Some routines will not change for Gardnar Mulloy on his birthday Thursday. He will still have a healthy breakfast of juice and cereal, drive his car around the block to check out the neighborhood, walk his Belgian sheepdog Shaggy and watch some Thanksgiving Day football. He might even have to remind one of his two cats, which his wife named Sharapova, that just because she is special doesn’t mean she runs the house.
Of course, when you are turning 99 years old, and have seen the world from the beaches of North Africa, Anzio, Salerno and France (as a landing ship tank commander), to the grass courts of Wimbledon and Forest Hills, you are entitled to a few privileges.
“He is unique,” says his wife, Jacqueline, who knows something about royalty and often accompanies Mulloy on the evening walks. “When I first met him, I thought him very self-confident and was a bit frightened at how the world was his. But he is very human, very kind, very generous and forgiving.”
Mulloy, ever the keen observer and often a critic, may debate some of his wife’s more tender terms just as he has had to adjust to balance issues, walking with a cane after playing into his early nineties (“those days are gone forever”) and chiding himself as an “old man.”
Asked whether he had ever thought of leaving the cozy home he built over 60 years ago on Northwest Ninth Avenue for a newer, fully air-conditioned retirement facility, he says flatly, “no. The house is paid for, I’m living here, I’ve got a big yard, and a dog, and a wife and two friends, and that’s enough.”
More than a few friends. As the oldest living member of the International Tennis Hall of Fame (one of the nine halls of fame to have enshrined him), Mulloy is still toasted annually on his birthday by family and friends on Fisher Island, where he served as the tennis director for many years. Even former court rivals like Dick Savitt, who still seldom gives an inch on procedures, acknowledges “he had it all.”
“He’s one of the best athletes ever,” Savitt added recently in a telephone interview from his Manhattan office. “So fast, so graceful, a very tough competitor. And with all that, he was one of the great looking guys ever.”
Eddie Dibbs, one of the Miami area’s most tenacious tennis products and a former top 10 pro, fondly recalls Mulloy’s kindness. “I used to practice with him when I was a kid,” Dibbs said. “He was one of the few guys who would practice with me. He was tough as nails back then.”
Mulloy’s days as “The Silver Fox” are over. But his long-term memory is as sharp as ever, interestingly pegged more to matches he lost than those that put him among the world’s top players, including a Wimbledon doubles title in 1957 at age 43.
Consider this recollection of his 1950 five-set loss to Herb Flam in the semifinals of the national championships at Forest Hills, after he led two sets to one: “It was my serve in the fifth set and my ad. I came to the net and he tried to pass me, and I had a forehand volley and I hit it. Immediately, I’d figured I won the point and turned around to go back to the baseline. Then I heard the scream of the spectators in the stadium, and I thought they were cheering me for winning the point. But he scrambled and hit the ball over the net and fell when he did. And he broke my serve and won the match.”