SI Vault
Frank Deford
July 19, 1965
At Newport the old pros tried a new kind of tennis—the Van Alen Simplified Scoring System—in a tournament that was a rousing success, sort of
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July 19, 1965

Anyone Care To Play Some Vasss?

At Newport the old pros tried a new kind of tennis—the Van Alen Simplified Scoring System—in a tournament that was a rousing success, sort of

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Laver (anguished): Blooming hopeless.

Ayala (smiling): In this game, now [lapping a finger to head], now you have to think a little.

And so it went, the losers moaning, the winners finding VASSS quite fascinating and themselves a great deal smarter. As the week progressed, all of the pros except Pancho Gonzalez stopped fighting the system, and by the end of the tournament they were as enthusiastic as the galleries. There was even talk of playing all of next year's pro tour under the VASSS rules. "This is the most exciting week we've ever had on the tour," Pro Butch Buchholz told Van Alen at the Saturday night dance. "The greatest."

The scoring system—31 points to win—was accepted by the players with a take-it-or-leave-it shrug. VASSS does require adjustments, but these are subtle. What did bother most of the pros was the longer service, which they felt seriously changed the game. Moving the service line back three feet brings about tactical as well as physical changes in the play. First, of course, the server must change his whole serve, distance and angle, but even more important, because the power of the serve is muted, the server is unable to dominate the point with a quick rush to the net. The standard serve-rush-volley game is eliminated. "I'll never play this again," roared Gonzalez, who failed to finish among the money leaders. "I'm not going to play the game for 25 years and then get beaten by someone in a freak thing. And who says this is a better game to watch anyway? If people are bored with a game that has too much emphasis on serving and volleys, then just as many people will be bored with a game that concentrates on ground strokes." But the galleries and almost all of the tennis experts in attendance hardly agreed with Gonzalez' appraisal. They thought it was a better game to watch, which is exactly what Jimmy Van Alen has been saying for years.

Van Alen, whose devotion and belief in his system is quite fanatical, is himself an interesting man. He is, of course, of the very wealthy, a member of the Four Hundred. He and his wife reside on Ocean Drive in one of the many beautiful Newport mansions. ("Cottages" is what these gargantuan places were daintily called at first, a description in keeping with John Jacob Astor's famous remark that "a man who has a million dollars is as well off as if he were rich.") Perhaps as much as anyone in America, Van Alen touches back to those golden times. His mother, Mrs. Louis Brugui�re, is the last grande dame of Newport, still presiding over her cottage, Wakehurst, in the old style. She has said that Wakehurst is the last house in Newport to be run "properly," which means, among other things, 23 servants, a greenhouse across the way providing fresh flowers daily, and 146 candles to light the dining room, since she will not tolerate electric bulbs there.

It was Wakehurst and Mrs. Brugui�re who first welcomed the pros to Newport at a cocktail party, before they all adjourned to Mr. and Mrs. Van Alen's for a sumptuous buffet dinner. It was not quite the kind of affair that Wakehurst is accustomed to. There were, of course, many people saying "what a fun thing this is," but here, too, were all these professional athletes wandering about, while in a nearby sitting room a journalist batted out a report for the morning editions.

Through it all, Jimmy Van Alen skittered about, talking VASSS, at ease with all in the varied assemblage. "He is quite an amazing guy, when you think about it," said Butch Buchholz. "With his background, all his money and Newport and everything, you would think he would be the most conservative guy. But instead, he is one man who thinks tennis can be better and who is really doing something about it."

Of course, Van Alen has the time to do that. He describes his other activities as some kind of partridge hunting in Spain—it is not exactly clear what this is, because when pressed he immediately spins into rolling rhetoric about "the greatest partridge hunters in the world, the very greatest"—and "this thing with Christmas Eve, which you probably don't know about." This, it develops, is his reading of "'Twas the night before Christmas," which was written by Clement Moore, who lived in Newport. So impressive have Van Alen's warm readings of the poem been that he may appear on national television next Christmas with his recital.

As a matter of fact, Van Alen looks a little like Saint Nick. He is ruddy of face, positively twinkle-eyed, fond of bright attire, and filled with a naive enthusiasm and concern for everything and everyone that he meets. His inveterate promoting of VASSS has thrown him into circles far out of his great society, but while he blends with the company he has the magnificent capacity of remaining in character. He is, first and always, a gentleman.

Gonzalez, one person who can get under Van Alen's skin, was playing Malcolm Anderson on Friday afternoon, and Pancho, muttering and trying to be sarcastic whenever his big serve would fail, was successfully piling up tactless ploys. He topped it off by blasting a ball far over the grandstand, a maneuver that brought Van Alen to his feet from his courtside chair. Gonzalez, spoiling for an incident or at least a chance to play the Pancho Gonzalez role, walked over to Van Alen. "If you want me to get out, I will," he snarled. '"I just want you to show good manners and behave like a human being," Van Alen snapped, scolding Gonzalez so very naturally that he had no more to say.

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