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Jim Grabb and Gary Donnelly — Arizona-born players left their mark

Matt Zemek

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Aaron Doster - USA TODAY Sports

As the first edition of the Arizona Tennis Classic $125K ATP Challenger Tour event arrives in Phoenix, Arizona, it is worth celebrating the legacy of Arizona-born tennis players.

As you know by now at Tennis With An Accent, former ATP Tour pro Jonathan Levine is the tournament director of the Arizona Tennis Classic. The Phoenix native has succeeded in bringing professional tennis back to his hometown. Now we will see if this event can stick and carve out a sustained presence in the Valley of the Sun.

Levine forged a few moments of note as a tennis player — a third-round date with Ivan Lendl at the U.S. Open, and two major doubles quarterfinals with Eric Korita — but two other Arizona-born players reached greater heights.

Let’s meet them — there is no better time of year to discuss Arizona-born tennis notables than now.

Gary Donnelly didn’t win a large number of singles matches in his pro career, but the Phoenix native had the run of a lifetime at the 1986 U.S. Open.

He lost to Boris Becker in the fourth round, but look at the players he beat to get there:

In round one, he defeated Jakob Hlasek. Round two: Eliot Teltscher. Round three: Anders Jarryd. All three of those players cracked the top 10 at one point in their careers. They all reached at least one major quarterfinal, and Jarryd made a Wimbledon semifinal. Donnelly caught fire in New York before Becker extinguished him.

Donnelly was a terrific doubles player, winning eight titles. His best moment in the global spotlight was a run to the 1986 Wimbledon men’s doubles final with John McEnroe’s former (and superb) doubles partner, Peter Fleming. Donnelly and Fleming were beaten by Joachim Nystrom and Mats Wilander. Donnelly reached the men’s doubles semifinals at Roland Garros and the U.S. Open.

That is a solid and productive doubles career.

The player who managed to exceed Donnelly among Arizona-born tennis professionals was Jim Grabb, a native of Tucson. Grabb won two singles titles but similarly buttered his bread as a doubles player.

In 1989, Grabb teamed with Patrick McEnroe to win Roland Garros. The Grabb-McEnroe victims in the final? Mansour Bahrami and Eric Winogradsky.

Grabb then made two major doubles finals in 1992 with Richey Reneberg. He won the U.S. Open with Reneberg, beating Kelly Jones and Rick Leach in the final. However, Grabb’s doubles final loss earlier that year is the match most people around the world will remember.

The most famous match Grabb ever played was a match he didn’t win.

The 1992 Wimbledon men’s doubles final carried into a People’s Monday, a third Monday at the All-England Club with the commoners able to roar from their No. 1 Court seats. Commoners were treated to a man who shared their willingness to pour out emotions at all times and shatter the prim-and-proper veneer of SW19: I am talking about John McEnroe, of course.

McEnroe and Michael Stich outlasted Grabb and Reneberg, 19-17 in the fifth set. This was Johnny Mac’s ninth major men’s doubles title, his fifth at Wimbledon; his tenth major doubles title, having won the mixed doubles at Roland Garros in 1977 with Mary Carillo; and his 17th major title overall (7 singles, 10 doubles, including the mixed).

Here is a photo from the euphoric postmatch scene:

The stories of Jim Grabb and Gary Donnelly aren’t larger than life itself. They do, however, reflect productive and significant careers on their own levels and in their own contexts. Imagine growing up in the 1970s and thinking to yourself, “Damn, one day I could play a Wimbledon champion and No. 3 seed in the fourth round of the U.S. Open and win EIGHT doubles titles.”

It might seem modest in the larger workings of tennis history, but for Gary Donnelly and plenty of other players, that is a mountainous achievement and an unforgettable life experience.

Jim Grabb won “only” two singles titles, but:

  1. That’s two more than Julien Benneteau.
  2. 20 doubles titles and two major doubles championships represent a banquet table of doubles accomplishments.

Jim Grabb and Gary Donnelly both did something very difficult: They essentially “made it” on tour. They carved out successful identities and won stacks of doubles championships. They both played in a Wimbledon men’s doubles final.

Not bad for a couple of Arizona boys.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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