Enter the West Side Tennis Club, the tournament host. The Forest Hills stadium is the only large-capacity outdoor tennis facility in the country. It was built in 1923 and, until this year, it had not been improved. Rust streaks mar the crumbling cement pillars, the seats are uncomfortable, refreshments are low-grade and, for the 14,000 people who occasionally show up for a day's play, there are just two rest rooms. There is little atmosphere, less class. A West Side member explained, "Twenty or 30 years ago all the players used to be put up in homes around here, but now only a few stay. I don't really blame the fans or the players for not liking the place." And to top everything last year, players' subway directions to Forest Hills from Manhattan, 20 minutes away, were incorrect.
The West Side club itself is divided into three distinct groups. The first is very concerned about the championships and works extremely hard to make them a success. The second couldn't care less one way or the other. The third doesn't like the idea of all those people scruffing about on the West Side lawns, and as a supreme insult, during last year's final match between Okker and Arthur Ashe, these members held their own games on the club's field courts.
Promotion and publicity last year was handled by the Madison Square Garden Attractions, Inc. Its main contribution to the chaos was to inflate the daily attendance figures. The Garden announced 97,000 for the entire championships, but the actual paid attendance for the 12 days was only 62,000, or about one-fifth the figure for Wimbledon's fortnight. In all, the Garden was merely the third horse of an unbelievable troika galloping pell-mell to oblivion and dragging the Open championships shamefully behind it. No wonder that in January of this year there was public doubt whether there would even be a 1969 Open, let alone at Forest Hills.
It would be nice to report that at this particular juncture the USLTA, the West Side club and the Garden sat down and said, "Gee, gang. We really blew it. Let's make amends and do a real bang-up job in '69." Unfortunately, that isn't exactly what happened. If this year's Open is a success, it will be due in large measure to Gladys Heldman, whose acerbic editorials in her magazine, World Tennis, have been deflating the tennis Establishment ever since Volume 1, No. 1 in June 1953 and who has been behind most of the advances American tennis has made in the past 16 years. Seven years ago Mrs. Heldman got Joseph Cullman III, now chairman of the board of Philip Morris, reinterested in tennis (he had played at Hotchkiss and Yale, but that had been nearly 30 years earlier). Shortly after that Australian Roy Emerson, who has won 12 Big Four singles titles in his career, was a house guest of the Cullmans, and shortly after that, Emerson was on the Philip Morris payroll. Manuel Santana, the late Rafael Osuna and Arthur Ashe soon followed, and last year Philip Morris picked up the tab for televising the Open. Of a sudden, Cullman, wealthy and a tennis nut, had become a nouveau riche tennis Establishmentarian.
In January, during the period of crisis for the current tournament, Cullman was asked by Dan Johnson, last year's Open referee (and an emissary for the then-incoming USLTA president, Alastair Martin), whether he would take over as Open chairman. Cullman hemmed and hawed—for about 10 seconds—and agreed, provided he could run the tournament the way he wanted to and provided he could seek out Owen Williams as his tournament director. Martin, with that huge executive committee and a score of lesser committees staring him in the face, closed his eyes, gulped and bravely said, "Yes."
Thus, in the midst of an African safari last winter, Joe Cullman spent four days with Williams in Johannesburg. "After seeing me drink a bottle and smoke 20 cigars a day, run four or five businesses and hold a sit-down dinner for 150 people, I guess Joe decided I could do the job," Williams said.
Soon after, at a secret meeting with USLTA officials in New York—he flew 20 hours to New York, stayed 20 hours in New York and flew 20 hours back to Johannesburg, via London ("I've got a wonderful tailor there")—Williams was officially confirmed. Owen's first objective was to secure the services of Mike Gibson, the dapper Englishman who is the tournament referee for Wimbledon, a job he inherited from his father-in-law in 1963 and performs admirably. Again, by way of contrast with Forest Hills, in 1968 it rained during Wimbledon's first five days, but under Gibson's direction the tournament finished on time. He is a perfect complement to Williams. "My present occupation of refereeing," he said, "allows me plenty of time for fox hunting in winter."
Williams arrived in New York on April 27, the first full-time tournament director in Forest Hills history, and with his reputation clearly on the line. "If he doesn't succeed," said Bob Briner, who runs World Championship Tennis for Lamar Hunt, "he'll have to slink back to Johannesburg with his tail between his legs."
April 27 was a Sunday. At 7:45 a.m. on the 28th Cullman picked up Williams at his suite in New York's Westbury Hotel, sequestered him in a Philip Morris executive office and said, "You've got 15 minutes to settle in, then we'll go to work."
At that point Williams' staff consisted of Williams. He quickly recruited his wife Jenifer, and now, with the championships under way, he has a more or less full-time staff of 14, plus a volunteer force of 150.