First the government discovered income taxes, then someone found out you could turn a pretty good dollar with a jazz festival in the right place, and after that came the folk singers, dragging their mournful guitars and beards into town. The mid-20th century had invaded Newport. Even the famous Casino, symbol of extravagant wealth, had to sell part of its property to a supermarket to stay solvent, and across Bellevue Avenue a shopping center arose. Its parking lot is the favorite hangout for the town's teen-agers, who mass there—wearing stringy hair and yellow shirts—at all hours of the day. One of them, a legendary drugstore cowboy named Charlie the Hat, eventually became a greater local attraction than the Casino itself.
So the Newport of the gilded era, when the Astors and the Vanderbilts and the Van Alens sat around the Casino, on the Horse Shoe Piazza, listening to Mullaly's String Orchestra in the morning—that time had long since passed even before the events of last week. But there still remained a degree of hauteur when, after 85 years of tennis at the Newport Casino, professional players finally were permitted to tread the Casino greensward and (to be vulgar) play for pay.
Not only were the pros performing on the most hallowed of tennis soil—the site of the first national tournament in 1881 and the home of the Tennis Hall of Fame—but they were playing this odd sort of tennis. The server was three feet back of the baseline, bells rang and dollar signs lit up on electric scoreboards. Moreover, the points were scored just like counting fingers and toes: one, two, three and so on. No loves, deuces or advantages, in or out. (Or tennis either, some purists maintained.)
What was being played was tennis under the Van Alen Simplified Scoring System (VASSS), the invention of James Van Alen—of the Newport Van Alens—who, after eight years of getting nowhere trying to convince the mastodons of amateur tennis to give his plan a real trial, finally turned to the pros. They were perfectly delighted to take a chance and experiment, since there was also a matter of $10,000 in prize money involved. Pro tennis has enjoyed a limited success in the last couple of years since it switched from one-night stands and station wagons to regular weekly tournaments and airplanes, but the pros still cannot afford to be choosy, and consolidation with Van Alen might prove to be an amiable mating of underdogs in a battle against the entrenched amateur powers.
July 18, 1965
While the Newporters immediately loved VASSS and the special round-robin medal play that Van Alen invented, it was the pros who acted the snobs and found it difficult to accept this desecration of their venerable game. But 10,000 smackeroos being on the line, they gave it the old pro try and, to no one's surprise, form more or less prevailed. Three Australians—Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall and Mai Anderson—and Andres Gimeno, a Spaniard, finished as the top money winners. But of course Newport is one place where class always tells.
The pros arrived in Newport in midweek and were promptly entertained in the Newport manner by Van Alen. Enjoying themselves before play began, they also managed to murmur little straight lines about how interesting VASSS should be, how much they wanted to help tennis and how, after all, they would all be playing under the same conditions. Competition was the thing. End of entertainment. Start of tournament.
First match. Mike Davies vs. Pancho Segura. Segura 31 points, Davies 19.
Davies (scowling): This takes the tactics out of tennis.
Segura (beaming): Very good. It is an equalizer.
Second match. Rod Laver vs. Luis Ayala. Ayala 31, Laver 25.
Laver (anguished): Blooming hopeless.
Ayala (smiling): In this game, now [lapping a finger to head], now you have to think a little.
And so it went, the losers moaning, the winners finding VASSS quite fascinating and themselves a great deal smarter. As the week progressed, all of the pros except Pancho Gonzalez stopped fighting the system, and by the end of the tournament they were as enthusiastic as the galleries. There was even talk of playing all of next year's pro tour under the VASSS rules. "This is the most exciting week we've ever had on the tour," Pro Butch Buchholz told Van Alen at the Saturday night dance. "The greatest."
The scoring system—31 points to win—was accepted by the players with a take-it-or-leave-it shrug. VASSS does require adjustments, but these are subtle. What did bother most of the pros was the longer service, which they felt seriously changed the game. Moving the service line back three feet brings about tactical as well as physical changes in the play. First, of course, the server must change his whole serve, distance and angle, but even more important, because the power of the serve is muted, the server is unable to dominate the point with a quick rush to the net. The standard serve-rush-volley game is eliminated. "I'll never play this again," roared Gonzalez, who failed to finish among the money leaders. "I'm not going to play the game for 25 years and then get beaten by someone in a freak thing. And who says this is a better game to watch anyway? If people are bored with a game that has too much emphasis on serving and volleys, then just as many people will be bored with a game that concentrates on ground strokes." But the galleries and almost all of the tennis experts in attendance hardly agreed with Gonzalez' appraisal. They thought it was a better game to watch, which is exactly what Jimmy Van Alen has been saying for years.
Van Alen, whose devotion and belief in his system is quite fanatical, is himself an interesting man. He is, of course, of the very wealthy, a member of the Four Hundred. He and his wife reside on Ocean Drive in one of the many beautiful Newport mansions. ("Cottages" is what these gargantuan places were daintily called at first, a description in keeping with John Jacob Astor's famous remark that "a man who has a million dollars is as well off as if he were rich.") Perhaps as much as anyone in America, Van Alen touches back to those golden times. His mother, Mrs. Louis Brugui√®re, is the last grande dame of Newport, still presiding over her cottage, Wakehurst, in the old style. She has said that Wakehurst is the last house in Newport to be run "properly," which means, among other things, 23 servants, a greenhouse across the way providing fresh flowers daily, and 146 candles to light the dining room, since she will not tolerate electric bulbs there.
It was Wakehurst and Mrs. Brugui√®re who first welcomed the pros to Newport at a cocktail party, before they all adjourned to Mr. and Mrs. Van Alen's for a sumptuous buffet dinner. It was not quite the kind of affair that Wakehurst is accustomed to. There were, of course, many people saying "what a fun thing this is," but here, too, were all these professional athletes wandering about, while in a nearby sitting room a journalist batted out a report for the morning editions.
Through it all, Jimmy Van Alen skittered about, talking VASSS, at ease with all in the varied assemblage. "He is quite an amazing guy, when you think about it," said Butch Buchholz. "With his background, all his money and Newport and everything, you would think he would be the most conservative guy. But instead, he is one man who thinks tennis can be better and who is really doing something about it."
Of course, Van Alen has the time to do that. He describes his other activities as some kind of partridge hunting in Spain—it is not exactly clear what this is, because when pressed he immediately spins into rolling rhetoric about "the greatest partridge hunters in the world, the very greatest"—and "this thing with Christmas Eve, which you probably don't know about." This, it develops, is his reading of "'Twas the night before Christmas," which was written by Clement Moore, who lived in Newport. So impressive have Van Alen's warm readings of the poem been that he may appear on national television next Christmas with his recital.
As a matter of fact, Van Alen looks a little like Saint Nick. He is ruddy of face, positively twinkle-eyed, fond of bright attire, and filled with a naive enthusiasm and concern for everything and everyone that he meets. His inveterate promoting of VASSS has thrown him into circles far out of his great society, but while he blends with the company he has the magnificent capacity of remaining in character. He is, first and always, a gentleman.
Gonzalez, one person who can get under Van Alen's skin, was playing Malcolm Anderson on Friday afternoon, and Pancho, muttering and trying to be sarcastic whenever his big serve would fail, was successfully piling up tactless ploys. He topped it off by blasting a ball far over the grandstand, a maneuver that brought Van Alen to his feet from his courtside chair. Gonzalez, spoiling for an incident or at least a chance to play the Pancho Gonzalez role, walked over to Van Alen. "If you want me to get out, I will," he snarled. '"I just want you to show good manners and behave like a human being," Van Alen snapped, scolding Gonzalez so very naturally that he had no more to say.
In fairness to Gonzalez, some of Van Alen's endless arguments on behalf of VASSS do appear to be specious. For instance, the traditional tennis scoring system—love, 15, 30, 40—may be arbitrary, but it certainly is not all that difficult to grasp. Moreover, in simplifying the set to 31 points for victory, a great deal of the tactical, wars-within-a-war aspect of the present game is eliminated. As Gonzalez pointed out, tennis now provides a series of climactic confrontations. An impending service break at any point in a match can mean excitement, but with VASSS everything is a foundation for the last few points—and then only if the game stays close.
It would appear too that, once far behind, staving off defeat in a VASSS game is a much more difficult task. Also, because every point under VASSS counts the same, risky and exciting play—often advisable at certain point scores under the present rules—is discouraged. Better to play it safe, which is what the pros did—particularly since Van Alen had set up this tourney with an arrangement under which every point was worth $5. Take a chance, you might blow a fin, the players reasoned.
But the advantages of VASSS were obvious. For one thing, whether the pros like it or not, tennis is a better game to watch when the overpowering value of the serve is decreased. Better to watch means more people watching and that in turn means more money for the pros. VASSS also provides a system for handicapping tennis, and would give the sport, for the first time, a basis for statistics and records that is now lacking. "I must say," Mike Davies observed, "every sport that is popular is filled with bloody numbers, so there must be something in that." Best of all, VASSS absolutely, definitely, on purpose eliminates marathon matches. A VASSS 31-win set takes half an hour, give or take a couple of minutes. The pros, despite the relative success of their new tour, have been unable to interest television in their national grass court championship at Long-wood this week. If TV could see VASSS, the guess is TV would buy.
Not entirely on account of VASSS, the Newport pro tournament was, for tennis, most original and entertaining. All of the matches were held on one of the two main courts and, until interrupted by a drought-breaking rain on Sunday, ran right on schedule, just like Gemini. Also, Van Alen introduced night play to Newport, and even when the fog rolled in on something you would not, in your wildest dreams, describe as little cat feet, the show went on and the crowds stayed. The gate was the largest in years at Newport, where, of course, the Newport Casino tournament for amateurs has always been a big draw.
Van Alen had special electric scoreboards erected, and they showed not only the running score but the money being made. Another scoreboard, looking not unlike a stock listing, kept the complete point and money totals for all of the players. The tournament format divided the 10 players into two divisions, each pro playing a round robin against the other four in his group. The two pros in each group with the highest point total played a second round robin to compete for—hold on, Newport, and move over, Bud Collyer—the Pot O'Gold, which had a base of $850, plus the accumulation of the residue of prize money not won at $5 a point.
Van Alen provided his own attraction, too, wandering about the proceedings in his multicolored outfits, his plantation hat and his suede shoes, and leading his cocker spaniel puppy, Vasss by name, about on a leash. And across from Van Alen's box, his mother, Mrs. Brugui√®re, sat in a peacock wicker chair, lending a special air of alchemy to the affair that somehow transmuted all the neo-Veeckian gambits.
The pros helped too. They are much better entertainers than the amateurs and they are also gaining a look of permanence. Barry MacKay, one of their number who is trying bravely to play after a knee operation, handles the paid role of tournament director and liaison man, but the pros are planning now to hire a full-time man for the job. The tournaments have been increasingly successful and the average prize money may soon double from $10,000 to $20,000. There are other symptoms of coming success too. Ken Rosewall represents the Peacock Gap Country Club in San Rafael, Calif.—the same kind of deal that is virtually universal with golfers on the pro tour. Butch Buchholz has his own business manager now, and he has already told America about the inherent good qualities in such products as Vitalis and Wheaties.
The tour desperately needs new blood, however, and American blood would be particularly welcome. But of the amateurs—"all bums," says Pancho Segura, still a big pro name at 44—only Roy Emerson and Fred Stolle of Australia could cut it in this league, and Australians the pros have got. Indeed, except to the true followers, the Australian tennis players are approximately as discernible from one another as Vietcong guerrillas. Gonzalez is still the top American player, but he is 37, a World War II veteran, and he says that after this year he is through touring for good.
Since their success is still modest, it is surprising that the pros were so reluctant to embrace VASSS. Van Alen brought in Frank Pace, a tennis fan and former Secretary of the Army to talk to them on Saturday morning, to shill a little for the system and to quiet some of their grumbling. Pace pointed out that innovations in other sports have often come from the professionals and that the innovations have many times meant increased financial success.
For his part, Van Alen needs the pros more than they need him. The amateur hierarchy, having accepted fuzz on tennis balls, has since been a bit reluctant to embrace any more new ideas—or any old ones, for that matter. Van Alen's only hope to install VASSS directly among the amateurs would be to get it started at the grass roots and wait for it to grow up, but that is a process that could take generations.
So the pros may be Jimmy Van Alen's best bet, and Newport itself may be the logical springboard for VASSS. Van Alen has precedent on his side. Newport has not always been entirely hidebound, not completely bereft of innovation. In The Last Resorts, Cleveland Amory relates how automobile racing was veritably born there—on the beaches and right down Bellevue Avenue. There, at O.H.P. Belmont's cottage, Belcourt, a most spectacular race was held in 1899. It was an obstacle affair, and Mr. Belmont himself, co-piloted by Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish, drove the first car. Years after, harking back to the race, Mr. Fish remembered: "'Nobody dreamed that automobiles would come into general use."
Advantage, Van Alen.