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The Tennis Grand Masters circuit is a dream come true. Nostalgia is big now, or maybe it always was and we were too young to appreciate it. And although the names of DiMaggio, Unitas and Cousy are gone from scoreboards forever, by means of the Grand Masters, Sedge and Pancho and Seixas are still on center court, battling one another. Bob Perez, one of the tour's administrators, carries a picture in his wallet of Torben Ulrich and Sven Davidson together when they were 14. They were adversaries then and still are today, 36 years later.
Like everyone else, athletes grow old, except sooner, more conspicuously than mere mortals; they are has-beens at 35. HE CAN'T DO IT ANYMORE is the crudest headline of all. Look at it this way. At 22, Bjorn Borg's best years may be behind him. No one on the Grand Masters circuit dreamed he would be playing at 50. Perhaps no one dreamed he would ever be 50. But most of them are, and they are playing.
The tour started in 1973. Pancho Segura, one of the first players signed by tour founder Al Bunis, said, "It's tough to run at 50. You either go to Forest Hills or Forest Lawn." Well, this is to report that the Tennis Grand Masters do not have one foot in the grave. They are out there running, no longer to Forest Hills, but to Flushing Meadow and to Wimbledon and Seabrook Island in South Carolina and Quail Ridge in Delray Beach, Fla. where the audience is old enough to know that Jimmy Connors did not invent the two-handed backhand.
The circuit has two segments, spring and fall, with guest appearances in July at Wimbledon and in September at the U.S. Open. The rest of the time, the players work at club jobs. They all keep in shape jogging, doing sit-ups, watching their diets—and playing tennis.
They probably work harder than they did when they were younger and lither. Many people thought Frank Sedgman would retire when he snapped an Achilles tendon playing in a Grand Masters event in 1976. He was 48 years old, the winner of 22 tournaments more than two decades ago, and in his native Australia he had several business ventures that included squash centers and a hotel. Besides, Sedgman previously had injured his other Achilles tendon while playing squash. Instead of retiring, Sedgman recuperated, undertook a vigorous training program and returned to dominate the senior circuit.
Aside from the competition and the fun and the enduring thrill of seeing their names on a scoreboard, the money ain't bad. Sedgman has won $208,000 in his six years on the tour. In 1978 he won 12 singles titles and $59,338 overall. The 1979 schedule includes 18 or 20 stops for an average purse of $15,000, more than was available decades ago when the players looked under the tables for their checks.
But the cash is only part of it. Rex Hartwig had not played in 17 years when Al Bunis called him in 1976. He was on his Czechoslovakian tractor, farming 880 acres of land in Greta, New South Wales, some 150 miles from Melbourne. He played in a TGM event and was surprised and delighted to win the doubles. The following year, with Sedgman still recuperating, Hartwig was the leading money-winner on the tour. Now, he and Sedgman dominate the doubles play; since joining forces, they have won 46 of 52 matches and 20 tournaments, and Hartwig wears a gold necklace that spells out his nickname: sexy. To be a 49-year-old farmer and also a tennis player with a gold necklace, that's something.
The tour is for players 45 years or older who have been world or national champions, and every top eligible player has been on it, with the exception of Dick Savitt, who is tired of tournament tennis.
This all is a part of a surge of interest in senior athletics. Last year golf conducted its first "Legends of Golf Tournament" for a purse of $400,000, and the USGA has announced it will stage a U.S. Senior Open in 1980. Rod Laver has cranked up his own tour for players 35 and older. It is direct competition for a 35-45 group begun last summer by Bunis, who also is looking into setting up senior circuits in other sports.
The tennis market is split into two distinct groups: those fans who remember and those who wonder. The older crowd turns out because it recalls Sedgman winning the 1952 Wimbledon under overcast skies and through high winds that rendered ineffective the drop shots and lobs of Jaroslav Drobny. The younger audience is curious to see what a tennis player of 50 can do. "People come expecting something like a baseball old-timers' game," says Vic Seixas, at 55 the tour's oldest competitor. "They don't expect us to be able to play. It's true we've changed. We can't hit the ball as hard. I used to hit it as hard as Connors. We all did, but we can't anymore. So you adjust. The trouble is, your opponent is doing the same thing. We all play the same way."