Breakfast at Wimbledon wouldn't be the same without Bud Collins. Known for his colorful outfits and rainbow neckties, Collins, 75, has been a TV mainstay at The All England Lawn Tennis Club since 1972. The man Sports Illustrated once said "is to tennis what pasta is to Italy" not only works for NBC, but is a columnist for the Boston Globe and noted author. "He's the single most important person in terms of media influence in the sport of tennis," said friend and famed announcer Dick Enberg. Collins recently kicked back with Times staff writer Keith Niebuhr:
Let's get this out of the way: What's up with the outfits?
Well, it was a little bit by accident. In 1966, my tailor in Boston, Charlie Davidson - he has a place called The Andover Shop in Harvard Square - I had been going there for years and one day he said, "You look terrible on TV." And I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "You look like a guy at a yacht club." Back then, I wore white trousers, a blue blazer and a pretty somber striped tie. He said, "You've got to jazz it up." He told me he had some material and that he'd make me a pair of trousers, and if I didn't like them I didn't have to pay for them. They were red and white plaid. You wouldn't look twice at them today, but this was 1966. I said, "I can't wear those." Anyway, we had Davis Cup in Cleveland. So I went out there, and I was holding my typewriter over the pants to cover them up. I got to the park, and the press box was at the top of the grandstand, about 25 rows up. So while I'm walking up, I hear people starting to whistle and make catcalls. I wanted to melt away. But by the time I got to the top I said, "This is kind of fun."
It seems like most of your interview subjects enjoy your company, but have you had any bad experiences?
Probably the most astounding thing happened with Betty Stove. She was a Dutch player who made the Wimbledon final in 1977. She was a very good player. She was 6 feet tall, very strong. I used to call her Big Bad Betty. She said to me one day, "Don't you call me Big Bad Betty." Well, there was that song, Bad Bad Leroy Brown. So I said, "In the U.S., that's a compliment." And she didn't like it. At the next tournament, she was in the final of doubles, and I called her Big Bad Betty again. When I saw her a month later in Palm Springs (Calif.), she put out her hand and flipped me right over her back. I landed on the sidewalk and thought my back was broken. She said, "I don't want you to call me Big Bad Betty," and I said, "It's not likely I ever will."
If you weren't doing this, what would you be?
I don't know, probably bagging groceries. I always wanted to be a sports writer. The tennis part was by accident. My first job was at the Boston Herald. The sports editor told me to go on a tennis assignment. And that's what the lower guys on the staff did, or the drunk guy you couldn't depend on. But I liked tennis. I played in college. He said, "You can't make a career out of tennis."
There's a story that you were far off in some tiny country in the middle of nowhere, and even there somebody recognized you. True or false?
True story. We were on a trek in Bhutan. The people with me were tennis players, and a guy said there were courts in the capital. We went there and saw guys playing. And the woman with us said that it was great to be in a country where "nobody knows you." So we're sitting and watching two guys play. All of a sudden, they drop their rackets and come over toward us. One guy says, "Are you Bud Collins? It's so nice to have you in our country." He turned out to be the king's brother-in-law and had gone to school at UCLA.
You once coached at Brandeis University, and one of your players was future hippie icon Abbie Hoffman. What kind of kid was Abbie?
We put up a notice (in 1959, Collins' first year as coach) for players. And Abbie Hoffman is one of the guys. He said, "I'm the captain." I said, "Why do you say that?" So he said, "We had a club team last year before becoming varsity. I was captain, and I'm going to stay captain." I said, "Sorry, you're not going to stay captain. We're not going to have one."
Can we assume you two weren't pals after that?
I was the authority figure, and he didn't like me. People ask me what kind of player he was, and I say he was a right wing player. He was so conservative. He never left the baseline. I tried to get him to the net, and he wouldn't do it. He was very good. We were undefeated that year. He played No. 3 singles and won all of his matches, but we didn't get along. I told him he had to wear a coat and tie on the road, so he showed up in a waiter's jacket with a piece of rope tied around his neck. I forgot about him, and 10 years later, I started seeing him on TV. He turned himself in, in 1980 during the U.S. Open, so I wrote a column about him, saying that I told Abbie to work on his serve, not to serve at Leavenworth. We got a call in the press box, and John Feinstein, who was a rookie reporter, picked it up and said, "It's Abbie Hoffman, and he wants to talk to Bud." I went over to the phone and said, "Hello, Abbie ... Oh, you want two for the final tomorrow?" and he said, "How'd you know?" I got him two tickets.
How come Anna Kournikova never won a tournament?
I'll be darned. It's really a mystery. I think it got very mental for her. She was a very good player, and I always thought she'd win Wimbledon. She really understood how to play on grass.
Sampras or Agassi?
I give Sampras the edge, but Andre did a lot of things well.
Chrissy, Martina or Steffi?
I like Martina. She could do everything. And she's still going.
Connors or McEnroe?
Boy, that's a tough one. I think I'd pick Connors because of the longevity. He won five U.S. Opens. McEnroe had a tremendous Davis Cup record. It's a dead heat, but if I had to pick one to win a big match, it would ... be Connors.
The most interesting person in tennis is ...
Billie Jean King. To me, she is probably the greatest figure in the history of tennis. Not only for what she did for women, but tennis as a whole. When she beat Bobby Riggs, it didn't mean a thing, but it turned on millions to tennis.
What's the one thing a first-timer must do or see at Wimbledon?
Get out in the line at 3 or 4 a.m. If you do, you'll be able to get center court seats. You'll have to stand in line for seven or eight hours. But it's a lot of fun, and you'll meet lots of people. It's very well-policed and administered. You want to get on center court at least once. You'll also want to have your picture taken by Fred Perry's statue. He won in 1936 and was the last Englishman to win it. And you do want to have strawberries and cream, of course.
What's the best way to enjoy strawberries and cream?
Buy the strawberries somewhere else and bring them (to Wimbledon). They're pretty expensive.
What should a movie about your life be called?
How Lucky Could I Get?
And who would play you?
Mickey Rooney, I guess. A lot of people ask if I'm him.