In Dallas last week the sport of tennis wore blue velvet and artificial flowers for a coming-out party. It dressed up in black tie, served Ch√¢teau Latour and played its grandest event in a musty old basketball house. Its zillionaire owner worked the press row in shirtsleeves and worn-heeled shoes. Its biggest stars were the smallest of men. And its guest of honor was a TV actor who beats up crooks with judo while trailing the leash of a seeing-eye dog.
In reality the velvet-covered walls encircling the court of SMU's Moody Coliseum signified the true flavor of the game. The locations of this season's early primaries in pro tennis were listed there, and so, in a sense, was the atmosphere. Cologne: beauty. Barcelona: romance. Quebec: pomp and ceremony. Stockholm: excitement and intrigue. Las Vegas: love games and angles. Charlotte: Moon Pie. And inside the velvet was the sport at its best. Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall, two wee and wealthy fellows who could but the Kentucky Derby as well as ride in it, were battling for the championship of Dallas, Australia and the universe.
When Rosewall defeated Laver, 4-6, 6-0, 6-3, 6-7, 7-6 in a thrilling 3½-hour contest that had the 7,800 spectators howling on every exchange, he did more than win the $50,000 first prize of World Championship Tennis and give gray-beards and midgets a new lease on their Dunlops. The victory was a measure of vindication for "Muscles." who had won this same title over Laver just last November—when it was considered something of a fluke. Then, all he had done was deprive the Rocket of a $300,000 season. Now, he has given everybody reason to pause and contemplate who really is the world's finest player in the big ones.
To reach the climax of the rearranged WCT 20-tournament circuit. Laver had won eight events and then cut through John Newcombe and Marty Riessen last week. The 37-year-old Rosewall, meanwhile, disposed of two Americans, Bob Lutz and Arthur Ashe, to bring his creaking, stroking-machine body back to defend his championship.
Seeking revenge, Laver started the finals with a rush, but then mysteriously lost all control of his first service. In one stretch he failed to make good on 28 of 39 first serves, and Rosewall marched into the lead. The Rocket struggled back by taking a tie breaker in the fourth set, 7-3, and the stage was set for the finale of what turned out to be the most dramatic match the two old friends had ever played.
Rosewall made the first move, breaking Laver in the second game with a sensational backhand that he had to run halfway to Fort Worth to get. But suddenly his legs just disappeared and he lost command. Still, Laver's serve continued to be erratic (10 double faults) and Rosewall had him down 4-5 and match point in the 10th game. Then, whap. Ace. Whap, whap. Laver was saved again. More than that, he was ahead 5-4 in the tie breaker and had two serves for the victory. Then it happened. Rosewall called up all his strength to jump on both of Laver's first serves so fast the Rocket must have felt he was in a boomerang gallery.
Now Rosewall led 6-5 and when the Rocket returned the defending champion's own unimpressive serve into the net. the Doomsday Machine had staggered to a classic win at the WCT gala coming-out party.
In a manner of speaking what Rosewall, Laver, WCT and its cash-and-carry commander, Lamar Hunt, all will be coming out from in future weeks is incarceration behind bars. They had been detained in Custody since last July at Wimbledon when the 91-nation International Lawn Tennis Federation banned Hunt's WCT players from federation-sanctioned tournaments as of January of this year.
The ILTF action came about because of several factors, depending on who is to be believed. The international group alleged that Hunt wanted a high percentage of the gate at Wimbledon as well as a piece of the action on car parking, catering and television, the choice of tennis balls plus—get this—the introduction of colored shirts. For his part Hunt said he was using up-to-date business methods, that he only wanted pro tennis to be a viable institution like other U.S. pro sports and that he had demanded only reimbursement of air fares.
Hunt sat there stoically at Wimbledon last July as Herman David, the chairman of the All England Club, heaped scorn upon abuse while pointing at Hunt and saying something like, "This man will not tell us how to run tennis."
Forbidding as it did all but two or three of the best players in the world from participating in the two best tournaments in the world (Wimbledon and Forest Hills), the ILTF ban once again gave the administrative part of the game that wondrous tone of farce which it had been trying to escape since the pro-amateur fights of time immemorial. The ILTF, in effect, closed open tennis, and its members returned to staring at walls or whatever it was they did before they opened closed tennis back in 1968.
If this seemed a bit confusing, tennis had seen nothing yet. Through nearly 10 months of charges, countercharges demands, challenges, insults and lies from both sides, the ILTF and WCT fought for control. Secret meetings were held. Myriad proposals were set forth, and assorted parties interested in "the good of the game" lent their talents. Enough international mystery and clandestine trips were involved to brighten the eyes of a Henry Kissinger or Nina van Pallandt.
Then, last month in London, envoys of the two warring factions finally reached an agreement whereby everyone could live happily ever after, or at least have a few rallies now and then.
Since "ever after" in tennis normally means until the next dollar bill changes hands, it is necessary to explore this agreement quickly before it is thrown out with yesterday's detergent mailers.
The understanding is known as "The Elcock Manifesto" after Walter Elcock of Brookline, Mass., vice-president of the USLTA, who brought the belligerents together. According to friends, Elcock "doesn't know an ace from his Adam's apple." but it was his job to keep both sides talking and listening to Donald Dell and Jack Kramer, the principal architects of the agreement. Nobody moves in tennis these days without a bow to Dell, an agent who has leverage on both sides due to his extraordinary player contacts and close friendships overseas, particularly with the French, who are very anti-Hunt. Kramer, the former tennis star and promoter, also is anti-Hunt, but influential with the ILTF.
The plan proposes that:
All WCT events will be sanctioned by the ILTF and member national associations.
As WCT player contracts expire, the distinction between contract and independent pros will disappear. In other words, there will be only one type of playing professional—ending the confusion of recent years.
WCT will cease negotiating new player contracts. (Since the pro tour recently signed Cliff Richey to a four-year deal at $100,000 per, presumably Lamar Hunt's last stand at agentry will be owning a piece of the Cliff.)
All pros can compete in ILTF and WCT tournaments on the same terms for prize money and without contract guarantees.
All WCT events will be held in the first 4½ months of the calendar year, avoiding scheduling conflicts with ILTF tournaments, which will take up the rest of the year.
WCT will choose the best 64 players in the world. These will be divided into two separate but equal-in-talent groups of 32, which will participate in tours of 11 tournaments each. In addition four WCT "special events" will be held—for a total of 26 tournaments, of which 11 shall be outside the U.S.
Very simply, to borrow from Joe Garagiola, it was a trade that helped both sides. And—eureka!—the tennis public, too. The results are that the ILTF finally gets peace and makes friends with a man it is necessary to make friends with. The ILTF retains beloved Wimbledon for its very own and it keeps much of the year to promote tournaments.
Hunt, meanwhile, maintains control of the part of the tennis year he wanted—the same part U.S. television wants. He rids himself of staggering overhead costs, which include contract guarantees so high they would make Vida Blue tremble and of airplane fares to everywhere but the Mekong Delta. He changes hats from talent scout and player broker to tournament promoter. And, of course, he absolutely makes professional tennis. Seriously now, let's hear it for Lamar Hunt.
"The WCT becomes more than this championship," Hunt said last week in Dallas. "I figured it would take five years to make pro tennis, but the war has been tough. Now we can finally stop lighting and get down to concentrating on promotion."
Since ratification of the agreement by the ILTF member nations would not come until July in Helsinki, it is probably too late for the WCT pros to play at Wimbledon this year. Hunt has scheduled something called the Holton Classic in St. Louis during Wimbledon week and the WCT players say they will be there. However, John Newcombe, whose contract soon expires, may play at Wimbledon. The players all want to play Wimbledon. Nevertheless at this point it is unlikely many of them will be there. Wimbledon, apparently, couldn't be less bothered. The tournament stands on its own, and advance ticket sales are the highest in the 95-year history of the event.
Forest Hills, on the other hand, undoubtedly will be pulled off the railroad tracks by the settlement just when the peril of that Pauline looked extreme. It is safe to say that the USLTA will make an impassioned plea at Helsinki for the peace treaty. Not only does Forest Hills need big names. Arthur Ashe has considered initiating a lawsuit against the tournament if he were prohibited from playing. (Restraint of trade and all that are against the law in the U.S.)
In addition, it is unlikely that the 1971 miracle from Fort Lauderdale, in the attractive form of Chris Evert, would have had the same effect on gate receipts this year. Now most of Hunt's pros who boycotted the event last summer should turn out for the U.S. championship, thus taking the weight of the tournament's success or failure off young Chris' tan shoulders.
Though not a part of this particular agreement, hope is once again stirring about the Davis Cup becoming an open event. There are many who favor the cup having a new qualifying format, big prize money and a two-week festival involving the final 16 nations: in short, a veritable Olympic Games of tennis.
"I'd love to play in the Davis Cup again." says Laver. "We grew up with it: it's in the blood. But Australia has so many fellows. By the time they work out a comfortable time schedule and get up some money I might not be able to make the team."
So what will tennis look like in 1973? Initially, there will be the WCT events featuring, for instance, Laver and Ilie Nastase and Jimmy Connors at one site; Rosewall and Stan Smith and Jan Kodes at another, with winners clashing in the finals. Then the best players will swat it out at the big four tournaments—the French, Italian, British and U.S. championships. There will be much money to play for—estimates range from three to four million dollars. And headaches for the big names.
"The settlement will allow me to pick and choose when and where I want to play," says Laver. "But if I play a month in Europe and then say that's enough for Europe, and go home, I'll be an awful villain in some places.
"If I've played my quota and some tournament asks, 'Well, what will it take to get you to come?' what should I ask for? It's an unfortunate situation and I don't really want to deal this way, but that's what will happen. I'll have to offend some people; so will all the other players."
Laver is of the opinion that Hunt might have waited a bit longer to settle with ILTF so that more issues could be fully ironed out. Like the other Hunt men, he would like to know most of all who controls whom when their contracts expire. To that end the specter of a players' association—here we go again—has arisen, an organization in which the players would rule themselves rather than be ruled by the national associations.
"For us to be under our own jurisdiction," says Ashe, "is so important you can't believe it."
Bob Briner, the executive vice-president of the ABA's Dallas Chaparrals and a former WCT executive director, has been approached about heading the player group. As he watched the matches last week, he was already being kidded by a journalist about becoming the "Jimmy Hoffa of tennis."
Hunt says a collective front "has practical limitations in an individual sport," but pro golfers have succeeded to a degree, and a few years ago they could not have agreed as a group on what day it was.
It seems inevitable that Hunt and these same tennis players who have labored for so long together against the ILTF may one day be fighting each other over increased purses, retirement pensions and the like.
But the growth of the sport seems assured at last. Already, as did pro golf, it is attracting show biz. Alan King sponsored a tournament at Caesars Palace. Clint Eastwood and James Franciscus are interested. Franciscus, the guest of honor at Dallas last week, was without his Longstreet blind stumble and his dog. Pax, but an attraction nonetheless. Rod Steiger came to Dallas just to watch. Everybody knows that when celebs get hot on something, the money flows in.
Today all is laughter and joy in the WCT, and events surely must have called back the years for Lamar Hunt. Long ago he had to ride out of Dallas on a rail and lake his football team to Kansas City to make it. His tennis tour went the other way—from a stockyards ghetto in K.C., where the WCT first appeared in plaid tattersall shorts, to last week's marvelous finale in velveted Big D, from 387 attendance to $1 million total prize money. Pro tennis is still changing. Only the finalists remain the same. Their names are Rosewall and Laver. They will always be making the team.