He Still Gives Full Day's Work

The phone rings. Charlie Pasarell answers it with a sigh. It might be Pete Sampras wanting a tee time at one of the area's golf courses. It might be Steffi Graf looking for an early-morning practice court.

Maybe one of the players' mothers is unhappy with the hotel room he got for her. Some player may have forgotten where he parked the courtesy car. Perhaps someone collapsed from the heat--or from a previously undiagnosed disorder--out on the grandstand court.

He glances up at a TV monitor. A Wimbledon champion, the reigning Australian Open champion, is down a set and blowing a 4-1 lead in the second set to a nobody. The tournament is about to lose a major drawing card for the weekend finals.

A sponsor is calling. He wants to set up a cocktail party. How can they go about getting the top tennis players to attend?

It's just a day in the life of a tennis promoter. And Charlie's days do not end with the last double fault of the evening session. Long after the players have zippered their rackets and gone to their courtesy cars, you can see Charlie prowling the empty courts and seats by himself, like the Phantom of the Opera, looking for problems.

Putting on a tennis tournament is like putting on a war. First of all, you need an army. You need financing. You need a plan. You need the occasional fallback. You have to deal with frustrations.

Everything in Charlie Pasarell's life has taught him to deal with adversity. He did not roll out of bed with a 140-mph serve, an unreturnable forehand, a devastating serve-and-volley game. He had to work for points. Victories took a long time.

When you know that Charlie Pasarell took part in the longest match ever played at Wimbledon--it lasted two days--and that the scores were 24-22, 6-1, 14-16, 3-6 and 9-11, and his opponent was the incomparable Pancho Gonzalez, you know all you need to about Charlie's tenacity.

He was one of those world-class players who fell just short of star status, a career quarterfinalist in the Grand Slam tournaments. But he did win his singles titles, six one year, and he was doubles finalist twice in the U.S. Open. He was like a driver who finishes fifth in the Indy 500, a factor but not a finalist. Still, you had to beat him. Pasarell never double-faulted away a tournament or netted a volley at match point.

He dealt with it.

"On a good day, I might be able to play with a [Jimmy] Connors or a John Newcombe or Arthur Ashe, but day in and day out, I was not as good as they were," he acknowledges.

Born and raised in Puerto Rico, not exactly a capital of the upscale sport of tennis, Charlie became good enough to get a scholarship to UCLA, where he was Ashe's teammate.

He was one of the activists who forced open tennis on the grumpy old men who ran the game then. Tennis had always been as relentlessly amateur as company picnic softball. The grandees who ran it liked to keep the practitioners barefoot and in debt in those days.

Tennis wasn't meant to be played by anybody who needed money. The game was played for tea trays and silver cups and even Big Bill Tilden had to come with his hat in his hand and his feet wiped if he wanted to be housed and fed at a major tournament.

Pasarell was one who helped to change this sorry state of affairs. But not in time to do himself much good. Charlie played 14 Wimbledons, a lot of them with plenty of "Yes, sirs" and "Thank you, ma'ams" and low bows.

"We finally got the USTA to agree to a $28-a-day allowance," he remembers. "I went right out and bought a new Camaro."

The players finally opened the vault when they boycotted Wimbledon in '68. If it was a little late for Charlie Pasarell, it was just in time for the spoiled brat brigade and tennis went from "Oh, thank you, sir!" to "This place is the pits!"

The prize went from a tea tray to--well, the winner gets $320,000 in the Newsweek Champions Cup here at the Hyatt Grand Champions resort this week. You get $26,400 for finishing 16th. That's a lot of tea trays.

This tournament was just a nice little weekend romp in the desert till Charlie got hold of it. To give you an idea, it was won one year by an unranked baseliner named Larry Stefanki. It was his only tour victory. He beat the immortal David Pate.

But Charlie, typically, kept returning serve and hitting the corners, chipping away. He treated roadblocks as just another bunch of 24-22, 16-14, 11-9 sets. Gradually, his tournament grew in drama and prestige till it became one of the ATP tour's Super Nine. It began to attract the elite of the game. This week's Newsweek had all four of last year's Grand Slam event champions--till Boris Becker lost Tuesday--and started with 18 of the top 20 players in the world. A Grand Slam would like to attain such a cast.

How did he do it? Well, as one who played in the days when you had to keep your shoes shined, shirt buttoned and feet wiped to stay on tour, Charlie feels he knows how athletes like to be treated.

So, Southern California, which has been on a losing streak of sorts lately--with the Rams and Raiders gone--seems to have found itself with a major league attraction.

He wouldn't, but, if the phone rang today, and someone said, "We just lost the Australian Open champion, Boris Becker, boss, to somebody named Costa," Charlie could shrug and say, "What does that leave us--only three of the four Grand Slam champions? Only 17 of the top 20?"

It's still a mini-Grand Slam. But it has come a long way from Larry Stefanki.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
66°