Notwithstanding the famous Public Wars between Playboy and Penthouse, the rawest magazine combat now raging is between World Tennis and Tennis. The latter, a polished upstart, has tripled its circulation in the past two years and passed WT, and now barely trails in advertising pages as well. World Tennis, the somnambulant leader for years, has at last stirred itself by easing founder Gladys Heldman upstairs (nobody would dare to kick Ms. Heldman), hiring additional staff and shifting headquarters from the Texas outback to the New York firing line. This isn't a couple of nickel-and-dime journals scuffing, but patrols for two huge armies clashing, with prestige the prize. The New York Times purchased Tennis two years ago and CBS bought WT shortly thereafter.
World Tennis was created two decades ago as a magazine to be written by the players. Despite this monstrous handicap, the indomitable Heldman kept it afloat with an informative mishmash of letters to home, results, playing tips, the latest tournament romances and the endless and tedious adventures of the editor's cat—all arranged pretty much at random. The potpourri "Around the World" column featured the most incredible juxtapositions, like: "The Australians won the Davis Cup again...Top-ranked John Jones was seen holding hands with third-seeded girl Bootsie Smith at the Western Juniors...Jack Kramer signed the world's top 28 amateurs to pro contracts...That was veteran doubles champ Micki Thomas twisting at the Caribe Hilton Tennis Ball...." And so on, deuce, your ad, deuce....
The tennis community was one big extended family then, and those few subscribers who did not know the editor's cat positively died for an introduction; the letter cum magazine was engaging and just right for its time. Then, in 1965, a Chicago children's books editor, Asher Birnbaum, started a regional tennis monthly. About the same time Heldman's interest began to wander as she became the doyenne of the sport—she practically invented women's tennis, as we know it now—and Birnbaum's slicker little number began to catch on. When "by my dumb luck" tennis boomed, Birnbaum's Tennis, which frankly prides itself on being a "service magazine," cashed in on the sport's wide-eyed novices.
Tennis still concentrates its best energies on its lucid instructional portfolios, although it sometimes panders shamelessly to the boomee. A recent fully illustrated article explained how to open a can of balls. But Tennis' design and graphics are first-rate, and while editorially it can get a little gimmicky (a Ms. Tennis contest, for God's sake), it is not afraid to chance new approaches. Tennis makes especially good use of tournament previews, which serve the reader much better than do detailed accounts of matches that appear weeks, even months, after they have taken place, often on national TV.
World Tennis still has a choppy layout, but its young editor, Ron Bookman, the former PR chief for Lamar Hunt's World Championship of Tennis, has rounded the other edges, belled the cat and, of all things, turned it into a writers' magazine. WT features the three top British tennis writers—Richard Evans, Rex Bellamy and David Gray—a fine young American, Mike Lupica, and the sovereign and ubiquitous Arthur (Bud) Collins, who has become sort of the Third World of tennis all by himself. Against this array, Tennis offers only Barry Lorge as a distinctive regular contributor. Of course, the belief that tennis players can contribute artfully in the written word dies hard at WT, and a few painful looking-back-on-my-summer-vacation efforts still surface. Nonetheless, it can be said: World Tennis is written, Tennis produced.
More important than the differences, it's rather amazing that a relatively small specialty audience should be treated to two quality magazines. The underlying reason is that they fill a need in a burgeoning market. Despite the obvious evidence, the hardball old newspaper sports editors have not yet caught on to tennis' rising and broadening popularity and give it the most antiquated, neglectful attention. Even The New York Times' coverage of tennis is insipid, and nowhere in the country are there writers like Al Laney, of the old New York Herald-Tribune, and Allison Danzig, now long retired from the Times, who were both craftsmen and analysts. Most curious of all, while the interest in. women's tennis could bring a whole new readership to the sports pages, editors have not been perceptive enough to exploit it. The tennis monthlies may look good simply because, day in, day out, they have the courts to themselves.