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About the Author
Sandra Harwitt is a freelance sportswriter who specializes in tennis. Over the course of her career, she has covered more than 70 Grand Slam tournaments for media outlets such as the Associated Press, ESPN.com, ESPNW.com, the Miami Herald, the New York Times, and Tennis magazine. She is a member of the International Tennis Writers’ Association and the Association for Women in Sports Media. She lives in Boca Raton, Florida.
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Sport of a Lifetime
Enduring Personal Stories From Tennis
By Judy Aydelott
New Chapter PressCopyright © 2017 Judy Aydelott
All rights reserved.
On a rainy New York City day the sidewalks were a sea of umbrellas obscuring the faces of the commuters. Annoying puddles had to be avoided, but that didn't bother me a bit. I was excited to meet with Fred Kovaleski, one of the top senior players for decades whose life stories are humorous, adventuresome, compelling and heartwarming all - the stuff of a good movie.
I found his apartment building, got into the elevator, pressed '10' and as the door opened, Fred greeted me with a big smile and a kiss on my cheek. He led me into a living room filled with treasures from all over the world - silver pieces, beautifully carved furniture and contemporary art on all the walls, white sofas with colorful pillows and family photographs everywhere.
"This is all Manya's doing," explained Fred as we surveyed the surroundings.
"I'm sure. It looks like her - warm, sunny, elegant," I added.
I first heard of Fred and his wife, Manya, during a Men's Century Doubles Tournament played some years ago at The Saw Mill Club in Mt. Kisco, New York.
In excited whispers, spectators were saying, "Fred Kovaleski is playing ... and his beautiful Russian wife, Manya, is here."
The Century Tournament at Saw Mill has been going on for years. Each doubles team must equal 100 years in age. Fred, then 67, was playing with Cliff Adler, a former Harvard varsity tennis player and top Eastern competitor. The team was seeded No. 1 and did not disappoint, winning in the final. The year was 1990. As I watched, I remember being impressed with Fred's strong, muscular legs, his quick feet, scorching forehand and blistering serve. Manya, I missed and didn't meet until an Atlantic Coast Cup Tournament in New England many years later.
Fred was born on October 8, 1924, the fourth son - a daughter came later - of Polish immigrants in Hamtramck, Michigan, a Polish enclave almost completely surrounded by Detroit. His hero was his older brother, Charles, who was accepted by the U.S. Naval Academy by virtue of the Open Examination, a rare feat, and not by Congressional appointment. Charles joined the Air Wing, trained at Pensacola, Florida and served on the USS Yorktown as a Company Commander. Tragically, he was killed during a mission in the Pacific.
Handball was the big sport in Fred's elementary school, the Polaski Polish Grammar School. His gym teacher, Jean Hoxie, was impressed with Fred's athleticism when, in the third grade, he won the school handball championship.
"Mrs. Hoxie - I always called her Mrs. Hoxie till the day she died - said to me 'You're a good athlete. Would you like to learn how to play tennis?' I didn't even know what tennis was. She said, 'Ask your Dad to buy a racquet. It'll cost $10, and I'll take care of the rest.' So I asked my father. He said, '$10 for a racquet? Go learn how to play baseball.'
"Mrs. Hoxie was undeterred. She said, 'I'll find an old racquet.' She did. She painted a line the height of a tennis net on the gym wall, painted three boxes - one to the left, one straight ahead and one to the right - gave me some basic instructions and a big garbage can of old balls. 'Aim your shots and your serves at those three squares,' and I was on my way."
Fred paused for a moment as tears came to his eyes. "Mrs. Hoxie made me what I am today. She was great, and I get sentimental whenever I think of her. She didn't just teach me how to play tennis. She taught me how to present myself in public. 'How do you do, Mrs. Jones?' How to eat properly with good table manners. She taught me about the business world and political figures. And she opened doors for me making it possible to go to college, and she set me on a path that I would never have dreamed of."
I asked, "Did she think of you as her surrogate son?"
"I didn't think of it at the time, but yes, she did. She didn't have any children of her own."
After a pause in the questioning, I asked, "How was your tennis coming along?"
"Pretty well. When I was 12, Mrs. Hoxie decided to enter me in a 15-and-under tournament in Detroit. She's the one who entered me in the tournaments, who drove me to the tournaments and who paid the entry fees. Well, to everyone's surprise, I won the tournament. That really got Mrs. Hoxie started. She continued to coach me throughout junior high and then when I got to high school, she became the coach of the Hamtramck High School tennis team."
"She took care of everything, didn't she?"
Fred smiled with a nod.
"She proved she deserved it too. Our varsity team won the Detroit Interscholastic Championship for the first time ever.
"When I was 17, Mrs. Hoxie wanted me to compete against men, not juniors, and entered me in the Tri-State Championship in Cincinnati, Ohio. I was entered in the singles draw, but Mrs. Hoxie wanted me in the doubles draw too. She asked the club host, 'Do you have anyone around here who can play doubles?' His answer was 'Not really any good enough to play in this tournament. But we've got a South American Indian fellow here. He's 19 and not entered in the doubles.' 'Great, put him and Fred down as a team,' responded Mrs. Hoxie.
"I met the South American. He didn't speak English except 'Hey, Baby' to attract the young women, and 'Me forehand; you backhand.' That was fine with me since I liked playing the backhand side. There was no talk during play, but I kept score. We get to the finals, and our opponents are Billy Talbert and the Argentinian Davis Cupper Alejo Russell. They were well-known players and were expected to win. Well we win, and Mrs. Hoxie goes 'ape!'"
"So. Who was your partner?"
"Pancho Segura!" exclaimed Fred with a big grin. "This was before he became known, but he was good! He was bow-legged from rickets that he contracted as a kid, but could he run!"
Fred took a breath before launching into another story.
"I was starting my senior year in high school, and Mrs. Hoxie wanted me out of Hamtramck. 'I want you out of Hamtramck and I want you out of Michigan for college.' Somehow she knew the William & Mary tennis coach Sharoy Umbeck, an intellectual and head of the Sociology Department."
Umbeck agreed that Fred was a safe risk, and said,
"Maybe we can get your boy a scholarship."
Fred graduated from high school in June, 1942, played on the U.S. Junior Davis Cup team against Canada during the summer, and, in September, he started as a freshman at William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. He couldn't believe how beautiful the campus was, but his stay was short-lived. Fred turned 18 in October, 1942, and he immediately enlisted in the Army.
"I'm going to be a hot shot paratrooper," he explained. "I liked their boots! And I liked that the paratroopers were all volunteers so there wouldn't be any backsliders. They all wanted to be jumping out of planes.
"My grades weren't very good. I think I had a D average, but fortunately I was called up in March, 1943 before they could flunk me out.
"I was sent to Fort Benning, Georgia for basic training. I got my boots, and we began to learn how to jump out of planes, safely, under all conditions. After basic, I joined the 11th Airborne Division stationed on islands in the Pacific.
"Our first landing was New Guinea, but there was no fighting there. Our next stop was the Philippines where we had three combat jumps on the Island of Luzon. Luzon is the largest island in the archipelago, and Manila is its major city. An internment camp was located on the island, and our mission was to free the 2,100 internees, all civilian families and many of them Americans. Six hundred paratroopers jumped from countless planes onto the camp, and after securing it, we marched the internees to a body of water, Lacuna del Bay. The territory we covered was controlled by the Japanese, so we couldn't continue to march them on land. Small water craft met us at the bay, and we got the internees to an abandoned prison, the New Bilobid Prison. Our generals were very considerate and moved all 2,100 into prison cells, took advantage of the dining hall and gave all of us paratroopers two and three-day passes to spend time with the people we had just rescued.
"You've never seen a more grateful group. I stayed in touch with 11 or 12 of them for years."
Fred gathered himself for a moment before he went on.
"The next jump was Appari, up in the northern part of Luzon. The 1st Cavalry was pushing the Japanese up north. The Japanese were in retreat, and it was our job, as the General said, 'to squeeze them from behind.' Fortunately, we accomplished our mission.
"I was discharged in February, 1946 and glad to be alive. I had seen some awful stuff — guys getting shot, guys getting killed. Being in the Philippines, in particular at that time, people had been displaced by the warfare. Homes in the cities were destroyed and families tried to find new homes in the country.
"The Japanese were very cruel to the local population and they didn't hesitate to execute people. People were wandering hopelessly, begging for a handout. And you saw little children begging. So sad. And you saw women sitting on street corners with a child who was disfigured with a leg off or something.
"Most of us - young guys from the US - had never seen anything like this. It made an indelible impact - the ruthlessness of the Japanese. Then we come in as the liberators. We were well supplied - plenty of food, chocolates, cigarettes. Kids would climb up the palm trees and cut down coconuts to give us in exchange for food and candy. We'd hand them out fairly liberally because we were never short of food. But more important, Chesterfield and Lucky Strike cigarettes were pure gold to them. We'd get little packs of four cigarettes with our rations and give them out to those begging.
"I returned to William & Mary, now on the G.I. Bill, with a new attitude about college. All of us who had returned from the war had matured. I figured this is my only chance, and I can't just fiddle around. I took my courses seriously and became a student!"
"But did you find time to get back on the tennis courts?" I asked.
"Oh yes. Coach Umbeck was grateful to have a team again, and he welcomed us with a new intensity. I played No. 1 on the varsity, and our No. 2 player was Tut Bartzen who, after graduation in 1949, went on to win the National Clay Courts in Lake Forest, Illinois four times."
"In 1947 and 1948, William & Mary won the NCAAs and you won the singles. What happened in 1949?" I asked.
"l lost in the finals to Vic Seixas of the University of North Carolina in five long sets. That was a tough loss."
I reminded him that Seixas was ranked as high as No. 3 in the world and won all four Grand Slam tournaments in either singles or doubles.
"Yes. He was good."
The phone rang, and Fred went into the bedroom to answer it. It was Serge, his son, finalizing plans for dinner that night. While Fred was out of the room, I examined all the photos and found one that I loved of Fred and his very beautiful wife Manya.
I showed it to Fred, and again, tears came to his eyes.
"We had a great marriage. Really good. Sixty years."
Manya passed away in January 2014, and Fred still struggled with his loss.
Getting back on course, I asked, "What happened after you graduated from William & Mary?"
"I played in tournaments all summer. Then Mrs. Hoxie got me a job back in Michigan but after two months, she said 'This is the pits!' I agreed. So we had some serious discussions about playing in Europe, and, in particular, Wimbledon. Mrs. Hoxie paid for everything. 'Maybe I can get you invited to play in some other tournaments as well. And she did. I played in Dusseldorf, where I beat Jack Harper, an Aussie, in the finals. With that win, I was invited to play in Antwerp, Brussels, Pakistan and India. A lot of these tournaments were warm ups to Wimbledon. Expenses were paid and I was given $100 just to play! No prize money though - just a lot of nice trophies.
"This was 1950, and I qualified to play at Wimbledon and got as far as the round of sixteen. That was a thrill. And then because I did as well as I did, I was invited to play in Hong Kong and the Philippines. In the Philippines, I was treated like a rock star. A newspaper reporter did some research and learned that I had been a paratrooper in the Philippines and had been a part of liberating the internment camp. I was on the radio and featured in the newspapers.
"The American ambassador and an American businessman, Chuck Parsons, a good friend of the ambassador's, came to see me play in the finals. The businessman brought his beautiful Czech-born wife with him, and I fell in love right then and there. Not really," confided Fred, "but she was gorgeous!"
"Now it's getting to be March, 1951, and I leave the Philippines to go to Egypt at a very opportune time. The Egyptian International Championship was being played at the Gezira Sporting Club in Cairo. The Sporting Club, a very upscale, stunning facility with well-manicured courts, had a policy of inviting all the foreign ambassadors to become members of the club, a very smart move. I was playing Fausto Gardini, an Italian Davis Cupper, in the finals. The American ambassador and his deputy, Joseph Sparks, were in the audience. I lost to Fausto in five long sets, 11-9 in the fifth. I had him 4-1 in the fifth but hit an easy overhead close to the net a bit wide. That changed the game's momentum. And I had beaten Fausto in Switzerland. I couldn't get that out of my mind."
Tennis players never forget those game-changing moments when they lose focus, and the momentum shifts - even 65 years later.
"Anyway, after the match Mr. Sparks came over to talk to me, and our personalities clicked immediately. He asked me to tea at the Embassy, and I accepted.
"Getting down to business, he asked 'I know you've got a great life now, but are you going to play tennis all your life?'"
"I'm loving it."
"'I can see that. But if you ever think about giving it up, give me a call. You speak Polish and Russian. You were a government major at William & Mary. I think you would be a good candidate for the foreign service. If you decide to stop playing tennis, let me know."'
"I told him I would. My next stop on the tour was the Monte Carlo Championship, where I lost in the finals. Soon after, a USLTA [United States Lawn Tennis Association] official who was at the matches said that if I stayed out of the United States any longer I'd be considered a pro. That wasn't good news back then, as few players could make a living as a pro, so I returned to the U.S. That's when I realized that I was loving tennis and travelling, but I wasn't making any money, and this really wasn't a good career path. So, much sooner than I expected, I wrote a letter to Mr. Sparks and told him I was interested in his proposal.
"He sent me copies of letters he had sent to, it seemed to me, every State Department Under Secretary in Europe and South America, but soon I was meeting guys in coffee shops and hotel lobbies with last names like Smith, Jones, and Brown. They didn't seem to be State Department personnel. One of them finally said, 'Listen, you may have a future outside the State Department. Why don't we introduce you to this gentleman - I was never told his name.
"I was invited to this gentleman's home in Bethesda, Maryland, offered a drink, and he said, 'You know, you have an interesting background. You're fluent in Polish and Russian. You majored in Government at William & Mary, and you're a tennis player known around the world.' I didn't learn until later that this gentleman had been contacting people I knew in the past - friends and my family in Hamtramck. And I didn't understand at the time where he was going with these comments.
"Finally, he said, 'You're a likely candidate for the CIA.'"
"I asked 'What's the CIA?'"
"'It's a secret organization.'"
"'I thought, 'All right! Tell me more.'"
During World War II, the Office of Strategic Services was formed, but when the war ended, the Central Intelligence Agency was established to take its place in 1949. In 1951, when Fred was being considered as a potential officer in this secret organization, few people knew of its existence.
"I had no money; I had no job, and I was intrigued by the prospects. Actually, I couldn't wait to start."
"But didn't you think about the danger?" I asked.
"When you're that young in your early twenties, everything is a great adventure. Fear just doesn't figure into the equation. To me it was glamorous, and I needed a job.
"Shortly after the meeting with the gentleman from Maryland I get a phone call to go to a certain address on C Street in D.C. It's an office building where I'm given a polygraph. I didn't know a polygraph from a phonograph. But I passed the test. Then I'm asked about my military service which must have been acceptable to the interrogators.
"I'm hired in 1951, and training began at Camp Peary, ironically, outside of Williamsburg where I had spent my college years.
"The recruits are told right up front, 'We do spy work. It's our job.' The six-week course involved learning how to recruit other spies, how to detect whether you're being followed, how to follow others, how to blow up buildings, how to write letters using invisible ink and how to tap phones."
Excerpted from Sport of a Lifetime by Judy Aydelott. Copyright © 2017 Judy Aydelott. Excerpted by permission of New Chapter Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
CHAPTER 1: FRED KOVALESKI,
CHAPTER 2: GEORGE and LETTY BRIA,
CHAPTER 3: GARDNAR MULLOY,
CHAPTER 4: TONY FRANCO,
CHAPTER 5: DAVID DINKINS,
CHAPTER 6: HENRY TIBERIO,
CHAPTER 7: KATRINA ADAMS,
CHAPTER 8: DONNA FLOYD FALES,
CHAPTER 9: BETTY EISENSTEIN,
CHAPTER 10: FRAN MEEK,
CHAPTER 11: JOHN POWLESS,
CHAPTER 12: ROLF THUNG,
CHAPTER 13: IM NELSON,
CHAPTER 14: JOHN JAMES,
CHAPTER 15: HARLAN STONE and JONATHAN BATES,
CHAPTER 16: CHRIS and BILL DRAKE,
CHAPTER 17: MAS and SUSAN KIMBALL,
CHAPTER 18: THE SAW MILL BOYS,
CHAPTER 19: BERNICE MYERS,
CHAPTER 20: JULIE VERRONE,
CHAPTER 21: DAN WSZOLEK,
CHAPTER 22: TOM BRUNKOW,
CHAPTER 23: TOMMIE WALKER,
CHAPTER 24: CHUCK NIEMETH,
CHAPTER 25: GREG TEBBE,
CHAPTER 26: ROB LABRIOLA,
CHAPTER 27: JOHN NEWCOMBE, ROY EMERSON, OWEN,
DAVIDSON and COMPANY,
CHAPTER 28: JUDY and GORDON AYDELOTT; JIMMY BIGGS,
and GORDON AYDELOTT,