SI Vault
 
NOW TENNIS GOES MOD
Frank Deford
February 12, 1968
The new pro tour was up to date in Kansas City last week as John Newcombe dressed in yellow and go-go girls danced on court. Sure, the game still had its problems, but none of them was old age
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
February 12, 1968

Now Tennis Goes Mod

The new pro tour was up to date in Kansas City last week as John Newcombe dressed in yellow and go-go girls danced on court. Sure, the game still had its problems, but none of them was old age

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

Dennis Ralston and Nikki Pilic saw it first and winced in anguish. It was a dark and forbidding haunted house of a building, its shabby doors fastened shut with twine. Pigeons flapped through the rafters, fleeing, perhaps, from the tart odors that an ill wind blew over from the slaughterhouse next door. With all America to choose from, professional tennis had managed to open its newest tour and its quest for a sharp, modern image in a primitive animal exhibition hall in the stockyards of Kansas City, Mo.

Ralston recovered from his initial shock and took the place, the American Royal Arena, in stride. A second-year pro, he is almost venerable in the company of the young Handsome Eight, the cast of players who make up World Championship Tennis Inc. No longer does anything in the game surprise him. After all, pro tennis has had to tolerate such buildings since Cash-and-Carry Pyle signed up Suzanne Lenglen and Vinnie Richards in 1926 and first put the pro show on the road. Since then the roads have changed a great deal more than pro tennis, but when at long last pro tennis did go mod last week inside that unfortunate building in Kansas City, the shock for some people was considerable. On Friday night Ralston reached over and put a friendly, consoling arm about the Frenchman, Pierre Barthes. "Come on, Pierre," Ralston said. "Stay with us."

"But this is not tennis," Barthes replied. "It is a carnival." He shook his curly hair sadly, and peered out through the indoor gloaming to the synthetic court, where his fellow performers in brightly colored shirts were playing the Van Alen Simplified Scoring System before fans who had accepted encouragement to scream as raucously as they desired. Segments of the audience were also awarded cologne or perfume if players designated as "theirs" won. Every kid got a free racket. Every point was worth money. There was even supplementary entertainment. At one point David Gray of the Manchester Guardian paused to look out onto the ice rink, over which the Robin Hood-green Astrocourt was spread. On it 10 young dancers, curiously attired, managed (if that were possible) to blaspheme the AstroTurf with two ditties entitled Serving You My Love and Do the Serve. A strange glare crossed Gray's face. "Good God," he said. "We are all part of a bloody Sinclair Lewis novel."

Of course, the Handsome Eight accepted the fact that radical changes in the format were needed when they accepted their very handsome guarantees. Some were enthusiastic from the first. Others, like Ralston, who is candid but contained, were content to go along without complaint, reserving judgment. By the end of the first tournament only Barthes still seemed to be fighting the strange innovations—and the fact that he is madly in love (a $120 phone call to Paris proves it) with a girl who had just piled his automobile into a highway divider may have partly accounted for his indisposition.

"We can't complain," said Butch Buchholz, who has been a pro for seven years. "Some of these younger guys can't imagine how much we need this. They don't know what it was like in '61 or '63." Buchholz is only 27, but when he mentions those lost years bad dreams are instantly recalled. "The worst," he says, "was the Texas Death March. All one-night stands. I'll never forget them: Dallas, Wichita, Houston, Shreveport, San Antonio, Waco...." The town names roll on as though they were from another sort of campaign: " Manassas, Fredericksburg, Antietam...."

Marilyn Buchholz was pregnant on the Death March, but it was Butch who experienced regular morning sickness. He would also wake up nights screaming, and both awake and dreaming he often became convinced that the world around him was tilted. One time another pro on that tour, having finished an 18-16 set at 2 a.m. in Fort Worth and facing the prospect of an all-night drive to Little Rock to open up there the next afternoon, chased into the stands after a drunken woman heckler. He then returned to the locker room, where he broke down and cried, finally begging for a needle to quiet him. "Don't they understand at all how the pros used to be?" Buchholz asked.

The man who is trying to save pro tennis from its tawdry vaudeville image is David F. Dixon (SI, Dec. 11), the New Orleans businessman who brought the Saints football team to town. Backed by Lamar Hunt's money, Dixon signed up five top amateurs—Pilic of Yugoslavia, Cliff Drysdale of South Africa, Roger Taylor of Great Britain, and the Australians, John Newcombe and Tony Roche—and three pros, Ralston, Buchholz and Barthes. By playing in the many beautiful arenas that now pepper the land, Dixon figured the troupe could wedge in as many as 80 tournaments a year, at $10,000 in prize money a crack. There is no way, the way Dixon explains it, that any player can make less than $40,000, and the big winner may bank upwards of $200,000. VASSS makes the tight scheduling possible and also encourages TV.

Even without television support, however, Dixon says he needs to sell only about 10,000 tickets for a three-day, five-session tourney to break even. Unfortunately, in Kansas City the troupe managed to draw a total of only 4,694 people, including a lonely 387 souls on Friday afternoon. By contrast, a sportsman and boat show in the downtown Municipal Auditorium, featuring Ted Williams, attracted 12,106 on Friday. Even a high school basketball game between Shawnee Mission North and Topeka West that same night drew 2,500.

It should be said that the opening tournament was not a fair test of Dixon's grand plan. For instance, the tour began in Kansas City (where Hunt's AFL Chiefs play) despite the fact that no decent facility was available. The AstroTurf was not treated with the lacquered vinyl spray that slows the court down and makes for better rallies. The court could not, in fact, even be laid completely flat on the ice. Dixon's plan—exciting, all-court play on a perfect court in a clean, well-lighted place—failed this time. What he got was boring, serve-dominated action, with some bad bounces and missed shots as the players groped in the dark dump.

Still, the few fans who did turn up seemed to take to the lively innovations. The vivid colored shorts seemed to have universal appeal. The touring players had come to Kansas City directly from Australia, where they had filmed a TV series, and even staid old Aussie tennis patriarchs admitted that the bright colors were "not offensive." The same could not be said of more subdued outfits that Sears, which has a tie-in with World Championship Tennis, designed. They appeared ludicrous. Newcombe, for instance, made his official professional debut in a sea-green shirt and russet-brown shorts. He looked rather like an embarrassed maintenance man who had been shoved on court. Ralston was also in sea green, and his ensemble was completed by silly, dark green socks.

Continue Story
1 2 3