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Frank Fuhrer, in repose at his Palm Beach winter home, had returned from a round of golf at exclusive Jupiter Hills and, still in his golf attire, had removed his shoes and stretched out on a sofa when the kitchen telephone rang. Fuhrer, an insurance tycoon, owner of the World Team Tennis champion Pittsburgh Triangles and German to his toes, padded into the kitchen and barked into the telephone, "Fuhrer!" He then listened, clearly not liking what he was hearing. Impressively rugged at 50, Fuhrer possesses chemistry that in the words of one of his aides "makes the back of his neck turn redder than a Bloody Mary when he's angry." Presently he began pacing the kitchen floor in small, furious figure-eights, punctuating them with an occasional skip and an angry pivot.
WTT President Larry King had telephoned in a pique, having just been informed by Fuhrer's secretary that her boss would refuse to go along with a deal King had arranged with Bristol-Myers. Apparently, strong words leaped from King's lips. "Say that to my face the next time I see you," Fuhrer roared, "and I'll punch you right in the face!"
Bristol-Myers wanted to borrow Fuhrer's Evonne Goolagong for its La Costa Mixed Doubles, which conflicted with a Pittsburgh-Boston match, and had asked each team to reschedule its date. Boston had accepted, but Fuhrer, when informed of the plan, had declared, "The integrity of our schedule is at stake! How can people take Team Tennis seriously if we rearrange our schedule?"
So it goes with Frank Fuhrer as he raises hackles on all sides while striving to bring respectability and solvency to the three-year-old league. He strongly takes issue with King's presidency—that is, commissionership—because of King's ownership of the Golden Gate franchise and his marriage to New York Sets star Billie Jean.
Vitas Gerulaitis, the Triangles' No. 1 male player, calls Fuhrer "fair, generous and the most competent owner in the league" and in the same breath, "the most obnoxious owner in sports." In the latter role Fuhrer has, among other things, reduced at least a handful of women players to tears.
Striving to evaluate the league's future with detachment, Fuhrer entered the 1976 season saying, "This year will tell. We've got the superstars. I now give us a 50-50 chance for survival." (As it has turned out, his cautious optimism was swiftly replaced by horror as Goolagong, stricken with tendinitis in her left foot, missed five matches and the Triangles plunged into the cellar.) Determined to beef up the league with box-office attractions even though they would probably dethrone his champion Triangles, Fuhrer in November orchestrated the signing of Chris Evert to a Phoenix contract by bringing Evert's agent and Phoenix club-owner Jim Walker to his Palm Beach house and, rumor has it, personally guaranteeing Evert's contract. "No comment," says Fuhrer of that story, which, if a fact, is tantamount to Walter O'Malley guaranteeing Pete Rose's salary.
When World Team Tennis came off the drawing board in 1973, the brainchild of a Pittsburgh newspaper-broadcasting syndicator named Chuck Reichblum, the International Lawn Tennis Federation bitterly opposed the intruder, threatening to expel anyone who chose to sign a WTT contract. Billie Jean King nonetheless signed with Philadelphia and John Newcombe with Houston, but neither player represented a true breakthrough into the ranks of the stars because both were mavericks and Billie Jean's husband had a piece of Team Tennis as an owner. Nor did their signings demonstrate that Team Tennis had sufficient money to lure additional expensive players. To land Billie Jean and Newcombe, owners around the league quietly had chipped in, but left to their own resources, they dawdled.
To break the logjam, Fuhrer, along with Reichblum and a third Triangle stockholder, William Sutton, pursued Goolagong to a Toronto hotel to confront her longtime guardian and coach, Vic Edwards, a silver-haired, mustachioed, English-born Australian looking for all the world like a regimental colonel about to order Gunga Din to blow his bugle. Clutching a million-dollar proposal, they were told by Edwards, "There is absolutely no way Evonne will play Team Tennis, but because I am a gentleman I shall give you 30 minutes."
For Fuhrer, who in 10 years had built a credit-insurance business from the ground up to the point where it will gross roughly $20 million in premiums this year, 30 minutes was all he needed. He promptly melted Edwards' resistance by offering him a job as the Triangles' director of player personnel and, having walked off with both Evonne and her guardian, flew with Reichblum to Sydney, where he suffered ingestive tortures signing Ken Rosewall as the Triangles' player-coach. "I ate so many lambburgers I thought, 'If I don't get out of here I'll go crazy.' I think they make them out of lamb and sawdust." With that, Fuhrer briskly nods his head once and says, "Hmmp?"—a reflex he executes with such authority that the listener almost comes to attention and salutes.
By signing Rosewall and Goolagong, both prestigious players reared in loyalty to the Establishment, the Triangles had exposed the ILTF as powerless. Fuhrer, enlarging his sizable holding in the Triangles to a controlling interest as Team Tennis' first season began, delegated himself to see to it that his players delivered. He says that before he became involved with the Triangles he had witnessed only one tennis match in his entire life—Jack Kramer vs. Pancho Gonzalez in the 1940s. He also says he has never played the game. ("True, but only in a literal sense," a Fuhrerphile points out. "He played once, against his wife, but she was whipping him, so he threw down his racket and stormed off the court.") He knew nothing of tennis players and promptly proved it by calling his team of six together for an opening-night Vince Lombardi peptalk. "Their mouths dropped open," says Reichblum. "You have to realize that these were athletes who had not grown up on teams. Frank was pounding his fist into his hand and telling them that winning is the only thing. This kind of speech was completely foreign to these people, especially the non-Americans."