The future of American tennis—Open tennis, anyway—may very well depend on the care with which Owen Williams shaves. Williams is a 6' 4", 200-pound 37-year-old South African who is the tournament director for the U.S. Open championships, which began this week in Forest Hills. He also is a Christmas factor hemophiliac—a condition that does not deter him from hacking off his whiskers with a blade razor. Admonished for this reckless approach to life, Williams says, "Ah, well, live hard and die young and make a pretty corpse."
Although he is not in physical danger at the West Side Tennis Club, Williams' predilection for a high-risk life was put to the test when he agreed to run the Open. A former run-of-the-mill tournament player, Williams has made news in other ways. At 19 he worked his way from Johannesburg to Wimbledon peeling potatoes on a South African mail ship—and wound up on the front pages of nine British newspapers. He dated Elizabeth Taylor (National Velvet version), sold a tennis racket to Anthony Quinn, frequented Somerset Maugham's French Riviera villa, was friendly with Aly Khan until Aly went after one of his girl friends, was rolled in an Istanbul nightclub and thrown into a Barcelona jail. Still, he managed to reach the quarterfinals of the Wimbledon doubles in 1954 and that same year was the seventh foreign seed at Forest Hills. In 1959, however, when he was 27, he decided he was never going to be a winner ( Jack Kramer told him his size-12 feet, among other things, would prohibit that), and rather than become a permanent tennis bum he turned to business and tennis promoting.
His first South African venture was beating the drum for Kramer's professional tennis circus in 1959, but, because Williams was not well versed in South African tax laws, the tour was a disaster. Two years later, however, the pros were a success there, and they have been every year since. In 1966 Williams took charge of the South African national amateur championships in Johannesburg, more on a dare than anything else. The year before, the tournament had attracted only 4,500 people in 12 days and had lost $500, but with Williams running things the tournament drew 62,000 people and grossed $100,000. And this in a city of less than 2 million. In addition, during the past 10 years he has established a personal financial empire that includes Scotch, chocolate liqueur and champagne distributorships, a sporting-goods firm, a small publishing company and a promotions outfit. In tennis circles—worldwide—Williams is regarded with awe as a blend of Pete Rozelle and Florenz Ziegfeld.
Williams' hemophilia nearly cost him his life four years ago when he was hit on his left wrist while playing cricket at the opening of a Johannesburg country club. He thought nothing of the injury and hopped a plane for Capetown, 800 miles away. When he got off the plane his wrist was already badly swollen. Wisely, he went to a doctor, who told him to be careful and check back a few hours later. Unwisely, Owen forgot about it. "Around 1 or 2 in the morning I was on the dance floor of some nightclub with a buxomy broad," says Owen, "and I felt this tapping on my shoulder." It was the doctor, still dressed in work white, who, when Williams hadn't checked back, had for five hours made the rounds of Capetown clubs looking for him.
"Owen, you're a bloody fool," he said. "Look at your arm."
By now the hemorrhaging had increased so much that Owen couldn't get his suit coat off. The doctor bundled him into a car, drove him to the emergency ward of Capetown's Groote Schuur Hospital (the heart-transplant place) and ripped off his coat with a pair of scissors. For the next day it was touch and go whether Williams would lose his arm, and maybe his life.
Williams prefers to shrug off his handicap. "If I'm in a bad auto accident and can't get to a hospital quickly, I'm through," he says. "I used to wear a medallion around my neck that identified me as a hemophiliac, but I took the bloody thing off a long time ago. It interfered with my clothing, my tennis and my making love."
This is precisely the attitude you need if you are in charge of what is supposed to be, next to Wimbledon, the most important tennis championships in the world. Supposed to be. Better a snake pit. Last year's U.S. Open, it can be said, was at once sad, funny and disgraceful.
In fairness, what happened in 1968 was in many ways nothing more than the culmination of the sins of previous years, even decades, and was the result of the chaotic state in which tennis finds itself as it makes the awkward transition from an amateur and amateurish sport to a (hopefully) professional entertainment. The two touring professional groups, Lamar Hunt's World Championship Tennis and Tennis Champions, Inc. (formerly the National Tennis League), run by George MacCall and Fred Podesta, want nothing but the worst for one another and as an entry hate the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association, which presumes to run the game in this country. The USLTA is governed by committee, and is factionalized and fractionalized, mainly into anti-professional and pro-professional groups. The association cries out for leadership, but when strong personalities do emerge from the debris, such as the immediate past president Bob Kelleher and current president Alastair Martin, they are all too often reduced to ineffective power brokers for the 42-man executive committee. From this sad group emerges the Forest Hills tournament committee.
USLTA Executive Secretary Bob Malaga, in charge of procuring nonprofessional foreign talent for the 1968 championships, turned up just one European male, Holland's Tom Okker. (The handful of others who did play came in spite of Malaga, and one former champion, Manuel Santana, flatly refused to play because, he claimed, Malaga insulted him.) The No. 1-seeded player, Australia's Rod Laver, did not play his first-round match until the fourth day of the championships, although a cardinal rule for any tournament referee is to protect seeded players and make sure they play their early-round matches as quickly as possible. The men's singles draw was rigged so that the touring professionals could not meet each other in the first or second rounds in order to protect their guarantees. Most blatant of all, although play was rained out for just one day, the tournament was completed 48 hours late.