Jack Kramer's traveling minstrel show has made its annual pilgrimage to Forest Hills, the big apple of American amateur tennis. The court troubadours with their tightly strung banjo-shaped instruments, having come and gone again, left us to wonder: Whither the professional game?
The $15,000 Professional Tournament of Champions opened its eight-day stand on Sunday, June 21 at the West Side Tennis Club, with the two young Australians, Ashley Cooper and Malcolm Anderson, cast in the featured roles. Only around 500 spectators turned out—meaning there were some 13,000 yawning, empty seats in the big concrete horseshoe. Two years before, the same two young men, then relatively little-known amateurs, almost packed the place when they met in the finals of the U.S. championship. Last year, still amateurs, they again drew a full house. But as professionals—greater artists by far—they could attract only a sprinkling of cash customers and a few curious pigeons. It is an irony of the sport difficult to understand. Later in the week crowds improved but only slightly—reaching 2,000 and 3,000—while across the Atlantic at Wimbledon awkward amateurs incapable of holding the pros' rackets were bringing in 20,000 to 23,000 daily.
Last week Forest Hills entertained the finest collection of tennis talent in the world—a small knot of men who had a total of nine American and five Wimbledon championships among them. This was the game at its best. This was the Kentucky Derby, World Series and Rose Bowl of tennis. Yet interest in it was anemic.
Quite obviously, the professionals own all the important talent in tennis, while the amateurs own the tradition and the big tournaments. It's a shame the two can't get together. The only way they can, of course, is through an open tournament. The players want it—the amateurs as well as the pros. The fans want it. Many top officials, realizing its value to the game in added receipts and junior development, are also in favor of open competition.
I think the time has come for the U.S. to strike out on its own. In defiance of the International Lawn Tennis Federation, which is supposed to be the world governing body, the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association should let down the bars. Certainly other countries such as France and Sweden would follow.
The pros continue to be an inspiration. The brilliance of their play—Pancho Gonzales' 112-mph service, Lew Hoad's topspin passing shots, Frank Sedgman's lightning volleys and Ken Rosewall's line-splitting backhand—is still among the greatest sights in sport. There ought to be a better outlet for them than the present professional tour and its limited tournament appendages. The public still thinks of professional tennis as nothing more than an exhibition, although it has moved well beyond that point. But the pros haven't been able to generate tne rivalries mat arouse the fan. The pros are regarded as actors, not players.
Kramer himself has taken firm steps to eliminate this illusion. He has increased the size of the professional stable to the point where his personal billfold is beginning to whine. He has changed the tour format from that of a head-to-head exhibition to an incentive plan. During the past year Gonzales, the pro king, made the circuit with his chief rival, Lew Hoad, and the two rookies, Cooper and Anderson. Each night they played for $1,500 on a modified round robin basis. Each night's winners qualified for the feature match on the next night, with the losers having to play the preliminary. The feature match had a $600 and $300 breakdown for the winner-loser. The opening match paid $400-$200.
Gonzales won the tour on the basis of money earned, beating out Hoad $29,900 to $29,100, a difference of only $800, although the young man from Sydney got the better of big Pancho in their individual duel, 15 matches to 13. At 31, Gonzales is by no means ready to give up his professional throne. He seems to be playing better than at any time in his life. This is accentuated by the fact that he beat Hoad in the finals at both Los Angeles and Toronto (losing only at Forest Hills) and has consistently outplayed his old nemesis, Sedgman, who once made a habit of knocking him off in Kramer's periodic tournaments. Pancho continued to be a magnetic figure, and it is amazing that tennis fans aren't lining up for a look at him everywhere he shows. Certainly he is to the game what Ted Williams is to baseball, Sam Snead and Ben Hogan to golf and Sugar Ray Robinson to boxing. He has tremendous appeal.
Gonzales' sudden tightening of his grip on his tennis crown must be upsetting to his rivals, who can't keep from regarding him as something of a monster. He is still the loner of the tour. He travels by himself and lives by himself, exchanging pleasantries only at courtside just before he is ready to blow their brains out with that awesome power he possesses. His best friend on the tour, perhaps, is Pancho Segura, and the Ecuadorian admits that "Pancho is getting more difficult all the time."
There is no logical reason why the pro tournament at Forest Hills shouldn't be a resounding success every year. It is an excellent show. The night performances—under the bright lights and with cooling breezes blowing through the marquee—are far more pleasant than the matinees. Besides, the tennis is top class.
I was amazed at the improvement in Anderson and Cooper since the Davis Cup Challenge Round in December. They now play and handle themselves like pros—poised and slick. Hoad, once a fretter, has calmed down immeasurably, and his tennis has shown marked improvement as a result. Tony Trabert proved he still is a formidable contender when he knocked off the speedy Sedgman, winning one set 28-26. Pancho Segura, at 37, is a marvel—still the darling of the fans with his bandy legs and two-fisted returns. There is no doubt about it: Jack Kramer has the cast. All he needs is a plot.