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Bud Collins

He also voiced his love of tennis

Luciano Pavarotti couldn't resist the Longwood court. Luciano Pavarotti couldn't resist the Longwood court. (HENNING KAISER/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

NEW YORK - The man could sing. Oh, how he could sing, and now he can team up and tune up with the angels. As a tenor, he was in their league for decades.

But you know what? Like all of us, he had a secret passion. Luciano Pavarotti would have loved to have been a professional tennis player.

He told me that one day in 1980 while we were watching John McEnroe gliding toward a second US Open title at Flushing Meadow. Pavarotti, who died yesterday at age 71 in his hometown of Modena, Italy, adored tennis, and could empathize with the pros. He, too, especially in concerts, stood alone before a critical audience, and like them he was essentially a roadie. He said that if he made an unforced vocal error in an opera house, he heard and/or read about it. I called him the MVT (Most Valuable Tenor), and he didn't object.

In 1979, I met him at an ATP tournament in San Francisco, where we were partners in hackery, a pro-am mishmash that was attached to the main event as a charity fund-raiser. Surprisingly, even though there was much more of him at age 44 than his doctors approved, Pavarotti was extremely nimble and relished playing and competing. He told me that as a kid, in Modena, before he became known for his voice, he'd been very good at volleyball. But tennis really attracted him. Playing and spectating. He was fascinated by the gossamer touch of McEnroe, and recognized that John's was also an extraordinary voice - though considered too fortissimo and off-key by umpires.

Since Luciano was coming to Boston for a midwinter concert at Symphony Hall, I asked him if he wanted to play. Oh, si, si. I fixed up a game on the indoor clay at the Badminton & Tennis Club. Mixed doubles, so that his Boston protégé, soprano Madelyn Renee, could get a workout. She and Luciano had knocked the crowd dead at Symphony Hall the day before with their rendition of the last 20 minutes of the first act of "La Boheme."

He said he'd be back in the spring with the Metropolitan Opera, and how about more tennis? OK. Would he like to cavort on the grass at Longwood Cricket Club?

"Grass? Like Wimbledon?" His face lit up with that marvelous grin as though he were one of Puccini's Bohemians, Rodolfo, falling for Mimi. "Si, si, si. I grew up on clay, but I always wanted to play on grass."

It was arranged. But when the day arrived, he phoned to say, "Sorry, I don't think so. Today it's raw and cold. Not good for my voice." He was to be Nemorino in "The Elixir of Love," and sounded as sad as the rejected Nemorino at missing out on grass.

As consolation, I suggested that he drop by Longwood and at least look at the lawn. I showed up late, concerned that he might be lost. I asked a woman at the front desk if she'd seen a rather large bearded man.

"Oh, Mr. Pavarotti," she said. "He's so nice. He's playing on the clubhouse court."

Playing? Turned out it was love at first sight of the grass blades. He couldn't resist. Moreover, everybody else on the grounds couldn't resist a chance to see him up close. Deserting their courts, they gathered to watch him. Of course, he was his ebullient self. In his element as the cynosure, he played quite well, elated to be the star of a different galaxy.

Would he trade La Scala to be a Wimbledon champ? "Too late for that," he said. "As long as I can play the game, it's enough."

But he couldn't play much more. Too heavy, not very well. He told me that in Paris, in 1984, where, at Roland Garros, he was disappointed by McEnroe's blowing a two-set lead and the French Open final to Ivan Lendl. He had enjoyed horseback riding, too, but that was also over. His weight was too much for her horses, said a farm-owning Boston friend who had frequently hosted him.

But he carried on as one of the universe's most familiar and cherished voices. I was impressed by his reaching out to fans in Paris after singing in the opera, "Luisa Miller." He sat in the foyer beside a stack of photos, and signed them as long as people requested. No charge. That was standard practice. It made me think of all the athletes who duck pleas for a signature.

The last time I saw him was after a performance of "Aida" in London, he as Rhadames. He was so famished after that demanding role that he headed for a dinner party without changing from his costume. "I die in the end, of course," he said of the opera, "but I will also die of hunger if we don't get to the restaurant fast."

He burst into the place, an Italian joint, San Lorenzo, with brio, robe flying, everybody salaaming. The doorman stopped me. "Private party, sir."

"I'm with the Egyptian," I said, grabbing his robe as Luciano tugged me in. His voice tugged at our emotions for a long, good time. Besides joining the heavenly chorus, he may now have a doubles match with Arthur Ashe, Pancho Gonzalez, Suzanne Lenglen, Alice Marble, Big Bill Tilden, and Hazel Wightman.

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