LAMAR HUNT & THE OPENING OF TENNIS
By Bob Moore
When amateur players did turn pro they did at some risk. The moment Bill Tilden and Fred Perry turned pro in the 1930s, they were banished to exhibition halls and skating rinks where they had to play on covered wooden courts. Pro tennis remained a series of one-night stands, not a bona fide circuit as we understand it today. It was comparable to vaudeville, scattered and overlapping, with no great sense of order. Even when Jack Kramer turned pro and lured some of the best amateur players to join him through the 1950s, the attitude of the amateur associations towards the professionals remained the same.
Amateur players, meanwhile, suffered a different fate. “We were kept men,” said Cliff Drysdale, a top ten ranked amateur in the ‘60s, “athletic gigolos, paid for their talents in large-part in cut-rate services and amenities – a free place to stay, somebody’s starry-eyed teen-aged daughter to chauffeur them about, the chance to actually sign for club sandwiches in the members’ lounge.”
All that changed on December 14, 1968 when the British Lawn Tennis Association voted to conduct the 1968 Wimbledon tournament as an “open” championship and further abolish all distinction between amateur and professional. There had been rumblings for years about the need to see the world’s great professionals perform in the great championships. But the reason for the opening of the game was not so that Wimbledon could be open but that the sham and hypocrisy could be removed from the game. The set of amateur rules had become unenforceable as the so-called amateurs bargained for payments from tournament officials in excess of what they were entitled to but without which they could not live. Tournament committees were forced to connive at this or they could not attract players for their tournaments. The point of the English decision was to let players be able to openly and honestly receive the rewards to which their skills entitled them.
Reaction by the ILTF was swift and predictable as they announced the British Lawn Tennis Association would be suspended for its decision. But United States Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA) president, Robert Kelleher, argued that the open competition should instead be held within the framework of the ILTF, not in rebellion that would in the long run be disruptive to amateur tennis. The players had intended to play Wimbledon open or not and when the Australian and U.S. associations followed the British lead the ILTF was left with no other alternative than to amend its position. Although refusing to end the distinction between amateur and pro, the ILTF voted to set up a class of registered players who could profit by any amount they could command for competing in tournaments and still remain eligible for amateur events.
The Pro Era Begins
One of the men who had tried to save professional tennis from its tawdry vaudeville image was David F. Dixon, a New Orleans businessman who had helped bring the Saints football team to town and who had developed the Louisiana Superdome. He approached Lamar Hunt, whom he had known through football, to tell him about his plans to start a professional tennis tour. Dixon called on Hunt in August of 1967 in Los Angeles where the Kansas City Chiefs owner was attending a football game between his team and the Los Angeles Rams. The men met at the Ambassador East Hotel where Dixon told Hunt of his idea, explaining he had researched the pro game and believed that the players and the sport could be raised to respectability by showcasing and presenting it on a truly professional scale.
Dixon knew Hunt had a reputation for undertaking new sporting ventures given his association with new professional football and soccer leagues. “My mother must have been bitten by the show business bug when she was pregnant with me,” Hunt was known to joke. “I’ve always been inclined toward sports-oriented entertainment. I enjoy the challenge of trying to build something that attracts spectators.”
Hunt, whose first introduction to tennis had come in the late 1950s when he attended one of Jack Kramer’s old tennis barnstorming tours on the campus of Southern Methodist University, admitted that his interest had been piqued by Dixon’s pitch and agreed that pro tennis would be a perfect enterprise if marketed right. His vision was to legitimize under-the-table payments to amateur players, promote a strong pro game to the masses, and mold it into a viable business venture. “I like to get in at the bottom and build something new from the ground up,” Hunt said of his new venture. “I like the challenge; I like watching something grow out of nothing. I really don’t get into a business venture to sell it.”
Backed by Hunt’s money, Dixon went out and signed six top amateurs – Nikki Pilic of Yugoslavia, Cliff Drysdale of South Africa, Frenchman Pierre Barthes, Roger Taylor of Great Britain, Australians John Newcombe and Tony Roche, and two pros Dennis Ralston and Butch Bucholtz. He called them “The Handsome Eight.” By playing the many beautiful arenas that now pepper the country, Dixon figured the tour could wedge in as many as 80 tournaments a year, at $10,000 a crack in prize money. Making the tight scheduling possible, a tie-breaker scoring system would be employed which would encourage TV involvement. Hunt and Dixon’s experiment began a six-month tour with a format of two three-day tournaments throughout the U.S. for prize money approaching $700,000.
The growth of WCT
Hunt quickly found himself focusing more of his attention on tennis. He had bought a modest 25% of the operation and awakened one morning with 75% after one of the partners pulled out. “It was terrible,” Hunt said of the early days of his tennis operation after he had purchased Dixon’s remaining interest. “We made mistake on top of mistake. We had it figured out where we could net $17,000 a week, but we never came close. We were asking our players to play two tournaments a week, and that was too much. And we were acting as agents, supplying players for tournaments, and that’s no way to get started in tennis.”
Hunt immediately re-tooled the operation, hiring former British tennis pro Mike Davies as executive director and working head. Davies went out and signed up 32 of the world’s top pros, committing them to a certain number of tournaments each year, and those events would be linked by a points system that would lead to a big showdown in Dallas at the end of the year. Hunt called his new business World Championship Tennis (WCT).
The media took quickly to the idea of Hunt’s professional tour, even if the All England Club and other amateur tennis authorities did not. By 1972, WCT had grown into a 32-man passel that scheduled 30 weekly tournaments a year in the U.S. and Canada and other places around the globe and could spring for front money. The tour exercised such a powerful influence upon traditional tennis ways and means that the international tennis leaders finally decided to shut WCT out of Wimbledon, and peace was only arranged by trading time for bodies. Hunt, who had been rudely dismissed by the All-England committee a few years earlier, agreed to play his tour only in the first five months of the calendar year if the ILTF would stop trying to prohibit good players from joining his tour.
WCT gave tennis a professionalism and strength, coherence and sense of purpose it had previously lacked. WCT became a privilege and a commitment; a privilege because it marked a graduation in terms of proficiency, and a commitment to a consistently high playing standard, to a way of life and to a new personal and corporate responsibility.
The players loved their new professional status. It would be difficult for the present generation to appreciate just how much all this high-powered organization and media exposure meant to some of the older pros on the tour. They realized that new standards were being set and that tennis was finally getting the recognition it deserved, but to those who had known the dismal days just prior to the arrival of Hunt in the mid-60s when survival was the name of the game it was especially gratifying.
WCT was the first to present the game consistently in the right environment at the world’s major stadiums. Radical came naturally to WCT in its pioneer days. Traditional all-white clothing was traded for colored clothes, and balls, too. WCT was the first circuit to use the tie-breaker system, electronic linemen, on-tour trainers, full-time professional public relations, the first to establish a permanent doubles championship.
One of the major problems before Hunt’s WCT was the lack of a workable schedule that could accommodate all the places that wanted to host tournaments. The game needed a finite schedule of championship events. Unlike football that plays on one field of play over a finite period of weeks, tennis is a sport played on a world stage, on different surfaces and goes on 52 weeks a year. WCT instituted the “Million Dollar WCT Tour,” which introduced the concept of a worldwide tour, linked by points, culminating in a championship playoff, the WCT Finals in Dallas.
TV exposure ushers in a new era
Hunt realized instinctively from his experience with the fledgling American Football League that the real ball game in this country was television and there were too many other more established attractions competing for the networks’ time at the end of the year. May would be a much better time for a championship, he figured, and he sold NBC on it. Leading up to the first WCT Championship Final in Dallas held at SMU’s Moody Coliseum, the network televised the first series of weekly finals on Sunday in the winter and spring of 1972.
The WCT Finals each year brought the top eight players from that series of tournaments to Dallas. The supporting cast to Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall, the 1972 finalists, included Neil Armstrong, Charlton Heston, and a cast of other celebrities who came to Dallas to witness the final. The event itself was not so significant as the fact that the great actors of the independent professional game had come in from the wilderness to occupy a stage worthy of their talents. The WCT circuit marked their graduation from a wasteland of one-night stands to a prominent place in the big-time sport marketplace.
Laver vs. Rosewall was a brilliant affair, decided by a fifth-set tie-breaker. NBC preempted three regularly-scheduled programs in an unprecedented four plus hours of live coverage. A record 23 million Americans tuned in. They watched Rosewall win $50,000, a diamond ring, a gold cup and a Lincoln Continental, and helped popularize the game in the statistics as sales of tennis rackets and other equipment soared. The championship in Dallas represented the end of the rainbow that few of the veterans of the old professional tour had thought they would ever see. They could be proud of their profession. To this day, the championship match between Laver and Rosewall remains Hunt’s “fondest memory of WCT. That one match symbolized the WCT era.”
Tennis grows as WCT declines
With tennis growing by leaps and bounds, WCT began play of two simultaneous, separate but equal 32-man tours, the 64 regulars ranging in age from 19 to 43 from 18 different countries on six continents. In time and realizing the growth in influence of WCT, the ILTF dropped all distinction between contract pros and independent pros. In other words, there would be only one type of playing professional – ending the confusion. For its part, WCT ceased negotiating new player contracts, and players could compete in WCT and ILTF tournaments on the same terms and without contact guarantees.
All WCT events would be held in the first 4 ½ months of the calendar year, avoiding scheduling conflicts with ILTF tournaments which took up the rest of the year. In addition to its two simultaneous tours, WCT would run four special events of which 11 would be held outside the United States. The ILTF retained its beloved Wimbledon for its own and kept much of the year to promote tournaments. Hunt, meanwhile, maintained control of the part of the tennis year he wanted and the same part that television wanted. Hunt and WCT changed from talent scouts and player brokers to tournament promoters.
WCT reached a personal peak in 1974 and 1975 when 84 players were divided into Red, Blue and Green groups operating their campaigns in January and concluding four months later in Dallas. In 1990 the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), a player run organization, introduced its own tour. WCT, founded in 1967 and at one time during the seventies the controlling body of the men’s calendar from January to May, was gradually marginalized. WCT’s world was shrinking as Hunt’s priority declined to six events. The business of tennis was now dictated by the Grand Prix or ATP circuit. As the decade of the 90s began WCT closed its doors bringing to an end its significant role as one of the game’s leaders.
Hunt’s tennis legacy
Hunt, who knew something about the growth of sport having taken his Texans football team from Dallas to become the Chiefs in Kansas City, had seen his tennis tour go from a stockyard in Kansas City where the first WCT players appeared in plaid tattersall shorts, to a marvelous finale in Dallas, from 387 in attendance at one of its earliest tournament outings to $1 million in total prize money. Pro tennis had changed and Hunt had helped change it.
”Tennis has gone through periods of trial and error because the professional game was never allowed to grow,” Hunt said, looking back over his years in the game. “Events like Wimbledon, the French Championships and the U.S. Open were controlled by the International Lawn Tennis Federation and other amateur groups that had maintained a stranglehold on the game for so many years. They had always stymied the development of professional tennis.”
But the advance of WCT had a revitalizing effect on the ILTF. WCT took tennis to fresh venues, made the old and new publics more tennis-conscious, set higher standards in promoting and presenting the game, and pushed players’ rewards to a level that the ILTF had to match. His deep pockets and vision had helped create the game as it is today – a financial enterprise, with hefty prize money and the best players. “What happened was that WCT helped bring tennis kicking and screaming into the twentieth century because we made it legitimate for people to earn a living playing the game,” Hunt said. Cliff Ritchey, a player whose career spanned both the amateur and pro eras agreed: “Lamar has done more for tennis than any other one man in the history of the game.”
Hunt’s contributions to the game didn’t pass from memory even though his tour did. In 1993 he received notice that he had been named to the International Tennis Hall of Fame. It was, in many ways, a validation for how he had changed the game. “I suppose it was because of a perception on the part of the selection committee that WCT made some positive contributions to the game,” he said.