“Kid, you aren’t getting another game,” Rod Laver said to his 12-year-old opponent. The Rocket had goofed around and gone down 0-2 to the precocious pre-teen from Buffalo, NY, but he wasn’t smiling anymore.
When you’re 12 and the Rocket says those ominous words to you during an exhibition match in your hometown, chances are you’re going to believe him, right? Not when you’re a 12-year-old named Jimmy Arias, and you’re armed with a forehand unlike any that had been seen before. In that case, you win three more games, and lose a close 7-5 set to the 11-time major champion.
Then, if you’re Arias, you walk over to your father and hear him say, “You played all right.”
“That was the closest he came to paying me a compliment,” Arias told journalist John Feinstein with a laugh. “My dad’s philosophy was, never tell you what you did right, tell you what you did wrong. I think that’s what got me to No. 5 in the world.”
When it came to tennis, Antonio Arias didn’t believe in limits or conventions or expectations about what you couldn’t and couldn’t do. With an outsider’s eye, an engineer’s mind, an athlete’s competitiveness and an immigrant’s do-it-yourself work ethic, he would leave an unsung mark on the sport.
The forces of history had brought Antonio to upstate New York. He was born in Spain, but his family left for Cuba during the Spanish Civil War. After growing up on that island, he left for the U.S. before the 1959 revolution to attend college. A soccer player for the Cuban national team, he introduced the game to his oldest son, Jimmy. Soon, though, Antonio tried the newly popular sport of tennis, and one day he handed Jimmy a Dunlop Maxply with a 4 5/8 grip. Even with that tree-trunk in his hand, Jimmy hit 10 straight balls back to his dad.
Antonio began teaching his son to play tennis the way any father who didn’t grow up playing the sport would: First from a textbook, and then with private lessons from a local pro. But the engineer spotted a flaw in the technique that Jimmy was being taught on his forehand.