boy role at 15, Jose became the club doorman. He continued practicing as much as he could, but not even his best friends ever thought he would one day rank No. 7 among the Association of Tennis Professionals.

Asked if it isn't a major disadvantage for a player trained on clay to adjust to hard surfaces, Higueras replied:

''I suppose I should say yes, because that's what everyone says. But a man should be able to win on any surface, even against good players, if he is a good player himself. Of course it is hard for a clay court player to change his game if in his early years he has known nothing else. But if you have the strokes and the confidence, it can be done.

''One thing I've learned from watching Connors is his philosophy of never giving up, even when things look hopeless. Jimmy has proved to me that it's possible to break back and win after being down if you just keep playing hard and don't lose your concentration. Actually I prefer hard matches to easy ones. Otherwise you are not prepared for the tougher players you have to meet later in every tournament.''

When he isn't on tour, Higueras lives with his wife, Donna, and family in an attractive Spanish-style house in Palm Springs. While Jose is not exactly embarrassed by the affluence that success has brought him, the 40 pesetas a day he once received for shagging balls has given him a lasting appreciation of the good life.

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