by Kung Fu Zu 7/22/15
Tokyo, in 1984, was a great place to live. Japan was approaching its post-war economic apex and the general mood was one of satisfaction, with positive expectations for the future. If a foreigner had a little curiosity, there was much to see and learn. This was especially the case if the Gaijin spoke a little Japanese, which I did. Perhaps most importantly, the US dollar/Japanese Yen exchange rate was very favorable for someone being paid in US dollars.
The country was in an expansive mood. The Japanese automobile industry was a world beater and the Japanese generally were very proud of what they had accomplished in the forty years since the end of WWII. In those days, I believe there were less than 40,000 Westerners living in Japan. Most of these were probably older men with families. At that time, Westerner = American for the sons of Dai-Nippon. Very few Japanese seemed to be able to differentiate between nationalities so everyone with pale skin, light eyes, and a big nose was an American. And Americans living in Japan were considered a bit bizarre. This was understandable because in Japan everyone really did look alike. To see some blond, brown or especially red head standing out above a crowd looked odd. This attitude even infected me the first time I lived in Tokyo. Sometime after about five months I happened to be walking down the street and saw a busload of Europeans unloading to enter a hotel. The first thought that came to my mind was, “Those people look strange.” After that, I knew that I needed a break.
As one might expect, in a city of almost fifteen million people something was always happening. Tokyo was a place which attracted people from all over the world. Celebrities of every kind, made their way to Japan for fun and profit — mainly profit. Golf pros were in high demand. But tennis pros, who were of greater interest to me, were also popular.
I have followed tennis since the days of Rod Laver and John Newcombe. I remember the first big money match in tennis between Newcombe and Jimmy Connors. The winner-take-all pot was a huge US$250,000. I kept an eye on Connors’ career as he was my contemporary in age and was one of the best players of all time. I even bought a Wilson 3000 racket. Unusually, Connors seemed to improve with age, having won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 1982 and the U.S. Open again in 1983. I was a big fan.
Imagine my surprise when, one week night as I sat eating yakitori at Nanbantei in Roppongi, in walked Jimmy Connors. His mother and a couple of other people came in with him. The party sat down at the counter across from me and a couple of business colleagues.
I quickly pointed out Connors to my friends who were duly impressed. As we sat there eating and talking, I mentioned that one of our customers, the buyer for Razno Import (a Soviet government-owned commodity trading company), was an avid tennis fan. I opined that it couldn’t hurt business if I were to get Jimmy Connor’s autograph for him. But I was hesitant to approach Connors as I didn’t (and still don’t) like disturbing strangers, especially famous people who are constantly bothered by ardent admirers. My reluctance didn’t impress my colleagues, who insisted I should try to get a piece of paper with some ink on it.
Agreeing to give it a try, I kept an eye on Jimbo. After an hour or so, he rose and walked toward the door. I jumped up only a couple of steps behind him. Once through the door he headed to a waiting taxi and before he could get in I asked, “Excuse me, you are Jimmy Connors, aren’t you?” I know this was a pretty lame thing to say, but surprisingly, he turned back to me, smiling and replied, “I am tonight.”
He did this in such an open and friendly manner that things went smoothly from there. In no time I explained about my Russian customer and asked Connors if he would mind signing an autograph for him. He said he would be happy to do so, took the napkin from me and rested it on the roof of the taxi. With a pen in hand, he looked over to me and asked, “What is your customer’s name?” I replied, “Velenchik.” Naturally enough, he then asked, “How do you spell that?” I was somewhat nonplussed, as I couldn’t recall the exact spelling. So I said, “V-i-l-e-n-c-e-k is close enough.” He looked at the napkin and in a bold hand wrote, “Vilencek, Best Wishes J Connors.”
Bingo! I had obtained the autograph and had had a brief, but pleasant, conversation with Jimmy Connors. Before he could go, I thanked him sincerely for his time and trouble. He shook my hand and replied, “No problem.”
The taxi door stood open waiting for him to enter. But, before he got in, a sly grin stole across his face. He leaned toward me with a slight tilt of his head, and while pointing his finger at me said, “Don’t forget, I want 10% of the profits.” Laughing, I told him they were his. He slid into the taxi, the door closed behind him and away he went.
Shortly thereafter, I visited Singapore where Razno Import had their S.E. Asia office. I called hoping to make an appointment with Mr. Velenchik, but was told that he was no longer in Singapore as he had returned to the head office.
I cursed my luck because I was sure he would have appreciated Jimmy Connor’s autograph addressed personally to him, even with a slightly misspelled name. As it turned out, there was no more business from Razno and no 10% for Jimmy.
Thirty one years later, I still have Jimmy’s autograph on that Nanbantei napkin, just waiting for Velenchik to pick it up.