A little more than 30 years ago, I came up to what was then known as Fleet Street to join The Observer as a sub editor in the sports department. There were many things about which I was wide-eyed with wonder, but nothing appeared more exotic to my rookie gaze than the American tennis reporter who wandered into the building one day to add to our coverage of Wimbledon.
The description of someone as “an original” is overworked these days, but it is entirely accurate in the case of Bud Collins, who died at the end of last week aged 86. Apart from anything else, no one else would have had the energy to replicate his unfailing bonhomie and his relentless joy at being alive, all played out at a pretty high volume, and matched only by the loudness of his trousers. As a young sports journalist, I thought he was a uniquely romantic figure.
Bud’s approach to Wimbledon – at that time as stuffy an institution as it was possible to be – was commendably irreverent. That’s not to say that he was disrespectful of its traditions (quite the opposite, in fact: he was a tennis historian of some repute), but he went along with his garish trousers and ties, asked questions in a charmingly faux-naïf way, and quickly became part of the landscape of the Big W (as he called it).
His background was as a writer for the Boston Globe but he was one of the earliest examples of a journalist making the transition to a television commentator. He was the mainstay of NBC’s Wimbledon coverage; in fact, their daily programme, Breakfast at Wimbledon, was practically Bud’s invention. Or so he let it be known.
He told a great story of how, in 1979, the first year NBC showed live coverage from Wimbledon, the American Roscoe Tanner reached the men’s final to play Björn Borg.
The match was scheduled to start at 2pm (9am on the east coast of America). This was a problem for NBC as it was committed to a 9am news bulletin that wouldn’t finish until 9.06am. The Wimbledon authorities were adamant the match should start precisely on time. So Bud took matters into his own hands, and rang Tanner the night before the final. And so, if TV coverage of that final still exists, you will see Tanner come on to court and then immediately excuse himself to pay a visit to the lavatory. He eventually returns, and play begins at exactly 2.06pm.
Such was Bud’s influence on the sport he loved, which recognised him by inducting him into the Tennis Hall of Fame, and by naming the media centre at Flushing Meadows after him.
My friendship with Bud survived a few changes of job (me, not him: he was remarkably constant), and on the eve of Wimbledon, we’d have dinner and he would present implausibly colourful ties to my colleague at The Independent, Charles, and me (Bud was an enthusiastic contributor to the Indy in its early days). I’m not sure either of us ever wore those ties, but that didn’t matter. They were Paisley-patterned symbols of friendship, and were treasured as such. They would only have suited one man, anyway, and he’s no longer with us. God bless you, Bud. You were truly an original.
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