THE CIRCUS CIRCUIT

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Imagine if Wimbledon had been played this summer with no Pete Sampras, no Goran Ivanisevic, no Boris Becker.

Imagine that instead of two weeklong stops in Los Angeles for the men's Infiniti Open and the women's Acura Classic, pro tennis was in town only one or two nights a year.

With a portable canvas court stretched tight across the floor of the old Pan-Pacific Auditorium, four of the world's best would slug it out for the umpteenth time, then pile into a couple of station wagons to start the drive to San Francisco's Cow Palace for the next night's show--another of a hundred like the one before.

That's the way tennis was in the barnstorming days of the renegade pro tour--a time when professional was a dirty word in the blueblood world of tennis, and there was no such thing as the U.S. Open, then closed to professionals, like all the other majors.

It wasn't until 1968 that tennis' open era arrived, bringing prize money with it and allowing professionals' names to be engraved on the storied trophies of the Grand Slam tournaments.

But for more than 40 years before, from the time Suzanne Lenglen turned pro in 1926 and was followed by Bill Tilden, Ellsworth Vines and Don Budge, on through to the postwar heyday of Bobby Riggs, Jack Kramer and Pancho Gonzalez, pro tennis consisted of a small band of players wandering the U.S. and abroad, playing for a percentage of the gate receipts.

"It was one-day stands, like the big bands would do," said Pancho Segura, the hard-hitting, pigeon-toed comedian of many a tour who at 76 calls himself "a tiebreaker now, 7-6."

"It was tough, playing four or five nights a week, sleeping in the station wagon sometimes," Segura said. "It's not like today where Andre Agassi gets $100,000 to play an exhibition. We were playing for $1,000 for the group some nights."

It was a hard way to make a tennis living, but it was just about the only way. The travel was grueling and the conditions extraordinary.

"We played on cow manure in India," said Alex Olmedo, 61, the longtime pro at the Beverly Hills Hotel who won Wimbledon in 1959 and turned professional in 1960. "It was dried, and you'd run and slide like on a clay court. We played on anthill courts in Africa, and in the Philippines, on some kind of court made of shells."

"That cow dung," Segura said. "Hell, it was so hard, the ball bounced straight, but it didn't smell very good."

It was a different time, to be sure. Fans in Teaneck, N.J., arrived for a 1960 event featuring Ken Rosewall and found Rosewall hawking programs out front. Kevin Sullivan, the driver of the tour's equipment truck, made most of his money on program commissions at a quarter apiece. But that day, freezing weather and overnight drives had conspired to rob him of his voice.

"Rosewall came out and stood beside me and said, 'Programs, get your programs!' " said Sullivan, who later became general manager of the Los Serranos golf courses in Chino Hills, owned by Kramer.

Words like circus and traveling roadshow crop up when people talk about the early days of pro tennis.

"Almost like Barnum and Bailey," said Lornie Kuhle, owner of the Bobby Riggs Tennis Club in Cardiff-by-the-Sea and a close friend of Riggs before Riggs died in 1995 at 77.

But even with the showmanship and the storied entrepreneurship of Riggs, who was said to bet with fans during his matches and signed Gussie Moran to a contract to take advantage of the publicity stirred by her lace panties, it was serious competitive tennis--most years better than Wimbledon, better than the U.S. championships at Forest Hills. The matches, the players insist, were never fixed.

Tennis' governing bodies didn't allow professionals until 1968, but the unofficial tours kept pro tennis alive until the day finally came. Kramer, who won four pro tours in a row before he turned tour organizer in 1952, became both fiercely resented and respected, leading Time magazine later to proclaim professional tennis "The Sport That Jack Built."

TURNING PRO

Tennis enjoyed a revival after World War II, when many tournaments had been suspended and Wimbledon suffered bomb damage. Kramer, a war veteran, agreed to make his pro debut in a 1947 tour against Riggs when he reached a secret deal days before beating Frank Parker for his second U.S. title.

"The Wednesday before the final, I signed with [promoter] Jack Harris," Kramer said. "Then, in the final, Frank had me two sets to love, and Harris was just dying. He was in the front, and I could see his head going down, down, down."

Kramer came back to win, 4-6, 2-6, 6-1, 6-0, 6-3.

"I'd still have turned pro if I lost, but the thing you look back at now, if I'd lost I would have cost everybody a lot of money," Kramer said.

Kramer was the amateur champion at a time when players capable of winning Wimbledon often had jobs. Some even left tennis to work for a living.

"Where [amateur tennis officials] missed the point was that it was rather immoral to have a system where you could be the best in the world, or among the top 10, and the remuneration for that was insubstantial," said Kramer, who turns 76 on Aug. 1. "The minute I turned professional--after being considered an amateur sports hero and doing all I could to promote the game and be an exemplary person--I found the people who sort of adored you didn't seem to care."

The Riggs-Kramer tour began in New York on Dec. 27, 1947, at the old Madison Square Garden. A terrible blizzard hit that day, bringing with it nearly 26 inches of snow. With traffic brought to a standstill, Riggs and Kramer walked cross-town to the Garden in a venture that was "like an expedition to the South Pole," Kramer wrote in his 1979 autobiography.

Instead of a few scattered fans, the players found 15,114 waiting for them. Riggs won the first match, but Kramer won the marathon tour, 69 matches to 20, making $85,000 for 89 matches.

Riggs turned promoter, and in his next tour Kramer took apart 21-year-old Pancho Gonzalez, 96-27, on the heels of Gonzalez's back-to-back U.S. titles in 1948 and '49.

That was only the first time that the gulf between the reigning pro and the Wimbledon or Forest Hills champion proved wide. Tony Trabert, Rosewall, Lew Hoad--all of them were handled easily by Gonzalez when they turned pro.

Kramer's last tour ended in '53, when he outbattled Frank Sedgman, his own arthritis and the demands of promoting the tour to win, 54 matches to 41. That tour grossed $860,000 and made more than $100,000 for Sedgman--based on a percentage of the gate--a record at the time.

Kramer turned his attention to signing up the reigning amateur champion every year--usually in secret pacts before Wimbledon, handshake deals with the terms on the back of an envelope, but still strictly against amateur rules.

Gonzalez, who hadn't been invited back after his poor showing in 1950, returned to the tour a few years later, and from 1953 to 1961, he won eight U.S. Pro Championship tournaments, including seven in a row.

A 6-foot-3, hard-serving champion from Los Angeles who died in 1995 at 67, Gonzalez had a difficult personality, was intensely driven, and he clashed so often with Kramer they ended up embroiled in lawsuits.

"He had a lot of quirks and was not easy to deal with," said his brother, Ralph Gonzales, who spells his name differently than his brother. "But I remember he made the statement when Kramer won four titles, 'I'll win twice as many,' and he did."

Gonzalez was not above gamesmanship, and often distanced himself by staying at different hotels.

"The guys would get out of the cab, and he'd roll down the window: 'If you think I beat you tonight, wait until tomorrow,' " said Vic Braden, the renowned instructor who played a bit part as a public-relations man and occasional truck driver on some of the tours, as did another now-famous teacher, John Gardiner.

Gonzalez was the long-running "king of the canvas," but Segura was one of the most memorable characters.

At one point, he had lost more money playing cards than he had earned on tour, thanks to Riggs, who taught him to play--but not too well.

"Bobby stole my money," Segura said. "He was playing poker with wild cards, and I didn't know what I was doing."

Segura, or Segoo, as he was nicknamed, has a different look about him because of a right foot that turns inward because of a childhood bout with rickets and his unorthodox two-handed forehand--a shot he later taught Jimmy Connors. He turned pro in 1947 and toured for 15 years.

Olmedo remembers his matches against Segura.

"I would walk in, six feet tall, and everybody would clap. Pancho Segura, everybody looked at him, walking in like a frog. 'Booo!!!' But he was the underdog, and soon everyone would be going for him. The crowd always loved him. He had the greatest forehand in the game of tennis."

Segura, later the pro at La Costa for many years, was both a darling and a target: "Nothing bothered me when I played," he said. "A guy shouted at me, 'I've seen better strokes in the hospital!' because I played with two hands. I was the people's choice because of my two-handed shots, because I was small, bowlegged and brown."

"Sedgman, Hoad, Kramer, we were the headliners," Kramer said. "But the person the public enjoyed watching and talked about going home was always Segura."

Kramer quit running the tour in 1962 after being persuaded that amateur tennis officials' disdain for him was hindering the cause of open tennis. Rosewall and Rod Laver, who won the first of his two Grand Slams in 1962, headlined a 1963 tour, capped by a U.S. Pro championship, though Rosewall's tournament check reportedly bounced.

Pro tennis was dormant for a while, until Lamar Hunt organized the "Handsome Eight"--including Cliff Drysdale, John Newcombe and Tony Roche--in 1967, and another spate of amateurs turning pro depleted the amateur ranks and helped spur tennis to the open era. Staid old Wimbledon--with Kramer, ironically, as a go-between--played a key role in persuading the rest of tennis to allow professionals, and the open era began in 1968.

THE ROAD

The thing everyone seems to remember about the days of the vagabond tour is the canvas court. Split into two 800-pound sections that took six men to handle, the court had to be folded precisely to fit into the one-ton panel truck that carried the court, tennis balls and programs from city to city.

When the court arrived at a new building, it had to be rolled out and then stretched tight and secured by a system of ropes that attached the canvas to the stands.

"I remember going to Vancouver and putting down the canvas over ice," Braden said. "It was freezing. Finally, I said, 'How long does it take to heat this place up?' And they said, 'What heat?' Gonzalez played Rosewall, and both went out in overcoats and gloves. It was unbelievable."

Scouting the court was standard procedure for the players. If the court was loose, players might slide and be injured. More than once, a player chased a ball off the court and tripped on the ropes that anchored the court to the stands.

"It was dangerous," Ralph Gonzales said. "If you didn't get it right, say if it was too loose, Panch would come out and raise hell, and you'd just go hide someplace. The whole thing was like a traveling circus."

Once, between stops in White Plains, N.Y., and Toronto, a blinding snowstorm and overzealous Canadian customs officials conspired to delay the court's arrival. Customs officials wanted to count the programs that were lodged behind the 1,600-pound court, but finally relented. Ten thousand fans sat waiting in Toronto at 8 p.m. when the truck carrying the court finally rolled into the building.

Tragedy struck once, in 1954. As Kramer recalls, it was the night after a long doubles match in Pittsburgh, with the tour scheduled for a stop in Ottawa the next night. One of the truck drivers, whose name the players don't recall, fell asleep at the wheel and was killed.

The travel was harder on Gonzalez at times than the others. A loner, he preferred to travel separately, driving late into the night before stopping at a motel.

"[Pancho] ran into things in the '50s because he was brown-skinned," his brother said. "You couldn't just pull in and say you wanted a room. In the Midwest, or in Texas, you'd stop and there'd be a vacancy sign, but you'd walk in and they'd say, 'We're full.' "

LOST CHAMPIONS

Sampras has climbed the list of Grand Slam tournament winners, and his 10 titles rank second behind Roy Emerson's 12. But in many ways, that list will always seem incomplete.

"It's sad in a way," Kramer said. "It was harmful to the long-term reputations of some great, great players."

Gonzalez, for example, turned pro at 21 and never won Wimbledon.

"Nobody mentions the fact that he beat every Wimbledon champion 10 years in a row," Olmedo said. "If there had been open tennis, he might have won 10 Wimbledons. The only thing Segura ever won was three NCAAs. The books won't give him credit, either."

For the sake of musing debate, Kramer once compiled a list of who might have won at Wimbledon and Forest Hills in the days before the open era.

He gave Budge, who turned pro after winning the Grand Slam in 1938, six consecutive U.S. titles, and picked himself for four Wimbledons in a row, along with four consecutive U.S. titles. (Kramer actually won two U.S. championships along with his '47 victory at Wimbledon.)

Rosewall, who never won Wimbledon, got four, along with five U.S. titles at Forest Hills, N.Y., where he won only once before the open era. He won again in 1970.

To Gonzalez, Kramer awarded seven U.S. titles and six Wimbledons--which would have given him the modern record of 13 Grand Slam tournament titles.

"Sampras is very fortunate that he came into the game when all the problems were resolved," Kramer said. "He is going to be recognized as probably the best player of all time. But all the people who do the voting, not many even recall how great Rod Laver was."

Laver and Rosewall were young enough to return and win Grand Slam titles once the open era began. Gonzalez was 40 when open tennis arrived, but he reached the quarterfinals of the first U.S. Open in 1968 and won a grueling five-hour, first-round match at Wimbledon at 41.

"He enjoyed that, but his career was on the other side of the hill," Ralph Gonzales said. As for the lost opportunities, "He'd say, 'You can't live in the past.'

"The only time I really heard him talk about the money, Brad Gilbert was playing Sampras in the million-dollar tournament in Munich, and Pancho said, 'There's no way Gilbert would beat me, and Sampras might have won a set. And those guys are playing for a million dollars.' "

The money of the modern era made a different sort of impression on Riggs, always eager to make a buck.

"He was very happy when the players started making money," said Kuhle, Riggs' longtime friend. "Some had a sour taste, like, 'Oh, my gosh, here Jimmy Connors is making a million to play, and we'd go for $25 in food money.' But Bobby absolutely loved it."

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