King Tut

Friday, January 07, 2011 /by

[[ Ed. note: Good mornin'. Before we begin to ramp up our Australian Open coverage, let's take a brief trip to the past, to acknowledge one of those "almost great" players who have not just played at the highest level, but dedicated their lives to the game. In this case it's Tut Bartzen. I'll bet most of you have never even heard the name.

Anyway, Lisa Jordan Kilborn, and avid player and Texas-based journalist, wrote this marvelous piece about her neighbor Tut some time ago, but for reasons that have nothing to do with the subject or story it never found a place in the magazine. You're the beneficiary of that, I think you'll agree. Personally, I think this is a great read. And yes, that is the young Rod Laver in the quartet photo—can anyone name the other three players? Give it a shot, I'll post the answer later. —Pete ]]

Tut_backhandJPG By Lisa Jordan Kilborn, TW Special Correspondent

I first noticed the fit, elderly man (think Jack LaLanne) on my daily 18-mile bike ride through my new neighborhood, right in the shadow of Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, TX. I was struck by how determined he was to keep his lawn impeccable—he forever seemed to be mowing, raking, hauling bags of leaves or tending to the American flag that waves alongside the two big rocking chairs on his porch.

I often play at the TCU courts and couldn't help but notice that this fellow always dressed in tennis whites—even for yard work. I soon discovered that the gentleman was Tut Bartzen, the former (now retired) head tennis coach at TCU. I hadn't seen him in many years and had spoken with him only once or twice ever. So one day I hopped off my bike and just walked up and re-introduced myself. I told him I frequently wrote about tennis. He remembered me and invited me inside.

Like the man himself, the house was extremely neat and clean. He had a Christian devotional book and silk flowers on the coffee table, and a comfy couch situated before the flat-screen TV that his children gave him for Christmas a couple of years ago. His office was a trove of tennis memorabilia. The plaques and photographs—many of them in black and white—were one thing, the armoire-like display case an entirely different matter: Trophies, cups and bowls of all kinds practically spilled from it. When I mentioned that it must take a lot of time to keep all that silver shiny, Bartzen just said: "The kids and grandkids come over in groups to polish the stuff for me."

Looking more closely, I noticed that those were no mere photographs of Bartzen with a local car dealer or college buddy. Much of the memorabilia was from major tournaments—back then, they were amateur tournaments, of course—and the men on his wall are icons of the sport, including the likes of Vic Seixas, Ken Rosewall, Roy Emerson, Tony Trabert and Rod Laver. Where did this guy get all this stuff, I wondered. Is it just celebrity stuff he collects?

I discreetly asked about those pictures, and Bartzen, in no great hurry, began to tell me his story. It turned out that this 83-year old chap, whose eyes are still an intense blue-gray and whose gravelly, monotone voice and deliberate delivery reminded me of John Wayne, has a resume that would floor
most tennis fans. He's a former U.S. Davis Cup team captain, and he may have the best Davis Cup record of any U.S. player: He was a startling 15-0 in singles and 1-0 in doubles. Nobody who has played a significant number of matches can match that winning precentage.

The champ next door, I learned, was a great counter-puncher renowned for grinding down rivals. Although he never achieved the status of an Emerson or a Laver, they knew all about him. Their idea of a tough day, back in the day, was having to play Bartzen on clay.

Tennis players aren't always treated well by time, but there's not a trace of bitterness in Bartzen's voice when he says: "I've got people in my church—which I've attended for decades—who don't have a clue about what I did on the tennis court."

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The champ next door was born Bernard but nicknamed Tut, because he was born while the legendary Egyptian Pharaoh's tomb was being investigated. He was born in Austin and grew up in the small Texas town of San Angelo, where the late George Richey (whose own children, Cliff and Nancy, were world-class pros as well) took an interest in his game. By then, the young lefthander had spent untold hours hitting against a wall, and his mature game would show it.

After winning the Texas state tennis title three times in high school, Bartzen enrolled at William & Mary and compiled an astonishing 50-0 regular-season record in singles. He was the team captain, and he partnered with Fred Kovaleski to win the NCAA doubles title in 1948. Now 87, Vic Seixas, the partner with whom Bartzen won the only Davis Cup doubles match he ever played, says, "At William and Mary, Tut was on the best college team ever assembled. I played him when I was playing number one at North
Carolina, and he was as tough of a slow-court player as I'd ever seen."

A year or so after graduating college, Bartzen went to work for Wilson in 1950. But before the year was out, he was drafted as part of the call-up for the Korean War and sent to Fort Sill, Okla. He was still allowed to play tournaments; in fact, he won a significant amateur event in Kansas City while in the service, but he also had his bags packed and ready, for he was due to be shipped out to Korea any day. "The war wasn't going that good," he recalls. "It could have been really ugly for me."

One day, he was summoned by the commanding general's office at Fort Sill. Bartzen dreaded the meeting; the U.S. Senate had just finished investigating charges that star athletes were being unfairly coddled in the Armed Forces. "I thought, 'Oh my God, what's happening here?'" he remembers. But, according to Bartzen, the general said: "One of my friends up there in Kansas City thinks you're pretty good and that you might be getting a call to play in some of the early clay-court Davis Cup matches. I just want to tell you, if you get the invitation, I'll OK it."

4guys Although Bartzen wasn't due to be discharged until November of 1952, he was invited to play Forest Hills (now the U.S. Open) less than three months before his release. With rackets and suitcase in hand, and the blessings of his superiors, he hopped on the benches of Military Air Transport Service (MATS) planes until he got to New York—only to be welcomed in the first round by his college rival, Seixas, who beat him in five sets on the grass.

Soon after that, he got his first Davis Cup call. In a tie in Havana, Bartzen dominated in both of his singles matches, giving up just six games in total, as the U.S. swept. It was only natural that he would try to make a living with his tennis, and he soon went on the circuit, where he earned the
nickname "Black Bart" (after the infamous gentleman bandit of the Wild West).

Bartzen won the U.S. Clay Court Championships four times and twice had a year-end ranking as high as No. 2 (1959 and 1960). Then there's the centerpiece of his resume, that golden Davis Cup record. His weapon, especially on clay, was consistency: "I got the reputation for being very stingy with the points," Bartzen says. "If I could beat a guy badly, I was going to beat him badly."

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Sitting there in his immaculate sweats and a crisp, white Wilson Advisory Staff polo—he's been getting free clothes and equipment since 1943 and enjoys reminding Wilson staffers that he's their oldest living advisory staff member—Bartzen no longer has that fearsome Black Bart aura. But he still works out at the TCU gym and takes long walks around the neighborhood with his black Lab, Baby Doll. "I think she¹s a '98 model," he says, trying to pin down her age.

As Bartzen's playing career was winding down, he took over the tennis program at Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, where he hosted an annual tournament that attracted his former tour comrades ­ including Laver, Emerson, Rosewall and Seixas.

Laver, 72, remembers playing at Colonial when Bartzen was the head pro there in the 1960s and early '70s. "By then, everybody in Fort Worth thought of him as a teacher, not a tennis player," Laver says. "They don't associate him with winning national championships, but I do. He didn't have anything
huge, a huge shot or huge serve. He just had such great anticipation, and he had the depth so that you couldn't really attack him so much. The way he moved you around the court was the thing that impressed me. He just wrong-footed you all the time."

Bartzen also became a college coach, turning TCU's men's tennis team into a national powerhouse. His Horned Frogs amassed more than 500 victories and eight conference championships from 1974-98. He's played with former President George Herbert Walker Bush and still gives private lessons in Fort Worth. And, until recently, Bartzen had a regular tennis game with another distinguished, local octogenarian, Dr. Bobby Brown—the former New York Yankees third baseman and past president of Major League Baseball's American League. But it's doubles only these days for Bartzen, who's had hip replacement surgery, rotator-cuff surgery, back surgery and a triple bypass.

Bartzen also remains a fixture at TCU tennis matches and sometimes offers tips to team members who play on the varsity courts named after him. "After my bypass back in '98, one of my Frogs players said to me, 'So much for clean livin', eh Coach?" Bartzen recalls, laughing.

Tutwithdog Bartzen isn't resentful about missing out on the rewards and fame of the Open era. The way he sees it, his day job at Colonial enabled him to raise his own family in a stable environment. He and his wife, Sara, had four children—all are accomplished tennis players—and eight grandchildren, several of whom have the tennis gene, as well. Sara ran the TCU pro shop and kept Tut honest until her death in 2000. The old coach remains a student of the game and watches every match he can.

Bartzen also keeps up with TCU's football team: the newly crowned Rose Bowl champion and the toast of the town. He went to Dr. Brown's house to watch TCU hold off Wisconsin, 21-19, on New Year's Day. "What TCU's football team has accomplished reminds me of when I took over the tennis program and the chancellor said we defined bad. Well, three years later we made the NCAAs. I am really happy for the football team. What a special feeling."

Bartzen is one of only four tennis players in the Texas Sports Hall of Fame, which inducted him in 1995. "I'm very proud of that," he says, dusting off and straightening the frame containing the citation. It seems to me like a lesser trophy, but Texas is a big state, and Bartzen grew up in another, less international era. He's living out his old age warmed mostly by memories, a fine man to have for a neighbor, and just another tennis champ nobody knows.

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