Professional tennis has always been a palsied enterprise, though more comic than sad. In recent years it has generally been run by the players themselves, and, in the main, they have shown less aptitude for management than the barnyard executives down on Orwell's Animal Farm. It is astonishing, then, that in the last few months, with the overwhelming stealth of a bloodless coup, professional tennis has threatened to become the tennis. "Our feeling here," Billie Jean King said in Australia the other day, "is that this is the last amateur circuit of its kind." Obviously, off their track record, the pros could never have managed this themselves. Nor did they. In fact, three outside forces sponsored the upheaval:
•The British Lawn Tennis Association, which will certainly declare the heart of the game, Wimbledon, to be a tournament open to pros as well as amateurs.
•George MacCall, a Los Angeles insurance executive who has been the captain of the U.S. Davis Cup team. Mac-Call has taken over most of the old pro tour—including Pancho Gonzalez and the three top players in the world, Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall and Andres Gimeno. Amateur Roy Emerson will join the group that plans a worldwide tour for purse money in excess of $500,000. It will begin play in the U.S. in late March.
•Dave Dixon, executive secretary of the Louisiana Stadium and Exposition District, an interloper in the tennis world who didn't know the pros existed until he stumbled upon them in Binghamton, N.Y. last summer. Dixon has joined with Lamar Hunt, the Dallas moneyaire, to form a generally younger pro troupe, called the "Handsome Eight." It will begin play in Kansas City on February 1, and go on a six-month tour with a format of two three-day tournaments a week in arenas throughout the U.S. for prize money approaching $700,000. The Handsome Eight includes three players who are already professional—Dennis Ralston, Butch Buchholz and Pierre Barthes—and five amateurs who will turn pro after the Davis Cup—John Newcombe and Tony Roche of Australia; Cliff Drysdale of South Africa; Roger Taylor of Great Britain; and Nikki Pilic of Yugoslavia.
The amateurs are left with tradition and obstinance and little else. Having lost most of the players, they are trying to hang on to the showcase tournament, Wimbledon—or, failing that, to refuse to permit amateurs to play there. Canada and New Zealand are the only two countries in the International Lawn Tennis Federation who have promised to support Great Britain. Several other countries, including the U.S. and Australia, have at least shown some sympathy, and will probably work to keep Britain from being expelled from the ILTF. Britain herself is in no mood to back down. "Having exploded the bomb, we cannot put it back together again," says J. Eaton Griffith, an ILTF vice-president who is leading Britain's fight.
Only two of the remaining top amateurs (Pierre Darmon of France and Lieut. Arthur Ashe of the U.S.) have intimated that they will, on their own, play in a Wimbledon Open, so, unless the ILTF relents, the tournament will be very nearly all-pro. Wimbledon blithely expects both the MacCall and Dixon troupes to appear by reflex, but it has made contact with neither, and, while MacCall expects his men to be at Wimbledon, there is considerable doubt that the Handsome Eight—including Newcombe, who is, after all, the defending champion—will make it. Arena dates must be contracted for well in advance; Dixon already has one booking (in the Baltimore Civic Center) during Wimbledon, and is working on others. "It's a terrible dilemma," he says. "I want very much to work with Wimbledon for we both can help each other a great deal, but it is impossible for me to wait forever to find out how things will work out over there. And they haven't contacted me at all. I am willing, and even planning, to have my players participate at Wimbledon in '69 and '70, but I just can't disrupt all our planning now when everything is so indefinite."
Tennis people, being tennis people, are leery of Dixon anyway, since he is not tennis people, and there are already rumblings that if he doesn't get the Handsome Eight over there, he will be exposed as no more than a quick-buck operator. This seems a harsh, snap appraisal that takes no account of his position.
Dixon is a native of New Orleans, born to the tight Mardi Gras society, a graduate of local Tulane (which he entered when he was 16). A fine amateur golfer before his putting skills deserted him, he has played in both the National Amateur and the U.S. Open. He owned a successful plywood business and when he sold out a few years ago he turned his major efforts to obtaining a football franchise for New Orleans. This in turn led to his appointment as head of the commission that eventually found voter approval for the planned construction of a 70,000-seat domed stadium. Curious, intense and thorough, Dixon can also be, by contrast, almost boyishly enthusiastic. It is generally assumed in New Orleans that he is planning to run for mayor. If he is silent on the subject, it is taken that he is being coy. Denials suggest only that he doth protest too much. After two decades of abject baldness, he began wearing a snappy toupee in the last month, and this has only heightened speculation that he is seeking to enhance his political image. Nevertheless, no matter what he plans for the future, it is strictly pro tennis that consumes Dave Dixon now.
His affair with the game began with a blind date last July. He was not even sure that pro tennis still existed, but he sought to examine the game as a potential tenant for the domed stadium, and asked his secretary to sleuth about to see if and whither the pros. She directed Dixon to Binghamton, N.Y.—the Valley of Opportunity, as natives are wont to call the area—where the pros were sequestered for a few days, entertaining a faithful coterie under the hot summer sun. Despite the setting, Dixon was impressed by the product. "I had completely forgotten what a great game tennis really is," he says. He and his wife Mary were soon jotting down little statistics about let balls and returns of first service and things of that sort. By the time the Dixons left the Valley of Opportunity an idea for a new pro tour had already begun to grow in his mind.
Originally, Dixon enlisted some New Orleans friends to help him finance the project. Later, he found it necessary to lead with some name money and enlisted Hunt for 50%. Dixon holds the other half of World Championship Tennis, Inc., square name for the Handsome Eight.
Using Hunt's name to open doors, Dixon scurried off after the players. He was momentarily stymied, however, when MacCall signed the Laver-Rosewall-Gimeno triumvirate. "I've got to give it to George," Dixon says. "He was just a better salesman and he outhustled me. George is a great guy, and we're going to stay in touch and try to be friendly rivals. Eventually, I'm sure we can work out tournaments where all our players will compete."
MacCall agrees. "I think we will not only force each other to be better, but we will provide an impetus and an image that will help amateur tennis as well."
Dixon's best player is the first one he did sign, Dennis Ralston. He brought Ralston, his wife Linda and their baby daughter down to his house that sits next to the tenth hole at the New Orleans Country Club. He entertained them for a week while he and Ralston came to an agreement after attorneys had pored over the curious maze of pro contracts to find out if Ralston was, in fact, available. "It was like the pro football baby-sitting," Dixon says. "I wasn't going to let the Ralstons out of my sight."
Dixon estimates that the leading money winner in his troupe—most likely Ralston—can make $200,000 a year; the lowest of the octet, he says, will escape with no less than $40,000. "By all the laws of mathematics," Dixon says, "our top money winner will make more than Nicklaus or Palmer."
The Dixon tour is studiously planned, streamlined to cram the most action into an efficient schedule. All play will be under the Van Alen Simplified Scoring System, with 31-point games that consume about a half hour's time. Mac-Call's group will use regular tennis scoring, and play in outdoor facilities. Dixon's eight will never go outside ("I don't care how good somebody's weather is") and all of the matches will be played on one of the four Astroturf courts that are on order.
Prize money will be budgeted at about $10,000 a tourney. Arenas from Vancouver to San Juan have already been engaged, and the marathon tour may extend to as long as eight months. With two tournaments a week, this will require a travel schedule that will tax both the participants and St. Christopher. In a typical month—March—the tour will play in Wichita, Omaha, Des Moines, Ann Arbor, Detroit, Denver, Albuquerque, Phoenix, San Diego, Long Beach and Los Altos, Calif. Dixon estimates that he needs 2,000 fans per session to break even. There will be five sessions per tournament, about 10 a week. With VASSS eliminating all those horrible 19-17 sets, though, it will be rare when any player must be on the court for more than an hour a day. Television has not bitten yet, but the formula seems perfect for the big eye, and Dixon is in touch. So is MacCall.
The operation is not to be cheap. Saturation advertising at each stop is planned. A full-time PR man will travel with the tour; another will remain in the New Orleans office. Various tie-in marketing schemes are in the works. Huge quantities of rackets have already been ordered from Pakistan (yes, Pakistan), to be given to the kids on numerous "Racket Days." If the USLTA will sanction it (but don't count on it), Dixon wants to have pro-am doubles competition at each stop, with proceeds going to the local amateur tennis organization. Both the AP and UPI have already agreed to print daily standings of the tour along with the VASSS averages, and as sure as your paper prints the American Hockey League standings every day, so too you will soon find something like:
James Van Alen, progenitor and lone-eagle promulgator of VASSS, has promised an attractive cup for the VASSS champion—just like he did for the amateurs, only this one will have 200 grand to fill it. As has also been mischievously pointed out in some dark corners, VASSS makes it convenient not only to handicap tennis, but even to make a good old-fashioned point spread on the proper old game. Saints preserve us.
Healthy expression—even booing—will be encouraged to replace the sepulchral silence that inhibits tennis fun. Efforts will be constantly made to instill personality in the tour. For instance, only one player (or doubles team) on the court will be in the traditional white. The other player will be dressed in his own distinctively colored attire—green, black, red and so on.
With Wimbledon and most all of the world's great players in its corner, pro tennis seems likely to succeed. If it is not successful under these optimum conditions, it is best to just give the farm back to the animals and write pro tennis off forever as a viable major league entertainment.