Games, set and match for Tarango

Volatile on court, very polite off it, a most unlikely Olympian is keen to keep his cool in the twilight of his career
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The Independent Online

If they were awarding medals for the title of the unlikeliest Olym-pian, Jeff Tarango would be in line for gold. When the athletes mass for the opening ceremony in Sydney on Friday, mingling with the flags and the famous at what he calls "full tilt" will be the man thrown out of Wimbledon five years ago.

If they were awarding medals for the title of the unlikeliest Olym-pian, Jeff Tarango would be in line for gold. When the athletes mass for the opening ceremony in Sydney on Friday, mingling with the flags and the famous at what he calls "full tilt" will be the man thrown out of Wimbledon five years ago.

At the age of 31 Tarango will be representing the United States for the first time after 13 years as a tennis professional. When Pete Sampras declined an invitation to join the US team and then Jan-Michael Gambill also said no, Tarango was next in line to become the fourth American Olympic singles competitor.

Tarango is the oldest US tennis team member since Richard Norris Williams, a survivor of the Titanic, played in the 1924 Olympics at 32. "There are definitely some parallels to be drawn there," said Tarango. "He survived the Titanic and I have survived a few things myself." Now, in the twilight of his career, finally comes a chance to indulge in a spot of slate cleaning.

"To be going to the Olympics is the ultimate, the pinnacle of my career. I am really, really excited," said Tarango, who will be travelling to Australia with his father, Bob, a former boxer on whom he pins friendly blame for his own transgressions. "I tell him it's his fault for getting hit in the head too much."

Off court and in conversation there is nobody easier-going or more polite than Tarango. We talked at the US Open just after he had indulged in a publicity knockabout for the TV folk, competing with a New York Mets baseball player, Benny Agbayani, in trying (and failing) to hit a tennis ball out of the Arthur Ashe Stadium. Tarango's notoriously low point of combustion was never even approached as he goodnaturedly put up with the fatuous demands of the cameramen. In a match it is different. "I'm intense, I'm fired up, I'm going to massacre anyone that's on the other side of the net," he once announced at the Australian Open.

There were echoes of the 1995 incident at this year's Wimbledon when, after a gruelling match with his fellow American Paul Goldstein which went to 12-10 in the fifth, Tarango refused to shake hands, complaining of gamesmanship when Goldstein had treatment for cramp.

That match still bothers him. "I was trying to get him to cramp. If he is cramping he will hopefully miss a ball. But he didn't miss any, just kept running for his shots. So I felt like, jeez, this guy is eight years younger than me and he isrunning like a cat."

The Tarango of old might have done more than fail to shake hands but the Millennium Tarango sought out Goldstein afterwards, apologised and wished him luck in the next round.

There have been other failures to shake hands, Tarango revealed. "In Shanghai, against Leander Paes, I was hit pretty square from three feet away by an overhead. The fact that he then fist-pumped me was even worse. Then at the French Open Thomas Muster didn't shake my hand but after the match his agent led him over and Thomas said, 'I'm sorry, I was just really riled up,' and he shook my hand, which I thought was cool."

Cool was the last description of Tarango at the 1995 Wimbledon when he stormed off court in a match with Alexander Mronz, a German whose only previous connection with fame was briefly as Steffi Graf's boyfriend.

Tarango's fury was directed, not at Mronz, but the French umpire, Bruno Rebeuh, whom he accused of bias and corruption. Tarango's French wife, Benedicte, raised the temperature even further by slapping Rebeuh and the incident ended with the American judged guilty of aggravated behaviour, fined a total of £45,000 and suspended from the following year's Wimbledon.

But an incident Tarango recalls as "a horrific nightmare" has had its good side. "It ended up broadening me a lot and changing my perspective. Itreally gave me a snap into the 'grow up now, kid' type thing. I think overall it has benefited me, changed my outlook, made me a person who thinks about the big picture instead of just what is happening.

"And I think it has helped the tour overall because any time a player is having a problem with an organisation, a tournament, whatever, they always turn to me. They say 'Jeff, what should I do?' or 'Jeff, what do you think of this?'

"I give them the perspective about how to help themselves and make tennis better at the same time. Don't put a bad flavour in people's mouths. Try to make it so that people walk away and say, you know, that guy plays good tennis and he was really nice to my son. That helps everybody.

"There are definitely times when people have to make a stand in life, but the moral of the story is: try not to do it on television with a billion people watching."

The run-in with Rebeuh is not his sharpest Wimbledon memory. Far from it. "For me, it will be waking up at home in California at 6.30, my mom having strawberries and cream ready for us, my parents drinking champagne and my brother and me drinking cider watching Borg and Connors and McEnroe play the finals. Wimbledon has always been so special and when I go back there, every time I walk through the gates, I am in awe of the whole set-up.

"Going there this year and seeing the new facilities was just amazing. When I was going through that thing in 1995 Ken Rosewall came up to me and said, 'Jeff, you see those carpets? They have been here since the beginning of time. They will never change but everything is changing a little bit and for the good. There is a reason for everything that happens.' Hopefully, it is a positive thing that Wimbledon has been part of my life. It was always my favourite event and it always will be. I'm not going to let one bad apple spoil such a great, great event for me."

Tarango also insists the incident actually expanded his circle of friends. "My dad always said the kids I got into fights with at school ended up being my best friends 15 years later. [The Wimbledon referee] Alan Mills is one of the classiest, nicest guys I have ever met. There were so many people like that who have made my life better in so many different ways. I try to take the good out of everything that happens."

There is plenty that is good in Tarango's life. For much of the year he lives in the French town of Pezenas with Benedicte and their daughter, Nina Rose, whose third birthday coincides with the Sydney tennis final. He also owns property in Manhattan Beach in California. He regards himself as part European - "I love Giorgio Armani clothes and I like French red wine" - but Manhattan Beach is where he plans to live when he stops playing. "I am a real sunset person and that place is unparalleled for sunsets."

Before Tarango joined the tennis tour he did three years of a philosophy degree course at Stanford, which has an exchange arrangement with Oxford, and he plans to complete it. "Before I left Stanford I was filling out the Oxford application. They said it would be no problem so we will see, after 13 years in the business world, if it is more of a problem now or not. Oxford is just beautiful, one of the most amazing campuses I have ever seen, it's like the grounds of Wimbledon."

But before he tries to become a Yank at Oxford there is the incentive to do well at the Olympics. "It is definitely a time for me to try to shine, an ultimate go-for-it situation. I am probably the long shot on the American team, I am probably the only one not given a chance of winning a medal. But I would like to cause some surprises and make a valiant effort for it. There is definitely something to prove. My coach at Stanford told me if I ever got a chance to play Davis Cup I would play the best tennis of my life, that I am the type who rises to the occasion. And there can't be a bigger occasion than the Olympics."