||New Wrinkle for Some Old Faces
Drenched in nostalgia, we're ready for it – an idea whose time had come.
So here they are, all those great old guys.
By Joe Jares
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Here it was a Sunday in late March, rainy and miserable in some parts of the country but a sunny, balmy 73° in Tempe, Ariz. On center court of the Tempe Racquet Club two handsome, darkskinned men were sweating, straining and flailing, teasing each other with the cunning and accuracy of their shots – here an all-out screamer down the line, there a delicate drop shot clearing the net by the width of a rattlesnake's fang. Surely those two crazies were young daredevils anxious for a share of the big money – exploding firecrackers making their bits of noise in the tennis boom. Well, not exactly exploding; chasing prize money, certainly, but young, no. They were Pancho Gonzales and Pancho Segura, two men who have been around so long they have to mix Geritol with their Gatorade.
Gonzales, 45, and Segura, 52, have never been much for playing mixed doubles in some haven of retirement and now they have joined a new group called the Tennis Grand Masters, which, believe it or not, is at peace with all the other groups in the sport. Inspired perhaps by the financial success of their fellow veteran-master-senior (pick your own euphemism for aging jock) Bobby Riggs, this pack of ex-champs has started a circuit of its own.
Last week's tournament was the third Grand Masters of the year, and was a little different from the others because it was played concurrently at Tempe with the last tournament on the USLTA winter circuit, which stars 21-year-old Jimmy Connors and a host of other young studs. The scene was comparable to watching the Mills Brothers and the Jackson Five alternating on a concert stage.
It so happened that the final of the "apprentice" tournament, the Rotary Tennis Classic, was between Connors and 20-year-old Vijay Amritraj of India, both of whom have studied under the "masters," Gonzalez and Segura. Connors won 6-1, 6-2, his seventh victory in eight USLTA tournaments this year, and boosted his 1974 earnings to a phenomenal $110,000, highest in the tennis world. Going into last week he had already clinched
first place in the points race, thereby winning $40,000 from the Schick Safety Razor Co. In the well played but less lucrative Tennis Grand Masters final, Big Pancho beat Little Pancho 6-4, 7-6.
The founder and chief booster of the Tennis Grand Masters is a retired Cincinnati businessman named Alvin Woodrow Bunis, 50. Bunis (pronounced Bun-iss, accent on the bun) was a good player as a young man. He and a fellow Cincinnatian, Bill Talbert, won a major claycourt doubles title 31 years ago and he once had the privilege of being annihilated by Frank Sedgman on center court at Forest Hills. When he was only 25 he started his own scrap-iron brokerage company. "For 23 years it flourished," Bunis says. "I was very much a specialist in one area of scrap iron."
Late in 1972 he sold out and became very much a specialist in what some might cruelly call scrap tennis players, namely men 45 and older. In polite lawn-tennis, tea-on-the-veranda society they continued are known as seniors. Bunis, perhaps tuned up by backyard practice sessions with his eldest son, who goes to Columbia and is rated No. 1 in the Ivy League, became a pretty good senior himself. He upset Hall of Famer Gardnar Mulloy in one tournament, was named captain of the Dubler Cup team (the geriatric version of the Davis Cup) and started writing a column on seniors for a monthly tennis magazine.
Then one day, probably while dreaming about converting the Queen Elizabeth II into 60 zillion razor blades or turning the tables on Sedgman, he was struck with the Tennis Grand Masters idea.
"With the wave of nostalgia that seemed to be gripping the world," he says, "it seemed to me that if I could prevail upon these great old champions to come back into the arena, it might be a valid commercial enterprise."
Prevail? Why, to hear Bunis tell it – and there is no reason to think he's exaggerating – he had to fight off applicants. Most of them dropped to the floor and started doing sit-ups at the first mention of the scheme. If you could believe the press releases, fans were in for the most memory-flogging shows since Gloria Swanson returned to the screen in Sunset Boulevard: "Nostalgic tennis buffs and armchair sports historians will delight in this list of participants." "In some respects, to watch our players in action is like taking a lesson. Some of our groups are among the finest tennis teachers in the world." And, inevitably, "The over-the-hill gang is back in business."
An early coup was enlisting the great Australian Sedgman, winner of 22 various Big Four titles before turning pro. Bunis ran into him at a Dubler Cup match in England and invited him to a Grand Masters pilot tournament in Milwaukee last year. Sedgman won that pioneer event, took the National Senior Clay Court title in Chicago the following week and went home with almost $8,000.
Bunis has gathered a strong group. The bearded Dane, Torben Ulrich, 45; Segura and Gonzales, who were noncommittal at first; ex-Wimbledon and Forest Hills champion Vic Seixas, 50; Hugh Stewart, 45, the national collegiate champion for USC 22 years ago; ex-French champion Sven Davidson, 45, of Sweden; Frank Parker, 57, the only man alive who has won the U.S. Boys, Juniors and Men's titles; Grandfather Gardnar Mulloy, 60, winner of 46 national championships and a tennis teacher who charges $50 an hour for lessons at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach; San Francisco Attorney Tom Brown, 51, runnerup at Wimbledon just after World War II. Melt down all the trophies in their closets and you would have enough metal to put Bunis back in business.
The Grand Masters format is simple. Eight oldsters play singles and doubles Friday, Saturday and Sunday, taking up one court and eight lockers. If Bunis can deliver Gonzales for the weekend, the bigger gate allows him to offer $10,000 in prize money. If not, it drops to $8,000. A first-round loser in both singles and doubles at a "Gonzales" tournament still goes home with $725. A winner in both gets $2,800. Not bad pay for taking only one day off from a regular job.
Bunis insists that his show is not like those oldtimers' baseball games at Yankee Stadium. "This is the first time in the history of sports that the all-time greets, the living legends, the Hall of Famers, have returned to play the game competitively for prize money," he says. "I think we're something more than old guys out there for sentimental reasons. We're beyond that. I will not play anybody on an exhibition basis because one of our sources of appeal is that these men play as hard as they can. I don't want an exhibition situation."
The idea already has interested others besides Bunis and his Masters. The group has commercial tie-ins with manufacturers of balls, tennis clothes and tennis shoes. Bunis says that both the Forest Hills and Pacific Southwest tournaments have expressed interest in having TGM (the initials are inevitable) as an added attraction. Several resorts want to be known as TGM's "official home." Bunis thinks a team match against the Virginia Slims' women stars would prove lucrative. And he thinks a manufacturer of a luxury product will assume sponsorship of his whole circuit next year – the Cadillac Tennis Grand Masters has a nice ring to it, he thinks.
"I've wondered at times if I was being a fool; a retired businessman with a silly daydream," Bunis says. "But now, less than a year after it was just a figment of my imagination, it's a going concern."
Going so bully, in fact, that Bunis' telephone bill is running about $18,000 a year, much of that for calls to Sedgman in Australia and leaving messages at various spots for Gonzales.
Gonzales is obviously vital to TGM success. Sedgman can remain at home with his squash courts and Ulrich the Dane can be off playing on Lamer Hunt's World Championship Tennis circuit – which were the cases last week – and Bunis will still have a good show. But he needs Pancho for that extra prize money, extra crowd pull and major league aura. Gonzales has not signed a contract with Tennis Grand Masters, preferring to maintain his lone-wolf style. But he doesn't snarl as often as he used to. "I've learned to control my temper," he said at Forest Hills last year. "At my age, getting angry uses up too much valuable energy." In fact, in his three days of playing at Tempe, Gonzales often cracked a smile and even tossed out a few quips on court.
He took it easy in a singles match with his old doubles partner, Frank Parker (they won Wimbledon 25 years ago), but once, after three dynamite serves, he felt compelled to call out, "It went that way, Frank. I'm not hitting it where I see it either. I'm just doing it from memory."
Gonzales won easily 6-4,6-4, then had some more laughs the next day with Hugh Stewart, who beat him in his first tournament when they were both 14. Stewart has not won many of their matches since then.
"I feel like a Roman gladiator being led into the Colosseum," Stewart said before going out on the court.
Behind 4-0 in the first set, Stewart lost track of the game score and asked, "What is it?"
"Your ad," answered Gonzales.
"I don't believe it," said Stewart. "Don't let it go to your head," said Gonzales with a smile, and proceeded to win 6-2, 6-1.
Not lines Bob Hope is likely to steal, but still, when a forbidding figure like Pancho Gonzales makes a joke, one feels obligated to laugh, albeit nervously.
There were other light-hearted moments at the tournament. Bobby Riggs was on hand to play an exhibition against Arizona State Football Coach Frank Kush and came out in the pants, jersey and helmet of rival University of Arizona. Riggs, it seems, is not good enough to crack the regular Grand Masters lineup at the moment – Segura beat him 6-0, 6-2 at the National Senior hardcourts in 1972, for example – but he is making too much money at other pursuits to care.
Later Riggs was at courtside chattering away during a doubles match. Gonzales, the server at that point, stopped and stared at him. Riggs apologized.
"It's all right as long as you're talking about the right things," said Gonzales with a wolfish smile. "There are only so many moments left."
Bunis was a little worried about having his old men playing in such close proximity to the youthful heavy hitters of the USLTA tour, and there was indeed a marked difference in the velocity of shots. But the oldtimers' entertainment value – long strategy-laden rallies, a few wisecracks here and there – held up pretty well. Bunis has swiped a bit of propaganda from women's tennis and insists that the everyday hacker-spectator can better identify with his troop's style of play than with the young male hotshots.
Where the Grand Masters easily outshone the kids was in manners. Young Vitas Gerulaitis of New York said something improper to the umpire; he should have been defaulted at once and/or punched in the nose. Kim Warwick of Australia, getting soundly beaten by Alex Mayer, purposely double-faulted by bashing two serves over the fence. And Connors, having a tough test in the semifinals with Germany's Jurgen Fassbender, started bickering with the crowd. With the fans' antipathy and a searing sun beating down on him (the heat was stifling on Saturday) and Fassbender about to upset him, Connors, who apparently enjoys adversity, settled down to win 6-4, 5-7, 7-5.
In such an atmosphere, it was pleasant to sit in the bleachers with Vic Seixas and Al Bunis and listen to them kid about aging Tom Brown habitually brushing hair away from his forehead – hair that is barely there. Or to listen to Gonzales and Connors bantering in the clubhouse:
Gonzales: Hi, kid, are you a player?
Connors: Well, I have watched you so often, I think I am.
While Gonzales joked his way into the final, his barnstorming companion from the old days, Segura, looked sharp in straight-set victories over Sven Davidson and Tom Brown, and his two-handed baseball-swing of a forehand seemed as powerful and accurate as ever. Hours, hours and hours on the courts as a teaching pro at Rancho La Costa, near San Diego, obviously keeps the Ecuadoran in good shape.
Still, he can't serve and move like Big Pancho. Gonzales was never in danger in the final, and in the stands there were admiring comments from his fellow Masters on the lone wolf's graceful coverage of the court.
"Movement, that's his greatest asset," said Seixas. "Always was."
"It's tough to run when you get over 50," said Segura. "You either go to Forest Hills or Forest Lawn."