They did so by watching “The Barnstormers” a movie produced for Tennis Channel by their senior producer Heath Woodlief and narrated by Robert Redford who grew up idolizing Pancho Gonzalez.
What they saw was a brilliantly re-created period in tennis history when, through the vision, energy and talent of one man, Jack Kramer, professional tennis was kept alive and relevant against huge odds.
It is difficult for younger followers of the game today to understand just what those odds were. The amateur establishment which governed the game in the years following World War Two loved the game, to be sure, but they loved the prestige and control that went with being a Somebody with their national federations even more.
And when their power was threatened by a promoter who kept signing the champions of the amateur game to professional contracts, they got very nasty and very afraid.
Linked by a series of interviews with the leading protagonists from Rod Laver, Lew Hoad, Ken Rosewall, Butch Buchholz, Tony Trabert, Pierre Barthes, Dennis Ralston, Billie Jean King and Rosie Casals to Kramer and Gonzalez themselves, writer Jon Wertheim wrote the script for Redford to narrate while some of us who had observed a lot of what went on such as Donald Dell, Steve Flink, Jack’s son Bob Kramer and myself chipped in with inter-linking explanations.
Dell, of course, was so much more than observer. With Kramer and the President of the International Tennis Federation of the time, Philippe Chatrier, Donald had travelled more miles and worked more hours than seemed possible during those years immediately following the advent of Open Tennis in 1968, creating the Grand Prix circuit, subsequently the ATP World Tour – creating, in fact, the game as we know it today.
But it was the two decades that preceded the burgeoning seventies and its sudden television spotlight, that were so illuminating when spliced together with such skill by Woodlief and his dedicated team
After starting his tour in partnership with Bobby Riggs, a former Wimbledon champion like himself, Kramer set off on his own, signing up Frank Sedgman and Ken McGregor from Australia and in the following years, Rosewall, Trabert, Hoad, Ashley Cooper, Mal Anderson, Alex Olmedo and eventually Laver himself.
Pancho Gonzalez and his wildly talented little pal Pancho Segura were already on board and when Kramer finally stopped playing himself, he built the tour around the new signing from the amateur ranks by pitting him against the great Gonzalez. He set up a 100 match tour for Gonzalez and Hoad which looked glamorous from a distance but entailed one night stands in cities all across America, driving through the night between engagements, grabbing sleep in second rate motels from Chicago and Cincinnati to New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama.
They played in high school gyms, half forgotten stadiums, ice rinks and in parking lots. They stretched a piece of canvas, carried with them in an estate wagon, and played on it. And, on the advice of Tony Trabert, they carried a nail and a hammer in their bag, anticipating the problem of not finding anywhere to hang their clothes in makeshift locker rooms.
It is an amazing story and one that Mike Davies urged Tennis Channel CEO Ken Solomon to have made into a movie with all his Welsh fervor. The film is dedicated to Davies who died of cancer a few weeks after he had conducted his last, passionate interview. Davies was a former British No 1 who had left school in Swansea at the age of 15 and became one of a secondary batch of players Kramer signed in the early 1960’s to pile still more pressure on the national federations to accept the inevitable – Open Tennis. But, oh! How they resisted.
That, too, is part of the riveting Barnstormers story and it was hardly surprising that this special audience was caught up in the nostalgia and emotion.
Rod Laver, Butch Buchholz, and Fred Stolle were there as well as some former players from a slightly younger generation – Owen Davidson, Ray Moore and Stan Smith. They sat out front after the showing and talked about the memories that had been stirred. Buchholz spoke about how they frequently had to put Hoad to bed after a hard night in whichever town they happened to be in and how it never seemed to affect how badly he beat them the next day.
And that included Laver. The man they called the Rockhampton Rocket had arrived from the amateur world as a Grand Slammer – all four majors in one year –but he has never tried to hide from the fact that Hoad had his number in the early years. “Lew thumped me badly the first four times we played,” Laver admitted. “He was my idol and it’s always tough playing someone you look up to. But it was a great lesson. I remember thinking ‘I’m going to have to improve’ or I’ll embarrass myself.”
The amateur establishment were happy he did because they were always trumpeting their belief that the amateur champions of the day were better than the pros – a slanted view that did not wash with Herman David, the chairman of the All England Club at the time. David, like Mike Davies, a passionate Welshman with a shrewd eye for talent, took himself out to Wembley in the north of London when the pros came to town and quickly realized that the standard of tennis was far superior to what he had been seeing at Wimbledon.
So he struck a deal with Brian Cowgill of BBC television who was looking for an event to test the BBC’s new found ability to produce a live outside broadcast in color.
“I will invite the top 16 pros to play on the Centre Court next August if you will televise it,” was David’s offer. He wanted to test the public’s appetite for professional tennis and when he sold out, he knew what he needed to do.
Cutting through the never ending squabbles amongst the amateur tennis world concerning the merits of Open Tennis, David simply announced that, in 1968, Wimbledon would be open to anyone, amateur or pro, of sufficient standard. The opposition crumbled. Open Tennis was born.
From that moment, tennis was able to grow. There were still political battles to be fought but there was no turning back. “Finally we were able to start emulating golf and producing a cohesive worldwide circuit,” said Buchholz who had gone on to create the hugely successful ATP event in Miami.
Ray Moore echoed what everyone was feeling when he said, “This movie must be shown to the young generation of players. So few of them understand what was at stake and what it took to get where we are today.”
Ken Solomon will need no encouragement to make sure that The Barnstormers gets as big an audience as possible. “This is our greatest achievement to date at Tennis Channel,” he said. “It is such an important story and so many people contributed to bringing it to the screen. Mike Davies was adamant that it was a story that just had to be told – and he was right.”
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