Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall, two small Australians who wander the globe making a large living from tennis, have played each other at least 100 times. They know one another's shots so well they could conduct their matches through the mail. In fact, they wish they had done just that in 1963, when Rosewall beat rookie Laver for the U.S. pro title in New York City, then found out that the sponsor was broke.
Such a calamity is not likely to happen again, because the bulk of international professional tennis is now controlled by unflamboyant Texas millionaire Lamar Hunt, boss and banker of World Championship Tennis. Hunt wears a green WCT blazer just like the rest of the help, gives himself second billing on WCT stationery, personally passes out invitations to the reporters on press row and does everything but restring rackets for the 34 men in his troupe. WCT staged 20 tournaments in nine countries this year, sent the eight top players to Houston two weeks ago for elimination matches, then put on its grand finale last week in Dallas. And who should the contestants be but those old mates, Laver and Rosewall.
In an exciting fight that saw the last two sets decided by tie breaks, Rosewall forgot his wearying 20 years of campaigning and won 6-4, 1-6, 7-6, 7-6, afterward collecting a shiny new Triumph Spitfire, assorted jewelry and $50,000—the juiciest payoff in the history of the sport. Poor Laver had to settle for the $20,000 consolation check, which left him with barely more than $1 million in career prize money.
Hunt, who at 39 is only two years older than Rosewall but quite a few millions ahead of Laver, owns the Kansas City Chiefs and helped the American Football League get off the ground. He seems to be producing another good thing in tennis. In four years he has signed up most of the world's best pros and organized a tour that promises to grow rapidly, even if the International Lawn Tennis Federation, as expected, bans his players from Forest Hills and Wimbledon. Tennis is enjoying a boom in the U.S. (30 million tennis balls were sold last year), and WCT appears quite capable of cashing in on it. For a nice start it is involved in Lakeway, a multi-million dollar "tennis village" being built north of Austin, Texas.
The most important leap WCT has taken toward catching up with professional golf financially involved landing a good television contract. In 1972 NBC will televise eight tournament finals on Sunday afternoons. Now, admittedly, a match in Toronto, Canada or Charlotte, N.C. between Ismail El Shafei and Nikki Pilic—or even Rosewall and Laver—would not make much of a dent in pro football's TV audience, so WCT and NBC have wisely decided to start their little series after the Super Bowl and wind it up in Dallas before summer, when TV ratings drop abruptly. Eight large corporations already have been lined up as sponsors.
Last Friday's match did not have live network exposure—it was taped for showing over an independent hookup that night—and Memorial Auditorium in Dallas is not, by any stretch of the imagination, Centre Court, but Hunt spared no expense to give the entire week as much of a first-class aura as he could. There was a big press conference Monday, a black-tie dinner Tuesday night with tennis buff Charlton Heston the guest speaker, a turkey dinner Wednesday night at Hunt's $500,000 house and a champagne brunch the morning of the final. Laver and Rosewall endured all the ceremony in their affable, stoic Aussie style, maybe even enjoying it a little after innumerable one-night stands in the Peorias of the world.
The road to Dallas just this year had been tough enough, paved as it was with Aquaturf, Uniturf, Sportface, Tartan, tile and other things Bill Tilden never dreamed of. Laver was a finalist seven times, a winner on four occasions and, after the 20 events, the WCT leader in piling up precious points. Another Aussie, John Newcombe, was the early leader but slipped to sixth when an injured knee forced him to drop off the tour for a while. Rosewall finished third, winning four events, but when the elite eight gathered for the quarter-finals in Houston he found that Las Vegas had made him only a 12-1 shot to take the top prize. "I'd like to have some of that," said Rosewall.
He was fortunate to open with Newcombe, whose knee had recovered but whose overall game was rusty from a long layoff. Rosewall beat him in four sets, then beat second-seeded Tom Okker of The Netherlands in straight sets. Laver eliminated young American Bob Lutz in straight sets, then had a more difficult time with Arthur Ashe, who eventually did himself in by repeatedly volleying into the net.
Reporters from Great Britain, France and Italy were on hand for the finals, and a recording of the Australian national anthem was ready. Charlton Heston had returned to Hollywood, but Astronaut Neil Armstrong and Miss Texas were there. Lamar Hunt Jr. was one of the ball boys. It pleased the near-capacity crowd of 8,200 (pretty good for a Friday afternoon) and the color-TV cameramen when Rosewall appeared in a blue outfit and Laver strolled out dressed in yellow.
The fast surface, green Sportface over cement, was supposed to be just right for Rocket Rod's serve-and-volley game; Rosewall would have preferred a slower surface because of his marvelous ground strokes. Laver had won eight out of their last nine meetings and was in the habit of winning all his big-money matches. He had already banked $292,717 this year in prize money, $194,040 more than his countryman.
But to play a serve-and-volley game one has to serve well, and Laver quite often did not. Ten times he double-faulted, he couldn't get his first serve in regularly and he was even called for a few foot faults. Rosewall, in fact, got some benefit from the Sportface because it exaggerated his spin serve. The ball would land in front of Laver, take a sharp hop to the left and send him lunging after it with his backhand, often leaving an acre of empty court for Rosewall to volley into.
Laver fans were not too concerned when he lost the opening set. Rosewall served first, broke Rod early and held serve the rest of the way to take it 6-4. When Laver raced through the second set 6-1, his followers, who were in the minority, sat back and relaxed. Rocket is usually a slow starter, but now he was properly warmed up and would soon be heading back to his California seaside home with a fatter wallet than ever.
Four years older or not, Rosewall had plenty left. In the seventh game of the third set, with Rosewall serving, Laver five times had the advantage but could not get the break point. The set went to 6-6, bringing on the tie breaker, which in WCT events is won by the first man to reach seven points, providing he leads by two. Twice before in 1971 they had been forced into tie breakers, and Laver had won both. This time Rosewall won easily 7-3.
To win the match now, Laver had to take two straight sets; with a $30,000 difference in prize money at stake. He started the fourth set by netting three balls and double-faulting to let Rosewall break him. It seemed hopeless. Two double faults cost him his second service, and it was getting embarrassing. At this point, so far behind and with all that Lamar loot at stake, some players would become too cautious or get a case of concrete elbow. Laver chose to fire at will—screaming backhands and cross-court cannonballs. He broke Rosewall twice, held his own serve and forced another tie breaker. It proved to be the back-breaker for him. Rosewall's slashing backhand helped the dark-haired little Aussie jump off to a 3-0 lead and he won 7-4, joyfully hurling his racket high into the lights when Rocket's last shot, a typical guns-blazing, all-out try for a winner, went wide.
"He's had a pretty good run," said Rosewall afterward, "and I think it's about time he lost."
The new champion planned to fly back to his native Sydney for Christmas, but there was no doubt he'd be back, fit enough perhaps to play Laver 100 times more.