Imagine, if you will, Arnold Palmer finding out that he is no longer welcome at the Masters. That is the situation in the jolly world of tennis, where John Newcombe has been told he cannot defend his title at Wimbledon. Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall will not be there either, nor will all the other pros who are under contract to Lamar Hunt's World Championship of Tennis. The WCT players also will be absent at Forest Hills. In its annual meeting in Houston last week, the United States Lawn Tennis Association backed the position of the ILTF, banning contract pros from everything but their own tournaments.
One place where the contract pros were welcome last week was Philadelphia, where those two indefatigable tennis nuts, Marilyn and Ed Fernberger, staged their annual tournament, the U.S. Pro Indoor Tennis Championships, a formal name for what was essentially another in the series of WCT's 32-player events. There were few surprises. Rosewall, Laver, Tom Okker and Arthur Ashe, the top four seeds, marched resolutely into the semifinals, as scheduled.
Although the final, in which Laver beat Rosewall, was superb, the tennis at Philadelphia was often spotty, due in part to a list of injuries that would do credit to a football team. Newcombe is recovering from a pulled ligament in his right knee. Bob Maud played with a cast on his left arm. Charlie Pasarell had about 10 miles of bandages on his pulled right thigh. Tony Roche, out most of last year with pain in his left elbow, was back, but could only serve at three-quarter speed. Dennis Ralston's arthritic knees hurt so much he could not play.
The crowds were good, reflecting the ever-increasing interest in the sport, even if at times they were lost in the vastness of the Spectrum. The only thing really wrong with Philadelphia was that Stan Smith, Cliff Richey, Ille Nastase and a few others among the world's best players were not on hand. Any tournament that is called the U.S. Pro Indoor Tennis Championships should have every leading pro on hand. Smith, Richey and the rest will be in Salisbury, Md. this week for the U.S. National Indoor Championships, another grand name, and the Laver crowd should be there too. But as long as the war between the ILTF and WCT continues, tennis fans will never see Smith against Laver, or Newcombe against Richey.
The current split is over money, although as Laver says, "I have the feeling they wouldn't let us back in any case. They want to end WCT." To explain the spat as briefly as possible, WCT felt it needed compensation—just how much seems to be a matter of disagreement in itself—from ILTF tournaments such as Wimbledon and Forest Hills if its players were to participate. Otherwise the prize money to be gained was not worth the two weeks each tournament requires. The ILTF hated the idea, but, needing the top players, it decided—for a while—to pay. However at Wimbledon last year it finally balked and, after a series of futile meetings with Hunt, it announced the ban on WCT players minutes before the Newcombe-Smith final. This meant the end of open tennis, even if the ILTF would not admit it at the time. "Our tournaments will still be open," said one official. "That is, open to all but a very few."
"If the ILTF had told Hunt it simply could not afford the expense money but that his players were always welcome, I think public sentiment would be on its side," says Rex Bellamy of The Times of London. "But by kicking them out, the ILTF has become the villain."
"It's stupid," says Newcombe, "but if they insist on it, I guess we don't go. And maybe if they open it up again next year, we won't go anyway."
When the announcement was made, few people believed a settlement would not be made before the next Wimbledon, which was, after all, a full year away. Now that year has dwindled down to four months, and, while WCT has a notable blank on its calendar from June 26 to July 8, the Hunt people are working at lining up tournaments in the U.S. during that time. Hunt himself recently flew to London to confer with Herman David of the All-England Club. David was surprised to discover that Hunt is seeking relatively little money from the ILTF—about $360 per player, or some $11,500 in all. At the time of the split it was reported that Hunt wanted closer to $25,000, and why this difference failed to come to light during the Wimbledon meetings is a mystery.
Should the ban continue, Wimbledon would probably not suffer from the absence of the WCT players except, as Newcombe points out, in prestige. "You can't continue to be the game's most prestigious tournament without the world's best players." Forest Hills is another matter. Joe Cullman, chairman of the board of Philip Morris, will withdraw sponsorship of the tournament, meaning $250,000, unless Forest Hills becomes open. CBS has canceled its contract: there was a "best efforts" clause requiring the USLTA to "secure the top players in the game." And Forest Hills is not the institution Wimbledon is. The miracle of Chris Evert saved the tournament last year when so many WCT players were absent, but another miracle this year is too much to expect.
As for Hunt, he is perfectly capable of going his own way, as the National Football League found out. Last year's 20-tournament tour proved successful. Now slight changes, dictated by television, should give WCT players enormous exposure. NBC will televise the finals of eight tournaments during the spring, including the championship between the eight point leaders, which will be held in May. Last year it was in November, and ultimately it was televised, wedged between Nebraska-Oklahoma on Thanksgiving Day and pro games on Sunday. NBC figures there will be less competition in May. To arrange this year's championship based on a 20-tournament schedule, WCT has had to use the results of the last 10 events of 1971, which means in effect they counted double, not the best arrangement. CBS will also tape an entire tournament in Hilton Head, S.C. and present one match each week, very much in the style of the CBS golf classic.