Editor’s Note: ATPTour.com is resurfacing features to bring fans closer to their favourite players during the current suspension in tournament play. This story was originally published on 8 June 2018.
The abiding memory is watching Luke Jensen stretch three fingers of his right hand to reach a handle of the Jacques-Brugnon Cup as his younger brother, Murphy Jensen, with two hands firmly on the base, hoisted the trophy high above his head. It was meant to be the high-point celebration of a family game for the box-office siblings with firepower, who always competed with great emotion and enthusiasm.
Here were the Jensens, hailing from a Christmas tree farm in Ludington, Michigan, a town of 8,000 residents, as tennis champions watched by millions globally, trading insults for a couple of minutes. The Tournament Director was seen pleading for Murphy, nursing concussion and a broken jaw, to drop his bag and return to Court Central [the main show court’s name until 2001] for the trophy presentation “‘Murphy, you must put down your bags,’ Luke remembers the official saying, just as Philippe Chatrier, in his final year as president of the French Tennis Federation, stepped out onto the red carpet. It certainly wasn’t what the organising committee had envisaged of their 1993 Roland Garros doubles champions.
The seeds had been sewn for the Jensen brothers’ moment in time seven days earlier, when, after a third-round victory at Roland Garros on the middle Saturday, long-time ATP trainer Bill Norris asked, “What are you going to do if you win this title?’ As big fans of wrestling, Luke told Murphy, ‘If we win this, I’m going to body slam you to the ground, Hulk Hogan-style. It will be the greatest celebration of all time.’”
It was quite some admission, considering that Murphy thought that the team — formed at the start of 1993 — would be better off splitting up just four weeks earlier. Murphy, who only wanted to play tennis with his brother, remembers, “In Hamburg, I had suggested to Luke that he find another partner for Roland Garros. But I remember Luke telling me, ‘No, even if I drop to 1,000 in the world, we’ll still play together.’ We didn’t have a lot of success in clay-court matches, but beating Jakob Hlasek and Marc Rosset, the defending champions, in the Rome first round, gave me confidence. It helped me to believe that I belonged and what it took to win. From Rome to Bologna, where we reached the final [l. to Visser/Warder], and on to Roland Garros, we never gave up.” Luke, who initially received criticism for teaming up with his inexperienced brother, recalls, “Family was more important than maybe getting a better partner. When I won with Murphy, it was so much better, and the weekend before Roland Garros began, I said to Murphy ‘You know man, we can win this thing!’ Murphy said, ‘What are you talking about, ‘I’m just happy to be here!’”
American Gene Mayer, who captured the 1979 Roland Garros doubles title with his older brother, Sandy Mayer, told ATPWorldTour.com, “Every player dreams of winning a Grand Slam title. Playing with a sibling brings both additional pressure and satisfaction, so winning the French was not merely indicative of how far we had come from the two-year-old’s that had first picked up a racquet, but also, a fitting tribute to our Dad as a coach. On an emotional level, this was the pinnacle of our tennis careers.”
The same was true for the Jensens, whose father, Howard, a former New York Giants offensive lineman who played with future Pro Football Hall of Famer Y.A. Tittle, was an elementary school teacher that had been asked to take over the Ludington high school tennis team in the 1970s. At the time, Howard Jensen knew nothing about the sport and learned from magazines, but he went on to build a tennis court — one of just four in the town — in the family backyard, clearing out trees and pouring concrete for all of his children, which also included Rachel and Rebecca, both former pros. Tennis became his passion for more than 30 years and the family court, with one side fenced, and the other side open to the woods, was central to their rise. “We’d do a 10-mile run to decide who would play No. 1 on the high school team,” says Luke, who aged eight cycled from Michigan to Florida. “Selection wasn’t based on singles prowess, but on athleticism. Our whole games were founded on fitness. It toughened us up early on and instilled in us the ability to think we could win when we were down in a match. Our father had an unorthodox style and learned with us, through tennis magazines, being on site and watching other coaches.”
With their mother, Patricia, always known as PMJ, a six-foot, red-headed, high school gymnastics teacher, as their chief marketeer of rock n’ roll tennis, the ‘Gen-X’ doubles team of the 1990s were football players playing tennis, who’d taken tap-dancing lessons as children to improve their footwork. Ambidextrous 6’3” team leader ‘Dual Hand Luke’, with a gap-toothed smile and shoulder-length hair, had long dreamed of being a quarterback at Notre Dame, but became one of the world’s leading juniors and enrolled at the University of Southern California, before transferring to Georgia after two years. Murphy, 6’5”, three years younger and with $35,000 in prize money after two years as a pro, was the sensitive, yet effervescent playmaker, who made things happen, and as a teenager believed he would lead Michigan to the Rose Bowl.
The Jensen brothers run to the 1993 Roland Garros doubles title, included five of their six matches going to three sets – two were 12-10 third-set triumphs; Goran Ivanisevic “broke every racquet in his bag after losing with Henri Leconte in a fervent quarter-final,” says Murphy, on the bullring, Court 1, then there was a stand-out team performance in the semi-finals against Stefan Edberg and Petr Korda, that year’s Monte-Carlo champions.
The brothers’ endurance had stemmed from relentless competition, numerous trips to Norton Pines and West Shore Tennis Club to play indoors during the winter months, punishment runs behind their parent’s car, long road trips to national tournaments and brutal sessions on the almost 40-50 metre vertical sand dunes of ‘Puke Hill’, which their father used for his football teams. “When we played junior matches, you’d have to travel a long way to find people who were fitter than Murphy and I,” says Luke. “We always knew the longer the match went, if it became a test of endurance, we would win.” Murphy adds, “Dad once gave me his best line, ‘You never leave a match, you just run out of time.’”
Prior to the biggest match of their lives, John McEnroe, who was due to commentate live with his great friend Vitas Gerulaitis — who had previously dubbed the Jensens as “Grunge tennis” — and Bud Collins on NBC Sports, had come into the locker room to give the Jensen brothers a surprise, rousing pep talk. “With Goellner and Prinosil sat nearby in the locker room, McEnroe talked about how the next day was going to be the 49th anniversary of D Day [6 June 1944],” remembers Murphy, who, aged 24, was appearing for the first time at the clay-court major. “A hero of mine was yelling at me. He cared, and still does care, about American tennis so much. He wanted us to bring the trophy back home. He said, ‘Luke, you’re experienced and have Davis Cup experience. Murphy, just do what you’ve done to get yourselves here. You have to seize the day.’” Luke, aged 27 in June 1993, remembers, “Until the moment McEnroe walked in, we’d been joking around, not even thinking or being nervous about the match. But McEnroe changed all that, after saying, ‘This is the title. This is what you dream about, you play for. You have to do it. You’ve come this far. You’ve been down serving for it. You’re not going to lose it.’ Suddenly we had responsibility.”
Up a set against Germans Marc-Kevin Goellner and David Prinosil, who’d beaten top seeds Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde in the semi-finals, the trophy sat on the front row of the president’s box. “We could taste it, but our problem was we started to think of winning,” Luke told ATPWorldTour.com, 25 years on. Murphy got broken late in the second set, and recalls, “I told Luke I blew it, that we’d lost it. I really believed that.’ Luke remembers, “I told Murphy, ‘We’ve been down in every match, it’s a dog fight.’” The writing was certainly on the wall, when they were 0-3 down in the decider “and packing our bags” remembers Murphy, but Luke had inner-belief. “I said to my myself, ‘I’ve got to get our team back into the match.’ It was the biggest service game of my life.’”
“Goellner was serving at 3-1, 40/15 up, a virtual match point, when Prinosil missed a point-blank forehand on the top of the net,” says Luke. “At 40/30, I went for a poach. Murphy played a solid deep volley, Prinosil lobbed, Murphy called for me to take it and I hit the second smash for a winner. From 0-3 down we found ourselves 5-3 up.”
Having put Goellner under pressure, Murphy, competing in his second Grand Slam championship, constantly moved on his courtside chair preparing to serve for the trophy at 5-4. He was shaking his legs to stay lose. Murphy was initially rock solid, with one big serve and then great defence at the net for a 30/0 lead. Murphy remembers, ‘It was at that point I asked Luke, ‘Whatever you do, don’t hurt me.’”
The nerves set in. “We got to 30/0 up and Murphy hits a double fault,” remembers Luke. “At 30/15, Murphy needed a first serve, but double faulted again. At 30/30, I could tell Murphy couldn’t breathe properly, he was rushing. I didn’t know if he could hit a serve, so I decided that if he did hit a first serve, that I would cross. I sent the ball out of the court with a forehand volley. On the first match point, Prinosil hit a forehand that was too hot, then at deuce, Goellner struck a forehand return long as I crossed. Soon, on the second match point, Murphy picked up a great half volley on approach to the net, then I struck two smashes, the last of which Prinosil netted.”
As the Jensens went to celebrate, Luke’s right elbow caught Murphy squarely in the jaw. “As our German opponents walked to the net, he started swearing at me,” recalls Luke. “They saw us swearing and he said to me, ‘I told you not to hurt me.’ Murphy didn’t shake the umpire’s hand, but sat on his chair, grabbed his racquets and began walking off the court as the red carpet unfurled. Murphy, perhaps diplomatically, says 25 years on, “I didn’t realise there was a trophy presentation on-court, it was such a blur and surreal receiving the trophies.” Luke, who’d been on Tour since 1987, had once missed part of 1989 and 1990 after accidentally walking through a glass door, which required two surgeries to get the glass out of an elbow and finger.
Afterwards, Murphy sat in the locker room alone, shaking with emotion. Luke was off somewhere. “I used to have nightmares, centred on whether I would be good enough, because you don’t know what it takes until you do something,” remembers Murphy. “Prior to the final I had been stressed out, going through hundreds of superstitions. We’d been told for years that Americans couldn’t win on European red clay, but we did so through fortitude and fitness. We learned to play with wooden racquets in the 1970s, playing with two hands. We tried to be the best we could possibly be, maximising on our potential.”
Twenty-five years on Luke says, “Winning a Grand Slam validated all the hard work, they can’t take it away from you. Murphy felt so lucky. Instead of confidently talking up winning a Grand Slam, we did it and lived up to the result. He had never felt worthy to be a Grand Slam champion, but it was his destiny.”
Murphy didn’t join in the post-final family celebration that saw Luke and their mother drink a champagne toast at the hotel, which didn’t have air conditioning, so Luke continued to sleep on a mattress out on the porch. “Murphy went out with a friend, apparently, to a night club, Les Bains Douches, where Ilie Nastase used to hang out,” says Luke. “Dressed down and with half the prize money, he presented his cheque by way of identification in order to get in.”
On the flight home, ahead of a two-week break, Murphy recalls that Luke said, ‘I am going to sign every autograph and shake every hand and thank every tournament director from here on out.’” Their victory gave doubles global visibility and through their mother’s savvy marketing skills, product endorsement deals came flooding in, feature stories were written in Rolling Stone, Sports Illustrated, People and dozens of tennis magazines. The entertaining Jensen brothers became a brand, a must-see show-court attraction in the 1990s, and 25 years on from their momentous early summer’s day in Paris, their influence and legacy endures.