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Fighting the Dollar Spot


Upon entering the Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, R.I., your eyes meet a photograph of James H. Van Alen, president of the Hall. The picture is askew and. in addition, doesn't quite fill the frame. As Van Alen would view it, the photo is straight but the building is crooked, and that extra space between the picture and frame is symbolic of a life that often has been filled with odd gaps and quixotic ventures. For as the rest of the world marches to one drum, Jimmy waddles to another.

That there is a Tennis Hall of Fame at all is proof of Van Alen's determination. When he decides something is needed by the people of this country, we're likely to get it whether we want it or not. Which partially explains why the Hall opened 22 years ago to tremendous indifference and has drifted rather steadily downhill since. The 13 grass courts on the grounds—the only public grass courts in the country—routinely come down with a fungus called Dollar Spot. Only Jimmy's ever-open checkbook and his willingness to scratch in numbers followed by plenty of zeroes have kept the Hall from suffering a similar fate and from going the way of the WFL, the ABA and finger bowls.

It's not that Jimmy, 73, just likes to hang around tennis players. On the contrary, he reflects fondly on the days "when you could have players over for dinner and didn't have to count the spoons when they left the table. You know, they dressed and they washed."

In any event, the Hall has given Jimmy—who has a lot of the Astors and a few Vanderbilts in his lineage—something fun to do for a quarter of a century. At 15, his father said, "James, you'll never have to work to make money." But the old man left the clear impression he wanted James to do something to while away his time on earth. You tell the men from the boys by the size of their toys, and this Hall of Fame toy has cost Van Alen, he figures, about $250,000. He now insists that he has hidden his checkbook and capped his pen: "I guess part of the trouble with this place is everyone felt that when things got really tight, I would bail it out. Well, they were right." Yet, there is a growing concern that in the unlikely event that Jimmy Van Alen should ever die, the Newport Casino, this splendid architectural pearl built in 1880 as a playground for the elite, might go under the blade of a bulldozer (Van Alen rescued it from "a similar prospect in the early '50s).

Last week the Tennis Hall of Fame gathered itself together, looked as proud as it could what with its faded elegance and financial woes, and saw potential for happier days. This was because of the warm feeling surrounding the induction into the Hall of its first thoroughly foreign enshrinees, France's famed Four Musketeers—Lacoste, Cochet, Borotra and Brugnon—who ruled the tennis world from the mid-1920s into the early 1930s. The Frenchmen showed up bowed by the years but with unbending recollections of the many times they thrashed U.S. players (mainly Bill Tilden). Among them they won or shared more than 50 major titles; they held the Davis Cup for six straight years, defeating the U.S. five times.

René Lacoste, who was the first foreigner to win Forest Hills twice (1926 and 1927) and who was known for his stoicism, has not changed his demeanor at 71. Says he, "It's always a mistake to show what you feel." But he was undeniably pleased with the celebration, this man who didn't pick up a tennis racket until he was 16 and put it down at 25 because of lung trouble. In that span he won two singles and one doubles titles at Wimbledon and three French singles and doubles titles. Since then, he has won at almost every business venture he has attempted—automotive parts, nickel, crocodile sport shirts, airplane parts, metal rackets. Why so lucky? "I work hard. I had no natural ability."

Henri Cochet, now 74, was the opposite, with a full load of natural talent but a hatred for practice; the brilliant master of the half-volley. Tilden once said in frustration, "Cochet plays a game I don't know." Indeed, Cochet, who won at Forest Hills in 1928, is rated the game's best player after Tilden by tennis historian Allison Danzig. Danzig says he has given consideration to whether America's Don Budge should be second "but I think not." So Budge remains third in Danzig's view, Lacoste fourth. Cochet's greatest moment came in 1927 at Wimbledon against Tilden. He was behind 2-0 in sets, 5-1 in games. At which time, Cochet recalls, "I made 17 points in a row, so I decided perhaps I should fight." He did, winning the match.

The third Musketeer, Jean Borotra, 77, never won Forest Hills but the Bounding Basque had a swashbuckling way about him—always running late, kissing the ladies' hands and driving Tilden to distraction. "I had no serve at all," Borotra says, "but how I loved to play." Fred Perry used to say Borotra "was always prepared to kill himself for France." The fourth, Jacques (Toto) Brugnon, 81, was poor at singles but a wizard at doubles, no matter who his partner might be. He won Wimbledon four times.

Although it is good practice to take everything Jimmy Van Alen says and divide by two, his assessment of the Four Musketeers (whom he kept calling the Four Horsemen) was empty of hyperbole: "There is no reason to think or hope we'll ever have four such great players together on one team ever again." Everyone hoisted a glass of American wine, and Cochet was asked if he felt that he was better than Jimmy Connors. "Why not?" he said.

This was perhaps the Hall's finest hour, simply because the presence of these titans, unknown to several generations of Americans, was living proof that pages out of the past should not be crumpled but put under glass. Bob Day, the Hall's executive director, says, "This place is now on the edge of greatness."

Also inducted into the Hall was American Dick Savitt, who won Wimbledon in 1951 by making up for his slowness afoot with a big serve and textbook ground strokes, and the late Mabel Cahill, the U.S. Women's Singles champ in 1891 and 1892. Savitt was at Newport, hanging around in the shadows of the hoopla surrounding the Frenchmen. But at that he fared better than Cahill, whose name wasn't even read off. Ninety-one people have been enshrined.

If the appearance of the Four Musketeers was a symbolic and nostalgic boost, there was some hard-nosed business, too. Bob Briner, a member of the Hall's board and executive director of the Association of Tennis Professionals, insisted that the pros are anxious to do things to help the Hall, including giving clinics and exhibitions. Briner parted with a few ATP dollars. Why have the professionals been uncooperative in the past? "Nobody has asked us," said Briner. Hall of Fame officials say they asked but that nobody answered.

Additionally, a move is under way for another group dedicated to promoting the sport. The National Tennis Foundation, to merge with the Hall this fall, possibly enlarging its board and getting a full-scale fund-raising operation launched. The Hall started a $1.7 million campaign two years ago but has managed to collect only about $250,000; this year, depending on contributions, the Hall could operate in the red by as little as $36,000.

The museum section of the Hall is undeveloped and last year had only 5,000 visitors. If it were in New York, which it should never be, that many people would drop in simply by mistake. Still, the museum is growing. William Clay Ford gave $50,000 to establish two intercollegiate rooms, partly because he remembers with fondness his days at Yale. There was also a substantial contribution by the Davis family for the Davis Cup room, to be dedicated later this month. The U.S. Tennis Association has stayed away from much involvement in the Hall, feeling that it is Jimmy Van Alen's fiefdom.

For Van Alen the Hall of Fame is important, but for 20 years his main squeeze, the cornerstone of his life, has been VASSS—the Van Alen Simplified Scoring System. Basically, instead of scoring tennis love-15-30-40-game ("Any game in which love is nothing is cockeyed," he says), VASSS has it 0-1-2-3-4, and a player can win a game by only one point instead of the conventional two. In the event a set is tied at 5-5 or 6-6, a nine-point tie breaker is played. Major tournaments have used the tie-breaker concept, including Forest Hills and World Team Tennis, and little credit is given to Jimmy—which frosts him good. The VASSS scoring (it often is called half-VASSS by critics) speeds up matches and makes their duration fairly constant, which makes scheduling much easier.

Van Alen's main defeat was his attempt to breed the English robin in this country because of its sweet voice. He spent $20,000 over three years but "the damn things kept turning their toes up." He thinks part of the problem was the climate; the other was that it was impossible to tell the male from the female (he gave them to friends as pairs to be mated) until a worm was passed between them, male to female. "I just didn't have enough time to sit around waiting for worms to be passed," he says.

Television commentator and writer Bud Collins once quoted a player as saying that Jimmy should "borrow the Liberty Bell, because it and Jimmy would make a great couple—they're both cracked." A Van Alen friend suggests, "It's better to be a character than not to have any." Jimmy is, and has.