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"I used to give rackets and balls away to help the kid programs," says Carleton. "I can't anymore." The Wilson plants have doubled production in Cortland, N.Y. and in Belgium. Spalding has done the same at Fort Smith and Chicopee, Mass. The frenzy to produce, triggered by a rush on the market by opportunists less concerned with quality control, has resulted in a glut of defective equipment—balls that do not bounce, rackets that fall apart.
Art Hagan, who with his brother runs the Aspen Leaf sports shop in suburban Cherry Creek and strings more rackets than anyone in Denver, says the eagerness of the latecomers to line their shelves and the gullibility of the pros have created in tennis a vast "phony market."
"The little country club pro has no more business sense than the man in the moon," says Hagan. "He buys all this useless stuff, and it lies around the shop. Here, look at all this junk." Hagan thumbs through a trade magazine. The magazine insinuates that the pro shop without Mr. Tennis cocktail glasses is poorly equipped, and that a smart pro would make better use of his space with these new lockers.
"I have to hold my sides laughing," says Hagan.' 'There's a guy here who just opened a ski and tennis boutique because his wife couldn't get the dresses she wanted at May D. & F. His shop rents at $8 a square foot. Profitability is a pipe dream. It's crazy.
"I don't know of a single pro shop making money in merchandise sales. The manufacturers don't help because when they distribute equipment they feel compelled to give Jo-Jo the pro five rackets, or 10, and when they get to us and we need 1,000, they've only got 300 left. It's all foolishness. A tennis shop isn't the same as a golf shop. People can buy cheaper here or at a department store, and that's what they do. It's a good thing for the pros that tennis is such a great game."
Jerry Gart has his visitor in tow. They are in an electric cart, going up the ramp from the first floor of the Gart Brothers' "Sports Castle" at 10th and Broadway. The store is 58,000 square feet of sports equipment, from the cut-rate to the exotic. The Castle used to be a Chrysler dealership. The regal gingerbread on the facade was retained when the Garts moved in. It was Jerry Gart's idea to use the automobile ramps to transport people up and down the store. On the Castle roof, where the cars used to gather dust, Gart put in a tennis court, with a high fence to keep the balls from raining on downtown Denver.
"We have a slogan, 'Buy a racket, get a lesson,' " says Gart, making the turn at the second floor and speeding up. The cart hums under him. "We have a tennis pro up there, and it doesn't matter what tennis equipment you buy, you get a free half-hour lesson. The pro profits from sales, too. He's a businessman, just like the rest of us. You'll meet one of his teaching assistants, Diane. A real looker. Brings in a lot of business. The court is always in use. I can't even get on."
Gart makes another turn, stops and bounces out of the cart where the tennis boom has exploded onto the counters and walls of his store. One wall is festooned with 2,200 rackets, from a $3.95 Winston to a $145 Garcia, pinned there like laboratory specimens.
"Our tennis sales have increased 300% this year," says Gart. "We'll sell 75,000 units—clothes, balls, sweatbands, shoes. We sell 18 different brands of tennis shoes. You name 'em, we got 'em. We'll sell 6,000 rackets. I remember when we were lucky to sell 100."
Gart is tanned and dapper, with the manicured, lacquered look of a television sportscaster. He says, however, that as an athlete he is late-blooming—he now skis, plays golf and is hooked on tennis, "just like everybody."