Here it was a Sunday in late March, rainy and miserable in some parts of the country but a sunny, balmy 73� in Tempe, Ariz. On center court of the Tempe Racquet Club two handsome, dark-skinned men were sweating, straining and flailing, teasing each other with the cunning and accuracy of their shots—here an all-out screamer down the line, there a delicate drop shot clearing the net by the width of a rattlesnake's fang. Surely those two crazies were young daredevils anxious for a share of the big money—exploding firecrackers making their bits of noise in the tennis boom. Well, not exactly exploding; chasing prize money, certainly, but young, no. They were Pancho Gonzales and Pancho Segura, two men who have been around so long they have to mix Geritol with their Gatorade.
Gonzales, 45, and Segura, 52, have never been much for playing mixed doubles in some haven of retirement and now they have joined a new group called the Tennis Grand Masters, which, believe it or not, is at peace with all the other groups in the sport. Inspired perhaps by the financial success of their fellow veteran-master-senior (pick your own euphemism for aging jock) Bobby Riggs, this pack of ex-champs has started a circuit of its own.
Last week's tournament was the third Grand Masters of the year, and was a little different from the others because it was played concurrently at Tempe with the last tournament on the USLTA winter circuit, which stars 21-year-old Jimmy Connors and a host of other young studs. The scene was comparable to watching the Mills Brothers and the Jackson Five alternating on a concert stage.
It so happened that the final of the "apprentice" tournament, the Rotary Tennis Classic, was between Connors and 20-year-old Vijay Amritraj of India, both of whom have studied under the "masters," Gonzalez and Segura. Connors won 6-1, 6-2, his seventh victory in eight USLTA tournaments this year, and boosted his 1974 earnings to a phenomenal $110,000, highest in the tennis world. Going into last week he had already clinched first place in the points race, thereby winning $40,000 from the Schick Safety Razor Co. In the well played but less lucrative Tennis Grand Masters final, Big Pancho beat Little Pancho 6-4, 7-6.
The founder and chief booster of the Tennis Grand Masters is a retired Cincinnati businessman named Alvin Wood-row Bunis, 50. Bunis (prounced Bun-iss, accent on the bun) was a good player as a young man. He and a fellow Cincinnatian, Bill Talbert, won a major clay-court doubles title 31 years ago and he once had the privilege of being annihilated by Frank Sedgman on center court at Forest Hills. When he was only 25 he started his own scrap-iron brokerage company. "For 23 years it flourished," Bunis says. "I was very much a specialist in one area of scrap iron."
Late in 1972 he sold out and became very much a specialist in what some might cruelly call scrap tennis players, namely men 45 and older. In polite lawn-tennis, tea-on-the-veranda society they are known as seniors. Bunis, perhaps tuned up by backyard practice sessions with his eldest son, who goes to Columbia and is rated No. 1 in the Ivy League, became a pretty good senior himself. He upset Hall of Famer Gardnar Mulloy in one tournament, was named captain of the Dubler Cup team (the geriatric version of the Davis Cup) and started writing a column on seniors for a monthly tennis magazine.
Then one day, probably while dreaming about converting the
Queen Elizabeth II
into 60 zillion razor blades or turning the tables on Sedgman, he was struck with the Tennis Grand Masters idea.
"With the wave of nostalgia that seemed to be gripping the world," he says, "it seemed to me that if I could prevail upon these great old champions to come back into the arena, it might be a valid commercial enterprise."
Prevail? Why, to hear Bunis tell it—and there is no reason to think he's exaggerating—he had to fight off applicants. Most of them dropped to the floor and started doing sit-ups at the first mention of the scheme. If you could believe the press releases, fans were in for the most memory-flogging shows since Gloria Swanson returned to the screen in Sunset Boulevard: "Nostalgic tennis buffs and armchair sports historians will delight in this list of participants." "In some respects, to watch our players in action is like taking a lesson. Some of our groups are among the finest tennis teachers in the world." And, inevitably, "The over-the-hill gang is back in business."
An early coup was enlisting the great Australian Sedgman, winner of 22 various Big Four titles before turning pro. Bunis ran into him at a Dubler Cup match in England and invited him to a Grand Masters pilot tournament in Milwaukee last year. Sedgman won that pioneer event, took the National Senior Clay Court title in Chicago the following week and went home with almost $8,000.