I’ve got to admit I was pretty thrilled and honored when the folks at WCT asked me if I would be interested in writing an article for them.
It seems the reason I got the job (besides the fact that I offered to pay WCT) was because they figured since I went to SMU, played on the tennis team, went on to play pro tennis for six mostly unspectacular years and now live in Dallas, I could offer a little insight into WCT over the years. Unfortunately, except for the early years when I was at SMU, I missed several WCT Finals. While my buddies Kenny, Rocket, Jimmy, Mac and Bjornie were playing for the big bucks in Dallas, I was off playing bigger tournaments in tennis hotspots like Lagos, Dar es Salam, San Luis Po-tosi and Bismarck, South Dakota. I’ve since retired from pro sports and these days I’m usually in town for Finals week.
The first WCT Finals in 1971 featured the 994th career meeting of Rosewall and Laver. Rosewall got hit in the eye with a shot that flew off his racquet. While 8,200 fans wondered if he’d be able to continue at Memorial Auditorium, Rosewall caught his breath, Laver let down his guard and Kenny sneaked into the winner’s circle for the $50,000 first prize. It was only fitting that the 37-year old Rosewall should win the richest prize in the history of tennis in the twilight of his career.
1972 was truly a heady year for WCT and all of us in the Dallas tennis community. SMU’s Moody Coliseum was being described as the finest indoor tennis stadium in the country and WCT Finals week was being described as the 5th leg of the Grand Slam. All of us on the SMU tennis team lived by the green carpet that week waiting for brief but memorable chances to hit with our idols if for only a few minutes. Of course, Rosewall’s victory over Laver in a fifth set tie-breaker is one of tennis’ greatest matches.
It was definitely changing of the guard time at Moody Coliseum in 1973. Stan Smith ousted Laver in one semifinal and Ashe sneaked by Rosewall in five sets to set up a finals showdown between the two top Americans. What seems amazing to me, at least by our so-called modern standards, is how old both Rosewall (39) and Laver (35) were and how amazingly fit.
During a huge point in the final, Smith scooped up a ball and hit it over Ashe’s head for an uncanny winner. Ashe clearly thought Smith had not reached the ball on first bounce but he unquestionably acquiesced when no double bounce was ruled. Later Ashe said that if Stan said he got to the ball on first bounce his word was good enough for him. That attitude easily sums up the player esprit de corps of that era.
The ’74 WCT Finals were memorable in that John Newcombe was coming back from a self-imposed retirement and proving he was still one of the best and Bjorn Borg came into his own as a 17-year old wunderkid superstar. I had one opportunity to get to know Bjorn earlier that year when we both played at Auckland, New Zealand and he’d needed cannon fodder for his interminable five-hour practice sessions with his coach, Lennart Bergelin. Seeing him up close for the first time, I realized he was special-a rare talent and a great guy.
Anyway, Newk’s serve and volley game was still a little too strong for Bjorn’s steady ground-strokes and passing shots. At that time, Borg didn’t have enough depth on his looping ground-strokes and his second serve was easily attacked. But it was obvious those problems would be rectified one day.
1975 was the year of Arthur Ashe in the tennis world and the WCT Finals title undoubtedly started him off on his way.
Ashe, playing the now well-established superstar and veteran Borg (who was a mature 18), showed again in Dallas that Borg was vulnerable to an attacking player who could forcefully capitalize on a short second serve and groundstrokes dipping inside the service line.
I wasn’t in Dallas for WCT ’76. Rather I was having a miserable introduction to European red clay. But I’m kind of glad I wasn’t there. Both Borg and Vilas were great to watch, except when they were playing each other. Interminable baseline rallies seemed to hypnotize both players into conducting topspin clinics and a war of attrition. Also, except for 1977, Borg always had Vilas’ number as he did in Dallas. Finally, after three tries, Borg won in Dallas.
I was in Cairo during the ’77 WCT Finals. Transplanted Texan and Dallas-ite Dick Stockton slowed Connors down for a while in the championship match, but Dickie finally wilted under the constant barrage of 100 mile per hour returns. Then as now, there is nothing prettier than watching Connors return serve.
In 1978 I remember congratulating Vitas in Paris for winning Dallas that year. He mentioned something about going out with a girl I knew and liked and also he said there were some great parties. Sounds just like Vitas. I have to admit I was a Iittle jealous missing that one.
By beating Connors and Borg in consecutive matches during the 1979 finals, McEnroe was serving notice that he would eventually sit on the tennis throne. In the last WCT Finals playe at Moody Coliseum, McEnroe served and volleyed Connors off the court. I tried that tactic several times against Connors in my career and both times By beating Connors and Borg in matches during the 1979 finals, McEnroe was serving notice that he would event ually sit on the tennis throne. In the last WCT Finals played at Moody Coiseum, McEnroe served and volleyed Connors off the court. I tried that tactic several times against Connors in my career and both times considered donning armor plate.
As great as Connors was from 1974-78, by 1979 McEnroe and Borgusually overshadowedthe Brash Bomber fromBellville. It was also interesting to rote that asbadly as McEnroe misbehaved on courtagainst almost everyone,he seemingly never gotmad when he playedBorg.
Borg and McEnroe may have moved Jimbo down a few rungs on the ladder but during the 1980 WCT Finals Connors “played like a manpossessed.” Connorsproved he could still handle McEnroe’s sneaky serve and volley game on any given day. It was the first event ever staged in Reunion Arena and I can’t even remember where I was that year. Maybe its on my tax return.
McEnroe came back for the third straight yea’ in 1981 and his only challenge came from Johan Kriek. Kriek was a great player but his talents were nothing compared to McEnroe’s. I know Borg was near the end of his career, Lendl was still getting adjusted and Connors was not well.
Ivan Lendl, the dour Czech, may not have been the crowd or party favorite in 1982 but he proved that he belonged in the same ring with the big boys by whipping McEnroe in four sets. Billy Scanlon played a great match against McEnroe in the quarterfinals but went down in five long sets. I was in Lee on Solent, England that year.
With Lendl the top seed and riding a six-match winning streak against McEnroe, the smart money was on the Czech. However in one of the great matches in WCT history, McEnroe won an incredible five-set natch to snap Lendl’s winning streak McEnroe provided some real drama by hitting the final shot between the net and netpost. That was before the NFL instant replay rule.
1984 will be remembered as the highwater mark of John McEnroe’s career. By waltzing through the field without the loss of a set, McEnroe showed the world and the rest of the boys who was No. 1. Even a determined Jimmy Connors was little more than a talented sparring partner against Mac in the final.
ln 1985 Joakim Nystrom, a quiet and unassuming Swede, upset McEnroe a quarterfinal. That opened the gates for some inspiring serve and volley tennis from Tim Mayotte who upset Mats Wilander and then beat Nystrom to play Lendl in the final. Unfortunately for Mayotte and the fans, there wasn’t enough artillery or imagination in the Mayotte arsenal to slow down the Czech who won in straight sets.
Watching Lendl that year I realized for the first time how much tennis has changed. Power was the name of the game. This guy consistently hit the ball harder more often than anyone ever has. While the artistry of a Laver or a Rosewall (or even McEnroe when he was fit and fast), might have tagged Lendl on an off day (especially on grass), it was apparent that no athlete in the history of tennis had committed himself so fully toward becoming such a power machine. Day in and day out, Lendl was by far the most awesome tennis player I’ve ever watched or inadvertently had to play.
With Lendl out with a bum knee and McEnroe on holiday, the stage was set for newcomer Boris Becker to steal the 1986 show. However, a hot Anders Jarryd spoiled Becker’s Dallas debut in the final, winning in four sets.
The 1987 BUICK WCT Finals was the year for McEnroe to prove that he was back. Unfortunately, this comeback, which started promisingly enough with a win over rapidly improving Stefan Edberg, was derailed by the weirdest player I have ever seen -Miloslav Mecir, the “Big Cat.”
In the final McEnroe was almost defaulted for refusing to play until the referee talked to him over a trivial line call dispute. Then Mac started imagining ghosts and goblins behind every linesman until he finally let everyone in Reunion in on his theory by screaming-“It’s a conspiracy.”
The only conspiracy I could see was Mecir, who was running down everything in sight and hitting radar-guided laser groundstroke winners at will. McEnroe got beat that day.
As an interested observer and participant of pro tennis, the history of WCT provides an interesting chronology into the modern history of tennis and sports as a whole. In the early days of WCT the players weren’t particularly rich, played every week, seemed to genuinely like one another, were older and didn’t hit the ball nearly as hard as the Lendl’s and Becker’s do nowadays.
They also seemed to share a common respect, affection and gratitude for Lamar Hunt and WCT for giving them the opportunity to make big money playing tennis. When Ken Rosewall won the first WCT Finals in 1971 he was teary-eyed when presented his $50,000 first prize. He couldn’t believe he’d made that much money for winning one match.
I think it is safe to say that yesteryears WCT stars, say the pre-McEnroe era, enjoyed the actual esthetics of playing tennis much more than today’s superstars, with the obvious exception of Connors.
But, then on the other hand, thefriendships and less demanding depthof the game made things a little easier.They were probably doing their laundrythemselves.