Tennis' Old Guard
A New Senior Tour is restaging Some of the Great Court Rivalries of the Past 20 Years
From the Print Edition:
Danny DeVito, Winter 96
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Other senior tennis tours, usually featuring players over 45, had come and gone. Yet while tennis aficionados enjoyed the collegiality of such ex-champs as Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, Fred Stolle and Roy Emerson, none of these tours came off as anything more than a boutique operation, a curiosity on the scale of watching old vaudeville acts hoof a few. The Association of Tennis Professionals Tour, which runs the pro circuit, has operated a senior tour for five years that's primarily focused on a doubles round-robin.
Jimmy Connors didn't want a cute doubles event. He wanted a big deal, and aided by Benton's business acumen, set about doing it his way. For starters, this tour would draw strictly on players 35 and over. "If you weren't in tennis shape, there's no way you could play," says Benton. "None of this hit-and-giggle stuff." Second, unlike prior tours, many of these were players who made their mark in the sport's most visible, Technicolor years of the 1970s. Bjorn Borg, winner of five consecutive Wimbledons and six French Opens, would participate. John McEnroe, Connors' successor as the hot-headed, left-handed American genius, would be eligible for the tour in 1994. "Connors, Borg and McEnroe were tennis' equivalent of Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player," says ESPN and ABC broadcaster Cliff Drysdale, a top-10 player in the '60s. "They captured more millions of viewers and public attention than previous generations of players had ever dreamed possible."
In addition to these headliners, the tour would feature such supporting acts as Guillermo Vilas, a former number one player who'd won such important titles as the U.S. and French Opens; John Lloyd, the top British player who'd previously been best known for his marriage to Chris Evert; Johan Kriek, a talented South African and holder of two Australian Open titles, and many others.
Most of all, the new tour would have Jimmy Connors. And that, as tennis fans knew for 20-plus seasons, made all the difference. It may seem like ancient history now, but back in the '70s, Connors was the leading man in tennis' transformation from amateur game for the elite classes to professional sport for the masses. Prior to Connors, most champions were cool, understated craftsmen. In the spirit of Brando and Elvis, Connors burst through this patrician wall. Long before Andre Agassi ever knew what a Nike swoosh was, Connors' brash intensity took tennis to new cultural settings. According to Stan Canter, a movie producer (Greystoke) who managed Connors for a brief time, "Jimmy was the first tennis player who brought tennis to the cover, not just of Sports Illustrated, but to Time."
Connors and Benton were betting that this history of prominent exposure would thrust the rocket off the launching pad. In 1993, the Champions Tour began with three events. The next year, there were eight, offering total prize money of $1.2 million. In March 1995, the tour concluded its first official season, hosting the Nuveen Masters in Naples, Florida. Other sponsors who've come aboard include Big Six accounting firm Coopers & Lybrand, Corel software and U.S. News & World Report. The biggest break of all came in 1996 when Nuveen, an investment firm, signed on as title sponsor, a $1.5 million annual commitment between now and 1998. The Champions Tour is now known as the Nuveen Tour. Benton and Connors are planning 15 to 20 events in 1997.
One of the biggest challenges facing the Nuveen Tour is tennis' decline in popularity. By the late '80s, the tennis boom was long gone. Everything from player participation to equipment sales, sponsorship and media coverage is affected by this market-driven spiral. It's a challenge Connors relishes clawing his way through. "I loved it when people underestimated me," he says. "I loved proving myself when no one thought I could do it. I lived for those moments."
It would always be showtime for Jimmy Connors. Striding into The Lodge at Pebble Beach on California's Monterey peninsula, Connors is here for "The Challenge," a four-man exhibition airing on ABC. It is intended to build credibility and generate exposure for the Nuveen Tour. It's no coincidence that the television producer of this event is Terry Jastrow, the same man behind the helm of the "Skins Game," the four-man golf event that helped propel seniors golf in the early 1980s.
Once you've seen Connors play, it's hard not to feel a tingle of electricity anytime he approaches a tennis court. Jastrow's not the first to compare him to Arnold Palmer. Fans flock around Connors. It's always the ladies who come first, the older, doting, zesty ones who cherish Connors less as a sex symbol and more for his spunk.
"Jimmy, I saw you in Boston in '73, when you beat Stan Smith," says one.
"Boy, that's when I could move," he responds.
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