Tennis Prose



Watching Rick Leach In Action

By Scoop Malinowski

The Longboat Key Public Tennis Center experienced a monumental moment this month, For the first time a former Grand Slam champion and world no. 1 in professional tennis competed on the courts. The rare spectacle happened at the ITF Longboat Key Super Senior tournament in the first week of this month.

Rick Leach, from Newport Beach, CA the former ATP world no. 1 in doubles in 1990 and winner of nine Grand Slam doubles titles, played in the 55s doubles with Vivek Varma, of Mercer Island, Washington.

Several players and observers got to see the arrival of Leach and watch him train. Now 58, Leach walked on to court 4 on a Wednesday afternoon with Varma, to hit some balls and get comfortable at the venue. They looked liked two professionals focused on winning a Grand Slam title, not interested in engaging in any joking or small talk. This was a tennis business trip, and also and chance for Rick to visit his brother Jonathan and sister-in-law and former WTA no. 1, Lindsay Davenport, who relocated to Sarasota a couple of years ago.

I asked a friend who is a former ATP doubles player Sander Groen about his memories of Leach and he said, “High consistency, no weaknesses, lefty.” Watching Leach’s groundstrokes in action was not exactly jaw-dropping. They were compact and perfect and unique in that his backswings were so short and simple. He didn’t hit the ball much harder than most of the other approximately 300 tournament entrants but he never missed. 

I had to miss the first match as our own consolation doubles match was moved to a different club a few miles north on Longboat Key. But I did see the second match, which oddly was not played on the main court but on the other end of the club across the parking lot and post office on court 7 because the earlier scheduled matches extended well past 4 o’clock. Leach and Varma were supposed to play Mark Harrison and Fredrik Skoglund at 3 but started around 4. About 40 people walked over the hundred yards to watch the match.

Harrison and Skoglund are no slouches. Harrison was 3-0 vs a two years younger Jim Courier as a junior and he played three exhibitions with Rod Laver, as well as pro ams with Donald Trump. Skoglund, who would win the 55s singles title a few days later, used to train with Stefan Edberg in Sweden and now plays regularly with Grand Slam winner Rickey Reneberg in Bethesda, MD.

There didn’t appear to be much difference in the levels of all four but Leach Varma prevailed 62 60. There’s no nonsense with Leach, no facial expression changes, no wasted energy on anything between points, every movement is precise for winning the next point. Every point is a serve and attack to net, I don’t think Leach missed one first volley. I can’t remember seeing any bad misses or sloppy plays by any of the four. High quality tennis. 

I hit with Harrison before the match and he told me a story of seeing a 15 yr old Agassi at a pro tournament, get hit in the face while he was awaiting to return his opponent’s serve, with an errant shank from another court, and Agassi looked up for a split second and once he figured out what had happened, he refocused instantly on his next point. Harrison has that kind of focus and skills but for some reason Leach and Varma were too strong. If I could pinpoint it on anything, maybe it was the relentless attacking of net and percentage of made volleys that eventually wore down the resolve of Harrison and Skoglund. Or it was the mental strain of knowing the opponent won nine Grand Slams and a Davis Cup and was once the world’s best doubles player.

In the final on the main court about 100 people attended to watch a Grand Slam champion play at these courts for unofficially the first time. No member or resident could think of any other Grand Slam champion who had ever played at these courts.

This time Leach and Varma had their hands full with Billy Harris and Steve Pittman, who had two walkovers to the final. After earning three set points, they lost the first set in a tiebreaker 8-6, mainly because Varma struggled to hold serve. He was broken two times and dropped serve at 6-6 in the tiebreaker.

Another element of intrigue of the match was most of the pressure was on the one player who won nine Grand Slams. The other three players never even competed in a single Grand Slam main draw or qualifying draw, as far as I know. Of course, as advanced tennis players know, there are so, so many tennis talents out there who never made it big as pros, but they have world class skills, shots and court sense. What they lack is the pedigree and experience at the highest level. It was also fascinating to see how the other three players operated while sharing a court with a legend. It’s such a unique opportunity to measure your skill.

Varma and Leach were so focused that they barely talked between points or on changeovers. Only a couple of times Leach said something like nice shot. They conveyed a total, unwavering belief in each other. Varma was a champion at D3 Swarthmore College and later worked at both Microsoft and Starbucks, he still advises Starbucks and is the CEO of the family office of the founder.

Varma is an NPTR 5.0 and has played with Leach for many years. Leach Varma have won five national level 1 (gold ball) tournaments together and also two level 2 tournaments. This is the first year the dynamic duo has played extensively. Leach’s game is not overpowering or sensational on the surface, but every serve is deep and he makes every volley and his hands and net sense allow him to steal most of those bang-bang plays at net. What stands out about Leach is his composure and focus and techniques. He uses Babolat shoes and racquet. Of course a successful doubles team cannot thrive with just one partner, Varma has every shot in the book and maybe a little more firepower though I didn’t keep track of his forehand winners and the tournament didn’t hire a statistician [smile].

After they lost the first set despite three set points, there was no reaction or frustration. It was back to business. And they just kept on playing their game. There were no discussions or conferences between Leach and Varma, they just kept playing as if that first set didn’t happen. And then they won the match 62 63.

As Varma would say later: “As context for some of the analysis… Having played with Rick a lot we expect guys to come out gunning for a win against a champion like him. So we expect tough matches yet know if we play our game we can navigate the highs and lows of a match. That’s something I learned from him.”

One of the only times Leach spoke was after he was hit at net and his sunglasses were knocked off. He quickly regained himself and said nice shot, to quell any kind of potential tensions. All four players were perfectly behaved and respectful. It was tennis at it’s highest form, a former world no. 1 and three other worthy players. Pittman played at Texas A&M and Harris was good enough to train all the time with Tommy Haas back in the day.

Other memorable aspects… Leach thanking chair umpire Ed Wagner by name after the match. Leach’s wife Alyssa exhorting him on with occasional gentle but inspiring Cmon Rick, Let’s go V, and Let’s go Coach Leach (his dad Dick, the longtime USC coach passed on Oct 24), a spectator congratulating Rick after, they met at a John Newcombe fantasy camp. I told a tennis media colleague Richard Pagliaro about this experience and his reply: “I love Rick Leach. Total gentleman. He and Fiery Freddie Stolle were my coaches the year I did the Newk Fantasy Camp in Texas. They split up like 80 players into four teams and each team has three or four coaches. Our team had Rick Leach and Fiery Fred and late, great Owen Davidson. Rick Leach, super cool guy, so calm and mellow. Super nice person and fantastic coach. I still remember what he and Fred told me more than ten years ago. The guy did not miss one ball in practice sets, also he hit with every single person on our team. Very cool guy, perceptive mind and his game is so clean, so precise. I believe he briefly coached Lindsay Davenport in her second comeback, also coached Leander Paes.”

It was one of the most extraordinary matches I’ve ever seen played and a special moment for the history of Longboat Key tennis. 

The match was more interesting, entertaining and educational than many of the ones we see on TV. 

Scoop’s latest book Facing Novak Djokovic is available at amazon for $9.99

Rick Leach Jim Pugh highlights at 1990 Davis Cup

· · · · · · ·


  • greg washer · December 9, 2023 at 8:14 pm

    Ricky is a champion on and off the court.
    Nice assessment. Well written.

  • Scoop Malinowski · December 10, 2023 at 7:41 am

    Thanks Greg, Rick Leach should be inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame IMO.

  • Michael Ray Pallares · December 11, 2023 at 5:12 pm

    Awesome read Scoop!



Find it!

Copyright 2010
To top