An open-minded boss for a bunch of old goats

Feb. 05, 1968
Feb. 05, 1968

Table of Contents
Feb. 5, 1968

Open Letter
The Winter Olympics

An open-minded boss for a bunch of old goats

Robert Kelleher has given the dusty USLTA one year of progressive leadership, but his influence will be tested when officials vote whether or not to allow U.S. amateurs to participate in an open Wimbledon

On his first day as president of the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association, Bob Kelleher was bitten by a dog and threatened by a man with a machine gun. It may have been the least trying day of his first year in office and good preparation for leading an organization that, in terms of efficiency and coordination, rivals the New York Mets.

This is an article from the Feb. 5, 1968 issue Original Layout

Kelleher's involvement with the belligerent dog and its armed master occurred in Puerto Rico where, searching for the home of a friend in a rural area, he was challenged as a trespasser. Though the hound was unconvinced of Kelleher's merit, the man with the machine gun was fairly reasonable and did not pull the trigger.

As Robert J. Kelleher, a Los Angeles lawyer out of Williams College and Harvard Law, winds up his first year in the unpaid job of presiding over amateur tennis in this country, several of his fellow officers have concluded that the dog in Puerto Rico had the right idea. These are the men who have kept tennis in the Victorian era, who consider themselves watchdogs guarding the old homestead—guarding it from progressing into the 20th century, that is.

Kelleher may be outdistancing the watchdogs, though (he prefers to classify them, zoologically, as "the old goats"). During the year he has moved ambitiously and impressively to pull the organization together—or at least to connect it with a financial pipeline that will enable the musty USLTA to update itself in several ways. Most recently he has been vigorously campaigning to get the USLTA to allow U.S. amateurs to participate in an open Wimbledon. Whether or not he has convinced the old goats will be revealed this week in Coronado, Calif., when the organization holds its annual meeting and makes its decision.

Although southern California has produced more championship players than the other 16 sections of the USLTA combined—and Los Angeles is the country's tennis mecca—Kelleher is the first southern Californian to become chief executive of the 87-year-old organization. Maybe this isn't so strange. Sectionalism is strong in the USLTA. The East—the New England and Eastern sections—has nearly enough votes to run the show. Allied with the Western (Midwest) sections it can carry anything.

Apparently Kelleher was acceptable because he is a blend of East and West. Raised within a mile of the game's American showplace—The West Side Tennis Club—in Forest Hills, N.Y., he migrated to Los Angeles in 1940 with his wife, Gracyn, a Santa Monica native.

Foremost reason for Kelleher's near-universal appeal was his success as Davis Cup captain. His victory in 1963 over Australia brought the cup back to the U.S. for a brief visit, the only look Americans have had at it in five years, and it convinced tennis officials that Kelleher had supernatural powers. Kelleher accepted the nomination, he says, "primarily to keep the job from going to one of the backward old goats—some New Englander dedicated to tennis but completely out of touch with the sporting picture in America.

"Tennis is a marvelous sport to play and watch," says Kelleher, "but we've swallowed some of our own myths about its popularity. Look at the sports pages, look at TV. Where is tennis? It is a minor sport that has a chance to realize its potential as a healthful recreational and consequential spectator sport if it will get up-to-date."

Such frankness does not please the old goats, few of whom can see beyond their own sectional strongholds and club gates. To them, a crowd of 2,000 at a big match is a major happening.

Soon after his inauguration, moving so quickly that the goats had no time to butt in, Kelleher made three significant moves in the USLTA's behalf: 1) he became a client of Licensing Corporation of America, which could mean added income of $50,000 to $100,000 annually for the USLTA; 2) he signed a deal with Madison Square Garden for a yearly international indoor tournament in the new building, which will give amateur tennis its first exposure in a prime Manhattan arena and put a minimum of $30,000 in the kitty; and 3) he hired the organization's first full-time salaried executive assistant, Bob Malaga of Cleveland, whose role corresponds to that of Joe Dey in golf.

A tall, easy-moving, dark-haired man of 54, Kelleher periodically asks himself, understandably, "What am I doing this for?" He can sit on the bricked terrace in front of his handsome home—an aerie in the Coldwater Canyon section of Beverly Hills—and peer across Los Angeles to the Pacific and Catalina Island. His lighted tennis court is at his feet, and next door is the only clay court in Los Angeles, belonging to Ginger Rogers. Kelleher has often played there.

As USLTA president there is little time for sitting on the terrace with his wife, two children and their collie. The ceremonial appearances demanded of the president keep him on the road most of the time. His own tennis game suffers, and the summer home on the beach near San Diego is hardly used. The Kellehers have been married 27 years. Gracyn Wheeler was Bob's best win when he was playing the Eastern Circuit during the late '30s. He was a good college player, winning the Eastern Intercollegiate Doubles for Williams. He still plays well, having stood as national Senior Hard Court Doubles champ in 1958, 1959, 1960 and 1962. But it was by marrying Gracyn that he forever etched the name Kelleher in the national rankings. She was No. 5 among the women in 1940.

Kellehers progressive thinking naturally has made him a number of enemies in the conservative, old USLTA. "Money, money, money—that's all Kelleher and Malaga think about," says one oldtimer. "There's too much emphasis on tournaments and talk about opens. Open tennis will kill the amateur game as we know it."

"Possibly," says Kelleher, "open tennis would diminish the current amateur fixtures. I don't know." But he does know that people who talk about "the great amateur game" are dreaming and that none of the top amateurs have been actually amateur for about 40 years. Kelleher thinks that opens might bring the game into perspective. If pros become the stars he won't mind very much. "I would hope the USLTA would take steps to control open play—as the USGA does the U.S. Golf Open—to profit by it. And perhaps then the USLTA would slowly go back to what it was intended to be—an organization to spread the gospel of tennis on an elementary level."