There was a day when a U.S. defense of the Davis Cup automatically took place in the staid atmosphere of the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, N.Y. But that day is gone. This week the U.S. will defend the cup against Australia at the Roxboro Junior High School in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. To old-line tennis purists this may sound as degrading as moving the Masters from Augusta to Hoboken but, in truth, it is a long step forward. Removing the matches from Forest Hills may someday be considered as important for tennis as leaving that cellar in Liverpool was for the Beatles.
"What this sport needs is exposure," says Bob Malaga, the man responsible for bringing the Davis Cup to Cleveland. "We have to get tennis to the people and move the good things around the way golf has. I hate to say this, but now the best thing would be for other cities to try to get this away from us."
Malaga is a bright, dedicated promoter who works for tennis and Cleveland. Right now he is at his happiest and busiest because he is working for both. He is a bald man who does not wear a hat. His eyes do not dart about, his whole head does. Partner in a local law firm, clubman and resident of swank Shaker Heights, Malaga—the name is Czech—grew up in nearby Collinwood. He is an aggressive man but not pugnacious, a cigar smoker who does not jab out with the cigar. He brought the Davis Cup to Cleveland by careful planning and polite cajolery, not by bulldozing. Part ad man and part politician, Malaga played an important role in the gubernatorial campaign of C. William O'Neill in 1956. He still has license plate RM-29, his initials and his age when his man won.
However, the USLTA did not award the Challenge Round to Cleveland solely on Malagian charm. Cleveland simply made the best offer. It has carried out all its promises, too. The matches this weekend will make the most money in Davis Cup history. The U.S. and Australian lawn tennis associations should haul almost $100,000 out of Cleveland. The take was only $30,000 last year in Adelaide. "Nothing burns me up more," Malaga says, "than when I get some request for a $25 donation to support this tennis thing or that one. Sure, I know they all say I'm too commercial. Well, this sport doesn't have to beg. It can support itself if it's promoted. We've made money every time in Cleveland. O.K., I'm commercial if that's commercial."
Malaga started playing tennis at an early age, though Collinwood is known more for contact sports. Boxer Joey Maxim and several pro football players come from there. Malaga won a scholarship to Michigan State for both his football and tennis ability. His niche in football history is forever secure if only because of one game. Playing for the varsity as a freshman—it was permitted then—he kicked the extra point that beat Kentucky 7-6. The fellow who missed the extra point for Kentucky was one George Blanda. "I figure I'm the only guy around to outkick Blanda," Malaga says.
State was so crowded with good football players that it was decided Malaga should concentrate on tennis. He had been high school champion of Ohio the year before Tony Trabert was. When Michigan State took on the University of North Carolina in 1949 Malaga played in the No. 1 match against current Davis Cup Captain Vic Seixas. Seixas won.
Always a top player around Cleveland, Malaga's association with tennis was mostly athletic until 1960, when he grumbled so much about apathy toward the sport that the Northeastern Ohio Tennis Association elected him president and told him to run things himself. Immediately he cast about for some zone cup matches for Cleveland. "I said we could guarantee a profit if they gave us the U.S.- Venezuela American zone final. It was probably the worst tennis in history. Looking back, the USLTA probably would have paid us to take it."
But the matches were a box office success and in 1961, Malaga had little trouble getting the U.S.- Mexico Tie. The Americans won 3-2 in an exciting battle, and—of equal value from a publicity standpoint—Dennis Ralston lost his temper and was suspended. In 1962 Cleveland was host to the U.S.- Canada Tie, and last year the Wightman Cup. Malaga never stops running. Despite the pressure of Davis Cup details, he was at Forest Hills two weeks ago trying to regain the Wightman Cup for 1965.
These earlier matches were all played on the courts of the Cleveland Skating Club, but for the Challenge Round a stadium was needed. When Malaga first considered promoting the matches last December, before the U.S. had won the cup back, building a stadium was his first concern. He found a site near the Skating Club, a baseball diamond next to the Roxboro playground. Helped by an understanding civic leader, Harold T. Clark—for whom the stadium was subsequently named—Malaga started knocking on the doors of Cleveland industry. About 40 firms responded with money enough to guarantee the stadium costs and another $60,000 for promotional purposes. Some of the businessmen grasped immediately how important the Challenge Round could be for Cleveland, but many others hardly knew what the Davis Cup was.
In fact, so many people in Cleveland still do not know what this Challenge Round thing is all about that Publicity Chairman Jim Passant has taken a fresh approach. It may be called the Challenge Round everywhere else, but in Cleveland it is the "Davis Cup Finals."