Great luminous eggs of inflated nylon like those shown below are beginning to hatch out a flock of winter tennis fans in Connecticut exurbia. Held aloft under gentle air pressure pumped in by a small blower, these vinyl-coated balloons provide simple weatherproof indoor courts, and are helping to generate a new warmth of enthusiasm for cold-weather tennis—the Norwalk courts shown here are booked solid throughout the winter. Although the tennis they themselves played may not have been the very best in the world, none of the suburbanites who had reserved their right to a single hour at the Norwalk Center one night last week felt any inclination to give it up so they could watch the game being played by champions. And that—quite possibly—is the principal problem of tennis today.
In New York's Madison Square Garden, some 35 miles southwest of Norwalk, red-haired Rod Laver, the one and only officially accredited tennis champion of four nations and the newest of the playing professionals, was matching strokes with five of his peers—Ken Rosewall, Barry MacKay, Butch Buchholz, Luis Ayala and Andres Gimeno—in what the pro association now headed by Tony Trabert chooses to call the "World Series" of professional tennis.
The pro association is the tennis cooperative that took the place of live-wire Jack Kramer when he decided (partly for personal reasons, partly for diplomatic ones) to retire from promoting. With Kramer just one of the group, the pros are now running the show themselves.
The tour in which Rod began to earn his $110,000 guarantee (for three years of play) opened last week in Boston and will continue across the country until 65 matches in all have been played. At the end of that time Laver may have won an additional first-prize kitty of $35,000 and a makeshift title (Professional Champion of the World) to add to those he already possesses. But if the apathy of those concerned with Rod's debut at the Boston Garden last Friday was any indication, few beyond dedicated tennis fans will be holding their breath over the result. "Nobody comes to these things," said a bored Boston usher surveying the half-empty house.
In Madison Square Garden, where the tour finally matched Laver and the current "pro champion," Ken Rosewall, the crowd was a little better and the play was deft and expert. Laver held up his end of it brilliantly. Rosewall had a rough time beating him, 12-10, in the one long "pro" (i.e., 10 games instead of six) set they played. But for all of the skill displayed, the atmosphere in which it was presented was as full of apology as that at Germantown or Newport when a club pro absentmindedly beats the hide off the club champion. Before the matches the manager of the tour felt called upon to remind the audience in the Garden that the real (i.e., amateur) national indoor championships were to take place at a nearby armory the following week, as if to say his champions in no way wished to interfere. And this despite the fact that any one of the six players in the Garden could easily defeat the best at the armory.
The absurd imbalance of this situation was pathetically plain. Yet only a week before, the organization officially responsible for the welfare of tennis in the U.S. resolutely turned its back on the whole problem. Concerned only with some mysterious menace it called "creeping professionalism," the delegates to the annual meeting of the United States Lawn Tennis Association in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. voted to declare themselves opposed to any form of open competition for the foreseeable future. High principle may have determined the vote of some of the delegates, but for most, it seems safe to say, the decision reflected the desire of small men to keep control over large affairs.
Like its counterparts in England and many other nations, the organization that controls U.S. tennis is not an organization of players. It is an organization of tennis clubs. Its only relationship to the player is that of a licensing authority. Each of these hundreds of member clubs is jealous above all of its local authority, its control of local tournaments, its percentage of control of regional tournaments and its say in respect to national tournaments. It is no more anxious to put tournament tennis into the genuine big time than the Jolly Masquers of East Footlight are to invite M-G-M to take over their little drama club. This was the menace that Jack Kramer presented, and the fact that it provoked the fox-terrier hostility of the USLTA was the main reason he stepped out of the picture.
The excuse that USLTA officials give for their backward march is that tennis is doing fine as it is—so why sully it? By "doing fine" they mean, and quite rightly, that more people are playing and enjoying tennis today than ever before. This is true everywhere—almost. Since Japan's crown prince met his princess on a Tokyo tennis court in 1957, more and more Japanese have raced to follow suit. Sparked by the success of its picturesque doubles team in Davis Cup play, Italian tennis has boomed in the postwar years. In the U.S., sales of tennis equipment have risen from $8.3 million in 1953 to $15.3 million in fiscal 1962. The number of Americans who play is estimated at more than 7 million, while golf can boast no more than 6 million. In an enthusiasm still fired by the memory of its great foursome—Lacoste, Borotra, Cochet and Brugnon—and the hope that more like them may emerge again, Frenchmen are flocking to the tennis courts. Sales of tennis equipment have risen some 70% over the last decade, and the spokesman for a French association of sporting-goods manufacturers claims the rise would have been far higher if the nation could have kept pace with the demand for courts. Yet, in almost every nation except England (where watching tennis, like watching cricket, has become a habit) the number of spectators has dwindled as the number of players has increased. Why, of all sports fans, do those addicted to tennis care so little about watching their sport at the summit? One answer may be that there no longer is a summit.
Nor is the participant trend irreversible. The happy USLTA notion that lots of little tennis makes big tennis unnecessary is being eroded by an ominous development in Australia, which for some years has been the capital of both the spectator and participant game. Aussie fans have always put aside their own rackets cheerfully at Christmastime to watch and cheer the fierce international matches (usually between Aussies and Americans) of the Davis Cup challenge round. But with the recent failure of the U.S. (or anyone else) to present a serious challenge, spectator interest has lapsed. So, significantly, has participant interest. Thus far this seismic tremor has not spanned any oceans, but it may. In the meantime Australian sporting-goods manufacturers are deeply worried and have organized a lobby (the first time they ever needed one) to beef up interest in playing tennis.
This situation is doubly important because Australians are the most passionately caring of all sports fans. There is no nonsense about counting not if you win or lose. Aussies count the wins. When the wins cease to mean anything the Aussies lose interest in the whole thing.
There are those in America who claim that the trouble with this country is that too many people gawk and too few people play, as if there were something incompatible between the two. But as Australia has already begun to prove, and as every kid playing sandlot baseball and dreaming of Maury Wills well knows, a game that is dead on top is scarcely worth playing at the bottom.
Since the ancient Greeks first carved their amphitheaters out of mountainsides, simple men have sat in galleries and seen their own small lives projected in great heroic drama played out upon the stage. For just as long, the world of sport on every level has achieved its ultimate in point and meaning through the clash of champions in top contention before partisan spectators.
Great sport needs more than a display of skill. It needs heroes and villains, a convincing cast of characters and a gripping plot to carry them along. Top tournament tennis today lacks point because it has been robbed of dramatic value. Its theater is not that of Shakespeare—it is that of Henry Hassenpfeffer appearing in the school play.
Tennis itself may have been no better in the 1920s than it is today. Arguments can go on forever over the relative merits of the big game and the backcourt duel. Could Tilden have taken Gonzales? Who knows? For seven years, however, from 1919 through 1925, fans could and did ask themselves: Can Tilden take Johnston? And they waited, breathless, for the tournaments from season to season to find the answer. The clashes of those two were taut with drama, and there was solid point in going to Forest Hills to see them. The point was caring who won. It was that simple.
It was that simple when the U.S. champion, Helen Wills, looking the picture of the prim Puritan maid, clashed on the courts with France's madly prancing femme fatale, Suzanne Lenglen, whose canny father used to insure adequate reward over expenses for his daughter by "betting" she would show up at tournaments. (The tournament promoters would, of course, be required to bet she wouldn't.)
It was that simple when, with the clouds of war forming once again over Germany, a lanky young American red-head named Budge took on a blond Junker baron named von Cramm and slapped him down.
For a brief moment last year Rod Laver gave tennis a sense of plot when he called his shot first and then went on to win the Grand Slam. His countrywoman, Margaret Smith, sketched out the possibility of high drama when she defied the stuffy authoritarians of the Australian association and established herself, unassisted, as the world's top woman player.
But such drama is only valid if it is sustained. Tennis is so rent today with pointless argument that no one has the chance to make the long, suspenseful ascent from the broad plain of promising participation to the summit of undisputed supremacy. One ardent reformer blames all tennis' troubles on the insidious presence of the word "love" in the score. Perhaps he is right at that. Love is said to derive from l'oeuf, French for egg, and, as drama, tennis is certainly laying an egg.