Girls and boys together, they are all polite and socially primed, able to do the merengue and pick up the right fork. They are all, these 40 or so regulars on the Caribbean Tennis Tour, distinguished by traditional white dress and suntans, but the initial visual sameness is deceiving. They come from five continents, and among them they speak, it seems, as many languages and dialects as Babel ever had.
Some of them are better than travel posters: the Scandinavian girls, fair-haired and limber, dominating the beaches; Mrs. Ramanathan Krishnan, wife of India's best player, a diamond on her nose, a rose in her hair, moving gracefully in her long native gown; the bearded Danes, Jorgen and Torben Ulrich, looking as if they came straight off Leif Ericson's ship. Others can stir visions simply with their names, exotic and dashing: Monique Salfati, Vincente Zarazua, Heide Schildknecht. The circuit itself is exotic and dashing—two months each winter in Tampa, Miami Beach, Trinidad, Barranquilla, Caracas, Mexico City, San Juan and St. Petersburg.
Not long ago the members of the tour reached San Juan—the Caribe Hilton Hotel, the favorite and swankest stop of all—looking not only tanned and healthy but also much younger than they really are. The players looked, in fact, out of place, because there are very few young people at resort hotels. The younger generation is priced out, so there is no honest vitality and excitement about the places—just the coarse sound of money screaming, the raucous me-too babble of conventioners and the rummed-up boorishness of those "with a little too much to drink." So the tennis kids, bouncing in, are in sharp contrast.
Their vivacity is conspicuous only by contrast, for the tour kids are not a loud bunch. They are much more interested in a relaxed existence than in the activities usually associated with the transient. They are not even excessively competitive, because this is not Wimbledon, remember, and you are only going to get hotter and sweatier knocking yourself out to get past the round of 16. At the Caribe Hilton the courts are directly behind the cabanas, the beach and the Atlantic Ocean. "You're out there so hot, and of course you think about the beach," says Lesley Turner of Australia, the third-ranked woman in the world. "It's hard to approach every tournament feeling that it is important, especially down here where it is so nice."
Miss Turner is a sweet girl, good-humored and cute. She is 23, and this is her fifth year of almost constant tennis traveling, so touring has become a why-not thing. If she were not playing tennis, she figures she would be a secretary back in Sydney, and she does not fancy that.
The sameness of the tennis life, no matter how plush it is, affects the games of the players. Like Miss Turner, few even try to keep their games at a high level. Others, like Dennis Ralston of Bakers-field, Calif., use the tour as a testing ground for strokes and styles that can be perfected for later, more significant competition. But they are all athletes, and sometimes, suddenly, the competitive drive reappears and tennis is again a real battle.
Such was the case in San Juan with Margaret Smith of Australia, Miss Turner's attractive traveling companion, who is variously ranked as the best or second-best (after Maria Bueno) woman player in the world. Miss Smith's concentration wavered all week at the Caribe, and sometimes in the doubles with Miss Turner she appeared to be playing in a dream. However, in the singles finals against Nancy Richey of Dallas it was impossible to be so detached, because the match took place in the frightful heat of the day, the two contestants in sympathy only with mad dogs and Englishmen. Many of the matches on the tour are played at night for just this reason. The center court at the Caribe was torrid and still, the heat just funneling down.
Miss Smith won the first set 8-6 and led 3-0 in the second before she began to wilt, and Miss Richey came on to win 6-4. But in losing Miss Smith seemed to gain interest in the struggle, and after the girls took cold showers and put on fresh clothes, Miss Smith started to play like losing meant something.
The girls played each other a brutal game, making themselves run from side to side, 10 or 12 shots to the point, back and over, right to left, over and over. The heat seemed to take more out of Miss Smith, but both were uncomfortable. It became difficult to serve; in the first nine games of the set only once was service held. But the heat was too great for Miss Smith. In the ninth game, needing only to hold her serve to win the match, she lost quickly and began to suffer hand cramps. In the 11th game it was leg cramps but, courageously, she went on. Miss Richey, exhibiting a more stolid spirit, finally won 9-7. They rushed a doctor to Miss Smith's room afterward, and for a long time her cramped hand stayed painfully, grotesquely twisted like a claw. So sometimes, no matter where they are, they play hard.
For playing a little, a couple of hours on a couple of days before small and wealthy crowds, and for lying in the sun a lot, the players are well treated—actually fawned upon at some stops—and are given up to $28 a day, the legal limit for expenses. Naturally, all their travel costs are paid by the various tournaments, each of which chips in about $10,000 to a travel pool.
The players are catered to, but they are not demanding. They are, for the most part, a well-mannered lot, once they have worked out their financial arrangements. They do not possess the substance or even, apparently, the imagination to carry on in the libertine manner attributed to them by Bobby Wilson, the British player who wrote about such behavior in his book last year.
Representatives of the eight tournaments meet in September at Forest Hills to set up an itinerary for the tour and to look over player applications. (The Ralstons and Stolles are invited; lesser players must apply.) Later—this past year it was at Acapulco in December—the representatives decide which players should be included on the tour.
The players travel mostly in tribelike groups. The boys sort of herd their countrywomen about, guiding them, protecting them and making sure they are enjoying themselves. The girls feel that they have to depend on male players for escorts because, as Michelle Boulle of France says: "Everyone else you meet down here is so old, the only ones who ask you are—what you call them?—wolves, yes?" Michelle was explaining this dressed in a brief, green-striped bathing suit. She has long hair, long legs and rates high with 40 million Frenchmen. What she went on to say would make them all cry: "I cannot bother with the boys. I have to work, practice and, ooh, the boys also—how can I?"
Lis Arilla, a puckish young Spaniard who looks like Mighty Mouse—which is what they call him—has half-dollar eyes that grow bigger when he gets near women, or merely in their vicinity. He went out with Michelle for a while on the European circuit last summer, but he thinks such intramural attachments are generally unwise. "We are all like sisters and brothers," he says, echoing what everyone on tour says. "This is like one big family, and all these girls"—eyes enlarging—"I like them all, every one, but just as a friend."
The textbook example of tennis taking care of its own is the case of Lew Gerrard, an unfortunate young man from New Zealand. The first week on the tour Gerrard bought a bathing suit, and the next week it was stolen. That was just a warmup. Coming to San Juan, Gerrard changed planes in Miami and left his wallet on the plane. The customs people, in an enchanting display of U.S. charm, would not permit him to reboard, and when they finally put a call through to the parked plane, the captain or somebody said sorry, no wallet here. This was not surprising, avarice still being afoot in most places, because Lew Gerrard's wallet contained $1,300.
At the Caribe Hilton, Gerrard roomed with Fred Stolle, the No. 2 player in Australia and the world. As soon as he heard the story, Stolle set out quietly to collect money from the other players. (That Stolle handled the matter is not surprising. On the tour there is a remarkably high correlation between the best players and the most dominant personalities.) Friday night, at the annual players' party, Stolle got up and called Gerrard to the microphone. "We just thought, Lew," he said, "that we would try to get you something so you could buy a new wallet. So on behalf of all the players on the circuit who like you and think you're a great guy, Lew, we'd like to give you this." It was an envelope containing $1,000.
A fair portion of the Gerrard fund was a donation from the tournament itself, an act that provides the players with another reason for thinking the Caribe Hilton is the best tournament on the circuit and maybe even anywhere. Part of the affection is natural—it is a relaxing week at a ritzy resort and there is no great competitive pressure—but the fondness extends beyond these obvious limits. The players simply like the members of the Caribe Hilton Swimming and Tennis Club who run the show. This has led to a party—"the only one of its kind in the world." the players boast—that is given by the players for the people who stage the tournament.
About 25 of the boys and 15 of the girls play all or nearly all of the tournaments. Some of them are the ranking players in the world; others have questionable talent and are there strictly for the company and the U.V.s (ultraviolet rays). Still others dream foolishly that their games finally will click. "Some of them," Lesley Turner says, "think—no, they really believe—that if they just practice, practice they will become champions. You cannot tell them otherwise, but they just don't have the talent or the temperament. I feel sorry for the boys, because someday they will have to get a job."
But the heart of the tour is made up of the medium player, the journeyman, the girl or boy who can beat almost anybody on a good day, who has just the tinge of a name and a national ranking. There were 18 No. 1 players at the Caribe Hilton, including such ever-popular household names as Maria Guzman, Iyo Pimentel, Ivan Molina and Michael Valdez. There is an air of authority, of—my goodness—distinction attached to being No. 1 from anywhere instead of, say, No. 33 from the United States (which is what Vic Seixas is).
Away from the court the players take little interest in their international surroundings. Indeed, one of the more favored aspects of the Caribe Hilton is that they are all quartered where they play. Some of the players never even get off the hotel grounds. The sum total of most days is eating, sleeping (late), playing tennis, practicing, sunning and maybe enjoying a couple of drinks or a few spins of the roulette wheel at night. Eccentricities are rare but genially tolerated, particularly in the Ulrich brothers, Jorgen and Torben, who possess most of what bizarre behavior there is. Even that is not complex, consisting only of their beards, their lack of interest in the sun and their constant conflict with the clock.
The Ulrichs are night people to such an extent that they are better tennis players after the sun goes down. Torben, the elder, can be counted upon to show for breakfast—corn flakes, toast and coffee—regularly at 3:15 p.m., even when he has a 4 o'clock match. This sort of activity is countenanced by the other players, who lead more regulated lives.
The best representative of the norm is Lis Arilla, the little Spaniard. A middle-echelon tournament player, charming and fun-loving but moderate and even properly homesick at times, Arilla is 23 and the second-ranked Spanish player after Manolo Santana. "I am the youngest oldest player on the tour now," he says in the bright English he learned from watching TV.
Arilla is good enough to command full expenses, $28 a day, but even if he were not so good he is personable enough to hang on. His Caribbean tour, in fact, started in February, when he showed up for the Philadelphia Invitational. From there it went to Salisbury, Md. for the U.S. indoor, where he and Santana were defending doubles champions, and then to the Caribbean.
It is an upsy-down life. During the tour Arilla beat Stolle and Frank Froehling, and in Mexico City he got to the semifinals, but more often than not he was out by the second round. Usually it was Ramanathan Krishnan who beat him. Arilla is used to such a high-ranking nemesis. Last year he never was able to escape Roy Emerson.
It was fun sometimes—flying with the pilots in a chartered DC-4 or touring the nightclubs in Caracas—but he also got sick once, and another time he missed the whole Miami Beach tournament because of a knee injury. Faithfully, twice a week during the tour, Arilla wrote home to Barcelona, and by the time he got to the Caribe Hilton he was eager to be home.
Still, the kind of week Lis Arilla spent at the Caribe Hilton is the kind of week people dream about all winter—and pay $100 a day to enjoy. He arrived Monday, and almost before he had unpacked he was beaten in the first round by Roger Werksman, an unranked U.S. player. Philosophically, Arilla shrugged and headed off to a cocktail party that was being given for the players. He had a few local girls to get reacquainted with—one particularly that he remembered, a beautiful, delicate little girl named Marianne Moll, who had been tennis queen the year before.
Tuesday was a soft day for Arilla. He slept and swam and "then, I tell you, I watched the tennis matches for a change." He was in bed by 10 o'clock. Other nights he was a bit more active. Wednesday he had dinner with Marianne and several players and then went up to the casino, where he lost $10 at blackjack. This was not surprising, since Arilla played almost the whole time thinking aces counted 10.
Thursday evening he took Marianne out to dinner at another hotel's supper club, double-dating with the Mexican players Zarazua and Elena Subirats. The Ulrichs, Arilla noted, were the only other players there.
The next evening, Friday, his nocturnal activities were spoiled by the Ulrichs, whom he and Santana had to play. It was much the most entertaining match of the tournament—remember, the Ulrichs play better at night—with the Spaniards winning in three sets. Afterward Arilla dropped in at the party to see Lew Gerrard get his money.
Saturday night, his last, was the Tennis Ball. Arilla was paired with his old summer love, Michelle, but they were both tired and talked little. Still, Arilla said it was an excellent ball. "This one and Monte Carlo, they are the two best," he said, coolly analyzing them all, all the tennis balls the world over.
Arilla's days included a little practice, daily siestas and sun, the last letters home, lunch on a Spanish ship that was docked at San Juan and an exhibition match that he and Gerrard played at the Americana Hotel for a convention group. "I think we put on a very good show," he reported afterward, and Arilla is pretty good at gauging this sort of thing, since he checks the crowd out at every point. "Look, there he goes," said Cliff Richey, watching him one night. "See, the eyes. I think Mighty Mouse is just checking the house co see if there are enough pretty girls for him to be inspired." On Saturday, Richey and Ralston beat Arilla and Santana.
The next day, his final one on the tour, Arilla slept late and then joined Marianne and her brother for lunch. He watched the finals—Miss Richey beating Miss Smith, Santana routing Ralston—and then Marianne took him to Palm Sunday services. It was really goodby, and as he headed off to church about 10 girls came over to say that they would see him next year. "Lis is," Michelle had said earlier, "like a butterfly."
After church Marianne brought him back to pick up his bags, and then Lis Arilla, the Caribbean tour behind him for another year, went out to the airport and headed for Barcelona. He would be home for four hours, pack again and then take off for Monte Carlo. Monte Carlo has the second best tennis ball.
It is a nice way to spend a winter on $28 a day. And, don't forget, you get the $28 a day.