- Sandra Harwitt
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In the world of tennis, Gardnar Mulloy has traveled where no other member of the International Tennis Hall of Fame -- man or woman -- had gone before.
Mulloy, the oldest living member of the Hall of Fame, officially becomes a centenarian on Friday, Nov. 22, 2013. Still living up to his reputation as the handsome Silver Fox, he is the only player to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame to live long enough to blow out 100 candles on a birthday cake. Americans Gene Mako (1916-2013) and Sidney Wood (1911-2009) made it to 97, and American Dodo Cheney, 97 and counting, is only three years from joining Mulloy in that distinction.
"It's my 100th," said Mulloy, who came to the phone for a chat last week after his wife, Jackie, mentioned not to keep him too long because he tires easily these days. "I guess it's special."
It's hard to ever know what the key to longevity is, but Mulloy, who was married to first wife, Madeleine Cheney, for 55 years has a family history of people living well into their 90s. He also has been fastidious about maintaining a clean living lifestyle as a vegetarian, and he avoids sugar, carbonated drinks, coffee, tea and alcohol.
"Gardnar never drank, but one year we were playing doubles at the French championships and he lost early in the singles, earlier than he hoped to lose," said 86-year-old Dick Savitt, who teamed with Mulloy to reach the French National doubles final in 1951 and '52. "We went out to dinner, and he decided he was going to have some wine. Having never drank any, he had a few glasses and the next day he had a terrible hangover. We had to play a match, and Gardnar looked and felt awful. We just came through in five sets, and we did make it to the finals, where we lost to a really good team, Ken McGregor and Frank Sedgman."
Born in Washington, D.C., Mulloy moved to Miami as a little boy and has never stopped being a proud Miamian, not to mention a loyal University of Miami Hurricane since receiving his undergraduate and law degrees there. An all-around athlete, he represented UM in football and boxing before starting the college's tennis team. At one time, he was ranked sixth in Florida in 3-meter diving. Later, he would become the UM tennis coach and somehow managed to recruit Pancho Segura, a three-time NCAA singles champion, even though the Ecuadorean couldn't produce any evidence he ever even attended high school.
In the end, it was tennis that became Mulloy's destiny. Considered the No. 1 singles player in the world in 1952 having reached the U.S. National singles final that year, he won four U.S. National doubles titles (1942, '45, '46, 1948), and, at the ripe old age of 43, won the Wimbledon doubles trophy with 33-year-old Budge Patty in 1957.
"He [Mulloy] was a really great player," Savitt said. "He was very athletic, very graceful, and played well into his 40s. He was a great athlete and was a big-time swimmer. He played football and he boxed and did everything. He was a very tough competitor, and he would do pretty much anything to win.
"Tennis was big in his life," added Savitt, who keeps in touch with Mulloy by phone. "That's what he was, and that's what he did."
A Davis Cup stalwart, Mulloy competed in 12 Davis Cup ties through seven years with an overall 11-3 record in the competition. He played on three winning U.S. final teams (1946, '48 and '49), defeating Australia on all three occasions.
"Playing Davis Cup for the United States was pretty special," Mulloy said when asked what stands out most from his tennis career. "Today, Davis Cup seems more important in Europe and the United States seems to have brushed it off. Maybe that's why we're not winning it. I played on three Davis Cup-winning teams, and we considered it pretty big. Representing your country is a privilege."
Tennis opened the door to a different world for Mulloy, notable for being handsome, intelligent and fearlessly outspoken.
When Dade County tried to cut down a tree on his street in Miami when he was 10, to prevent that from happening, he climbed the tree and refused to come down. While a naval lieutenant during World War II, he was in command of a vessel and took exception when a visiting British general had disparaging words regarding Americans, and Mulloy had the temerity to confine said general to his cabin.
Mulloy even bantered a couple of times with Queen Elizabeth. Once, when she was still a princess, he asked her why he never saw her in the Royal Box at Wimbledon. Someone accompanying the princess explained she had official duties to take care of, to which he quipped he thought she couldn't get a ticket and he'd be glad to organize one for her. When, as queen, she presented him with his 1957 doubles winner's trophy he asked her whether she remembered him. She replied, "I remember you, Mr. Mulloy. As a matter of fact, I had difficulty getting in today as you forgot to leave me tickets."
Mulloy, who won 129 U.S. national titles and played senior events into his mid-90s, also had an unexpected chance encounter with President Bill Clinton. When he went to introduce himself to the former free-world leader, the president told Mulloy he knew exactly who he was.
"I was playing a tournament in Washington, D.C., and [Clinton] was president then," Mulloy said. "He was peeking through the backdrop, and I spotted him. I went to leave the court to walk around and greet him. The umpire said, "If you leave the court, Mr. Mulloy, you'll be defaulted," but I just waved at [the umpire] and continued on to see the president. And he didn't default me. I went back and continued the match."
Asked whether Clinton inquired whether he had received Mulloy's vote, Mulloy laughed and said, "No, but I did vote for him."
It's not only former presidents and royalty who have kept company with Mulloy. Many younger players from the South Florida community were smart enough to take advantage of having a true tennis legend in their midst.
"I've known him forever and ever and ever," said Harold Solomon, a former top-five player who grew up in nearby Fort Lauderdale. "When we were kids, Eddie [Dibbs] used to go down all the time to play with him. Gardnar was great. When we were in our teens, he was still playing great. Stuff we did with Gardnar, he loves animals, so we'd go and play his pro-am to support his Pet Rescue efforts."
Mulloy, who used to regularly catch tennis live at the Sony Open in Miami, has been dedicated to keeping tabs on the direction tennis is taking.
"I'm not too enticed with it," said Mulloy, when asked his opinion of pro tennis in the 21st century. "The game has changed. There's no net play, and that's because the balls has less fuzz on them, and they go throughout the air faster, bounce higher, making it more difficult to get to the net. It used to be you had to end up at the net on every point to win. Now, you just stay back, have long rallies until someone makes a mistake."
Not surprisingly, Mulloy tends to stay closer to home these days, so his upcoming birthday celebration will be a backyard affair.
"It's going to be pretty big," Mulloy said. "We're having cake and ice cream and putting up a few tents. I'm inviting a lot of people, including [88-year-old former player] Doris Hart, so we'll have a big crowd and I think I'll get a lot of speeches."
In case anyone is wondering, an optimistic Mulloy says he's eyeing his next 100 years: "I just hope I can walk a little better and without a walker."