Joe Jares' first tennis story was a rookie newspaperman's chore. It was in the late '50s and Jares, newly arrived at the Los Angeles Herald-Express, was sent to cover the pro debut of Alex Olmedo. He got the assignment largely by default. "The older sportswriters all wanted to write about the Rams and Dodgers," he says. "They didn't consider tennis a real sport."
The intervening years have seen a dramatic growth in practically everything about tennis, including bigger tournaments, more prize money, the establishment of the modern pro tour. Partly because of all this, it is becoming a game played by more and more people. Tennis is the fastest-growing participant sport, and the 13 million Americans who play the game spend $500 million a year for such necessities of life as rackets, lessons and court rentals, a sum that doesn't include orthopedic bills for tennis elbow. Nor, looking into darker days ahead, does tennis appear to be quite as vulnerable to the energy crisis as some other leisure activities. Lighted outdoor courts could be affected and an energy cutback might also dim some indoor facilities, but few people will burn as much fuel getting to neighborhood courts as they would driving to the nearest ski resorts.
The upsurge in the sport's popularity has been reflected in these pages: SI ran 15 tennis stories in 1963 and 26 in 1973. Tennis is a coveted beat, and Joe Jares has patrolled it on and off since joining the magazine in 1965. His account of Australia's Davis Cup victory appeared in the Dec. 10 issue; he is right back this week with a report on the Commercial Union Masters Tournament in Boston (page 30).
One thing Jares dislikes about tennis is the internal backbiting, the latest example being the U.S. tennis Establishment's resistance to World Team Tennis, which is scheduled to start in 16 cities in May. "Somebody once called tennis 'the Balkans of sport,' and it's true," he says. "The struggles between ATP and WTT or ILTF and WCT and the rest hurt the game. Fans are more interested in Nastase's struggles on the court with Stan Smith."
Jares is a sucker for what he calls tennis' "polite little ways," including the gentlemanly custom of putting one's opponent on notice when one is about to serve with new balls. At the same time, he approves of such breaks with tradition as colored clothing and cheering during rallies. "Athletes should be able to cope with noise," he says. If that strikes diehards as heresy, please note that Jares is just as at home eating hot dogs at a wrestling match as he was this year covering the strawberries and tea scene at Wimbledon. His father was a professional wrestler, and he has just finished a book that has the tentative title, Whatever Happened to Gorgeous George? The World of Pro Wrestling.
On Sunday evenings Jares and his wife Suzy, a researcher and photo editor for FORTUNE, play mixed doubles at a bubble-top court near their home in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. The appeal of tennis to women is another reason for the game's success, of course. Although Joe and Suzy bicker over misplays like Riggs-King revisited, Joe notes that the Sunday night outings have brought to light something they never knew they had in common. "We've both got horrible backhands," he says.