SI Vault
Frank Deford
November 20, 1972
For the touring pros, most of whom are foreign, the U.S. is a tennis El Dorado, making it easier to accept other things about their adopted country
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November 20, 1972

O'er The Land Of The Fee

For the touring pros, most of whom are foreign, the U.S. is a tennis El Dorado, making it easier to accept other things about their adopted country

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On the court Drysdale has come close to winning every major tournament, but he has failed each chance and remains just off the highest world rank. Still, he made $70,000 in official prize money last year, and his total tennis income approaches $100,000. Now, since January, he is, as well, the squire of Lakeway, living just off the fairway, near the manmade lake, in a beautiful new house with his family: wife, small daughter and son and mother-in-law. He is 31. A decade ago, when he first came to the U.S., he willingly paid his own way just for the chance to pick up a tennis scholarship at Lamar Tech in Beaumont, Texas. He was earning $2.50 a day from his national team. "It was Utopia just to have a chance to go to school in the United States," he says. "The tennis really didn't matter. There was no substantial future in tennis then."

Obviously, Drysdale is not typical, any more so than Lakeway is, but both are representative of what tennis has come to in the past decade. The ritzy tennis resort with its own airstrip is the end product of the same forces that have spun Drysdale from a $2.50-a-day national hero with a spectacular two-hand backhand and a frightful serve into a $100,000-a-year expatriate professional with a spectacular two-hand backhand and a frightful serve. Beyond that, Drysdale is more focused, if only because the apartheid policies of his homeland place so much of a spotlight upon him wherever he is in the world.

Nevertheless, although most Americans assume that he is a racist and he is constantly being asked to explain his position in the matter, he has never been actively heckled in the U.S. or received so much as a single piece of hate mail here. "People nowadays don't seem inclined to hold one personally responsible for the actions of his state," he says, agreeing that in America, where so many citizens have disputed the Federal Vietnam policy, it is especially difficult to visit the sins of the country upon a countryman. In the case of Drysdale, it would be pointless, as well. Unlike the more famous South African athlete, Gary Player, whom Drysdale describes evenly as "a passionate South African," Drysdale is an avowed opponent of all his nation's apartheid policies. He belongs to the visionary Progressive Party, whose expressed support of racial equality and tolerance has succeeded in keeping it out of 219 of the 220 seats in the national parliament.

Drysdale constantly has to explain himself, and last year appeared at an NAACP press conference in Boston after protest demonstrations had been initiated against the three South Africans then playing for WCT. The wind died down somewhat when Drysdale coolly expressed personal views that were similar to Thurgood Marshall's. In an ironic way, Drysdale feels a special kinship with the sort of people who felt obliged to confront him in Boston. "I have come to understand the militancy of the blacks," he says, "because their preoccupation with the issue of race is forced upon them, just as it always is with me."

On a personal level, he and Ashe are so often required to discuss each other that each should be getting 100 bucks an hour for psychoanalysis fees. They are an odd-couple clich� by now, especially since race really doesn't have anything to do with their relationship except when other people start asking them about it. They are friendly, respectful and temperamentally different. For all race counts with Drysdale and Ashe, they might just as well have been born in the same litter in Aberdeen, S. Dak.

Success has been dumped on WCT players so quickly that many of them have not learned to adjust to their new station. Some simply cannot say no. Okker, for example, finished a tournament in Brussels one Sunday last year, played a big-money match in New York on Tuesday and another one in Los Angeles on Thursday. Then he flew to Amsterdam for a weekend tournament, and back to St. Louis to start a WCT tournament Tuesday. El Shafei played successive tournaments in order, without time off, in Sydney, Cairo and Chicago.

As an incentive for this frantic schedule, besides the prize money, there are the endorsements. Suddenly every company in the world except Dutch Cleanser makes tennis rackets and clothes. Since there are more products than players, a star will endorse—and promise to use—a wooden racket on the Continent, an aluminum racket in Australia and a new throwaway styrofoam racket in America. Then he will alternate the three, and wonder why his game has gone all to hell. Also, his feet are killing him with the new bamboo shoes, and if he wins the doubles, how can he ever get to Barbados in time to make his guaranteed appearance at the new Moon Lagoon Club, which he has 2% of?

Some of the players have had a problem adapting. "All the money we've come into," Drysdale says, "but we're still very cheap." He and his contemporaries are a transitional generation. They grew up as alleged amateurs. Essentially, they were kept men, athletic gigolos, paid for their talents in large part in cut-rate services and amenities—a free place to stay, somebody's starry-eyed teen-aged daughter to chauffeur them about, the chance to actually sign for club sandwiches in the members' lounge. As a group, they were like the pretentious chorus girl that Gypsy Rose Lee once described: "She is descended from a long line that her mother listened to."

On tour, Lamar Hunt picks up transportation costs for the players, but they must pop for their own room and board. As a consequence, a lot of them, grown men making 50 grand a year, hustle for free guest rooms just like in the old tennis-bum days. Then, weeks later, they will still be bitching about how such-and-such was a rotten tournament because they were quartered so far from the arena. Players have called up WCT headquarters in Dallas collect from Europe to find out where they can get a cut-rate racket-stringing job in, say, Germany. Generally, they still view themselves as gentlemen players and not as contract entertainers.

At the River Oaks Club Tournament in Houston in April, nine of the players were lounging around a game room (pool, Ping-Pong, TV) that had been given over to them for the duration of the play. Bill Holmes, the WCT road manager, came in to tell the players officially what most of them had learned already, that they would not be permitted in the main part of the clubhouse or on the golf course.

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