In a world that celebrates its athletes, pampers them and takes them seriously, much as other uneasy civilizations came to pay homage to whores and vandals, a sporting tour offers the most flagrant example of this modern indulgence. A tour is a carnival, an itinerant Vanity Fair, with impressionable new and different ticket buyers standing in line every week.
By contrast—and by the laws of box office—a team-sport player must suffer to perform half his games at home, where he is no more than somebody's neighbor from down the street, with a piece of a bad restaurant. And who else is left as king of the road? Troubadours and buccaneers are out of work these days, and airplane pilots, like divorcees, must return home periodically to pick up checks. Only the touring pro is forever new-in-town and just in from somewhere glamorous, namely from TV.
And will you tell the folks where
you're from, Curt?
Well, Ted, I was originally born in
Iowa and grew up in California, but
we're living in TV right now.
Tennis never really had a tour before, certainly not a bona fide one like golf, or even like indoor track or the stock cars. For all we know, bowling might have had a real tour before tennis did. Tennis travel was merely an Owl and Pussycat kind of arrangement, where the players set off crazily round the world with a little bit of honey and a little less money. There were a variety of circuits (a word, quite appropriately, formerly applied to vaudeville), scattered and overlapping, but no great sense of order. Rarely did the best players have to play each other, and Wimbledon, for all its tradition, was important mainly because it was the place where the players and promoters came so they could make tournament bookings.
November 20, 1972
The upheaval in tennis that produced open competition in 1968 also brought forth the tour that soon evolved into Lamar Hunt's World Championship of Tennis. By this year WCT had grown into a 32-man passel that scheduled 30 weekly tournaments a year in the U.S. and Canada and a few other places around the globe that could spring for front money. The tour exercised such a powerful influence upon traditional tennis ways and means that the international pooh-bahs finally shut WCT out of Wimbledon, and peace was only arranged by trading time for bodies. Hunt agreed to play his tour only in the first five months of the calendar year if the international federations would stop trying to prohibit good players from joining his tour.
Beginning in January, WCT will play two simultaneous, separate but equal, 32-man tours, the 64 regulars ranging in age from 19 to 43 and coming from 18 different countries on six continents. Suddenly, most of the best players in the world are obliged to be not only in constant company and competition, but always in a foreign land, always away. Moreover, many players find themselves not just strangers, but stereotypes, one-dimensional political cartoons, convenient as wrestling villains. When Cliff Drysdale of South Africa steps on an American court, for instance, everybody in the stands is sure they've got just the right slot for him. "I realize," Drysdale says, "that wherever I go, I am presumed to be a bigot until I can prove otherwise."
For these kinds of reasons, the players are often inclined to draw their wagons up in a circle. They are not just friendly rivals; they are hard rivals who must also serve each other as best friends. "Of course, you can't stay close friends with the people you're playing all the time," says Brian Fairlie of New Zealand. "It was driving me crazy. That's why I got married." Elizabeth, his bride, gets a very hurt expression on her face.
Still, if only because of the large amounts of money involved, the old killer instincts remain in force on the court. It is basic that tennis, for all its niceties, is a head-to-head game: the winner eliminates the loser. In other tour sports, the real competition is inanimate: man against ball or clock. So a tennis tour is much harder pressed from the start to retain corporate goodwill, and for the preservation of the whole there are limits the players must honor, baser instincts they must subdue.
"There is an air of displacement about the whole thing that is really quite necessary," Drysdale says. He is the brightest member of the tour, according to Arthur Ashe—which is significant not because Ashe is black, but because he is probably the only other member of the tour with an intellect to match the South African's. "You are all together in San Francisco one day and all in Cologne the next," Drysdale continues. "Time, distance, geography lose their meanings. The tour is like rerunning old movies. You walk on the court against some fellow, someone you've been pleasantly going around the world with, and suddenly all you can remember is what this guy did to you in Philadelphia. Months ago. You play him with Philadelphia in mind, you salute the umpire, and then you walk off the court and the Philadelphia movie is forgotten until the next time you draw him.
"The tour is all about immediate communication with your neighbor. The Australians manage it best, but we all learn that we must communicate very pleasantly and even become quite close to someone without ever being more than superficial."
Of the 32 players now on tour, Nikki Pilic of Yugoslavia is the most conservative, and Jeff Borowiak of California the most radical. Borowiak wears his hair shoulder length and carries a stereo system with him, the world over. He joined the tour only last fall, but soon had some of the others into Zen. "All players in any sport are so conservative," he says. "I didn't have the same background. I've messed around with drugs and everything." Borowiak proved a welcome replacement for Torben Ulrich, the enigmatic, bearded Dane who has taken his music and his health foods and his mysteries to other parts of this vale of tears.
By contrast, Pilic plays it straight, dressed for the part, complete with an outdated polo coat, as if he were auditioning for a pre-World War II Chesterfield cigarette ad. In Yugoslavia he plays billiards. Confronted with pool tables in America, he still plays billiards. "Oh, the holes, the holes are killing me." He is painfully honest. He gave up soccer, he says, because he couldn't stand it when he played well and his team still lost. And as he once explained to Borowiak as they rode together to the courts (prefacing all important declarations with a pointed finger and a solemn, "I tell you, Jeff..."), the dope problem in America could be resolved forthwith by standing all addicts up before a firing squad. Overlooking the possibility that the supply of ammunition in U.S. arsenals might also become a factor, Pilic seemed pretty much inclined to offer the same definitive solution for obstreperous feminists and long-haired males (presumably including Jeff himself).
Oh yes, one of the reasons Pilic and Borowiak were riding to the courts together was that they were a regular WCT doubles combination. For several months they played together every tournament. It is rather as if William Kunstler and Richard Kleindienst were a mountain-climbing team, working the same rope up Annapurna.
Fortunately everyone on the tour speaks English. Since the Spaniard, Andres Gimeno, left WCT, no one remains even to speak labored English. Gimeno's influence lives on only in the case of Bob Lutz (rhymes with cuts), which Gimeno pronounced Bobby Loose. Since that was so appropriate, Lutz remains Bobby Loose. Last spring there were only two Continental Europeans in the group—Pilic and Tom Okker, a Dutchman who is part Jewish. There were also an Egyptian, three Englishmen, two South Africans and one New Zealander. Then the bloc votes: nine Americans and 14 Australians. Fourteen Australians together is far too many for the tour; for that matter, it may be too many for Perth. But before tennis peace was reached this summer, whenever any European federation would wave the flag and buy back one of its players there was always another Aussie ready to step in.
They range down from Ken Rosewall, 38 now and bearing greater resemblance all the time to Mr. Chips, to Rod Laver, Fred Stolle, Roy Emerson—the most popular player on tour—through John Newcombe and his gang, and all the way to the kids, John Alexander and Phil Dent. The Australians are individuals in many ways, yet have most things in common. No one is really sure whether they appear so temperamentally alike because they share the same nationality, or because so many of them were influenced by the same man, Harry Hopman. What Pilic says about the Aussies doesn't really seem meaningful, but somehow it may define them best: "If they all want to drink the beers, well, they drink the beers."
To the other players the Australians much resembled the vintage New York Yankees, because until just the last few months their domination was inevitable. The world balance of tennis power is now suddenly shifting—and with it new attitudes are emerging among the players. Through the years, however, everyone always expected Rod Rosewall and Ken Laver to reach the finals, and everyone was bored when they did—or felt cheated on the rare occasions when they did not. In a tournament late last year at Cologne, Lutz and Borowiak were the surprise finalists. The German fans appeared ready to sue the tour for fraud.
Poor Rosewall and Laver have gotten it from all sides. They are both, in their ways, loners, and mildly idiosyncratic. Rosewall, homesick eternally, always keeps one sneaker in the nearest Qantas Airways terminal. Laver is a fussbudget who, alone of all the players, sends his tennis shorts out to be dry-cleaned. "What some people won't do for a tax write-off," Ashe chuckles. They are older and have won for so long that one comes to expect that Laver and Rosewall will soon be popping round the locker room in long sleeves and white ducks, getting ready to play Cochet and Lacoste.
On the other hand, there are occasions when the players are loath to give Laver and Rosewall their due. "If it has to be an Aussie," one says, "at least couldn't it be Newcombe?" And then, particularly late at night after a few beers have been drawn, someone will invoke the memory of Lew Hoad, and Laver and Rosewall will all but be left as impostors. Hoad was Rosewall's contemporary, a back-to-back Wimbledon champion before injuries did him in. More important, he was a rough blond strongman, raucous and full of fun—all the things that Rosewall and Laver (and most people) are not. Hoad lives in Spain now, popping up at Wimbledon just regularly enough to stoke the folklore, repeated after a few more beers have been drawn, that God put Lew Hoad on earth to be the Arnold Palmer of tennis.
Ironically, although many of the Aussies come off blanched and uniformly dull in public, they are, personally, among the most engaging characters in sports. No two more delightful personalities ever existed than Emerson and Stolle in the years they controlled the Davis Cup, but they never came across any better than Rosewall and Laver. Part of this, surely, has been the suppressive, disagreeable Hop-man influence. Another problem is that the Aussies stick pretty much to themselves when they are drinking the beers.
"The Americans stick together, too, especially when they're not in their country," Stolle says. "You know, they have the same bloody habits. But the difference is, Australians look after each other. It's not the same with the Americans. With us, you lost a tight one, another one of us will be there to say, don't worry, if you want I'll drink a few beers with you tonight and help you relax."
This spirit is especially important to the Aussies, who rarely get home. Americans can jet back to see their wives easily enough, or even bring them along for a week or two. So, without too much difficulty, can The Others. Roger Taylor of England recently had his wife with him when she was into her seventh month. So the Aussies stay together, the Americans stay together, and The Others, if perhaps only by process of elimination, stay together. In this respect, the tour much resembles any U.S. pro team, where whites and blacks split in separate directions. The only close and lasting friendship that crosses these lines is the one between Marty Riessen of Chicago and Okker, his Dutch doubles partner.
The Australian camaraderie is unique and most manifest in the elementary matters of names. The Aussies tag each other with diminutives and nicknames in much the same way as American preadolescents do. The American players are almost all called exactly what it says on their driver's licenses: Arthur and Cliff and Jeff and so on. And among The Others, only Ismail El Shafei, who is "Easy," regularly goes by his nickname. But virtually every one of the Aussies has an affectionate alias.
Emerson is always Emmo, never Roy; Newcombe is only Newc. And there are Philby, J.A., Hesh and Dave-O. And the descriptive titles: Muscles and Rocket, Boy, Bones and Nails. The Aussies are so close, together so much, that it takes very little time for a new name to stick. Bill Bowrey fell off a horse once a couple of years ago, somebody laughed and called him "Tex," and Tex it is to this day.
But the production of assembly-line Aussies, like Packards and Studebakers, has now halted. Not only has professionalism changed the nature of tennis, but the focus as well. While it remains perhaps the most international of sports, tennis has been increasingly Americanized. Already, the Davis Cup is a quaint diversion, like a week in the country. It takes no great foresight to envision Wimbledon becoming a kind of symbolic headquarters for U.S. tennis, as Delaware is for corporations.
Tennis is not so much shifting to the U.S. as tilting this way. J. B. Priestley once wrote: "I do not know where we are headed, but I'm sure the Americans will be there first." Priestley may have overlooked the fact that Albert Einstein did not hail from Butte, Mont., and Wernher von Braun has not always called Huntsville, Ala. home. These facts have not escaped the tennis pros, though, notably the Australians. "Ahh, the time is running out for us," says Newcombe. "Another live years and America will completely dominate tennis. But we'll keep a hand in," he adds, winking. "By then, all the Americans will be coached by the Australians."
It is already apparent that having a tennis pro who speaks with a broad "a" and chases down wallabies with a boomerang appeals to the same instincts, snob-wise, as having a British secretary speak well-modulated tones into the telephone. Club members can talk about having a genuine British Commonwealth tennis pro in much the same way as they used to boast possession of a Welsh corgi or a French chef.
As for the pros, taking a job in America has two distinct advantages: the money and the things money can buy. Leading the foreign parade to America was none other than old 'arry 'opman 'imself, who is now alive and paying taxes on Long Island. Laver and Emerson are residents of Southern California, long enough for Emerson's children to start losing their accents and say things like, "That's cool, Dad." Former New Zealand No. 1 Lew Gerrard is a pro in Columbia, Md., Newcombe has a tennis ranch outside San Antonio, "Tex" Bowrey has left the tour to take on club duties in Austin, and Owen Davidson is in Houston. Even the girls are in the act. Margaret Smith Court and her family have settled in Boone, N.C. at a new resort club. Drysdale may be the biggest status symbol of them all, since he was selected by WCT itself to represent the Hunt organization's own planned tennis community, Lakeway, outside of Austin.
It is a fair match for both Lakeway and Drysdale; he is the most stylish and articulate of the pros, handsome, jaunty and leggy lean. On court, he wears sexy little belted short shorts. The players call Drysdale Jack or SuperJack, which is derived from the supremely confident self-contained hero of I'm All Right, Jack. Drysdale used to leave the locker room saying "Till tomorrow, boys," and he still says "lovely" instead of "O.K." or "you bet." He possesses the sort of suavity that permits him, for example, while sitting in a loud public place between a bourbon-swilling American cynic and a beer-guzzling Australian comedian, to reach across the table, take his wife's hand tenderly in his, look deep into her eyes and then at last say, "Ahh, my love, I do love you so." And pull it oil".
You try that at the Elks Club some night.
When Drysdale first came onto the world tennis scene there was a tendency for the other players to reject him as too smooth and distant, an appraisal influenced by elements of jealousy because of his good looks and an earned reputation as a powerful ladies' man. In 1967, at Wimbledon, he married Jean Forbes, the tennis equivalent of the girl next door—she was a top South African player, as was her brother—and after he turned pro a few months later, he became a more familiar one-of-the-boys on tour. By now, Drysdale is one of the most popular and respected players in the game, and in recognition of this fact he was elected in September as the first president of the Association of Tennis Professionals, a new PGA-type players' guild, which has the potential to be a major force in the sport.
On the court Drysdale has come close to winning every major tournament, but he has failed each chance and remains just off the highest world rank. Still, he made $70,000 in official prize money last year, and his total tennis income approaches $100,000. Now, since January, he is, as well, the squire of Lakeway, living just off the fairway, near the manmade lake, in a beautiful new house with his family: wife, small daughter and son and mother-in-law. He is 31. A decade ago, when he first came to the U.S., he willingly paid his own way just for the chance to pick up a tennis scholarship at Lamar Tech in Beaumont, Texas. He was earning $2.50 a day from his national team. "It was Utopia just to have a chance to go to school in the United States," he says. "The tennis really didn't matter. There was no substantial future in tennis then."
Obviously, Drysdale is not typical, any more so than Lakeway is, but both are representative of what tennis has come to in the past decade. The ritzy tennis resort with its own airstrip is the end product of the same forces that have spun Drysdale from a $2.50-a-day national hero with a spectacular two-hand backhand and a frightful serve into a $100,000-a-year expatriate professional with a spectacular two-hand backhand and a frightful serve. Beyond that, Drysdale is more focused, if only because the apartheid policies of his homeland place so much of a spotlight upon him wherever he is in the world.
Nevertheless, although most Americans assume that he is a racist and he is constantly being asked to explain his position in the matter, he has never been actively heckled in the U.S. or received so much as a single piece of hate mail here. "People nowadays don't seem inclined to hold one personally responsible for the actions of his state," he says, agreeing that in America, where so many citizens have disputed the Federal Vietnam policy, it is especially difficult to visit the sins of the country upon a countryman. In the case of Drysdale, it would be pointless, as well. Unlike the more famous South African athlete, Gary Player, whom Drysdale describes evenly as "a passionate South African," Drysdale is an avowed opponent of all his nation's apartheid policies. He belongs to the visionary Progressive Party, whose expressed support of racial equality and tolerance has succeeded in keeping it out of 219 of the 220 seats in the national parliament.
Drysdale constantly has to explain himself, and last year appeared at an NAACP press conference in Boston after protest demonstrations had been initiated against the three South Africans then playing for WCT. The wind died down somewhat when Drysdale coolly expressed personal views that were similar to Thurgood Marshall's. In an ironic way, Drysdale feels a special kinship with the sort of people who felt obliged to confront him in Boston. "I have come to understand the militancy of the blacks," he says, "because their preoccupation with the issue of race is forced upon them, just as it always is with me."
On a personal level, he and Ashe are so often required to discuss each other that each should be getting 100 bucks an hour for psychoanalysis fees. They are an odd-couple cliché by now, especially since race really doesn't have anything to do with their relationship except when other people start asking them about it. They are friendly, respectful and temperamentally different. For all race counts with Drysdale and Ashe, they might just as well have been born in the same litter in Aberdeen, S. Dak.
Success has been dumped on WCT players so quickly that many of them have not learned to adjust to their new station. Some simply cannot say no. Okker, for example, finished a tournament in Brussels one Sunday last year, played a big-money match in New York on Tuesday and another one in Los Angeles on Thursday. Then he flew to Amsterdam for a weekend tournament, and back to St. Louis to start a WCT tournament Tuesday. El Shafei played successive tournaments in order, without time off, in Sydney, Cairo and Chicago.
As an incentive for this frantic schedule, besides the prize money, there are the endorsements. Suddenly every company in the world except Dutch Cleanser makes tennis rackets and clothes. Since there are more products than players, a star will endorse—and promise to use—a wooden racket on the Continent, an aluminum racket in Australia and a new throwaway styrofoam racket in America. Then he will alternate the three, and wonder why his game has gone all to hell. Also, his feet are killing him with the new bamboo shoes, and if he wins the doubles, how can he ever get to Barbados in time to make his guaranteed appearance at the new Moon Lagoon Club, which he has 2% of?
Some of the players have had a problem adapting. "All the money we've come into," Drysdale says, "but we're still very cheap." He and his contemporaries are a transitional generation. They grew up as alleged amateurs. Essentially, they were kept men, athletic gigolos, paid for their talents in large part in cut-rate services and amenities—a free place to stay, somebody's starry-eyed teen-aged daughter to chauffeur them about, the chance to actually sign for club sandwiches in the members' lounge. As a group, they were like the pretentious chorus girl that Gypsy Rose Lee once described: "She is descended from a long line that her mother listened to."
On tour, Lamar Hunt picks up transportation costs for the players, but they must pop for their own room and board. As a consequence, a lot of them, grown men making 50 grand a year, hustle for free guest rooms just like in the old tennis-bum days. Then, weeks later, they will still be bitching about how such-and-such was a rotten tournament because they were quartered so far from the arena. Players have called up WCT headquarters in Dallas collect from Europe to find out where they can get a cut-rate racket-stringing job in, say, Germany. Generally, they still view themselves as gentlemen players and not as contract entertainers.
At the River Oaks Club Tournament in Houston in April, nine of the players were lounging around a game room (pool, Ping-Pong, TV) that had been given over to them for the duration of the play. Bill Holmes, the WCT road manager, came in to tell the players officially what most of them had learned already, that they would not be permitted in the main part of the clubhouse or on the golf course.
The players were livid at this slight, especially after some of them figured out what a coincidence it was that this year was the first time River Oaks had ever instituted these restrictions, while it also just happened to be the first time Ashe had ever played there. "Will they even let Arthur in the door?" Nails Carmichael inquired facetiously.
"Why are you defending this policy, Bill?" El Shafei demanded of Holmes.
"Scandalous," sputtered Drysdale, and there were more representative oaths.
"Well, you tell them. Bill," Pilic said, rapping a pool cue, "that if we can't eat in their clubhouse, we won't be there Tuesday night for their Calcutta either." The others concurred with angry, disgusted murmurs, the kind that sweep through Hollywood lynch mobs.
Five minutes later a member of the club walked into the room and inquired if perhaps two of the players might like to join him and another member in a golfing foursome. There was such an excited bustle to get to the member's side that at last he agreed to take six of the WCT men and make up two foursomes.
The foreign players are tossed by ambivalent feelings about the affluent America they see. As a rule, they endorse the American way of life—hamburgers excepted—more enthusiastically than Americans, although there are sharp geographical biases. The players much prefer the South and smaller cities to the North and larger ones. If there is any player who can even tolerate New York City, he is keeping his counsel.
"You soon find out," says Roy Barth of San Diego, "that the foreign players have an easy tendency to generalize only critically about America. Not long ago I stayed at a house along with a couple of foreign players. Our hosts were the most wonderful people you would ever want to meet. We all loved them. When we left, we stopped for gas. The attendant was slow and rude. Immediately, the foreigners started complaining about how this gas-station guy was a typical American, about how all Americans were rude. In the week we stayed with those wonderful hosts, nobody once suggested that they were typical Americans."
Unquestionably, the foreign players are put off by American pushiness, but the longer they stay in this country the more they seem able to accept it as merely an inconvenience—in the same way that a surfeit of planes, hotels, meat, money. Interstate highways and appliances are everyday American conveniences. "Nikki never stops talking about Europe until he gets there and he can't get eggs for breakfast," Drysdale says.
In Philadelphia this past February, Drysdale, Pilic and Frank Froehling of Fort Lauderdale suffered perhaps the classic example of typical American check. When Froehling left the practice court, where he had been hitting with the other two, he was immediately set upon by a brassy country-club shrew. "Which one are you?" she demanded to know, jabbing a finger. When Froehling revealed his identity, the termagant let him know that he was one lucky guy, and could join himself and two of her friends for their regular Sunday-morning doubles game that week.
Froehling replied, with a straight face, that whereas he would be delighted to drop everything and play with these strange women Sunday morning, he had, alas, a prior engagement. "I'll tell you what, though," he said. "I'm sure Rod Laver would love to fill in for me." And he even carefully explained how she could reach Laver.
The ugly American smiled broadly at Froehling. "Of course, we'll buy him his lunch," she said, assuring him that she knew the going price for any old foreigner.
If this kind of mannerless behavior soon becomes no more than an occupational hazard for the players, American parochialism elicits more serious, disturbing responses. What dismays the foreigners is that the people in the most powerful country in the world arrive at glibly confident decisions about the rest of the world with only half-baked facts. Roger Taylor pleases Borowiak by saying that younger Americans seem much more inclined to be fair and seek out more facts, but the overall tendency of Americans to jump to conclusions dismays the foreigners. "I find it astonishing that so many well-educated Americans just naturally presume that I and all Arabs are anti-Semitic," El Shafei says, "when even the most cursory study of our position would show that our dispute is a political one, concerning the state of Palestine. It is not a matter of right and wrong that concerns me with Americans who are opposed to my country. It is a matter of Americans knowing only one side, but then being so sure that they are right." Back in the days before Presidents were trading musk oxen for pandas, a lot of Americans took a wide berth around the Communist, Pilic. "Americans used to think that a Communist was someone who ate his children for dinner," Nikki says. He gets much better treatment now that Communists have been decreed as fashionable by the Federal Government.
Most unforgivable to the players is the appalling American command of world geography. "We can understand why you don't speak other languages," Pilic said, "but not even to care where other people are and how they live...." Says Brian Fairlie: "Even on your quiz shows, Jeopardy and the like— do you notice, all the questions are about the United States?" El Shafei is seldom recognized as an Arab, apparently because he is Egyptian, and most Americans do not realize where Arabs get their mail except for Saudi Arabia, which is obviously chock-full of Arabs. "For Americans," El Shafei says, "Egypt is just pyramids and camels."
Of course, to a lot of foreigners who have never been to America, the U.S. is just skyscrapers, cowboys and Indians, and many players arrive here for the first time convinced that Chicago, like Forest Hills, is a subway ride from Manhattan. What seems to set American ignorance off from the usual global brand is that once Americans are set in their opinions, however misguided, they can seldom be swayed even by things such as light or truth. "I am amazed," Drysdale says, "that so many Americans offer the most hardened opinions about my country, and then at some point actually inquire: 'And what country in South Africa do you come from?' "
"Y'hurry back now and come see us again real soon, y'hear?" Drysdale said one night at, of course, a House of Pancakes. It was a good imitation, but sadly foreboding. The trouble is that a year from now he really will be saying "you bet" instead of "lovely," and wearing Hush Puppies and eating everything barbecued. It's already even-money that his beautiful little brown-eyed daughter will grow up to be a baton twirler, and soon, too, everybody on the tour will have a homesite just outside Orlando, Fla. By 1980 the oldtimers will talk wistfully about the romantic halcyon years when Laver and Rosewall played regular classic confrontations, and men with funny-sounding names and voices from the four corners of the globe, storybook characters all, trekked the world on a kaleidoscopic caravan.