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In a world that celebrates its athletes, pampers them and takes them seriously, much as other uneasy civilizations came to pay homage to whores and vandals, a sporting tour offers the most flagrant example of this modern indulgence. A tour is a carnival, an itinerant Vanity Fair , with impressionable new and different ticket buyers standing in line every week.
By contrast—and by the laws of box office—a team-sport player must suffer to perform half his games at home, where he is no more than somebody's neighbor from down the street, with a piece of a bad restaurant. And who else is left as king of the road? Troubadours and buccaneers are out of work these days, and airplane pilots, like divorcees, must return home periodically to pick up checks. Only the touring pro is forever new-in-town and just in from somewhere glamorous, namely from TV.
Tennis never really had a tour before, certainly not a bona fide one like golf, or even like indoor track or the stock cars. For all we know, bowling might have had a real tour before tennis did. Tennis travel was merely an Owl and Pussycat kind of arrangement, where the players set off crazily round the world with a little bit of honey and a little less money. There were a variety of circuits (a word, quite appropriately, formerly applied to vaudeville), scattered and overlapping, but no great sense of order. Rarely did the best players have to play each other, and Wimbledon, for all its tradition, was important mainly because it was the place where the players and promoters came so they could make tournament bookings.
The upheaval in tennis that produced open competition in 1968 also brought forth the tour that soon evolved into Lamar Hunt's World Championship of Tennis. By this year WCT had grown into a 32-man passel that scheduled 30 weekly tournaments a year in the U.S. and Canada and a few other places around the globe that could spring for front money. The tour exercised such a powerful influence upon traditional tennis ways and means that the international pooh-bahs finally shut WCT out of Wimbledon, and peace was only arranged by trading time for bodies. Hunt agreed to play his tour only in the first five months of the calendar year if the international federations would stop trying to prohibit good players from joining his tour.
Beginning in January, WCT will play two simultaneous, separate but equal, 32-man tours, the 64 regulars ranging in age from 19 to 43 and coming from 18 different countries on six continents. Suddenly, most of the best players in the world are obliged to be not only in constant company and competition, but always in a foreign land, always away. Moreover, many players find themselves not just strangers, but stereotypes, one-dimensional political cartoons, convenient as wrestling villains. When Cliff Drysdale of South Africa steps on an American court, for instance, everybody in the stands is sure they've got just the right slot for him. "I realize," Drysdale says, "that wherever I go, I am presumed to be a bigot until I can prove otherwise."
For these kinds of reasons, the players are often inclined to draw their wagons up in a circle. They are not just friendly rivals; they are hard rivals who must also serve each other as best friends. "Of course, you can't stay close friends with the people you're playing all the time," says Brian Fairlie of New Zealand. "It was driving me crazy. That's why I got married." Elizabeth, his bride, gets a very hurt expression on her face.
Still, if only because of the large amounts of money involved, the old killer instincts remain in force on the court. It is basic that tennis, for all its niceties, is a head-to-head game: the winner eliminates the loser. In other tour sports, the real competition is inanimate: man against ball or clock. So a tennis tour is much harder pressed from the start to retain corporate goodwill, and for the preservation of the whole there are limits the players must honor, baser instincts they must subdue.
"There is an air of displacement about the whole thing that is really quite necessary," Drysdale says. He is the brightest member of the tour, according to Arthur Ashe—which is significant not because Ashe is black, but because he is probably the only other member of the tour with an intellect to match the South African's. "You are all together in San Francisco one day and all in Cologne the next," Drysdale continues. "Time, distance, geography lose their meanings. The tour is like rerunning old movies. You walk on the court against some fellow, someone you've been pleasantly going around the world with, and suddenly all you can remember is what this guy did to you in Philadelphia. Months ago. You play him with Philadelphia in mind, you salute the umpire, and then you walk off the court and the Philadelphia movie is forgotten until the next time you draw him.
"The tour is all about immediate communication with your neighbor. The Australians manage it best, but we all learn that we must communicate very pleasantly and even become quite close to someone without ever being more than superficial."