Tom was mad at me. I could tell by the way he was standing in my office doorway. He had positioned himself sideways, as if he couldn’t bear to look straight at me, and one of his legs was bouncing; it seemed like he could barely keep it under control. I had said something sarcastic to him. I can’t remember what it was, exactly, but I remember realizing, as soon as it was out of my mouth, that it was the wrong thing to say. Tom took a step inside the door, and I could see by the strained look on his face that he was searching for the right word to express his irritation with me.
“You’re…” he started, raising his hand and pointing his index finger in my direction.
“You’re…” he started again.
I couldn’t help laughing as he walked back out the door and disappeared. “Wise?” It was either the worst word Tom could think of, or the worst that he would allow himself to say. I told the story to an office-mate of ours, and we ended up agreeing—again—that Tom may have been the only person we had ever met who really didn’t have a mean bone in his body. His emotions ran the gamut, from joy to compassion to exasperation. But snark, to his credit, was never his thing. If I had managed to make Tom Perrotta angry, I thought, I really had done something wrong.
Tom stood in my doorway, and sat in my office, a lot during the five or so years that we worked together at Tennis Magazine. He took up most of the doorframe. More than one person, after meeting him, said he looked like he was “10 feet tall.” He was indeed a big guy, but he was the opposite of intimidating. Tom was friendly, enthusiastic, animated and unpretentious. He wore khakis and tucked-in button-down shirts to work, joked about how much he missed having hair, and laughed with unself-conscious abandon.
We rode the same subway line from Brooklyn to Manhattan each morning, and I would occasionally spot Tom at the other end of the car, reading his carefully folded New York Times like a man on his way to Wall Street. Once he was in the office, though, he lived and worked like a writer. His desk was a tumultuous mass of papers, magazines, books and his own scribbled ideas. Ideas: Tom and I had offices next to each other, and we loved to bounce ideas back and forth. By the end of an hour, we might have enough for an entire issue. Tom was passionate about all aspects of tennis, and had ideas for pro stories, instructional stories, gear stories, personal stories, historical stories, stat stories. You name it, he wanted to write about it.
[Editor’s Note: Read Hi-Tech Tennis, where a rec player—Tom—finds out whether the technology developed by a biomechanist can help unlock the potential in his game.]
When I first met Tom, at Wimbledon in the mid-2000s, he was reporting for a long-lost daily called the New York Sun, and wearing what looked to me like a fishing hat to keep the summer sun off his head. Every side-court I went to that year, I spotted that fishing hat somewhere in the press section. As tennis addicts and fellow New Yorkers, we hit it off right away. I started to look forward to sitting next to Tom and listening to him talk, in his empathetic way, about the players we were watching. Whether he was writing about someone famous or obscure, Tom always brought a non-judgmental curiosity to his subject. He’s the only writer I know who would schedule a one-on-one interview with a pro even when he had no story to write. He just liked to talk to the players, and listen to them even more.
I knew Tom was a natural fit for the magazine, and we hired him the next year. That’s when I found out that we shared many interests beyond tennis—for books, food, art, politics, sports and the occasional daunting intellectual adventure. There weren’t many other people I’ve met who could talk to me about the Red Sox in one sentence, and the three-hour Phillip Glass opera he had seen at the Met in the next. Sports-wise, Tom was a Boston guy and I was a Philly guy, which meant I was always congratulating him on the latest title run by the Patriots, the Red Sox and the Celtics, and he was always consoling me over the latest defeat by the Eagles, Phillies and Sixers.
Music, though, was our biggest shared love. When he came to work at Tennis Magazine, we were both going through a big jazz phase. To amuse ourselves during our downtime at work, we liked to read the most outrageous and profane bits of Miles Davis’ autobiography to each other, and soon we started seeing shows at the city’s famous jazz club, the Village Vanguard. As with tennis, Tom’s enthusiasm for music was contagious; you couldn’t help but love it a little more when you were with him. He always listened to the shows at the Vanguard leaning forward a little, hawk-eyed and hawk-eared, as if he didn’t want to miss a note.
During the pandemic, when I’ve thought about what New York was like in the Before Times, I’ve often thought about nights out with Tom. We started at Le Singe Vert, a semi-raucous bistro on a once-raucous strip of Seventh Ave., a few blocks up from the Vanguard. Tom’s energy, and the fun of our conversation, made it hard to leave the table and the cocktails and the noise and the atmosphere behind and go see the show.
With Tom’s four-year fight with brain cancer at an end, you’ll probably see a lot of tributes to him, if you haven’t already, especially from his fellow tennis writers. He had a way of blowing past professional politeness and making you feel like you were part of his family. When Bud Collins was ailing at Wimbledon one year, no one showed more concern, or did more for him, than Tom. When another of our colleagues, Matt Cronin, got sick, Tom was the one who went out of his way to visit him in Connecticut. And one day in the office, when I suddenly felt like I was about to have a heart attack, Tom put down his work and spent the afternoon making sure I was OK. It turned out that I probably was having a panic attack about turning 40; but when it was over, I didn’t mind sharing a laugh about it with Tom. He never judged, and never made you feel vulnerable.
Earlier I mentioned that a couple of people I knew who met Tom said he seemed to be “10 feet tall.” He was probably 6’2’’ or 6’3’’, but looking back at my too-short time with him, I think I understand what they felt. Tom stood 10 feet tall as a man, a father and a friend.