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Return of the Ugly American

To keep history factual, one must note it was some time after Jeff Tarango pushed the self-destruct button on his career, even after his wife slapped around an umpire, but still before Tarango brought charges of widespread corruption on the tour that the whole darned Wimbledon tennis tournament went loopy.

Yes, sir, just another staid, upper-crusty day at the grand old event Saturday, it was.

Want to know why the rest of the world thinks Americans are louts? Well, say hello to Jeff Tarango. Forevermore known as the Man Who Quit Wimbledon.

A mild disclaimer here. On any other day of his existence, Tarango has not been a good enough player to merit all the attention he did on Saturday. He is ranked 80th in the world, and the two matches he had won at this year's Wimbledon were the first he had managed in eight previous decisions. He had never reached the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam event.

This day, however, Tarango went bonko, and he took the entire tournament with him. Forget that Andre Agassi, Steffi Graf and Lindsay Davenport won. Just watch one man's march to career suicide.

It was relatively early in the day, on the far reaches of Court 13, when it all started. An innocent serve by Tarango. An out call by the linesman. A correction; the serve was good. The umpire, a Frenchman named Bruno Rebeuh, deciding the confusion merited a let and another serve.

Suddenly, Tarango was in mid-tantrum. He railed. He whined. He pouted. He yelled at the crowd to shut up. He demanded to see the umpire's supervisor, then a different supervisor. When he received a warning, then a point penalty, Tarango yelled at Rebeuh that he was "the most corrupt official in the game." And he stalked off, seizing that moment to define the way he will always be remembered.

This was precisely the moment that Tarango's wife and tag-team partner, Benedicte, decided to take up the fight. She approached Rebeuh, swearing in her native French. Then she slapped him. "It was not bad," she would later explain. "It was good."

Across the way, Alexander Mronz stared in wonder like a kid watching the circus unpack. It hadn't even been that big a point. And suddenly his opponent was taking his rackets and going home.

And guess what? Wimbledon didn't exactly shut down so high-ranking officials could coax Tarango out of his room in order to continue.

Now, for the normal tennis player, this might have been embarrassment enough. Imagine, for instance, calling your father to tell him how your day had gone. "Hi, Dad. Guess what happened to me today?"

This, however, is why some refer to Tarango as "Jeff the psycho." We are talking about a player who last year responded to losing a big lead against Michael Chang in Tokyo by dropping his pants. "I lost my head, the shorts came down, and the gig was up," was Tarango's official explanation. He said that was "the lighter side" and meant to combat boredom in tennis. Honest, he said that.

But Jeff wasn't done yet. He went to the press interview room and launched allegations against Rebeuh that stopped just short of implicating him in the Black Sox scandal.

Tarango said that in October '93, he received information that Rebeuh was seeking friendship with certain players _ he named Marc Rosset, who we can conclude must be some fun to hang with _ by favoring them in matches. I think it can safely be said that for an umpire to intentionally cheat to allow one player to win just so the two could be chums, well, the player must have some awfully good video games.

Tarango later revealed his sources to be "a couple of women that (Rebeuh) was trying to pick up at a party." (Known to trained investigators as "the Woodward and Bernstein method.")

Tarango said he told officials, and so Rebeuh was determined to help pave Tarango's loss. Although it should be pointed out that, with Tarango's record, we are not talking about a great deal of cement.

"Sometimes a man has to be a man and not be pushed around any more," Tarango said. "I felt like I was backed into a corner."

Face it. For Ilie Nastase, this was style. For Jimmy Connors, this was determination. For John McEnroe, this was drive.

For Tarango? This was a farmer trying to explain a UFO on Hard Copy. It was a flight of fancy that made you nod when he talked so he didn't get upset again.

Tarango hinted court action was ahead. He referred to himself as "a rational person, an intelligent person." He acted as if he were a public defender for players against the evil officials. And he applauded his wife for her attack.

Such action, of course, could lead to trouble. What would happen, for instance, if Brooke Shields roughed up a linesman after a key point? Could Wimbledon survive?

"I don't see any harm in being slapped," Tarango said. "I was slapped when I was a little baby, too."

Yeah. Maybe too much. Maybe not enough.

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