The rules of tennis are very strict. For example, it is absolutely forbidden to stage a major tennis event without a boycott, a lockout or a lawsuit. Thus it was probably some relief to Bill Riordan, manager of Jimmy Connors and promoter of last Saturday's internationally televised Connors-John Newcombe challenge match, when a sheriff's deputy served notice that Riordan was being sued for $175,000. Riordan was shooting craps in the Caesars Palace casino at the time, which was Friday morning after breakfast. Everybody in Las Vegas shoots craps after breakfast. It is good for the digestion.
The notification was a subpoena to appear in New York Supreme Court. The Mark McCormack organization, which represents Newcombe, Arnold Palmer and numerous other sports stars, claimed that it had been promised a piece of the promotion but had not been let in.
"That's peanuts," said Riordan. "Jack Kramer's suing me for $3 million." And, having many other things on his mind, he wandered out of the casino, leaving the subpoena on the crap table.
The requisite lawsuit had been filed, all the ballyhooed controversies had been settled and the way was clear for the main event. In this corner, the champion of Wimbledon and Forest Hills, the conqueror of Rod Laver at Caesars Palace last February—Jimmy Connors. And in the opposite corner, three-time Wimbledon champion, winner of this year's Australian Open over Connors, the man whom Connors had failed to beat in three tries—John Newcombe. A crowd of about 3,800 in the hotel's new tennis pavilion and a 10-nation television audience of more than 25 million saw Connors prove once again that he is the world's No. 1 player by beating Newcombe in four sets, 6-3, 4-6, 6-2, 6-4.
May 4, 1975
If the match was not nearly as dramatic as Connors' win over Laver, the financial results were certainly more stunning. Caesars Palace put up $250,000 to stage the affair, CBS kicked in $600,000 for TV rights, and foreign TV and other rights yielded close to another $150,000.
The upshot: Jimmy Connors, age 22, won himself close to half a million dollars. Despite the fact that CBS advertised the match was "winner take all," Newcombe's losing take was in the neighborhood of $300,000.
Connors traveled to Las Vegas with his by-now-familiar retinue, plus a few new faces. There was mother Gloria, Manager Riordan and Coach Pancho Segura. His sparring partners were John Feaver, a young Englishman with a powerful Newk-like serve, Bob Kreiss and Vitas Gerulaitis. Also on hand was his 80-year-old maternal grandfather, Al Thompson, who had not seen him play a big match in person for several years.
For his part, Newcombe sparred with two left-handed Australians, Tony Roche and Owen Davidson, and Ken Rosewall was around early in the week. Newk had played in only three tournaments (plus the Davis Cup and World Cup) and was not expected to be as sharp as he would have liked. He had wanted to play the WCT tournament in Denver the previous week but had dropped out when Connors decided to enter. While Newk worked out at the T-Bar-M Ranch near San Antonio, Connors was winning Denver rather easily.
There had been controversy galore preceding the Connors-Laver match. Who should referee? When should the cans of balls be opened? How many rooms and tickets would Caesars give Riordan? This time Riordan and/or Connors found some new things to fuss about.
When playing Laver, Connors had been annoyed by the crowd rooting against him, and at one point he made an obscene gesture toward comedienne Totie Fields. So a few weeks before the Newcombe match Riordan and Connors asked for the right to buy the 536 court-side seats. The request was summarily refused.
Then Connors wanted the surface changed. The match was to be played on an old version of Supreme Court, a fairly fast carpet on which Connors beat Laver. Against Newcombe, who has a much harder serve than Laver, Connors wanted a newer version of Supreme Court with a rougher surface that might slow down Newk's cannonballs.
"This is the same court that was used for the Laver match," said Newcombe. "This is the court I was told I would practice on this weekend. I will make no more concessions for Jimmy Connors. As far as I am concerned this is my Alamo."
A few press conferences, more than a few press releases, meetings and a coin flip, which Newcombe's side won—and the surface remained unchanged. Riordan had only the New York Supreme Court to worry about.
The only genuine controversy arising from either Connors-Laver or Connors-Newcombe is over the danger, real or imagined, resulting from challenge matches. Tennis has three viable tournament circuits: Lamar Hunt's World Championship Tennis, the Commercial Union Grand Prix and the Women's Tennis Association (an important chunk of which is underwritten by Virginia Slims cigarettes). These, plus Riordan's men's circuit and the struggling World Team Tennis league, have been handsomely supporting a lot of players. Many people in the sport fear that ratings-hungry TV networks and greedy promoters and players will stage more and more challenge matches and eventually kill interest in tournaments, much the same way televised boxing helped kill local fight clubs.
Connors, for instance, could play Bjorn Borg in Sweden, Guillermo Vilas in Argentina, Raul Ramirez in Mexico, or five guys one right after the other in Za√Øre, with Riordan selling the TV or closed-circuit rights for enough money to make a sheik sell his oil wells and take up tennis. Indeed, offers and challenges have been piling up in Riordan's Salisbury, Md. office.
Right now it appears that Riordan, Connors and CBS are going to sit back and let a new contender emerge from this summer's big tournaments and then maybe stage the next "title defense" in December or early next year. At this rate there will be two or three "heavyweight championship" matches a year intruding into the already crowded calendar.
In the weeks preceding their match Connors and Newcombe were continually defending themselves on this score, especially after Jack Nicklaus and Johnny Miller turned down a head-to-head match for a bundle of bucks. "It's bad for the game," Nicklaus said, "and I will not be a party to it."
"Challenge matches are a thing of the future," said Connors. "They give an extra kick to the tennis world."
"We didn't go begging for the money," said Newcombe. "It was offered to us. The advertisers are willing to pay to get their messages across—and since the money has to go somewhere, it might as well go to Connors and myself. Some people walk away with $10 million after a world championship fight, so what we're getting doesn't seem out of line."
"I consider the money a reward for all the years I've put into the game," said Connors. "I've worked hard for 19 years, and people like Newcombe and Laver have worked hard for years, too. Now we're being rewarded for it."
Newcombe, in fact, is being rewarded so nicely that he hardly needed the money he earned in Las Vegas. He endorses two different rackets, one in the U.S. and one in the rest of the world. He is paid for lending his name to luggage, sunglasses, socks, wristwatches and shoes. He is a part owner of various T-Bar-M tennis ranches and clubs in Texas and represents a plush resort in Hawaii. He has different lines of tennis togs in Australia, Japan and the U.S. The symbol for the latter is a round cartoon face that consists of Newk's bandido mustache and, for some reason, one eye.
It was a coup, and no doubt an annoyance to Riordan, when Newcombe and his agents, the McCormack people, arranged to have the ball-boys and linesmen for the match dressed in pink Newcombe shirts. At the entrance to the pavilion his supporters were passing out buttons with his one-eyed symbol on them. At ringside his coach, Clarence Mabry, was wearing a set of Newk's duds.
Match day dawned cool and windy, and it was a little difficult to pin down the odds. Riordan said it was even money in Australia and 9-5 Connors in Las Vegas, but a reporter who tried to place a bet in Vegas was turned away because the bookie had "taken a bath" on the Connors-Laver match. There was a rumor buzzing around the press section that Segura had $11,000 riding on his "Jeemy." Segura would not confirm it.
There were plenty of celebrities in the courtside boxes, but no Totie Fields. In Newcombe's box was ex-tennis star Jack Kramer, now head of the Players Association that Connors refuses to join and the man who is entangled in two lawsuits with Riordan.
Finally it came time for the arguments, legal actions and ballyhoo to be forgotten. Saturday at 12:30 it was time for tennis, as performed by the two best in the world.
In the first set Connors broke Newk's vaunted serve to go ahead 3-1, and it was really no surprise because Jimmy has the finest service return in the game. He held on to win the set 6-3.
The second set stayed on serve until the 10th game, Connors serving. Newcombe got two break points but failed to capitalize on them, then finally broke and won the set 6-4 with a sharply angled backhand service return that Connors could not hope to even touch. Perhaps it was because Newcombe was playing better, but in the second set Connors seemed to lack his customary aggressiveness, his habit of swinging at every ball as if he despised it. Then in the third set Connors regained his form and won fairly easily, 6-2, in one stretch taking 10 straight points. Newcombe admitted later that he felt a bit tired in that set even though he had started in what he felt was excellent condition.
"Clarence and I were just laughing about it," said Newk afterward in his room. "In the first two sets we reckoned I served four sets.... I was having to come up with big second serves and it was too much. Suddenly I took the vise off and gave him a breath of fresh air."
More fresh air could have been used in the pavilion, even though air conditioning had been installed since the Laver match. It was hot and stuffy, and several spectators had to be helped from their seats and taken outside.
Connors won the match in the seventh game of the fourth set with Newcombe serving. Jimmy chased a shot far to the right and lobbed deep. Newcombe watched it, confident it would go out, watched in amazement as it landed in, lunged after it and put a forehand into the net. Instead of 30-15 it was 15-30, and on the next point Newk hit an overhead that went long—a close call that upset him. Connors broke and went on to win.
Connors was a gentleman throughout most of the match and, for once, did not bring the crowd down on him with his usual sass. Before the last game he was retching into a pail, apparently a victim of the arena's closeness. The umpire had to warn him to get out on the court, where he won four straight points after which, obeying another rule of tennis, he leaped the net.
"I don't think you can fault his play," said Newcombe. "Serving to him is like pitching to Hank Aaron. If you don't mix it up, it's going out of the ball park."
Is Jimmy the best? he was asked.
"I don't think you can dispute that now," he answered calmly.