Sue Reilly
August 10, 1981 12:00 PM

After a promising start, aced by the flu

Ever since Johnny Weissmuller traded in his flutter kick to become King of the Jungle, athletes have been taking their well-tuned physiques and retiring to the more civilized rigors of Hollywood. Not until lately, though, has there been noticeable traffic in the other direction. Enter Vince Van Patten, star of B movies (Rock ‘n’ Roll High School) and defunct TV series (Apple’s Way, Three for the Road), who learned his tennis at the elbow of his father, fellow actor Dick (Eight Is Enough) Van Patten. It was after making his mark as a celeb in the pro-am tournaments around his Van Nuys, Calif, home that Vince began to wonder how good he could be. “People like Kenny Rogers, Charlton Heston and Bill Cosby are all good amateurs who play seriously,” he says. “And when I started beating pros in those matches, I thought I might make it professionally myself.”

There were, of course, certain risks that had to be faced. “For one thing,” says Vince, “the pro tour really ages you. Most players who are 25 years old look about 35, and that isn’t good for an actor. Also, my agent warned me that I’m no Robert Redford—who could disappear from the entertainment business for 10 years, then come back and still be in demand. Still, I decided that I wanted to do it.” What followed looked like instant success. After a string of upsets over highly regarded players like Bob Lutz, Tom Okker and Pat Du Pre, Van Patten was named the tour’s 1979 Rookie of the Year and vaulted from 374th to 34th in the professional rankings. That season he pocketed $200,000 in endorsements and tournament winnings.

Then last year Vince’s luck soured. While filming the soon-to-be-released Hell Night with Linda Blair, he came down with an intransigent case of the flu. “It was a real Cinderella story until I decided to make the movie,” he recalls ruefully. “I just figured I could take the month or so I needed and then get right back into my game. But the flu hung on for almost five months, and the doctors just couldn’t find anything to cure it. It made me so weak I couldn’t get out of bed.”

Now, though the illness kept him from playing this summer at Wimbledon, Van Patten, 23, is back on track. His goal: to crack the elite top 10 in the men’s international rankings. “When I finally got back to practicing,” he says, “I could only work for a few minutes a day. I had to go into a heavy rehabilitation program with my coach, and it was grueling.” Still, he expects to justify the praise heaped on him by fellow pros like llie Nastase. “He’s a good player,” said Nasty, before the flu bug wiped Vince off the court. “He’s got a big backhand and he’s very strong. He needs seasoning, that’s all, and he’s not like me: He never gives the umpire the finger.”

Born on Long Island, Van Patten moved to California with his family in 1969. By 1974, when he was 17 and already had three movies under his belt, he landed a part in his first series, Apple’s Way. Kristy McNichol was one of his co-stars. He also got his first onscreen kiss—from Farrah Fawcett, no less—and an unsolicited role in rumors, emphatically denied by both parties, of a hot-and-heavy offscreen romance with her.

By the time he was 18, Vince was earning $100,000 a year as an actor and playing tennis only haphazardly. But his talent soon became obvious to teaching pro Perry Gabrielitis, now Van Patten’s personal coach. “I played with him a couple of times,” says Gabrielitis, “and all he had was a big, booming backhand—really no other shot. But I was amazed by his quickness. All great tennis players have that. He’s like a cat.” When the time came, Van Patten’s father, who had opposed his turning pro, decided he ought to give it a try. “There were lots of things to consider,” says Vince. “I didn’t have years of training, and I really had only one shot. I was old for a beginning pro—20—and the biggest win I had ever scored was over Bobby Riggs when I was 15. Bobby called up my dad and told him he’d heard I was a pretty hot young player. He said he’d like to take me on for a $1,000 challenge. Dad isn’t one to back away from a bet, and he had a lot of confidence in me. I spotted Riggs the alleys and won anyway. He was really mad.”

Though Vince’s surge to the top has been interrupted, his commitment to the tour hasn’t ebbed. “I have a strong drive now, and I love to win,” he says. “But I’m not heartbroken to lose. I enjoy playing the game. I love the energy of the players. I like the enthusiasm you get from the crowds. Most people on the tour try to psych out where they have the best chance to move up in the rankings. So if there are three tournaments in one week, and Borg is going to one, McEnroe another, most people will try for the third. I don’t subscribe to that. I go where the weather and conditions are best.” Does this attitude betoken a lack of ambition? Not at all, says Van Patten. “I think I have the potential to be one of the best in the world,” he says. “I’m going to give it all I’ve got. I’ve given up ladies, poker, beer and going to the beach. Now I’m even turning down movies.”

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