There was a day when a U.S. defense of the Davis Cup automatically took place in the staid atmosphere of the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, N.Y. But that day is gone. This week the U.S. will defend the cup against Australia at the Roxboro Junior High School in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. To old-line tennis purists this may sound as degrading as moving the Masters from Augusta to Hoboken but, in truth, it is a long step forward. Removing the matches from Forest Hills may someday be considered as important for tennis as leaving that cellar in Liverpool was for the Beatles.
"What this sport needs is exposure," says Bob Malaga, the man responsible for bringing the Davis Cup to Cleveland. "We have to get tennis to the people and move the good things around the way golf has. I hate to say this, but now the best thing would be for other cities to try to get this away from us."
Malaga is a bright, dedicated promoter who works for tennis and Cleveland. Right now he is at his happiest and busiest because he is working for both. He is a bald man who does not wear a hat. His eyes do not dart about, his whole head does. Partner in a local law firm, clubman and resident of swank Shaker Heights, Malaga—the name is Czech—grew up in nearby Collinwood. He is an aggressive man but not pugnacious, a cigar smoker who does not jab out with the cigar. He brought the Davis Cup to Cleveland by careful planning and polite cajolery, not by bulldozing. Part ad man and part politician, Malaga played an important role in the gubernatorial campaign of C. William O'Neill in 1956. He still has license plate RM-29, his initials and his age when his man won.
However, the USLTA did not award the Challenge Round to Cleveland solely on Malagian charm. Cleveland simply made the best offer. It has carried out all its promises, too. The matches this weekend will make the most money in Davis Cup history. The U.S. and Australian lawn tennis associations should haul almost $100,000 out of Cleveland. The take was only $30,000 last year in Adelaide. "Nothing burns me up more," Malaga says, "than when I get some request for a $25 donation to support this tennis thing or that one. Sure, I know they all say I'm too commercial. Well, this sport doesn't have to beg. It can support itself if it's promoted. We've made money every time in Cleveland. O.K., I'm commercial if that's commercial."
Malaga started playing tennis at an early age, though Collinwood is known more for contact sports. Boxer Joey Maxim and several pro football players come from there. Malaga won a scholarship to Michigan State for both his football and tennis ability. His niche in football history is forever secure if only because of one game. Playing for the varsity as a freshman—it was permitted then—he kicked the extra point that beat Kentucky 7-6. The fellow who missed the extra point for Kentucky was one George Blanda. "I figure I'm the only guy around to outkick Blanda," Malaga says.
State was so crowded with good football players that it was decided Malaga should concentrate on tennis. He had been high school champion of Ohio the year before Tony Trabert was. When Michigan State took on the University of North Carolina in 1949 Malaga played in the No. 1 match against current Davis Cup Captain Vic Seixas. Seixas won.
Always a top player around Cleveland, Malaga's association with tennis was mostly athletic until 1960, when he grumbled so much about apathy toward the sport that the Northeastern Ohio Tennis Association elected him president and told him to run things himself. Immediately he cast about for some zone cup matches for Cleveland. "I said we could guarantee a profit if they gave us the U.S.-Venezuela American zone final. It was probably the worst tennis in history. Looking back, the USLTA probably would have paid us to take it."
But the matches were a box office success and in 1961, Malaga had little trouble getting the U.S.-Mexico Tie. The Americans won 3-2 in an exciting battle, and—of equal value from a publicity standpoint—Dennis Ralston lost his temper and was suspended. In 1962 Cleveland was host to the U.S.-Canada Tie, and last year the Wightman Cup. Malaga never stops running. Despite the pressure of Davis Cup details, he was at Forest Hills two weeks ago trying to regain the Wightman Cup for 1965.
These earlier matches were all played on the courts of the Cleveland Skating Club, but for the Challenge Round a stadium was needed. When Malaga first considered promoting the matches last December, before the U.S. had won the cup back, building a stadium was his first concern. He found a site near the Skating Club, a baseball diamond next to the Roxboro playground. Helped by an understanding civic leader, Harold T. Clark—for whom the stadium was subsequently named—Malaga started knocking on the doors of Cleveland industry. About 40 firms responded with money enough to guarantee the stadium costs and another $60,000 for promotional purposes. Some of the businessmen grasped immediately how important the Challenge Round could be for Cleveland, but many others hardly knew what the Davis Cup was.
In fact, so many people in Cleveland still do not know what this Challenge Round thing is all about that Publicity Chairman Jim Passant has taken a fresh approach. It may be called the Challenge Round everywhere else, but in Cleveland it is the "Davis Cup Finals."
"You had to push, to educate," Malaga says. "I pointed out, over and over, that a Brown-Giant game may seem big, but how big is it anywhere outside the country? The Davis Cup Challenge Round is news all over the world. This is the world championship, the Olympics of tennis." That reminded him: "Oh yeah, then sometimes I give this pitch. I tell them there are three world sports datelines this year: Tokyo, Innsbruck and Cleveland."
When the USLTA met last February, Malaga was ready. Not only did he have the necessary money, but Cleveland's offer came with no strings attached. Los Angeles, on the other hand, wanted the USLTA to cough up rent money if the city built a stadium. Cleveland profited by the Los Angeles-New York rivalry, winning when most of the votes for New York, which had been eliminated, were switched to Cleveland.
The $75,000 stadium has 7,000 seats, all of them bleacher-type, so it looks relatively unimpressive when empty. But the seats themselves are close to the court—much closer than at Forest Hills—and most of them will afford a good view of the action. Recognizing this, Malaga has not been bashful in setting his price scale. The least expensive seats are $5, and many are as high as $15. All three days of play have long been guaranteed near sellouts.
The surface of the court is a composition material, similar to clay. The brand name is Teniko-Royal, but most tennis players know it simply as "green." It is the slowest of the basic surfaces, and a new court should play a bit slower. Speculation as to what effect this surface will have on the play mostly involves Australian Fred Stolle, whose greatest successes have come on grass. The other three of the four certain combatants—Australian Roy Emerson and Americans Dennis Ralston and Chuck McKinley—all have a history of playing about equally well on all types of surfaces.
But Stolle's performance at Forest Hills—where he reached the finals before losing to Emerson—was hardly due to grass alone. In fact, the Forest Hills courts were very slow for grass and terribly rough. Composition courts are remarkably true, and this will be an advantage for Stolle, with his smooth, precise strokes.
Stolle's only real weakness of late has been an inability to handle balls hit at his feet. But he has been playing so well—on all types of courts and against all types of players—that if he maintains this form he should upset one of the Americans. And this he must do if Australia is to regain the Cup. Emerson is reasonably certain to defeat both Ralston and McKinley, but the Americans, with experience playing together, have a slight edge in the doubles over Emerson and Stolle, a new team. Giving the U.S. a hard-fought doubles win, the Aussies probably will win the cup back 3-2.
The teams are so close, though, that either could get hot and win by as much as 4-1. If Dennis Ralston—returning to the scene of his crime—does not reinjure his ankle and can regain the form he exhibited earlier this summer, the cup will not leave the U.S. Whatever the result, tennis will be the winner—richer in money, healthier of image.
Bob Malaga put down a phone, picked up his cigar and walked out of the little trailer that serves as the Davis Cup stadium office. Over in the school yard some girls were practicing cheerleading. "You know," Malaga said, "I'm going to get a band in here. I like bands. They're colorful. We'll get a big high school band—250 or something. We'll march them in all dressed up in their uniforms and have them play The Star-Spangled Banner. It'd be good. They could play soft things some of the time. They know some symphony music."
Someone suggested that that would be preempting 250 high-priced seats. "Ah," Bob Malaga said, "you can't think about that all the time. I bet they never even had a band before at the Davis Cup." They also probably never had as much fun as they are going to have in this Challenge Round—the "Davis Cup Finals"—at Roxboro Junior High, Cleveland Heights, Ohio.