If things had been a little bit different, New Yorkers last week might have been able to see the greatest indoor tennis in the world. But things are seldom different in the world of tennis. Divided by a lot more than just Fifth Avenue, Jack Kramer's troupe of touring professionals at Madison Square Garden and the National Indoor Championships at a Park Avenue armory were each going their separate ways to the benefit of neither.
The trouble at the armory was that Kramer's champions were not there to play. (The closest approximation, Italy's Orlando Sirola, was eliminated in the very first round.) The trouble at the Garden was that there was nothing much to play for. In a rough school of sleeper jumps and one-night stands, Kramer's tennis players have learned to become real pros, but they produce a show without a final act, just a long series of scenes that vary only slightly. And yet it is a plucky show they put on, sometimes under hideous conditions. In Muncie, Ind. their court was warped. In Scranton it sagged—"like playing on a double bed," one player said. In Philadelphia the hockey ice over which the green canvas was laid began to melt, soaking the playing surface. Some arenas are too short, others too narrow. Practically all of them have inadequate lighting so that lobs disappear into a smoky haze. But to the touring pros such hazards are routine. After all, no one expects Muncie to be Wimbledon.
Their tour began in New Zealand, moved on to Hawaii and then California. Early this month it was in the East, fighting its way through heavy snows from Utica and Buffalo and Corning to Manhattan's Garden. Later this month the tour will depart for a five-week stay in Europe, then return again to this country for more barnstorming.
There are six players in the troupe: Richard (Pancho) Gonzales, the durable world champion, now recovered from his recent stomach injury (SI, Feb. 6); Lew Hoad, the heir apparent; Barry MacKay and Earl Buchholz, two green apples from the amateur field; Alex Olmedo, hero of the United States 1958 Davis Cup victory; and the young Spaniard, Andres Gimeno, whose name should be—but seldom is—pronounced "he may know."
February 20, 1961
Of the six, Gonzales, of course, is the main attraction. Tall, dark and explosive, he is still, at 32, the best tennis player in the world and looks it. But he hates the touring life, the constant traveling, the irregular hours and the endless succession of hotels. He plays on for the most part just to pay his bills.
"Poor Gorgo," said a friend recently. "How he'd like to quit. But he has those alimony payments to Henrietta and the kids—$15,000 a year—and the mortgage on that huge house in Pacific Palisades he bought for Madelyn [nee Darrow, a Hollywood model and former Miss Rheingold, whom Gonzales married in 1960]. He'll be back next year."
Lew Hoad, the No. 2 man on the tour, is no longer the iceberg personality he was when he first came to this country as a 17-year-old amateur. Now, at 26, out from under the stern tutelage of Australian captain Harry Hopman, Lew, off court, is relaxed and friendly, "a real gentleman," says Myron McNamara, a Kramer lieutenant. But he is married and has three children, all of whom are in Melbourne, and he misses them. Because he has invested his money wisely, this may be Hoad's last tour, especially if he wins it—and he plans to win it.
"Hoady wants to win as badly as any man I ever saw," says McNamara. "Some men rage visibly. Lew dies hard inside. He's the sort who will walk the streets until 5 in the morning after losing a tough match."
It is Lew's fiercely combative spirit, coupled with Pancho's economic need to win, that generates the kind of competitive excitement that is the pro tour's only approximation of real tournament spirit. In Hoad, Gonzales sees the one real threat to his top ranking and, hence, his top money. Thus when Hoad and Gonzales are playing, the crowd senses their desire and great tennis becomes a great contest.
This obvious rivalry as much as their skill makes Gonzales and Hoad the invariable "main event" when Kramer comes to town; the young newcomers, good as they are, are only prelims.
Barry MacKay is 25, a big, good-natured Michigan graduate who made the pro ranks on a strong serve and little else. He will never be in the same class with Gonzales and Hoad, and when he considers his tennis future he thinks in terms of three years only, the length of his contract with Kramer. Consequently, he has been investing the money he earns with Vic Seixas, the old Davis Cup war-horse, who now works for a Philadelphia brokerage house.
Butch Buchholz, on the other hand, has an unlimited future. Only 20, he has, tennis people agree, all the strokes to become a superb player. The one thing he lacks right now is maturity. A bad call or an unlucky bounce brings a flush to the boy's face, and where an older man, like Gonzales, often plays better when angry, Buchholz crumbles.
Alex Olmedo—the Chief—is the loner of the troupe and often seems not to care much whether he wins or loses. He travels with the others, but always at a slight distance. At an airport coffee shop, if the others sit at a table, Olmedo sits at the counter. On the plane he goes up front when the others sit in the rear. "The Chief likes to travel incognito," says Olen Parks, another Kramer assistant.
The Chief also likes girls. He talks a good deal about marriage and his ill fortune at being unable to find the right girl. He is always trying to rectify it. On a plane he will ask the stewardess if she can help him. The stewardess will say certainly, what can she do. Olmedo will simply look at her and smile wistfully.
Olmedo's game varies with his mood and the lovesickness of the moment. At his best he can beat anyone, but when his fire is out—and it frequently is—he expires easily. "I can't figure him at all," says McNamara, and neither can anyone else.
The pet of the Kramer tour at the moment and a potential darling of the fans is Gimeno. Tall, slim and loose-jointed, this young Spanish champion looks on the courts like a marionette of Ricardo Montalban worked by a nervous puppeteer. Between strokes he is a quivering collection of twitches but when the play starts he suddenly becomes as graceful as a matador. Off court, he cheers up losers, compliments winners in delightfully broken English and offers helping hands right and left. Gimeno's career as an amateur was not distinguished, but Kramer saw in his powerful serve and fluid ground strokes the ingredients of a future champion whose price might rise, so he signed him quick. But Gimeno, though only 23, does not intend to stay long with pro tennis. He regularly sends a good portion of his earnings back to Barcelona, where his father owns a perfume shop. He is also buying real estate.
"I think in three years, if I do well, then I go back," he said one morning in Philadelphia, resting on his hotel bed. "I think by then I will have had enough of this. It is a tiring life."
That is one point on which all six players will agree. The life of a touring tennis pro is rugged. Every day there is a plane to catch, a hotel to check into, new hands to shake and new arenas to locate. Meals are often taken on the run, in airports and coffee shops. And the players are always tired. The matches rarely end much before midnight. When they are over, most of the players like to eat and enjoy a few beers, for they are too worked up to go directly to sleep. But departure for the next city is usually made at dawn, to allow for the inevitable delays of fogged-in airports and snow-laden highways. So the interval between lights out and reveille is often a matter of minutes.
The players' problems are personal ones, but they are all a part of the bigger problem that belongs to Kramer. Here is a man who has under contract all the best tennis players in the world, and all he can do is shunt them across country like performing seals. His professional tours are still a shoestring operation, occasionally drawing crowds of 5,000, but all too often playing to little clusters of 800 or so.
This year Kramer has tried to instill a little of the old National League pennant race magic into the tour, throwing his six players into a 50-match round robin, followed by a 25-match playoff series, for a first-place prize of $35,000. He has labeled it, grandly, "The World Series of Professional Tennis," but to most fans it still is nothing more than a tennis exhibition. A quarter-finals match at Forest Hills, though the tennis may be inferior, provides a lot more drama.
What Jack Kramer and his professional champions want more than anything is a chance to play the game they excel at in real competition—to prove their championship in real tournaments. That the real tournaments also need them was never clearer than in New York last week.