The Tennis Grand Masters circuit is a dream come true. Nostalgia is big now, or maybe it always was and we were too young to appreciate it. And although the names of DiMaggio, Unitas and Cousy are gone from scoreboards forever, by means of the Grand Masters, Sedge and Pancho and Seixas are still on center court, battling one another. Bob Perez, one of the tour's administrators, carries a picture in his wallet of Torben Ulrich and Sven Davidson together when they were 14. They were adversaries then and still are today, 36 years later.
Like everyone else, athletes grow old, except sooner, more conspicuously than mere mortals; they are has-beens at 35. HE CAN'T DO IT ANYMORE is the crudest headline of all. Look at it this way. At 22, Bjorn Borg's best years may be behind him. No one on the Grand Masters circuit dreamed he would be playing at 50. Perhaps no one dreamed he would ever be 50. But most of them are, and they are playing.
The tour started in 1973. Pancho Segura, one of the first players signed by tour founder Al Bunis, said, "It's tough to run at 50. You either go to Forest Hills or Forest Lawn." Well, this is to report that the Tennis Grand Masters do not have one foot in the grave. They are out there running, no longer to Forest Hills, but to Flushing Meadow and to Wimbledon and Seabrook Island in South Carolina and Quail Ridge in Delray Beach, Fla. where the audience is old enough to know that Jimmy Connors did not invent the two-handed backhand.
The circuit has two segments, spring and fall, with guest appearances in July at Wimbledon and in September at the U.S. Open. The rest of the time, the players work at club jobs. They all keep in shape jogging, doing sit-ups, watching their diets—and playing tennis.
March 12, 1979
They probably work harder than they did when they were younger and lither. Many people thought Frank Sedgman would retire when he snapped an Achilles tendon playing in a Grand Masters event in 1976. He was 48 years old, the winner of 22 tournaments more than two decades ago, and in his native Australia he had several business ventures that included squash centers and a hotel. Besides, Sedgman previously had injured his other Achilles tendon while playing squash. Instead of retiring, Sedgman recuperated, undertook a vigorous training program and returned to dominate the senior circuit.
Aside from the competition and the fun and the enduring thrill of seeing their names on a scoreboard, the money ain't bad. Sedgman has won $208,000 in his six years on the tour. In 1978 he won 12 singles titles and $59,338 overall. The 1979 schedule includes 18 or 20 stops for an average purse of $15,000, more than was available decades ago when the players looked under the tables for their checks.
But the cash is only part of it. Rex Hartwig had not played in 17 years when Al Bunis called him in 1976. He was on his Czechoslovakian tractor, farming 880 acres of land in Greta, New South Wales, some 150 miles from Melbourne. He played in a TGM event and was surprised and delighted to win the doubles. The following year, with Sedgman still recuperating, Hartwig was the leading money-winner on the tour. Now, he and Sedgman dominate the doubles play; since joining forces, they have won 46 of 52 matches and 20 tournaments, and Hartwig wears a gold necklace that spells out his nickname: sexy. To be a 49-year-old farmer and also a tennis player with a gold necklace, that's something.
The tour is for players 45 years or older who have been world or national champions, and every top eligible player has been on it, with the exception of Dick Savitt, who is tired of tournament tennis.
This all is a part of a surge of interest in senior athletics. Last year golf conducted its first "Legends of Golf Tournament" for a purse of $400,000, and the USGA has announced it will stage a U.S. Senior Open in 1980. Rod Laver has cranked up his own tour for players 35 and older. It is direct competition for a 35-45 group begun last summer by Bunis, who also is looking into setting up senior circuits in other sports.
The tennis market is split into two distinct groups: those fans who remember and those who wonder. The older crowd turns out because it recalls Sedgman winning the 1952 Wimbledon under overcast skies and through high winds that rendered ineffective the drop shots and lobs of Jaroslav Drobny. The younger audience is curious to see what a tennis player of 50 can do. "People come expecting something like a baseball old-timers' game," says Vic Seixas, at 55 the tour's oldest competitor. "They don't expect us to be able to play. It's true we've changed. We can't hit the ball as hard. I used to hit it as hard as Connors. We all did, but we can't anymore. So you adjust. The trouble is, your opponent is doing the same thing. We all play the same way."
So the game is minutely slower, enough so that the rallies continue where once they were over in seconds. The tour often plays on clay, which enhances strategy and guile at the expense of speed. Consequently, the best-conditioned players—Sedgman, Ulrich and Davidson—win on stamina as well as ability. By comparison, when Neale Fraser joined the circuit last season as a 45-year-old rookie, his conditioning was only fair and, although he reached the finals of five tournaments, he failed to win one, falling apart in the third set when his legs turned rubbery. The previous year, newly eligible Luis Ayala expected to dominate the old guys and didn't win a match.
There is something attractive about a person who refuses to capitulate to the erosions of age. Ulrich considers the tour his laboratory, a means of experimenting with body and game. Each day the players walk onto the court, wondering—can they do what they could yesterday? The fans view them differently. When Borg defaults it is because he has a blister on his hand. When one of the Grand Masters does, it is because he is old. The seniors take pride in the fact that in the tour's six years, only three matches have been canceled because of injury.
Occasionally one of the Grand Masters will practice with a player in his 20s. The younger man might be a local pro or college player, and often the workout turns into an unofficial exhibition. Such exercises illustrate the senior's talent. They maintain they can compete with what Bunis calls "the young people." "Not Connors or Borg," says Seixas. "I'm not that presumptuous. But in the second or third echelon, we could play, because they're not smart enough to adjust to what we would do. They know only one way to play."
The players really are grand and they really are masters, especially of disguise and deception. They rarely hit the ball hard; they pick their spots like poker players. Sedgman says a sure sign of age is when your return of serve deteriorates; that and slower net reactions. But there are ways to compensate. After almost 40 years the Aussie can "read" a server's racket well before the man hits the ball. Occasionally he does guess wrong, in which case the serve is unplayable.
Were it not for Bunis and the senior circuit, Sedgman says that by now he would be a lost resource. "I would have gracefully evaporated," he says. When he joined Jack Kramer's pro circuit in 1953, the newspapers were calling Kramer "the old pro" and nightly asking him about his arthritis. Kramer was 31. Sedgman eventually gave up tennis for 10 years, disconsolate that he no longer could play Davis Cup. He staged a comeback of sorts with the emergence of open tennis in 1968, and while he failed to win a tournament, "I gave some players a good scare."
What probably frustrates a youngster most when he plays one of the Grand Masters is that it often is impossible to hit the ball past him. Ulrich, for instance, is in exceptional condition for an athlete of any age; at 50 his legs are heavily muscled and he is remarkably quick, enough so that he plays a spidery, defensive game, running down every shot and waiting until his opponent makes a mistake. Bunis believes Ulrich's game is as sharp as it was when he was playing 98 Davis Cup matches for Denmark, and he leads the senior tour in tournament titles with 30.
At the net, Sedgman and the others still have keen anticipation. They purposely leave an open court, inviting a passing shot, but are there to bash away the volley. Sedgman, in particular, constantly keeps up the pressure. He always has had a superb volley, and his overhead is deadly accurate. While he doesn't cover as much ground as he once did, he doesn't have to, because he never plays the entire court.
As Seixas stated, the seniors have adjusted. Most of them use steel, graphite or composite rackets that are lighter and quicker in their hands. Davidson is a devotee of the oversized Prince racket, and Pancho Gonzales and Beppe Merlo string their rackets loosely for more control.
With the occasional exception of Gonzales, who sees himself as the lone wolf, the seniors socialize with one another, attending the prerequisite cocktail parties, dining as a group, regaling each other with stories repeated over the years. Hartwig recalls his first experience as a pro when he joined Kramer's cross-country tour in the mid-'50s. Hartwig drove 37,500 miles by car while his companion, Segura, slept blissfully in the back seat, recuperating from another romantic evening. Segura was a remarkable ladies' man, but a terrible driver. Once Hartwig gave him the wheel. The desert road was straight and empty. A short time later Hartwig was roused from sleep by Segura's screaming. The car was shaking violently, Segoo had a death grip on the wheel and his eyes were wide and staring. "Look, see how fast I'm going!" he yelled, afraid to take his eyes off the road. The speedometer needle was vibrating above 90 mph. Hartwig took the wheel and ordered Segura to the back seat.
When the seniors were younger, tennis was different, more of a lark than a business. Perhaps for this reason the Grand Masters has more than its share of eccentrics. Ulrich still has his beard, his ponytail and his baffling responses. When a solicitous fan inquires about the state of Ulrich's injured foot, the player looks at the limb seriously. He wiggles it. The foot is studied. Torben inhales deeply and cocks his head. His hands flutter. "Wellllll," he says. "It's still there."
Then there is Whitney Reed, who appears to have crawled out from behind a Bowery bar. Single-handedly, Reed may destroy the notion that tennis is good for your health. He was America's top-ranked player in 1962. Before joining the Grand Masters circuit, he drove a cab and tended bar in San Francisco where, it is reported, he consumed more than he sold. He also smokes a lot of cigarettes. Reed once went to Reno for a weekend and stayed for a year, because, he explains hoarsely, "I was in the middle of a Ping-Pong game." He married a cocktail waitress from Harrah's Club the day before he turned 40. "I'll never forget it," he says. Then he fell in love with a stewardess on a flight over Omaha, Neb., and didn't come home for six months. That was a clue that the marriage wasn't working," he says. Reed had four different doubles partners last year. The other players pass him around.
In a sense, the Grand Masters have lived two lives. They talk of the "old tour" and "the tour." Reed quit the old tour because of what he calls his "Rod Laver malady." Whitney played Laver 11 times one year and lost each match. "My big problem was that I never knew where the tournaments were," he says, speaking in a dazed, singsong speech punctuated with long, mid-sentence silences. "I was always trying to find them. Consequently I never had time to write ahead and demand money. I took whatever they gave me, maybe a couple of tickets. The most I got was $600 in Toronto. I guess because I was a foreigner."
Reed describes his doubles strategy thus: "I put myself in an accident-prone position." When Fraser advised him to stand fast at the net, staring into the face of a Sedgman overhead, Whitney wisely demurred. "I'll wind up bandaged from head to toe," he said. "Then nobody will want me for a partner."
As it is, most everyone wants the Tennis Grand Masters as a partner. The tour has a host of promotional ties. Almadèn wines, for example, sponsors the 11-tournament Grand Prix segment of the tour. Blazers, automobiles, hats and tennis balls have the group's imprimatur, as does the Palmas del Mar resort in Puerto Rico, officially designated the group's "Caribbean home." If you desire, the Grand Masters can provide not only exhibitions, but also trained instructors for your tennis club. The Harvard Business School has conducted a study of the group and found it to be "a viable marketing concept."
The tournament format is simple: eight players participate in singles and doubles on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. There is usually an opening pro-am, and on Saturday the first-round losers conduct a free clinic. Only Gonzales resists attending. The two-time U.S. champion plays a limited schedule partly because he demands appearance money from promoters. He was once asked how long he planned to continue. "As long as they print money," he answered. Gonzales keeps to himself. He travels the circuit with his second wife, Madelyn, who looks on anxiously from the stands. Pancho's rackets are misshapen from being beaten on the court. It rankles Gonzales that his game has slipped. In matches he affects a regal, lofty attitude, as if the whole scene somehow is beneath him.
"There is an attitude of then and now," says Ulrich. "Now it doesn't count. Then it does." Because Pancho is loath to perspire, the others frequently drop-shot him. His attitude annoyed his colleagues last year in doubles matches at Wimbledon and at Seabrook Island. Gonzales was paired first with Reed, then with Merlo, and in each match made an obvious point of not trying. Worse, he ridiculed the efforts of both his partners. At Seabrook the rancor surfaced as Sedgman and Hartwig dismantled Gonzales and Merlo 6-1, 6-0. On one shot, Hartwig mishit the ball, but, fortuitously, it came off the wood for a winner. Hart-wig giggled to himself, then raised his hand to Gonzales in the universal gesture of apology. Pancho snarled back, "The shot was fine. The mouth's not so good."
It might have seemed only a boorish remark, but it showed Gonzales' frustration. The others take the competition very seriously; before matches they refuse to look at each other, much less speak. And they all are in a little better condition, their strokes a touch sharper than Gonzales'. For him to work at getting back in shape, for him to work at winning, would be an admission that this arena really is important. So he plays with thinly veiled contempt.
When Gonzales is a no-show, Merlo fills in. He is the ninth man on an eight-man club. Three years ago he wrote Bunis, "My name is Beppe Merlo.... I am many times national champion of Italy...beaten Vic Seixas, Mervyn Rose...want to play your tour." Bunis wrote that he was sorry but the roster was filled. Quickly came a return telegram. "I accept. Will arrive on.... " Merlo hasn't won a singles match in two years but he puts on a good show, and his clay-court game is so dogged that the others don't like to play him; Seixas, for example, lost 15 straight matches to Merlo when they were younger. They also regard him almost as a mascot. Merlo, they whisper, eats cereal drowned in Coca-Cola for breakfast. He has a long list of phobias. Since seeing The Towering Inferno he refuses to sleep above the fourth floor of a hotel. Florida's moths terrify him, and he jumps in fright if he accidentally sits on an automobile seat belt. He won't even trust his luggage in a car driven by Davidson, who is somewhat reckless behind the wheel; Sven sometimes drives onto the sidewalk and gives a friend a slight nudge with a fender. Merlo speaks broken English, the quality of which depends on whether or not he wants to be understood. He bought property at Sea-brook Island as an investment. "I only worry now about airquake," he says.
Merlo humbly refers to himself as "the last row on the bus," although there is evidence that he is smarter than he lets on, because he is the top poker player on the circuit and usually far ahead in the money standings that Davidson, who has a gift for math, keeps on a large sheet of paper. Merlo calls his favorite opponent, Sedgman, "a piece of candy."
One of the major accomplishments of the tour has been inducing Ulrich to modify his caveman dress code. When he posed for the first Grand Masters group photograph, it probably was the first time in 20 years he had worn a tie. And while he usually is late, he always appears for the cheese and wine tasting parties that follow the pro-ams. Ulrich has had it written into his TGM contract that he need not attend functions before noon.
Ulrich's quirks and caprices are renowned. He refuses to call coin flips, once created a painting by hitting paint-sopped tennis balls onto a canvas, and when a policeman stopped him for driving his car on the sidewalk, apparently a common Scandinavian idiosyncrasy, and poked his head in the car window, Torben bit his nose. But no matter how bizarre his behavior, his colleagues inevitably forgive him with a "That's Torben." Thus when Ulrich forgot a scheduled doubles match last year and went off running in the woods, and then related, "I was talking to the squirrels," everyone agreed, that's Torben.
This type of life-style is attractive to a younger generation that sees Ulrich as a guru. Many of the calls to Bunis' office in his hometown of Cincinnati have to do with Torben's whereabouts; the transported female callers, it seems, have gifts and messages for him.
One person, however, isn't so entranced. At a wine-tasting party last fall, Torben's wife Lona gestured toward her husband, who was standing with a bunch of women. "Why does that bird have her hand on Torben's bun?" said Lona.
In a way, this sort of gesture is symbolic of the success of the tour. If an athlete of 50 can get a bird to notice him, there is profit to be made out of it. "We're tennis' retirement income, the players' profit sharing," says Bunis. "All they have to do is keep up their games and go along with the program." He uses phrases like "second-home community," and talks in conspiratorial tones and with a private-school accent and wears every imaginable color of linen jacket. Even on the hottest days, he looks cool in his coat and tie. As a boy, Bunis melted down toy soldiers. He went on to become a successful scrap-iron broker, but his real love was tennis. A fond memory is losing to Frank Sedgman in the first round of the 1952 U.S. nationals, the year Sedgman won the tournament without the loss of a set.
One benefit of being the administrator of the Tennis Grand Masters, Bunis admits, is being able to practice with the players he has respected for a lifetime. Bunis almost bursts with pride. Seemingly, each week he adds a new article of clothing to the players' prescribed uniform. They wear identical blazers, slacks, hats, ties and lapel ribbons, although Ulrich sometimes puts his ribbon in his hair. "I want them to be proud of all of our trappings," says Bunis. "You can't wear a Grand Masters tie, or even have one, unless you're part of the organization."
The formula has been very successful. At first the players had trouble getting their checks cashed; now the crowds are more than big enough to keep sponsors happy. There is a lot of repeat business, and the tour even has its groupies, if Tom and Kathy Gable, an Atlanta couple in their 30s, could be so described. He is a psychiatrist and both are tennis nuts. Their alliance with the senior tour began three years ago at an Atlanta event. They travel to about 10 tournaments a season, and even help set up exhibitions for the players. Late one evening last fall, Hartwig was giving the Gables a free serving lesson. Lars Ulrich, Torben's son, was retrieving the balls. It was a scene one could hardly expect to see at a young people's tournament.
And, unlike the young people's tour, the seniors look at the light side. When a player has a birthday, his colleagues grab the courtside microphone and offer jokey tributes, while Davidson leads the crowd in cheers. When Ulrich missed that doubles match, Sedgman jumped into the umpire's chair and humorously narrated an emergency match between Hartwig and Merlo. The players, in effect, run their own show. Their meetings, which Reed calls "Bunis' marketing sessions," are punctuated with debate on everything from rules to policy.
Near the end of the 1978 season, the seniors dined together following a tournament at the Quail Ridge Racquet Club. Bunis was picking up the check, which guaranteed that everyone would order wine and dessert. Ulrich had meat, wine and a hot fudge sundae, and then puffed absently on a cigarette. A reporter asked him if he wanted to be anonymous. Said Torben, "An eagle is not anonymous. A large oak tree is not anonymous. But they do not seek fame."
The same reporter asked Seixas if he missed not being younger and playing tournaments for big purses. "I'd like to be 25 years younger," he said. "They could keep the money."
At dinner the players reminisced about years and players past. Frank Kovacs was mentioned as the greatest player who never won a major title. Kovacs used to walk up to Don Budge and ask, "How's the second-best backhand in the world?"
Despite the bantering, there was one serious moment. Fraser was leaving the following day to return home to captain and coach Australia's Davis Cup team and would be unable to play in the final two tournaments. He was disappointed that he hadn't won an event, and was down on himself because he hadn't been in good physical condition.
He rose to make a toast. First he saluted Sedgman as the winner of the tour; the two are neighbors in a Melbourne suburb and are good friends. Then he offered a challenge.
"Next year it'll be a different story," he promised.
The phrase "next year" hung in the air like perfume. To everyone sitting at the table, the words had a nice ring. At a time when none of them expected it, their scrapbooks still were open. For them, the game goes on.