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Luke and Murphy Jensen: Double Trouble

The Jensen brothers are the new rude dudes of tennis

Luke Jensen, Murphy Jensen

Luke and Murphy Jensen during a photo shoot at the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles, California on September 24th, 1994.

Al Bello/ALLSPORT/Getty

Luke and Murphy Jensen were raised to be smashing heads, not overheads. Their father, 59-year-old Howard, a former offensive guard with the New York Ciants, left the pros to coach football and tennis at the local high school in Ludington, Mich. As kids growing up in this small resort town on Lake Michigan, the Jensen boys were obsessed with football: They went off to quarterback camps and reached the semifinals several times in the national Punt, Pass and Kick competitions. All of this is bad news for their opponents waiting across the net.

Take a look at these two as they prepare for a match, and you’ll understand why. Luke is 6 feet 2 inches; Murphy, the little brother, 6-5. Both tip the scales at 195 pounds and wear size 13 shoes. Black, of course. Even the socks. “With black shoes, you gotta,” says long-haired Luke and then points out the skull and crossbones printed on the side of each sock. On the back of his sneaks is 42, the jersey number of his football hero Ronnie Lott, free safety for the New York Jets.

The Jensens are addicted to the NFL-style psych up. On the tour, they carry ritual items to make sure they hit the courts pumped. Exhibit A: the soundtrack to Patton, cued up to George C. Scott’s fire-and-brimstone speech to the troops. Exhibit B: Xeroxed copies of Vince Lombardi’s famous speech “What It Takes to Be Number One.” Then, with Metallica blaring, they pummel the lockers, slip on their Oakleys and head for the courts.

These tactics have worked well recently, as their June victory at the French Open proves, their first Grand Slam notch and their entry to the big time. Never mind that their specialty is doubles, the often neglected and untelevised version of the genteel game of tennis. That’s about to change.

This could be good news for tennis, which has lately been suffering from an excitement drought. The quality of play on the pro tour may be higher than ever, but you could say that about the Pro Bowlers Tour, too. Gone to the announcer’s booth is John McEnroe, who would horrify crowds with his screeching expletives. Connors is gone, too, off to the seniors circuit. No more Nastase. As far as personalities go, the best tennis has to offer is Andre Agassi, who is strangely becalmed and Zenlike these days. The great Pete Sampras isn’t very chatty. Jim Courier’s charisma needs jumper cables.

“Tennis right now is at a standstill,” says 24-year-old Murphy. “In the old days, when Connors would play McEnroe or Borg would play McEnroe, they had those great rivalries. When they were on TV, everyone would tune in. Even if you weren’t a tennis fan, you knew there was going to be a grudge match. There was something personal about it. Now everyone is so gentlemanlike about it. People want some of that hype, and they really don’t get that anymore.”

You want hype? The Jensens deliver a menu of theatrics so extensive it’s a wonder they ever have time to concentrate on the game. During a recent tournament in California, Luke and Murphy arrived courtside on a Harley-Davidson; they play in a rock band with Courier and Patrick McEnroe. Luke favors American-flag bandannas. They throw rackets. They yell and scream and wear leather jackets of their own design. You’ll see them smash full-forearm high-fives — Oakland Raiders style — after making a tough point. Their wraparound shades keep opponents from seeing where the brothers are looking. They tackle each other in sheer joy and point their index fingers at opponents like Western gunfighters. It’s tennis as blood sport.

“We actually try to damage our opponents,” says Murphy with a mischievous grin. “If things are going bad early, our way of winning the match is hurting the guy and maybe winning on default.” Murphy glances over at his brother Luke, who is cracking up. “Maybe he’ll get scared,” Murphy continues, “or maybe we’ll hit him in the face with the ball, [he’ll] need a doctor and go home. Really! We just try to hit the shit out of the ball.”

And that they do. Luke does it with both his right and left hands, which has earned him the nickname of Dual Hand Luke. How’s the serve? Between 120 and 130 mph, no matter which side he hits from.

Still giggling, Luke catches his breath to elaborate on Murphy’s remarks about how they play the game.

“It is just very physical tennis,” Luke says. “There is no finesse involved. It is not white. It is not country club. It is kind of a football mentality. When you watch us play, there is always dirt and blood on our shirts. The other players see what we do to each other on and off the court, and they think, “Man, just think what they would do to us if he is going to do that to his own brother — damage.’ “

Now they’re in hysterics. They can’t help themselves.

You might think that the other players would hate the Jensens’ Mad Max approach to the game. But playing on the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) tour is like a traveling frat party. All the players know one another, practice together, eat together and party on the road month after month. Which can get a bit tedious after a while, as any musician can tell you. Well, Luke and Murphy are so genuinely likable and entertaining that they have become everybody’s favorite little brothers. In July, when they were disqualified from playing at the Canadian Open over a technicality, all the players, even Agassi, signed a petition to get them into the competition. You don’t often see that kind of collegiality in pro sports.

LUDINGTON IS NOT EXACTLY A TENNIS MECCA. There were only three courts in town when the boys were young, so in order to make sure they had a regular place to practice, their parents built the Rock, a low-budget concrete tennis court in the backyard.

“Only one side of the court has a fence, so if you don’t hit a good return, you’re always running out into the woods to chase the ball,” says Murphy. “In the winter, while we were in school, our dad would come home and shovel off his side of the court. When we’d come home, he’d want to play us, but our side was all ice.”

The brothers talk fondly of Puke Hill, a steep, stomach-wrenching incline where their father used to condition his high-school tennis players. Even before they were in high school, Luke and Murphy gave it a go. In high school the rule was, first one to the top of Puke Hill was the first-round pick to play in the tournament. “The only problem was,” says Luke, “the best athelete but the worst player would always win.”

Their mom, Patricia, 49, who is now their manager, used to teach gymnastics at the high school. She made the boys take tap-dancing lessons because it helped with their footwork on the court.

All this turbocharged exercise would have killed off any other family, but it has obviously paid off for Luke and Murphy (as well as for their twin sisters, Rebecca and Rachel, who are both 20 and both tennis players, too. Rachel turned pro two years ago and is ranked 230th in singles, and Rebecca is an all-American at Kansas University).

As a junior, Luke was ranked No. 2 in the world in singles and doubles at 18 and was beating players like Agassi and Becker. Impressive stuff, but then he did something that few players at that level do: He went to college, enrolling at USC. He admits now that it hurt his career, but back then he considered going to school a good idea. But why USC when he could have picked better tennis programs at UCLA, Stanford, SMU or Georgia? Because his love of the pigskin was hard to resist. At his USC interview he met O.J. Simpson and Marcus Allen; they showed Luke their Heisman trophies, and he was sold.

Luke stuck it out for two years, quit and joined the pro circuit in 1987 to focus his energies on tennis full time. As he was leaving college, Murphy arrived at USC, stayed for two years and eventually transferred to Georgia, earning all-American honors playing tennis for the Bulldogs. “Going to school was terrible for my tennis,” confesses Murphy. “It ruined my confidence.” So he turned pro in 1991.

What is astounding about the Jensens is that they have been playing competitive doubles only since January 1993. That’s not a very long time in the tennis world. Some teams have been together for years. And Luke took criticism from relatives, friends and players who told him that he was crazy to team up with his younger, inexperienced and untested brother. Luke had a good thing going. He’d made well over $500,000 in career earnings before the French Open, playing mostly doubles with a variety of partners. Murphy, on the other hand, had won just two minor tournaments before the French Open, and his earnings were just a little over $32,000 in his pro career. The first thing you notice about these two is that they are inseparable. “Till death do us part,” Luke says and then adds, “there is not another guy in my future.”

WHEN YOU MEET THEM, the brothers are every inch the well-raised Midwestern gentlemen. “Yes, sir.” “Yes, ma’am.” “For sure.” But when they aren’t wreaking havoc on the court, they’ve made a little sideline torturing their fellow players as well as creating a little chaos with the security forces of world leaders.

Take the little stunt they pulled off with the SWAT team guarding France’s president, François Mitterrand, in Paris. As anyone will tell you, the French love to show off their automatic weapons and their commando sweaters. But when Luke and Murphy took one look at Mitterrand’s guards, they saw prime targets for the Winger.

The Winger is their code name for their homemade water-balloon launcher, and they carry it wherever they go. It consists of several feet of strong surgical rubber tubing and a pouch — a huge slingshot, really. They have perfected the Winger over the years to such a degree that they are accurate at up to 200 yards. To make sure they don’t get caught, the brothers dispatch scouts armed with walkie-talkies and infrared night-vision goggles (not a cheap pair, either — Operation Desert Storm quality).

“We open up the window and let ’em fly,” says Luke. “With Mitterrand, we shook up the SWAT team pretty good. We also bombed F.W. de Klerk in South Africa.” They don’t confine their targets to dignitaries. Every player on the tour — from McEnroe to Agassi — has felt the wet sting of the Winger. Lendl got annoyed when he was bombed during a postmatch interview. In some cases even the other players join in the high jinks. During a Davis Cup match in Lyon, France, a couple of years ago, Agassi helped the Jensens pull back the Winger.

It’s exactly this kind of prankster image that makes these guys so loved. So far, their sponsors include Prince rackets and Oakley sunglasses. Their newest sponsor is Adidas America, which is banking on the Jensens to rejuvenate the company’s tired image. “Adidas has had some problems with young people,” says Peter Moore, the company’s creative director. “They don’t know what it is, they don’t know that it exists. Kids think it is their father’s brand.” Moore says you can expect to see the Jensen brothers going nuts on your TV soon: “We want them to bring that attitude.”

IT’S BEEN A GOOD YEAR – winning the French Open, splitting $220,000 in prize money, being hounded by the press — but it hasn’t been all fun and games. Three weeks before the French Open, the Jensens were losing badly, sometimes not making it past the first round. Murphy was bumming and thought he might not be up to playing at his older brother’s level. Luke, ever the coach, gave his brother a stern pep talk and told him they would stick together. “I believe in Murphy more than he believes in himself,” says Luke.

Now their sights are set on the U.S. Open, which kicks into gear August 30. The Jensens are tight-lipped about their chances of winning. One thing is certain, though: They are going to love playing for loud American fans in a loud stadium made even louder by the jets dipping out of the sky to land at La Guardia Airport.

“We thrive on that land of atmosphere,” says Murphy. “And New York fans don’t just want to see a guy come out and put on a new tennis shirt between games. They want to see that shirt get screwed up.”

“We are just going to let it all hang out,” says Luke. “We are performers. We are out of control.”


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