At the Palm Beach Polo and Country Club, where it was thought you could never be too rich or too thin, something turned up last week that was both. The first Stakes Match was tennis's answer to golf's Skins Game (see box, page 26), or at least television's answer to it. Tennis pundit Bud Collins weighed in for the sport's blue-blazer set months ago by pronouncing the event "a monument to greed." By the time Ivan Lendl had finished cleaning out Pat Cash in Sunday's finals, enough of the million dollars at play had changed hands to leave everyone a little numbed by the sums.
That'll happen when you take four players—in this case, Lendl, Cash, John McEnroe and Stefan Edberg—and stake each to $250,000 just for showing up. They played a round-robin on both Friday and Saturday. Each match was to 15 points, a la Ping-Pong, and they seized chunks of one another's stakes by winning matches (each victory was worth $30,000) and rallies ($200 was on the line every time the ball crossed the net, so a long rally could earn the winner of the point a couple of grand) and by serving aces (worth $2,000 each). A double fault cost a player $2,000. The two top money-winners after the two round-robins advanced to Sunday's finals, which consisted of three-out-of-five 21-point games for even bigger stakes: double the value on rallies, and a bounty on each game, starting at $30,000 and increasing in $30,000 increments.
With $583,200 riding on the finals, Lendl and Cash played some of the most joyless tennis imaginable, muttering oaths at ball boys, spectators and themselves. Cash saved one $122,000 rally on game point in the fourth game—talk about break points—but Lendl won the next two exchanges and the pot, 11-21, 21-18, 21-7, 22-20. His sympathy for Cash was limited. "We all knew we could play the match and walk away with nothing," he said. "If it keeps going next year, it will even out, just like in the Skins Game. Trevino didn't do well last year, and he cleaned up today." In case you're curious, Lendl loves to play skins but isn't too good at it. His best round ever, a 75, was shot without benefit of a birdie.
Considering the way things went on in the finals, Cash, the No. 2 money-winner, with $250,600 after the round-robins, would have gladly switched places with the two players eliminated on Saturday. He had the misfortune to win the finals' first game, worth only 30 grand, and lose the $60,000, $90,000 and $120,000 games that followed. Those defeats, combined with $10,800 in rally losses, turned Cash into one sorry misnomer. He skipped the awards ceremony and the press conference, but he did speak with Lendl in the locker room. "He told me," Lendl reported, "that I should buy him dinner in New York."
December 7, 1987
The event unfolded between tribunes of patrons in crushed velour jumpsuits sitting at "champagne tables" (cost: $1,300 each), thanks to a guy named Chuck Fairbanks, who's the vice-president of Landmark Land Company, the resort-management firm that owns the Palm Beach Polo and Country Club and PGA West in La Quinta, Calif., home of the Skins Game. Fairbanks is best known for his days as football coach of the Oklahoma Sooners, the New England Patriots and the USFL New Jersey Generals, and as the man who first displayed his knack for creative spending while coaching at Colorado, where he sank $50,000 into carpeting, wood paneling, a wet bar and a microwave oven while renovating his office.
Fairbanks took the Stakes concept to ProServ, the sports-management company, which refined it and brought in Maltese Productions, the folks who gave us the MTV Video Awards on cable, and Minolta, which sprang for most of the Stakes money and a lot of commercial time. All of which made carrying the Stakes worth the while of trashsport trailblazer ABC, which opened its coverage on Saturday with footage of rent-a-cops lugging four moneybags out of a Wells Fargo truck. "A tennis purist is going to say, 'This isn't a tennis tournament,' " said ProServ chairman Donald Dell on Friday. "That's exactly what we want. We're not trying for the tennis purist. We're trying for the TV sports viewer."
After the first day of this gut-and-graphite poker, the results reflected the contestants' backgrounds: Cash, who traces his ancestry to rapscallions who settled Australia, won all three of his matches as if he had been gambling all his life. Edberg, weaned on Sweden's comfy welfare state, was 0-3 and moaned, "If I keep going like this, I'll end up sponsoring the event."
Cash's early success notwithstanding, the format suited no one better than Lendl. An offensive baseliner, he won more of the long rallies—and thus more pocket change—than serve-and-volleyers Cash, McEnroe and Edberg. In his Friday match with Edberg, for example, he won 15-7 on points, but outstripped Edberg $19,600 to $2,000 in rally money. "I kept hitting good serves and getting $200 for each," said Edberg afterward. "But when we'd have long rallies, he'd win the point and I'd lose one or two thousand dollars."
However, it took McEnroe to lift the tennis above the level of a Carling Bassett-Robert Seguso dinner table conversation. Mac was finishing a two-month suspension from the Grand Prix circuit for telling a CBS soundman at the U.S. Open what he could do with a boom microphone. While barred from what he calls the "Oh, take some money, and oh, shut up" piousness of the circuit, McEnroe had to make do playing exhibitions and special events from Atlanta to Antwerp. "I'm not a big believer in doing things for money," he said with a straight face, ascribing his presence at the Stakes Match to a sincere fascination with the concept. "I believe in the integrity of the game."
On the Grand Prix circuit, which McEnroe will take a pay cut to rejoin, a player must win matches to earn prize money. At the Stakes, each participant started with a quarter million. Even the most surfeited millionaire found that format irresistible. Good for the game? Sure, opined McEnroe, compared with the U.S. Open, in which "you see bozos play all the time and Lendl beat the hell out of them."
To be sure, Mac's Friday match with Lendl, a 24-22 loss that the Connecticut Czech likened to a good fifth-set tiebreaker, was a tournament final in miniature. Upon losing a point at 21-all, McEnroe flung his racket to the ground, where it snapped in two. While the chair was busy fining him $500 from his stake, McEnroe examined the handle's innards as if he were Harry Wendelstedt inspecting a Howard Johnson bat for cork. In his 15-12 defeat of Cash on Saturday, McEnroe lost a $3,800 rally, the most expensive of the event to that point, after a Cash shot, which appeared to have landed an inch or two beyond the baseline, was called good. Mac whacked a ball into the photo gallery, drawing another $500 docking.
On Saturday, until Lendl blew a second-serve ace past Junior at 8-8 and "knew he was gone," McEnroe still had a chance to reach the finals. But he said he wasn't even trying to serve the aces, which, along with the $30,000 he would have received for winning the match, might have boosted him past Cash in the money standings. "I could have reached the finals and lost all of it against Lendl in five sets," McEnroe said. "I was just trying to win the match and the $30,000. To come in last and make $182,000—it's pretty hard to complain with that." Especially when you move up to third place in the money-winning standings the following day without lifting a racket.
Indeed, the event offered largess on a truly embarrassing scale. Had you (yes, you) wangled an invitation, you could have lost all six round-robin matches, gotten skunked 15-0 in each of them, sustained no rally longer than two shots, and still have walked away with $34,000 of your $250,000 stake. That's more than a circuit lifer wins for slogging unbeaten through six rounds of many Grand Prix events. "There are no guarantees and no side deals," said Dell proudly. "All four players are on the same money footing." Do tell.
A special event that makes a Grand Prix-circuit first prize look like crumbs couldn't possibly be good for tennis. It siphoned the game's top draws from the tour and helped turn McEnroe's suspension into a fiduciary mockery. Dell argued that no player who's anybody would have gone to last week's Grand Prix event in Itaparica, Brazil, anyway, because it falls just before this week's Masters. In fact, Brad Gilbert and Andres Gomez were in Itaparica, battling for the eighth and final Masters slot (Gilbert got it), and had Cash not qualified for the Masters two weeks ago by winning the South African Open, he would have needed to go to Brazil. Said Lendl, "This event could attract people who aren't tennis fans. On the other hand, it maybe turned a lot of tennis fans off."
Of course, the Stakes Match was for the TV viewer, not the tennis fan, so it should be judged by that standard. And by that standard it suffers in comparison with the Skins Game. In the Skins, the players start at zero and earn what they get. Tension builds as they move from hole to hole, fully aware of the value of that skin, bantering with each other like club duffers on a Saturday morning. In the Stakes, the lion's share of the money wasn't earned, just built on or frittered away. Shots developed so quickly that, except after the occasional ace or double fault, the players had no time to contemplate the stakes, much less to yap—unless it was McEnroe, who hardly needed Dell, Fairbanks, Roone Arledge and the mind of Minolta to help him chat up a linesman.
"Yeah," said Cash on Friday, nonchalant after winning his first three matches and building a pot of $350,000. "But I'll lose it all tomorrow, or the next day." Lose it all he did, every penny.
A monument to greed? That it is. But we need monuments. Without them, whatever would the pigeons do?