Until John Newcombe beat him last weekend in Philadelphia, people were wondering if Rod Laver would ever lose again. Laver had won nine straight "Pro Tennis Classic" matches at $10,000 a crack against such players as Newcombe, Tony Roche and Arthur Ashe, who are not exactly rinky-dinks, and last weekend in the Philadelphia International he mowed down four more little Indians until Newcombe stopped him in the finals. His 1971 earnings have already reached $95,000, and it seems likely that before the year is over he may top $300,000.
No one can offer a definite reason why Laver is playing so well. He himself explains that he stayed away from the game only two weeks around Christmas, so he remained sharp. The year before he rested a month, too long, he thinks now, and perhaps this was the reason for what he considers an off year. Only Laver would consider $200,000 in earnings an off year. But he was knocked out of both Wimbledon and Forest Hills in the round of 16, which embarrassed him, and friends say he is determined to prove that at 32 he has lost nothing. Dennis Ralston, the man who beat him at Forest Hills, thinks Laver is even tougher indoors because his wristy shots are so difficult to follow in artificial light, but Ashe says the better the conditions the tougher Laver is and that your best chance to beat him is in a hurricane. The one thing all the pros agree on is that Laver is the king, and when he gets into a hot streak, duck.
The Philadelphia International was the first stop on the World Championship Tennis tour, a 20-event schedule that will run until November and will hopscotch around the globe—Australia, Rome, Iran and Louisville. Each tournament will have 32 entries, including most of the top players, all of them under contract to Lamar Hunt. Prize money for each tournament will be $45,000, which may not seem like an impressive figure until you realize that it averages out to $1,400 a man. A $100,000 golf tournament is worth roughly $700 a man to its field of 144 players. In addition, there will be a 21st tournament worth $100,000 at the end of the year, this one for the eight best players on the regular tour. Taking part in so many tournaments, as well as Wimbledon, Forest Hills and others, will be exhausting but the money is just too good to pass up.
The important thing about the 1971 tour is that it marks the start of a new era, for it is the first time that professional tennis will have a regular series of tournaments—real tournaments such as the golf tour has—not man-to-man battles, Pancho vs. the amateur champ, or little eight-man events that begin with instant quarterfinals and have the feel of exhibitions. A 32-player field is large enough to capture the atmosphere of a major championship, as it certainly did in Philadelphia, and the importance was emphasized by the presence of tennis writers from England, France and Italy and by the appearance of Hunt himself, who flew up from Dallas even though his face was covered with poison ivy he had picked up while working in his yard.
February 22, 1971
The tournament had some very exciting moments. It was played at the Spectrum on a surface called Sportface, which is reasonably like grass unless you fall on it, as Nikki Pilic did, forcing him to default to Ashe with a badly burned hand. The event drew crowds that for basketball or hockey would have been a disaster but which for tennis were heartening—some 55,000 for the six days. There are so many strong players in Hunt's stable that first-round upsets will not be uncommon. At Philadelphia Ken Rosewall lost in the first round, Tony Roche the second. John Alexander, the big, rangy 19-year-old Australian—14 of the 32 players are Aussies—upset Marty Riessen and gave Laver a few rough moments, showing he may be the next big winner.
Not a part of the World Championship group but very much present in Philadelphia were the girls of Women's Lob, those female rebels who bolted the USLTA in a battle over women's purses, signed $1 contracts with World Tennis magazine (so they would be technically contract pros and eligible for Wimbledon, Forest Hills and other opens) and formed a tour of their own that has proven surprisingly successful. This tour has been dominated by Billie Jean King, who has recovered from last year's knee operation and, like Laver, had not lost a tournament until last week in Philadelphia, when she was beaten by Fran√ßoise D√ºrr, who lost in the finals to Rosemary Casals.
While the dawn of what promises to be a new age of pro tennis was going on in Philadelphia, the USLTA was busy trying to offer resistance. The USLTA feels, and perhaps with some justification, that it cannot run amateur tennis unless it runs all of tennis, and it naturally wishes Lamar Hunt would stay at home and count his money. It is important to understand that the war between WCT and the USLTA is every bit as hot as, say, the one between the NBA and ABA. So it was that last week in Hawthorne, N.J. and later New York City unattached pro players took part in something called the Clean Air Classic, a USLTA-sanctioned tournament designed to compete with Philadelphia for attention. There were a few players in the tournament that Hunt would like to sign—Cliff Richey, Illie Nastase, Clark Graebner and the winner, Zeljko Franulovic—but Clean Air was definitely a minor league event.
If anything did distract the tennis fans' attention from Philadelphia it was the news from Clearwater, Fla.—where the USLTA was holding its annual meeting and electing a new president, Robert Colwell—that Pancho Gonzales, that sly old dog, was on the scene lobbying to be reinstated as an independent pro and thus be eligible for Davis Cup play. The USLTA, which was shaken when Ashe, the last of its stars, went over to Hunt, would love to have Pancho, still the greatest draw in the game. On his part, Gonzales realizes that he could make much more money independently, demanding as much as $5,000 for appearing in USLTA-sponsored tournaments. There is one hitch: World Championship Tennis says Gonzales is under contract to Hunt and if Pancho starts playing for anyone else, it will mean war. Still, it would be fun to see old Pancho back in the Davis Cup and besides, there's really no point for him to play with the Hunt group. Rod Laver isn't about to move over for anybody.