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Tennis, Everyone?

It's Been Three Decades Since a Few Far-Sighted Officials Rocked the Staid Amateur Tennis Establishment and Jolted the Game into the Modern Era
Bruce Goldman
From the Print Edition:
Michael Richards, Sep/Oct 97

(continued from page 2)

To boost corporate patronage, Cullman would cajole business acquaintances into buying courtside boxes. It wasn't an easy task. One day he was at the Century Country Club in Westchester County, New York, when he ran into a friend, Gus Levy of the Goldman, Sachs investment firm. "I said, 'Gus, you've got to buy a box at the U.S. Open.' He said, 'What does it cost?' I said, 'It wouldn't cost you much.' It didn't in those days. Now they're getting huge amounts of money for these boxes. But in those days, there wasn't a widespread interest in it." In 1969, the priciest box went for $900. Today, Open boxes cost as much as $48,750 and suites, new this year, range from $85,000 to $100,000.

Williams recalls his role in the box sales. "Joe would play golf at Sleepy Hollow, Century Country Club, wherever, and he'd call me on Sunday night and he'd say, 'I played golf today with Harry, Dick and Joe.' And they'd each want a box. I'd be in my office, or I'd go to my office at 11 o'clock Sunday night, I'd parcel up the box package personally and have it delivered with a hand-signed letter from Joe--we lived side by side [in Manhattan] on 69th, he on Madison, me on Fifth--and by 9 o'clock when they reached their offices Monday morning, they would have the entire package. And the word got around: 'These guys are serious.'"

Williams' primary objective was to increase the number of warm bodies in the seats. Until then, tickets for the Open were printed not by one but by three entities: the USLTA, the West Side Tennis Club and Madison Square Garden Attractions Inc. Williams took control of the operation, and by early August 1969 advance sales were running three times ahead of those for 1968. He also created the U.S. Open Club, a private facility overlooking the stadium court, and added rest rooms and other amenities. "What we did in simple terms is we turned the U.S. Open on its head," says Williams, who today owns Masters International, a sports management firm whose clientele includes chess champion Garry Kasparov. "It's for the record that we made a greater net profit than the gross income of the year before. We signed the CBS contract, which 30 years later is still in place; we built 261 boxes; we created all sorts of promotions. We brought in a professional, the Wimbledon referee [Mike Gibson]. We did everything that gave the tournament stature, importance and a reason for being."

While the Open, which was won by Grand Slam conqueror Rod Laver and Margaret Court, was the most visible U.S. tournament in need of a push in 1969, it wasn't the only one. At the time, Forest Hills was one of only five open U.S. tournaments sanctioned by the international tennis federation, and those five were the only ones for which the USLTA wanted to award prize money. Davis Cup captain Donald Dell and his players--Ashe (who had turned pro the preceding year), Stan Smith, Bob Lutz and Charlie Pasarell--took a stand, refusing to play in any tournament that offered expenses and guarantees instead of prize money. Dell organized the $25,000 Washington Star International, effectively paving the way for a full-scale prize-money circuit in the United States. The tournament was commercially sponsored and played in a public facility, and prize money was offered in place of appearance fees. Fifteen U.S. tournaments with prize money emerged that summer, with the Open's $137,000 pot the top purse.

Dell, who ranked among the top 10 American tennis players in the early 1960s, went on to become one of the most influential--and controversial--figures of the open era. He founded ProServ, one of the first sports-management agencies, and has represented some of the biggest tennis stars of the day, including Ashe, Smith, Jimmy Connors and Yannick Noah. He also served as legal counsel to the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), which was formed in 1972 to give the men's players more say in the game.

The rise of sports agents and the formation of player organizations were among the sea changes that roiled the tennis landscape in the open era. In 1970, Jack Kramer initiated the men's Grand Prix, a system of points and cash bonuses awarded at tournaments that led to a season-ending championship for the eight players with the most points. That same year, World Championship Tennis merged with George MacCall's struggling league. In 1971, thanks to the backing of Joe Cullman and Philip Morris, the Virginia Slims tour kicked off. The ATP was formed in 1972 and the Women's Tennis Association followed in 1974, giving the players a stronger voice in the game. Team tennis surfaced briefly in the mid-'70s, with occasional revivals thereafter.

At Forest Hills, Bill Talbert became the U.S. Open tournament director in the 1970s, ushering in a period of rising tennis popularity as new stars such as Connors and Chris Evert came along. Talbert instituted the tie-breaker in 1970 and introduced qualifying matches for lesser players. As the '70s progressed, any remaining ties to the amateur era were gradually severed. The grass courts were replaced with clay after the 1974 Open tournament. Night play made its debut in 1975, and after the 1977 tournament, the final link to the past was eradicated when the Open packed its bags and left the private West Side Tennis Club for the public grounds of Flushing Meadow just a few miles away. The architect of the relocation was William E. "Slew" Hester, a cigar-chomping oilman from Mississippi who became president of the USTA in 1977.

The tennis association had been hoping to make certain improvements at Forest Hills, because the players, Hester had told the club, felt the facilities were somewhat cramped. According to Moira Saucer's account in her book, US Open at the USTA National Tennis Center, after the 1976 Open the USTA offered to finance certain improvements at the club. West Side later countered with a plan to renovate the clubhouse, build new locker rooms and a new indoor tennis facility, renovate and enlarge the stadium, and come up with other improvements and amenities. The club hoped to cover the $5 million to $7 million estimated costs out of the revenues from the championships. When club and USTA officials met in January 1977, a West Side representative made it clear that if the club didn't get what it proposed, it didn't want the tournament. Its last wish was quickly fulfilled.

"I personally thought we'd probably try to work something out, but I think it became too polarized," recalls Michael Burns, the association's executive secretary, who was part of the USTA party at the final talks with West Side. "The sides weren't willing to give a little here, give a little there. There were all sorts of stories as to who said what to whom, whatever it was. My general feeling was nobody was going to blink."

Hester, who died in 1993, had 19 months to prepare a new home for the U.S. Open. On a flight over Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in January 1977, he spotted the old Singer Bowl (later renamed Louis Armstrong Stadium), which had been constructed for the 1964-65 World's Fair. Within four months, the personable Hester had presented a plan to New York City officials for a national tennis center, secured an architect and garnered final approval. Burns, who oversaw the tennis competition at the Atlanta Olympics last year, credits Hester's folksy ways with getting the project off the ground: "He was a Southerner, he was a down-home boy. I remember when we originally went to the parks department--Marty Lang was the parks commissioner--and we were talking about the plan. The commissioner had come from down South, and they got to talking about catfishing in the Pearl River [in Mississippi]. We'd gone for five or 10 minutes, and I kept saying to myself, 'Well, that's good, but we're not at the Pearl River, we're not catfishing, when are we going to get going on this property if we need it?' Then they got going, and they sort of excused the rest of us. They kept on talking and, boom, some sort of initial deal had been struck. This was Slew's way--he was a great people person."

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