Girls and boys together, they are all polite and socially primed, able to do the merengue and pick up the right fork. They are all, these 40 or so regulars on the Caribbean Tennis Tour, distinguished by traditional white dress and suntans, but the initial visual sameness is deceiving. They come from five continents, and among them they speak, it seems, as many languages and dialects as Babel ever had.
Some of them are better than travel posters: the Scandinavian girls, fair-haired and limber, dominating the beaches; Mrs. Ramanathan Krishnan, wife of India's best player, a diamond on her nose, a rose in her hair, moving gracefully in her long native gown; the bearded Danes, Jorgen and Torben Ulrich, looking as if they came straight off Leif Ericson's ship. Others can stir visions simply with their names, exotic and dashing: Monique Salfati, Vincente Zarazua, Heide Schildknecht. The circuit itself is exotic and dashing—two months each winter in Tampa, Miami Beach, Trinidad, Barranquilla, Caracas, Mexico City, San Juan and St. Petersburg.
Not long ago the members of the tour reached San Juan—the Caribe Hilton Hotel, the favorite and swankest stop of all—looking not only tanned and healthy but also much younger than they really are. The players looked, in fact, out of place, because there are very few young people at resort hotels. The younger generation is priced out, so there is no honest vitality and excitement about the places—just the coarse sound of money screaming, the raucous me-too babble of conventioners and the rummed-up boorishness of those "with a little too much to drink." So the tennis kids, bouncing in, are in sharp contrast.
Their vivacity is conspicuous only by contrast, for the tour kids are not a loud bunch. They are much more interested in a relaxed existence than in the activities usually associated with the transient. They are not even excessively competitive, because this is not Wimbledon, remember, and you are only going to get hotter and sweatier knocking yourself out to get past the round of 16. At the Caribe Hilton the courts are directly behind the cabanas, the beach and the Atlantic Ocean. "You're out there so hot, and of course you think about the beach," says Lesley Turner of Australia, the third-ranked woman in the world. "It's hard to approach every tournament feeling that it is important, especially down here where it is so nice."
Miss Turner is a sweet girl, good-humored and cute. She is 23, and this is her fifth year of almost constant tennis traveling, so touring has become a why-not thing. If she were not playing tennis, she figures she would be a secretary back in Sydney, and she does not fancy that.
The sameness of the tennis life, no matter how plush it is, affects the games of the players. Like Miss Turner, few even try to keep their games at a high level. Others, like Dennis Ralston of Bakers-field, Calif., use the tour as a testing ground for strokes and styles that can be perfected for later, more significant competition. But they are all athletes, and sometimes, suddenly, the competitive drive reappears and tennis is again a real battle.
Such was the case in San Juan with Margaret Smith of Australia, Miss Turner's attractive traveling companion, who is variously ranked as the best or second-best (after Maria Bueno) woman player in the world. Miss Smith's concentration wavered all week at the Caribe, and sometimes in the doubles with Miss Turner she appeared to be playing in a dream. However, in the singles finals against Nancy Richey of Dallas it was impossible to be so detached, because the match took place in the frightful heat of the day, the two contestants in sympathy only with mad dogs and Englishmen. Many of the matches on the tour are played at night for just this reason. The center court at the Caribe was torrid and still, the heat just funneling down.
Miss Smith won the first set 8-6 and led 3-0 in the second before she began to wilt, and Miss Richey came on to win 6-4. But in losing Miss Smith seemed to gain interest in the struggle, and after the girls took cold showers and put on fresh clothes, Miss Smith started to play like losing meant something.
The girls played each other a brutal game, making themselves run from side to side, 10 or 12 shots to the point, back and over, right to left, over and over. The heat seemed to take more out of Miss Smith, but both were uncomfortable. It became difficult to serve; in the first nine games of the set only once was service held. But the heat was too great for Miss Smith. In the ninth game, needing only to hold her serve to win the match, she lost quickly and began to suffer hand cramps. In the 11th game it was leg cramps but, courageously, she went on. Miss Richey, exhibiting a more stolid spirit, finally won 9-7. They rushed a doctor to Miss Smith's room afterward, and for a long time her cramped hand stayed painfully, grotesquely twisted like a claw. So sometimes, no matter where they are, they play hard.
For playing a little, a couple of hours on a couple of days before small and wealthy crowds, and for lying in the sun a lot, the players are well treated—actually fawned upon at some stops—and are given up to $28 a day, the legal limit for expenses. Naturally, all their travel costs are paid by the various tournaments, each of which chips in about $10,000 to a travel pool.