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Original Issue


Owen Williams, who glories in risk, has been imported from South Africa to rescue the U.S. Open from another disaster

The future of American tennis—Open tennis, anyway—may very well depend on the care with which Owen Williams shaves. Williams is a 6' 4", 200-pound 37-year-old South African who is the tournament director for the U.S. Open championships, which began this week in Forest Hills. He also is a Christmas factor hemophiliac—a condition that does not deter him from hacking off his whiskers with a blade razor. Admonished for this reckless approach to life, Williams says, "Ah, well, live hard and die young and make a pretty corpse."

Although he is not in physical danger at the West Side Tennis Club, Williams' predilection for a high-risk life was put to the test when he agreed to run the Open. A former run-of-the-mill tournament player, Williams has made news in other ways. At 19 he worked his way from Johannesburg to Wimbledon peeling potatoes on a South African mail ship—and wound up on the front pages of nine British newspapers. He dated Elizabeth Taylor {National Velvet version), sold a tennis racket to Anthony Quinn, frequented Somerset Maugham's French Riviera villa, was friendly with Aly Khan until Aly went after one of his girl friends, was rolled in an Istanbul nightclub and thrown into a Barcelona jail. Still, he managed to reach the quarterfinals of the Wimbledon doubles in 1954 and that same year was the seventh foreign seed at Forest Hills. In 1959, however, when he was 27, he decided he was never going to be a winner (Jack Kramer told him his size-12 feet, among other things, would prohibit that), and rather than become a permanent tennis bum he turned to business and tennis promoting.

His first South African venture was beating the drum for Kramer's professional tennis circus in 1959, but, because Williams was not well versed in South African tax laws, the tour was a disaster. Two years later, however, the pros were a success there, and they have been every year since. In 1966 Williams took charge of the South African national amateur championships in Johannesburg, more on a dare than anything else. The year before, the tournament had attracted only 4,500 people in 12 days and had lost $500, but with Williams running things the tournament drew 62,000 people and grossed $100,000. And this in a city of less than 2 million. In addition, during the past 10 years he has established a personal financial empire that includes Scotch, chocolate liqueur and champagne distributorships, a sporting-goods firm, a small publishing company and a promotions outfit. In tennis circles—worldwide—Williams is regarded with awe as a blend of Pete Rozelle and Florenz Ziegfeld.

Williams' hemophilia nearly cost him his life four years ago when he was hit on his left wrist while playing cricket at the opening of a Johannesburg country club. He thought nothing of the injury and hopped a plane for Capetown, 800 miles away. When he got off the plane his wrist was already badly swollen. Wisely, he went to a doctor, who told him to be careful and check back a few hours later. Unwisely, Owen forgot about it. "Around 1 or 2 in the morning I was on the dance floor of some nightclub with a buxomy broad," says Owen, "and I felt this tapping on my shoulder." It was the doctor, still dressed in work white, who, when Williams hadn't checked back, had for five hours made the rounds of Capetown clubs looking for him.

"Owen, you're a bloody fool," he said. "Look at your arm."

By now the hemorrhaging had increased so much that Owen couldn't get his suit coat off. The doctor bundled him into a car, drove him to the emergency ward of Capetown's Groote Schuur Hospital (the heart-transplant place) and ripped off his coat with a pair of scissors. For the next day it was touch and go whether Williams would lose his arm, and maybe his life.

Williams prefers to shrug off his handicap. "If I'm in a bad auto accident and can't get to a hospital quickly, I'm through," he says. "I used to wear a medallion around my neck that identified me as a hemophiliac, but I took the bloody thing off a long time ago. It interfered with my clothing, my tennis and my making love."

This is precisely the attitude you need if you are in charge of what is supposed to be, next to Wimbledon, the most important tennis championships in the world. Supposed to be. Better a snake pit. Last year's U.S. Open, it can be said, was at once sad, funny and disgraceful.

In fairness, what happened in 1968 was in many ways nothing more than the culmination of the sins of previous years, even decades, and was the result of the chaotic state in which tennis finds itself as it makes the awkward transition from an amateur and amateurish sport to a (hopefully) professional entertainment. The two touring professional groups, Lamar Hunt's World Championship Tennis and Tennis Champions, Inc. (formerly the National Tennis League), run by George MacCall and Fred Podesta, want nothing but the worst for one another and as an entry hate the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association, which presumes to run the game in this country. The USLTA is governed by committee, and is factionalized and fractionalized, mainly into anti-professional and pro-professional groups. The association cries out for leadership, but when strong personalities do emerge from the debris, such as the immediate past president Bob Kelleher and current president Alastair Martin, they are all too often reduced to ineffective power brokers for the 42-man executive committee. From this sad group emerges the Forest Hills tournament committee.

USLTA Executive Secretary Bob Malaga, in charge of procuring nonprofessional foreign talent for the 1968 championships, turned up just one European male, Holland's Tom Okker. (The handful of others who did play came in spite of Malaga, and one former champion, Manuel Santana, flatly refused to play because, he claimed, Malaga insulted him.) The No. 1-seeded player, Australia's Rod Laver, did not play his first-round match until the fourth day of the championships, although a cardinal rule for any tournament referee is to protect seeded players and make sure they play their early-round matches as quickly as possible. The men's singles draw was rigged so that the touring professionals could not meet each other in the first or second rounds in order to protect their guarantees. Most blatant of all, although play was rained out for just one day, the tournament was completed 48 hours late.

Enter the West Side Tennis Club, the tournament host. The Forest Hills stadium is the only large-capacity outdoor tennis facility in the country. It was built in 1923 and, until this year, it had not been improved. Rust streaks mar the crumbling cement pillars, the seats are uncomfortable, refreshments are low-grade and, for the 14,000 people who occasionally show up for a day's play, there are just two rest rooms. There is little atmosphere, less class. A West Side member explained, "Twenty or 30 years ago all the players used to be put up in homes around here, but now only a few stay. I don't really blame the fans or the players for not liking the place." And to top everything last year, players' subway directions to Forest Hills from Manhattan, 20 minutes away, were incorrect.

The West Side club itself is divided into three distinct groups. The first is very concerned about the championships and works extremely hard to make them a success. The second couldn't care less one way or the other. The third doesn't like the idea of all those people scruffing about on the West Side lawns, and as a supreme insult, during last year's final match between Okker and Arthur Ashe, these members held their own games on the club's field courts.

Promotion and publicity last year was handled by the Madison Square Garden Attractions, Inc. Its main contribution to the chaos was to inflate the daily attendance figures. The Garden announced 97,000 for the entire championships, but the actual paid attendance for the 12 days was only 62,000, or about one-fifth the figure for Wimbledon's fortnight. In all, the Garden was merely the third horse of an unbelievable troika galloping pell-mell to oblivion and dragging the Open championships shamefully behind it. No wonder that in January of this year there was public doubt whether there would even be a 1969 Open, let alone at Forest Hills.

It would be nice to report that at this particular juncture the USLTA, the West Side club and the Garden sat down and said, "Gee, gang. We really blew it. Let's make amends and do a real bang-up job in '69." Unfortunately, that isn't exactly what happened. If this year's Open is a success, it will be due in large measure to Gladys Heldman, whose acerbic editorials in her magazine, World Tennis, have been deflating the tennis Establishment ever since Volume 1, No. 1 in June 1953 and who has been behind most of the advances American tennis has made in the past 16 years. Seven years ago Mrs. Heldman got Joseph Cullman III, now chairman of the board of Philip Morris, reinterested in tennis (he had played at Hotchkiss and Yale, but that had been nearly 30 years earlier). Shortly after that Australian Roy Emerson, who has won 12 Big Four singles titles in his career, was a house guest of the Cullmans, and shortly after that, Emerson was on the Philip Morris payroll. Manuel Santana, the late Rafael Osuna and Arthur Ashe soon followed, and last year Philip Morris picked up the tab for televising the Open. Of a sudden, Cullman, wealthy and a tennis nut, had become a nouveau riche tennis Establishmentarian.

In January, during the period of crisis for the current tournament, Cullman was asked by Dan Johnson, last year's Open referee (and an emissary for the then-incoming USLTA president, Alastair Martin), whether he would take over as Open chairman. Cullman hemmed and hawed—for about 10 seconds—and agreed, provided he could run the tournament the way he wanted to and provided he could seek out Owen Williams as his tournament director. Martin, with that huge executive committee and a score of lesser committees staring him in the face, closed his eyes, gulped and bravely said, "Yes."

Thus, in the midst of an African safari last winter, Joe Cullman spent four days with Williams in Johannesburg. "After seeing me drink a bottle and smoke 20 cigars a day, run four or five businesses and hold a sit-down dinner for 150 people, I guess Joe decided I could do the job," Williams said.

Soon after, at a secret meeting with USLTA officials in New York—he flew 20 hours to New York, stayed 20 hours in New York and flew 20 hours back to Johannesburg, via London ("I've got a wonderful tailor there")—Williams was officially confirmed. Owen's first objective was to secure the services of Mike Gibson, the dapper Englishman who is the tournament referee for Wimbledon, a job he inherited from his father-in-law in 1963 and performs admirably. Again, by way of contrast with Forest Hills, in 1968 it rained during Wimbledon's first five days, but under Gibson's direction the tournament finished on time. He is a perfect complement to Williams. "My present occupation of refereeing," he said, "allows me plenty of time for fox hunting in winter."

Williams arrived in New York on April 27, the first full-time tournament director in Forest Hills history, and with his reputation clearly on the line. "If he doesn't succeed," said Bob Briner, who runs World Championship Tennis for Lamar Hunt, "he'll have to slink back to Johannesburg with his tail between his legs."

April 27 was a Sunday. At 7:45 a.m. on the 28th Cullman picked up Williams at his suite in New York's Westbury Hotel, sequestered him in a Philip Morris executive office and said, "You've got 15 minutes to settle in, then we'll go to work."

At that point Williams' staff consisted of Williams. He quickly recruited his wife Jenifer, and now, with the championships under way, he has a more or less full-time staff of 14, plus a volunteer force of 150.

"There is no magic formula, no black box you can push to make a tournament successful," Williams said. "It's largely a matter of hard work and attention to detail. As I understand it, there were two basic problems at Forest Hills. The first was a lack of organization." Williams took care of that by quickly establishing a benevolent dictatorship, and as such he is able to give quick and irrevocable decisions on everything from the problems of the West Side club's sundeck committee to the touchy question of seedings.

"The second problem," Williams continued, "was—is—the matter of facilities. Mike Gibson took one look at the place and said, 'My God. I can't believe it.' Forest Hills is simply a disgrace to the American public. The U.S. Open championships represent American tennis. Period. If they are successful, it does more for the game than a dozen million-dollar promotional gimmicks."

Williams first concentrated his energies on the creation of the U.S. Open Club, a recently finished private club beneath the stadium available to a limited membership for a stiff but not unreasonable fee. It has one-way glass looking out onto the Stadium courts and will serve lunch and dinner. The Open Club was just a beginning. Box seats have been increased from 426 to 816, creature comforts—such as rest rooms—are being added, a $167,000 electric scoreboard, courtesy of Philip Morris, is ready, and there is even some wild talk that part of the Open gate receipts will be plowed back into the Forest Hills facilities, a basic consideration which for unknown reasons hasn't been seriously considered before. Cullman has arranged for a five-year television contract with CBS at $100,000 per year, or twice the 1968 figure. A consolation tournament using the latest version of the James Van Alen Simplified Scoring System will be held and will be worth $12,000 (courtesy of Van Alen), raising the total tournament prize money to $137,000, and it is rumored West Side members will even watch the matches. Charlie Tucker, West Side president, said, "I'll probably have my head handed to me on a silver platter, but I don't believe members should be allowed to play after 12 noon [the tournament's daily starting time]."

And, most important, advance sales for the tournament at one stage in early August were running nearly three times ahead of last year's comparable figures, thanks to frequent stiff-arming of New York-area corporations, some of whom probably don't know Rod Laver from David Rockefeller, and a dozen promotion efforts involving everybody from United Nations Secretary General U Thant to Tennis Fashion Designer Teddy Tinling.

Still, there are problems. The first object of any promoter is to fill the house, and the cheapest ticket at Forest Hills, for a student 18 years old or younger, is $2, or about twice what it should be. For a variety of reasons, there is no large tennis audience in the New York area, despite its tremendous population, such as there is, for example, in England (and, thanks to Williams, South Africa). At Williams' first press conference last May he indicated his tournament attendance goal was 300,000. Now, nearly four months later, he says he will be satisfied with half that.

Second, there is a small but significant faction within the USLTA and the West Side club that would dearly love to see Williams, and pro tennis, crash and burn. For the moment this group is quiet, thanks in a large part to Alastair Martin, but if the tournament is not a reasonable success the gloating from within will start shortly after the last ball is struck on Sept. 7.

Third, Williams is a white South African, and a rich one as well. His politics, liberal in South African terms, are slightly to the right in the American spectrum. This does not, for instance, bother Arthur Ashe, a Negro, but it does bother one Mark Jones of Chicago, an associate judge of the Cook County Circuit Court and a minor member of a minor USLTA committee. Shortly after Williams' appointment, Jones fired off a stinging letter to Cullman that said, in part, "I've noted, with concern and distress...your selection of Owen Williams to be Tournament Director for this year's U.S. Open Tennis Tournament...."

Cullman answered Jones, in part, "My objective in obtaining the services of Owen Williams as Tournament Director was to get the most competent tennis promoter in the world. Owen Williams is that."

So things have not been easy for Williams, which is just fine with him. "I happen to think I'm good enough to get the job done," Williams says. "The only regret I have is that this whole thing has interfered with my social life."