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Through his lens

Russ Adams captures iconic moments in tennis history

Created date

September 28th, 2015

Brooks by resident Russ Adams

You may not have studied the photo credit, but chances are you’ve seen Russ Adams’ iconic photographs.

Russ, dubbed the dean of modern tennis photography by his peers, captured many of the sport’s legendary moments over the course of his career. His images have graced more than 300 magazine covers, and he was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2007, along with Pete Sampras, Sven Davidson, and Arantxa Sánchez-Vicario.

Russ grew up in Spencer, Mass., and took photographs for the Worcester Telegram while he was still in his teens. After a stint in the Air Force during the Korean War, Russ returned to Massachusetts to work as a sports photographer for the Boston Herald Traveler [now the Boston Herald].

Discovering tennis

In the early 1950s, the Boston Herald Traveler sent Russ to Longwood Cricket Club to photograph a girls’ tennis tournament.

“I didn’t know much about tennis at the time, but Hazel [Hotchkiss] Wightman taught me about the game and how to keep score,” says Russ. “She’d stand behind me and nudge me when the ball came off the racket, wanting me to take a picture.”

Russ soon realized the approach wasn’t working.

“It was too late by the time the ball was in the frame,” he says. “I knew I had to anticipate the shot.”

Russ modified his approach and showed the photographs to Wightman, who was impressed with his perception.

“It was my first taste of tennis,” says Russ.

Pulitzer Prize nominee

In 1955, while he was still covering sports for the Boston Herald Traveler, Russ received a Pulitzer Prize nomination for his photograph of Hideo Hamamura of Japan crossing the finish line of the Boston Marathon.

“In those days, politicians crowned the marathon winners with an olive wreath as they crossed the finish line,” says Russ. “Mayor [John] Hynes was chasing Hamamura, trying to place the wreath on his head. All the other photographers were behind the mayor. I was in front of Hamamura and got the shot. It was a case of being in the right place at the right time.”

Open era of tennis

April 1968 ushered in the open era of tennis, allowing professional athletes to compete with amateurs in the Grand Slam tournaments—the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open.

“All of a sudden there was a lot more media attention on tennis,” says Russ, who was on assignment with the Boston Herald Traveler that fall to cover the U.S. Open at the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, New York City.

“After Arthur Ashe won the men’s singles, only New York photographers were allowed on the court to shoot the awards ceremony,” says Russ. “I had to take my pictures from the stands, but I ended up in a good spot to photograph Ashe as he put his arm around his father. Through my lens, I could see a single tear run down his father’s cheek, and I got the picture.”

That photograph caught the attention of Judge Robert Kelleher, president of the United States Lawn Tennis Association, who was instrumental in opening major tournaments to professional players.

“Kelleher asked if I would take on more tennis assignments,” says Russ, who took a leave of absence from the Boston Herald Traveler to cover tennis exclusively. “That jump-started my career in tennis photography.”

On-court photography

As media attention at the Grand Slam tournaments swelled, U.S. Open organizers scrambled to find a solution to accommodate photographers.

“The following year, in 1969, they handed out 95 media passes to photographers,” says Russ. “Bill Talbert was the tournament director, and he came to me wondering where to put all these photographers. I suggested he put us on the court. He didn’t like the idea because he worried he couldn’t control that many photographers. I told him to designate an area, give us something to sit on, and if we left the designated area, we’d be out.”

That interaction led to the development of a system and code of conduct for on-court photographers that are still being used today.

“That’s how I really started getting a name,” says Russ, who captured another iconic moment that year when Rod Laver jumped over the net after winning the men’s singles.

“I saw him run at the net, but I didn’t think he would jump because he’d done it once before, caught his foot in the net, and fell on his face,” says Russ. “Then I realized he was going too fast to stop, so I kept my camera trained on him. I like how that picture turned out because it shows the scoreboard in the background.”

Player-photographer relationship

Russ, who left the Boston Herald Traveler in 1970 to pursue a freelance career, says his success as a photographer was built on relationships he had with the players.

“I wouldn’t just show up and take a shot,” says Russ. “I’d talk with the players beforehand and tell them the type of picture I wanted and asked if they were interested. Many times, they wanted the publicity or a certain shot for their sponsors, and we’d work together to make that happen.”

Billie Jean King, whom Russ photographed since she was a teen, has said of Russ, “Believe me, the players look for him and love him.”

Still behind a camera

In April 2014, Russ and his wife Betty Jo moved from their home in Reading to Brooksby Village, the Erickson Living community in Peabody, Mass.

Not one to retire, Russ currently works with the Tennis Channel, a digital cable and satellite television network, to produce specials about well-known tennis players. Russ amassed more than 1.6 million photographs throughout his career, believed to be the largest privately held collection of tennis images in the world.

“Betty and I are in the process of sorting through all the photographs,” says Russ. “The U.S. Tennis Association is interested in pictures of U.S. events. The Tennis Channel wants the rest.”

When he’s not looking at past photographs, Russ is busy creating new ones. At Brooksby, he keeps his camera close at hand in case he encounters a vignette or moment worth preserving.

“You have to be patient to get the best shots,” he says. “I’ve had a lot of practice waiting for them.”