HERE ARE SOME PRACTICES GUARANTEED TO HURT TENNIS
All of a sudden, the officials who are supposed to police the men's Grand Prix tennis circuit are giving signs of actually trying to do just that. Imposing the first penalty against a player for such an offense—and an unprecedentedly severe one for any infraction—the Men's International Professional Tennis Council, the nine-member umbrella organization that oversees the tour, announced last week that it was suspending Guillermo Vilas for one year and fining him $20,000 for accepting appearance money to play in a tournament three months ago in Rotterdam. Although the payment of guarantees is prohibited by Grand Prix rules, the practice is known to be widespread, and the action against Vilas was clearly intended as a warning to tournament directors and players alike to cut it out.
Nor is that the only recent effort to curb the disregard for rules now rampant in tennis. The MIPTC last week also socked French Open champion Yannick Noah with a 42-day suspension for failing to show up for a World Team Cup match last month in Düsseldorf. And there has even been talk about a long-overdue crackdown against the notorious on-court misbehavior that afflicts the sport. Complaining that cursing, stalling and abuse of officials have gone too far, Hunter Delatour, the new president of the U.S. Tennis Association, has vowed, for whatever this may be worth, that such abuse won't be tolerated in events overseen by the USTA, which include the U.S. Open.
With too many tournaments vying for the services of too few big-name players, the biggest stars have plainly been able to get away with murder. As though their on-court boorishness weren't bad enough, they also tank matches, withdraw from tournaments for specious reasons and play so many meaningless exhibitions that the Grand Prix circuit is in danger of being reduced to the Petit Prix. All this is in addition to the widespread payment of guarantees that can run as high as $100,000 a tournament, a practice that Harold Solomon, president of the Association of Tennis Professionals, the men's players' union, calls "a cancer."
No sooner was the suspension of Vilas announced than the payment of appearance money was being publicly defended by Ivan Lendl, John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors. Lendl reportedly is under investigation by the MIPTC for accepting a guarantee to play in a tournament last March in Milan. John McEnroe Sr., a lawyer who serves as his son's agent, argued that acceptance of appearance money is no more reprehensible in tennis than it is in the entertainment world. "If a person deserves it, he deserves it," he said.
But tennis, while part of the entertainment business, is also sport, at the heart of which is the imperative that participants compete on equal footing for an acknowledged reward. Secret payment of appearance money is deceitful and conceivably can diminish the incentive to win. As Arthur Ashe, the retired American star and a former member of the MIPTC, puts it, "The public should know that if somebody misses a volley at 30-40, it's going to cost the player some dollars."
Enforcement of the no-guarantee rule is complicated by the fact that appearance money is often camouflaged as payment for other tournament-related activities, such as autograph sessions at stores. But the MIPTC has also been less than zealous in trying to enforce the rules. It apparently now wants to correct that failing, and it may have been emboldened in its determination by the decision of World Championship Tennis, the chief rival to the Grand Prix, to sharply curtail its tournament schedule; players suspended from Grand Prix competition may thus find it harder to cushion the blow by simply switching to WCT events.
The MIPTC became aware that something was amiss with the Rotterdam tournament when, after Connors had withdrawn from the event just before its start, the promoters persuaded Vilas to replace him in negotiations that were suspiciously drawn out. Launching an investigation, the MIPTC found Rotterdam officials surprisingly forthcoming. The MIPTC said it had "irrefutable proof"—presumably either a receipt or a canceled check—of illicit payments to Vilas' agent, Ion Tiriac. Jan Leupe, co-director of the Rotterdam event, said that because the city government is involved in the promotion, tournament officials, for political reasons, had no choice but to come clean. Leupe said the payment was "something between $40,000 and $60,000."
Vilas' lawyer, Thomas F. Betz Jr., claimed that his client was being unfairly singled out as an "example," an argument that may well merit a reduction in his penalty. Vilas has 30 days to appeal, and Betz said he would do so. Whatever the disposition of Vilas' case, the powers-that-be in tennis can best deal with the accusation that they're picking on Vilas by making good on their vows to move forcefully against other rules infractions, too. To eliminate the abuses that are plaguing the game, more "examples" are urgently needed.
JACK THE SOLICITOUS
Here's one more yarn about the late Jack Dempsey. It's told by Ted Harris, a 79-year-old Seattle man who was assistant manager of the Pantages Theater in that city in the 1920s. Dempsey was touring the vaudeville circuit, putting on boxing exhibitions in which he mercilessly battered the same sparring partner night after night. After Dempsey gave the hapless fellow the usual going-over one evening in Seattle, the two men were leaving the darkened theater via an exit that required them to pass beneath a low stairway. As Dempsey ducked, he was heard to warn his sparring partner, "Careful, don't bump your head."