The old boys of autumn

JUST before a match, the slim and elegant Chilean Jaime Fillol - racket in hand - hops on one foot, then the other in what must pass as intimidation among his fellow Grand Champions, with whom tightening an elastic knee wrapping is the more typical warm-up exercise. The first qualification for being one of the dozen competitors in a Grand Champions tournament is that you have to be a tennis player 35 years old or older - mostly older. The second requisite is that you must have been a very, very good one in your prime - a Davis Cup team member, a winner of Grand Slam titles, world-class things like that.

It is always an odd and interesting sight to watch grown men play boy's games - the ordinary situation in professional sports. It gets even odder and more interesting when the men are middle-aged, as is the case with the Grand Champions, who just finished a five-day tournament at the Waltham Racquet Club outside of Boston, with the participation of memorable names like Ilie Nastase, Dick Stockton, and Bob Lutz - stars in the autumn of their careers, set down briefly on a November scene of premature New England winter.

A spectator used to the string-snapping tension of a pro tennis tournament these days, when $100,000 (plus endorsements) can hang on one point in a tie-breaker, must find a Grand Champions tournament a Shangri-La. Here even Ilie Nastase plays mellow. The newest and youngest members of the tour, the identical twins Tom and Tim Gullikson, are less conspicuous for their compara tive youth than for still living in the world of John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, where protesting line calls and storming the umpire's chair are the normal way of life.

The tour is played by winners who still want badly to win. But winning isn't everything - tennis isn't everything - and this makes all the difference.

Bob Lutz still mutters ``Idiot!'' to himself when he misses an easy shot. And when he happens to miss a very easy shot, he stares upward as if appealing to the memory of young Bob Lutz to come down and, for goodness' sake, put away this little shot properly.

An athlete of 40 has a face; an athlete of 20 has a complexion - a wrinkle-free tan. Lutz, who used to look like the guileless Dustin Hoffman in ``The Graduate,'' now looks and acts like Robert Mitchum, with a touch of James Gar ner when he's feeling droll.

There is a wry humor to being a Grand Champion and knowing something more about defeat and replacing the baby fat of your young face with the sharp, angular lines that once distinguished your body - and vice versa.

Signature styles seem to become more exaggerated as athletes grow older. Colin Dibley, a craggy Australian, throws up his toss like a stork about to fall flat on his face - but he can still serve at 140 mph. The South African, Frew McMillan, wears his dressy white cap, even while playing indoors. Fillol, who won the Waltham tournament by beating Tom (The Kid) Gullikson, receives a serve with the graceful concentration of a Zen master meditating - the perfect posture for a Grand Champion. His sternest self-rebuke is ``Ooh-la-la!''

In this small, intimate circle where the members play one another again and again, all the little eccentricities and private jokes are understood and appreciated, as in a family.

Being a Grand Champion is a part-time job with a full-time salary - $40,000 got divvied up in Waltham. As they say, it beats working. But, like every job, it bears its resemblance to Sisyphus, rolling his stone up the hill - then doing it all over again. No matter that the round object is a tennis ball.

After losing his doubles match in the semifinals, Dick Stockton stopped in the lobby on the way back to his locker. Pressing his nose to the glass wall above a squash court, he stared down at still another ball bouncing. For a moment, he looked as innocent and as lonely as the boy he was nearly 30 years ago when his parents saw him off on a bus to his first junior tournament.

How many balls have bounced since!

A Wednesday and Friday column

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