Confusion in the backcourt

April 06, 1970
April 06, 1970

Table of Contents
April 6, 1970

Desperate Hours
One To Go
Joe Weider
  • By Herman Weiskopf

    Larry Owings dropped 31 pounds in order to meet Dan Gable in the NCAA championships—and handed him his first loss in 182 matches

19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

Confusion in the backcourt

In the continuing battle between the USLTA and the contract pros the score stands at deuce and no one seems to know who is serving

The lords of tennis are at each other's throats again. The United States Lawn Tennis Association is threatening to bar the contract pros from playing at Forest Hills and the contract pros are saying they may not show up even if they are invited. The USLTA has been scurrying around holding a lot of meetings, trying to decide what to do with these greedy pro promoters who want to take so much out of the game and give so little back. It was bad enough when they insisted on management fees—expenses—at Forest Hills last year. Now they are hoping to promote several open tournaments of their own and they want the blessing of the International Lawn Tennis Federation. Talk about brass! Don't they realize who runs this game?

This is an article from the April 6, 1970 issue Original Layout

Let us digress for a moment and read from Article I of the USLTA Constitution: The USLTA is a nation-wide, noncommercial membership organization devoted to the development of tennis as a means of healthful recreation and physical fitness and to the maintenance of high standards of amateurism, fair play and sportsmanship.

Ah yes, those high standards of amateurism. The USLTA may have many things on its mind these days but amateurism is not one of them. The current bickering over management fees and tournament promotions is just a minor skirmish in the major battle for control of professional tennis. Not content with running the amateur game, the USLTA would like nothing better than to put World Championship Tennis and the National Tennis League, two pro organizations which between them have 32 of the world's top players, out of business. It is a battle that already has done much to retard the development of the game at a time when other sports are surging ahead in popularity, a battle that has cost tennis the respect of the sporting public. The pro promoters are not entirely blameless but the major share of the guilt must lie with the USLTA.

It is important to understand that the USLTA is very much in the business of promoting professional tennis. Those high standards of amateurism may have been brightly burning beacons in the days when R.D. (Dicky) Sears was beating everyone at Newport, but somewhere along the line the flame flickered and died. Amateur stars began showing up at tournaments and receiving envelopes with "expenses" inside, while USLTA officials (and those of the parent body, the International Lawn Tennis Federation) stood idly by. It was not merely a joke when a player would say: "I'd like to turn pro, but I can't afford to."

For years the payment of generous expenses, both in the U.S. and abroad, effectively subdued professional tennis. Sure, Jack Kramer had his little group of touring pros, and every so often he would steal into the amateurs' camp and pirate away a Ken Rosewall, Lew Hoad or Tony Trabert, but usually only one at a time. That left the bulk of the leading tournament players still under USLTA (or ILTF) control.

Then along came World Championship Tennis and the National Tennis League, and suddenly everyone seemed to be signing up. Not just a Rod Laver but all the Roches, Newcombes and Drysdales, too. In short, everyone you would expect to see in the round of 16 at Wimbledon.

Something had to be done and indeed something was. At the historic ILTF meeting in Paris in March of 1968 at which the federation decided to allow open tennis and thus let pros play at Wimbledon, Forest Hills and a few other tournaments, it also agreed to establish a new breed of player, the registered player, a person who was neither pro nor amateur. He would be able to pick up prize money in open tournaments just like a pro but he would still be eligible for the Davis Cup like an amateur. It was an obvious attempt to keep players under the control of the national associations.

The USLTA did not adopt the new category at first, but events at Forest Hills that September precipitated a change. Arthur Ashe won the first U.S. Open by beating Tom Okker. Ashe, as an amateur, got expenses, a lot of handshakes and a big trophy. Okker, as a registered player, walked off with $14,000, money that would have been Ashe's if the USLTA had approved the new category and if Ashe had opted to play under it. Now it was clear that unless the USLTA moved fast Ashe, along with his Davis Cup teammate Clark Graebner, would accept a pro contract. Thus, at the annual USLTA meeting in February 1969 that body so devoted to amateur ideals created the category of "player," someone who not only could play for prize money but could endorse products, teach tennis and anything else you want, Arthur. Just don't sign a pro contract with WCT or NTL.

To make certain that "players" would be sure of making enough money to keep from turning pro the USLTA also sanctioned a whole raft of tournaments offering nearly $300,000 in prize money and from which pros were barred—Dutch door opens, they are called. Ashe and the rest of the Davis Cup team were quick to realize that they had excellent bargaining power over the USLTA and they have exercised it. Just three weeks ago in Boston a simulated Davis Cup match was scheduled—Ashe, Cliff Richey, Stan Smith and Graebner against a team of Australian contract pros. A USLTA team against a contract pro team? You can't play, the USLTA told Ashe and the rest. Ashe said they would play anyway. And they did.

Once you realize that nearly every major decision in recent years has been geared to eliminating or at least combating the contract pros, then the minor disputes become easier to understand. Take the current one that promises to give us a Forest Hills without Rod Laver, the defending champion, and his fellow contract pros.

The USLTA, in its role as a promoter of professional tennis, wanted some sort of guarantee that at every one of their open tournaments there would be a certain number of contract pros. That's fine, said the pros, if you will give us permission to promote about 10 open tournaments of our own. The pros thought they had a verbal agreement with Alastair Martin, president of the USLTA, and Bob Malaga, executive secretary, but when written confirmation arrived in Dallas, home base of WCT, it mentioned only two or three opens to be promoted by the pros.

The pros say they got Malaga on the phone and that he told them there was no problem and that they should merely jot down the names of the cities where they'd like to hold their opens. The way Malaga remembers it, the pros jotted down a lot of other things too. All that is known for certain is that when the amended written agreement was presented at the annual USLTA meeting in Tucson last month it was rejected flatly. So as things stand, the contract pros will not play in any more USLTA-sponsored opens, including Forest Hills.

The pros will tell you there isn't really any money in open tournaments anyway, certainly not for the promoters who pay the air fare for their players and share none of the prize money or gate receipts. The pro promoters lost a bundle at the first U.S. Open in 1968 and so last year demanded and got $10,000 from Forest Hills to defray expenses. The USLTA was unhappy, stating that this sort of thing would ruin open tennis. "Why should the contract pros get expenses," asked one USLTA man, "when Arthur and Clark are willing to play for prize money alone?" The answer would seem to be that that's the price Arthur and Clark pay for remaining eligible for Davis Cup play. At any rate, an agreement was finally reached whereby an impartial committee will rank the top 50 players in any open tournament and they will be paid expenses in descending amounts. The contract pros will turn their expense money over to the promoters. That is, if they ever play in an open again.

One might argue that the battle between the USLTA and the contract pros even carries over to the distribution of prize money at opens. There seems to be a tendency to spread the money out toe thin, giving perhaps more than is necessary to first-round losers. A better idea would be to pay first-round losers nothing—on the golf tour they call it missing the cut—thus freeing $16,000 for, say, the quarterfinalists on up. But then most of the better players are contract pros, and the USLTA is not about to put extra money in their pockets.

The contract pros feel they can survive nicely without opens anyway. They are skipping the French Open, which offers an $8,000 first prize but no expense money. Instead the pros will be in St. Louis for a tournament sponsored by Rawlings. Travel expenses will of course be less, the tournament will last only five days, compared to the French Open's two weeks, and first prize is, oddly enough, exactly $8,000.

The latest attempt by the USLTA to deal a death blow to the pro promoters is Jack Kramer's idea for a Grand Prix of tennis. Now Jack Kramer is hardly a USLTA man—he and Martin have an extremely guarded relationship—but it so happens that the Grand Prix could not be better for the organization if Martin himself had thought of it. The Grand Prix calls for a series of USLTA-sponsored opens for men only. There would be 32 tournaments in all and each would, in addition to paying out prize money, contribute a lump sum into a bonus pool. At the end of the year the leading player (based on a point standing) would win $50,000. Second man would win $30,000 and on down the line for 16 players. Oh yes, to be eligible for the bonus pool a player would have to play in 80% of the tournaments, thus occupying most of his time. Kramer flatly admits that his plan leaves the pro promoters in the cold, but suggests they could be allowed to promote several of the tournaments. "Right," says Mike Davies of WCT, "Albuquerque, Little Rock, jewels like that. No, I don't think we'll go for that plan."

There is one plan that would bring harmony to tennis, that would be for the good of the game, a phrase that keeps bobbing up amidst all the haggling that has gone on for so long. The USLTA could do immeasurable service for tennis if it took a deep breath and announced that henceforth there will be only two kinds of player in the U.S., amateurs and pros, and that from this time on the USLTA will be dealing strictly with amateurs. Let every player declare what he is. If Arthur Ashe chooses to be an amateur, fine, but no more prize money. Surely Ashe and many others would elect to turn professional, thus stripping the USLTA of all its name players, but it would be gaining integrity, something it has lacked for years. Gone would be the murky area, the category of "player" that makes tennis look so ridiculous and dishonest to the man in the street. No longer would the USLTA have to compromise itself by letting players set the rules.

Having made that decision, the USLTA would be free to concentrate on the amateur game, all that grassroots stuff it keeps talking about. It might come as a surprise to the USLTA, but there is still great interest in amateur sports in the U.S. and chances are that tournaments at such established sites as Orange, Merion and Newport would be as popular as ever. Davis Cup? It can return to being a pure amateur event, which is what old Dwight Davis wanted in the first place. The Walker Cup in golf has shown how exciting an amateur team match can be.

One other thing the USLTA must do is elect a full-time commissioner and then give him the power to make decisions and rulings on his own, without reference to the vast network of USLTA committees and subcommittees that tend to delay or stop progressive legislation. Alastair Martin has proved to be a surprisingly strong and effective president and without the weight of the USLTA on his back might well have reached some sort of truce with the pros.

Rededicated to the high standards of amateurism, the USLTA could sit back and watch how the pros do on their own, coming into contact with them only when it runs the U.S. Open and the Women's Open. Yes, let's make it two separate tournaments.

The pros, on their part, would have to solve the problem of the best way to set up a tour. World Championship Tennis thinks the two pro groups will soon merge, regardless of what the USLTA does, and it foresees the day when all pros are on their own—no more contracts—thus freeing promoters to set up an office similar to golf's PGA, one that could work at lining up sponsors. Why not a Dow Jones Open? Hollywood loves tennis, so how about a Dinah Shore pro-am? The future of tennis depends on a strong pro game but every pro sport needs a solid amateur foundation. That should be the function of the USLTA.