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An open letter to the USLTA


This week the United States Lawn Tennis Association is holding its annual meeting in Los Angeles. Purpose: to choose a new president (Edward A. Turville of St. Petersburg, whose election will be automatic since he is running unopposed) and to make plans for the year ahead. In view of the sorry year just past and the equivocal future of tennis, Sports Illustrated invited Contributing Editor Bill Talbert to address an open letter to the delegates in Los Angeles. It follows

The U.S. Lawn Tennis Assn.
Convention Headquarters
Los Angeles, Calif.

The year of tournament tennis just concluded has been without question the most humiliating in the history of the game for the United States. No American male player got as far as the semifinals in our own national championships at Forest Hills, and except for the durable Darlene Hard no American woman did any better. For the second straight year the U.S. team failed to make even the Challenge Round in Davis Cup competition. It was eliminated by an Italian team which was itself so soundly trounced later as to make almost a travesty of cup play.

In some degree, the disgraceful U.S. showing was brought about by the fact that one of our most talented young players, Dennis Ralston, was barred from competition through disciplinary action imposed by the USLTA amid a cloud of misunderstanding. This incident, more than any other, emphasized the sorry picture of U.S. topflight tennis and exposed to the public the faulty and feeble structure of our organization—an organization racked by dissension, choked by committees and totally lacking in both leadership and sense of direction.

This is the background against which you, the directing members of the USLTA, are meeting in Los Angeles this week to make plans for tennis in the year 1962. You know that right now the patient looks pretty sick, but you may be tempted to think the ailment is only temporary. At your many committee meetings the older members undoubtedly will cluck over the patient and recommend a few bracing tonics—the kind they used to make in Newport when mother was a girl—and prophesy that by spring he will leap out of his bed as robust as ever. It is my own firm conviction, however, as well as that of many others, that the illness plaguing tennis is not nearly so trivial.

Unfortunately, I am not a doctor, nor even, I suppose, an expert in the diseases of tennis. But I do know and love the game. I have been in it most of my life, as a player both nationally and internationally, as a member of the Davis Cup team, as a USLTA committeeman and, for five years, as captain of the U.S. Davis Cup team. Despite the claims of all those who insist that everything would be all right if only we adopted new rules to eliminate the big-serve-and-volley game, omitted the word "love" from the scoring or made the court bigger, one thing I do know is that tennis' trouble is not rooted in the game itself. More people are playing and enjoying tennis now than ever before. Sporting goods companies report the sale of equipment at an alltime high. Tennis has never been healthier at the bottom, where people play it purely for fun; its miseries then must stem from the top at the national tournament level. What is making tennis sick is not the way it is played but the way it is organized and administered. What the USLTA needs now most of all is to take a hard look at itself.

Tennis has undergone tremendous change in the last half century, but the machinery for running it is essentially the same as that used in 1910. It is archaic, rusty, cumbersome and sluggish. Many of the men in responsible positions are well-meaning, but their only excuse for holding office is that they have held it for years. Some are business and professional men who gained official rank as reward for their fatherly interest in the game. Others rose to "brass button" status through service as umpires and linesmen. Too few have had experience in tournament play. As a result, no matter how pure their motives, the scope of their vision is limited. They don't know enough about the inner workings of the game to help it.

Tennis today is run by committees, so many that their responsibilities frequently overlap. They work at cross-purposes. Their operations are hampered by petty jealousies and a constant flow of red tape. Government-by-committee is a major cause of our Davis Cup defeats. One committee selects the team and the captain. Another supervises the play itself. Committees were responsible for the Ralston disciplinary fiasco that made us ridiculous in the eyes of the world.

Tennis in the 1960s bears little resemblance to the tennis of the 1900s and 1920s on which the thinking of the USLTA is based. 1 get sick to death of the hackneyed, meaningless old refrain sung again and again by our tennis fathers: "Let's preserve the amateur game." I say: "Let's preserve the game."

Tennis is tennis, whatever the adjective you wish to attach to it. The one move that could restore it to the prestige it enjoyed in the days of Tilden, Wills and Lenglen is to restore players of that caliber to its tournaments. In tennis, as in every major sport, it is the spectator dollar spent for first-rate competition that provides the lubrication to keep the game moving on every level. By turning their backs on reality, U.S. tennis officials are starving the entire sport. The two-year loss of money from the Davis Cup Challenge Round has left a deep hole in the coffers, and the empty seats at major tournaments have not helped to fill them.

A report just published by the special committee on amateurism of the International Lawn Tennis Federation says: "The sports-loving public of the world now clamours to see the 'artist' class of player in every sport and appears quite willing to accept that the artist should have some financial consideration for his skill and artistry."

In simple language this means the public doesn't give a hoot who gets paid so long as it sees the best.

The men who run Wimbledon, the oldest, most conservative and most prestigious of all big-time tournaments, are ready right now to expunge the words "amateur" and "professional" from tournament arrangements and will almost certainly take this step at their own tournament in 1963 with or without ILTF approval. I see no reason why the USLTA should not beat them to the punch. Certainly if we are to have championship tournaments we should have the best championship talent available. Today this talent is concentrated in men like Pancho Gonzalez, Lew Hoad, Ken Rosewall, Andres Gimeno, Earl Buchholz and Barry MacKay, none of whom care to perfect their artistry without reward.

To compete for the spectator dollar, to balance the books in our association, to give the tennis fan a fair break and to give the ambitious young beginner something to shoot for, we must, and promptly, eliminate the purely artificial and hypocritical class distinctions of tournament play and bring this kind of top talent back into the national game. There are, in the end, only two types of tennis players: bad players and good players. Let us, gentlemen, make an effort to encourage and hang onto the good ones.

You cannot cure with sulphur and molasses a patient in drastic need of surgery. May I suggest, then, in pondering the sickness of tennis in 1962, you make an earnest consideration of this necessary surgery your first order of business in Los Angeles and that you begin by operating on your own organization. I offer five specific suggestions:

1) An immediate infusion of experienced youth into the organization through the appointment of such men as Vic Seixas, Ted Schroeder, Sidney Wood, Tony Trabert, Ham Richardson, Gardnar Mulloy and Tom Brown to key posts. All of these men are intelligent, enthusiastic, experienced in international competition and eager to serve the game they love. There are many more like them.

2) The hiring of a strong, well-paid executive director to run things with a free hand (as does Joe Dey of the U.S. Golf Association), under the general supervision of the directors.

3) A prompt acceptance of all professionals, both teaching and touring, as a natural and important part of the game, and a determined effort to administer the game of tennis as a healthy and unified whole.

4) The healing of scars left by years of misunderstanding and misinformation through the establishment of an informed and efficient public-relations office manned by persons who know both tennis and public relations.

5) A plan for future growth rooted in the youth development program and frankly and honestly designed to recapture our position as the world's No. 1 tennis power. This plan would include a concerted effort to carry the open principle to Davis Cup play and a complete streamlining of our own cup team organization.

Let's change that losing game, gentlemen, and start winning.

Bill Talbert
New York City