Ode to Tom Billings
Tom Billings (left) and James Stout (right) after the thrilling First Leg of the World Championships.
The First Leg…Part One
It’s not often that I find myself on a plane first thing Saturday morning. Any other day of the week, save Sunday, it’s fairly common, sadly. But hardly ever on a Saturday morning. But today is different. My boy, Tom Billings, Billings Old Boy, Partner, Old Haileyburian, is suiting up and preparing to attempt another ascent of Mount Stout, so I’m going to sit in the hallowed grandstand at the Racquet & Tennis on Park Avenue, and see if our boy can get a game or two off Mr. Stout.
Which got me to thinking, as I watched a beautiful sunrise on my way east to witness a certain doom for one of our heroes, what are these gentlemen thinking this morning as they get ready? Billings is probably wiping his brow already, but is Stout?
Billings is hoping to give Stout a game today, but is Stout really that concerned? Some might suggest that, as he’s done in the past, Stout will toy with Billings through the first game or so, then slap the youngster back into his place with a few cracking rails, and a number of mind numbing angles or nicks. I’ve always said that Stout’s serve is all about getting the point started as I think he relishes the rally. His footwork is such that there is nearly no ball that he cannot get to. It’s really the closest thing that I’ve ever seen that reminds me of what the great Gretzky said about hockey. He didn’t skate the where the puck is, but rather where it’s going to be. Stout certainly does this, but he is the only player we’ve ever seen who seems to truly play the rally as if it’s a chess game. He sets up his winner maybe four or five strikes prior to the actual winning shot. I don’t think even Gretzky built his goals with the same strategic forethought that Stout does his points.
And while we marvel at his stamina and his fitness, even though he’s been known to enjoy the odd cigarette, if you look at him from the back you’ll see what a mechanism his shoulders and arms are. His frame, at the very top, is quite wide. I don’t know for sure, but it seems to be a bit wider across than most. I stood behind Tiger Woods once, on a tee box at Westchester Golf Club in New York, when he was at his absolute peak of performance, and was dumbstruck by the width of his shoulders. And it occurred to me that this is where his extraordinary power came from. Stout’s built much the same way.
So what’s a Billings, as there seem to always be another half dozen or so (it’s a big clan), to do? This kid, Tom, is probably more fit than Stout. He’s younger. He wins, not just finishes, half marathons in strange places like the Ilse of Wight. He retrieves pretty darn well, and his serve, arguably, is better that Stout’s. He hits true rails, and while his angles and on-court creativity may not be on par with Stout’s, he’s a gamer. I can’t remember how many times I’ve reminded him to “watch your language, your mother’s in the front row,” before a match because I know that he puts every ounce of his heart into every single, stinking point. And like Stout, and any of the other champions throughout the history of Rackets, he hates losing. In fact, he finds it spiteful.
So, what’s this youngster thinking this morning? Does he think he’s really got a chance against Stout? I’ve been told by some of the ancients, and there aren’t as many around as there used to be these days, especially in America, that the only player who could stay even with Stout is James Male when he was at his peak. I’ve seen Male play in Chicago a few times, and I think I might not argue with that supposition. But that is not exactly a firm agreement with the theory. Stout, while he just hasn’t been able to attract another one or two like him to the game, is so good that the vast majority of those in the stands today, save the plethora of Billings’s who will be present, will not be surprised at all if the line is something like 15-9, 15-3, 15-5, 15-0. I won’t like that, as I’m in the Billings camp emotionally, although not enough to change my name as there are just plenty of them around already. And it’s not to say, at all, that I don’t care for Mr. Stout. I love the guy. I can’t tell you the laughs we shared over cards in Detroit, or the odd verbal jab outside the rackets courts in Chicago.
At any other age of Rackets Tom Billings would be a world champion. So would Will Hopton. But as I said to Will after his last challenge of Stout, it’s just his bad luck to be the second best player in the world while James Stout is seated so definitively upon the throne, otherwise the throne would be his.
As an aside, if we assume there was no Stout (God Forbid!), and that Hoppy was in fact the world champ, and in fact he indeed renounced his professional status, which I believe was a forgone conclusion given Will’s interests outside the game, but remained champion, why then today we would be watching two amateurs vie for the World Championship. Ponder that for a sweet moment.
OK, now back to reality.
So this morning Tom Billings is a bit nervous and jumpy. His mouth is dry, he’ll need to hydrate and eat bananas. He’s pacing, and wondering if he needs two or three extra tee shirts, certainly he’ll have the “Federer” tee, as the Swiss fellow is his hero. His family is in New York with him. His mom Sue, and his dad Andy, and a bunch of sisters, brothers and cousins, and the omnipresent Wigglesworth. I’m just lucky that Charlotte Old Girl couldn’t come over because I snagged her seat! But deep down Tom wants to make sure he’s in the match from beginning to end, and that perhaps he can get a game or two off the champion and send the challenge back to Queens Club with a bit more on line that just a champagne game.
The real question today is, though, does Stout finally feel the same way?
Play Through Boys!
The First Leg…Part Two
Well, that was about how most in the stands felt it would go. One who knows said beforehand that the aggregate point total for Challenger Billings would be between 20 and 25. It was 29 actually. And I heard the rumor of a bet that it would be no more than 15, and wouldn’t you know it, Stout served Old Tom a bagel in the third game and there sat the aggregate total at 15.
But if anyone thought that another nil game was in the offing in Game 4, they were sorely mistaken. But let’s back up just a bit. Stout, of course, won fairly handily, 15-4, 15-11, 15-0 and 17-14, and sends the championship back over the pond to Queens for at least one game next weekend. But in the second game something interesting was trying to jump up. Billings had two leads; 7-5 and then again at 11-10. At 11-10 he had the ball in his hand, and for a fleeting moment his clan, whom I was squarely in the middle of, thought collectively, “Come On Tom, Just One Ace!” But it didn’t happen, and the next thing you know it’s 15-11, Stout back in the driver’s seat big time. And then the bagel. And it was all but over. Billings was getting frustrated with the nicks, the court, his grip, yada yada yada. After 15-0 Tom walked off the court but quickly came back on – in under 90 seconds. Just prior to the bagel in game 3 he took more than 4 minutes off court. There’s a lesson in there somewhere, “play must be continuous,” not the primary one either.
And then game 4 began. I don’t know, but it seemed that James was just a bit tired. And who can blame the guy? He’s been at this singles world championship thing since 2008, and now Jonathan Larken has him playing doubles too. And he has a new bride, so life has changed for the Old Cheltonian. But Billings, too, was a different guy in game 4. Still jumpy, and growling about the court, but hitting it much harder, covering everything, attacking Stout’s serves. Lots of big two-handed backhand winners. And there he stood after about 30 minutes with a game point, 14-11. The again at 14-12, and at 14-13. Alas, our valiant champion scored 7 straight points, with the serve going back and forth a number of times over the next five minutes. And then it was over. Tom thanked the attendees, and everything else not pinned down, but Jamie didn’t. And I thought, well, this thing is not over really. But I think it is, of course. But it was a nice gesture to not say anything just yet nonetheless. Not to say that it wasn’t nice that Tom gave a gracious soliloquy, and even apologized to the two gents who he hit on the respective coconuts with errant forehands to the second row. Each got best possible use of the single ice bag that was being passed back and forth.
But there you have it. These rackets matches are intense, but they end so quickly. This match started at 2:15 and ended at 3:40, 1 hour and 25 minutes, with 8 minutes of breaks, including one changed out racket for a bad string by Billings. They had the court reserved for 3 hours, but when was the last time that James Stout was ever on court for a single match for 3 hours, much less 2?
Tonight I have eschewed the dinner dance in exchange for a train ride and a subsequent business trip to Florida, a place I don’t care for really. It’s too hot, and the place seems to be overrun with Walmarts, Targets and fried fish. But I digress. As I sit on my train tonight and think back to a wonderful afternoon of rackets, and a truly epic fourth game, notwithstanding the fact that Billings scored zero points in the third game but rallied back gamely and nearly took a game from Stout in the fourth (and really who knows what might have happened in a fifth game?), I’m left with the notion that James Stout wasn’t too concerned today, and that Tom Billings was pretty keyed up. But I think this is not the last time Champion Stout will be confronted by a challenger named Tom Billings. And you all will certainly, by then, have had a chance to meet everyone in his Coaching Team, or as I call them, his posse, or as he calls them, his family.
Play Through Boys!
— Dick Ryan