The power brokers of tennis congregated here this week, as they do several times a year at the sites of big tournaments, trying to come up with new means of capitalizing on the surging popularity of tennis.
Most of the world's top male pros came here to compete in the U.S. Pro Indoor, the most important tournament of the early season. With them arrived an International parade of agents, business managers, advisers, promoters, officials, merchandizers, camp-followers and members of bodies that govern segments of the sport, or used to, or would like to in the future.
While early-round matches were being played at the Spectrum a few blocks away, just as much action was taking place at the great tennis marketplace back at the Hilton Hotel.
Typical of the off-court action was Joe Zingale, flamboyant owner of the World Team Tennis Cleveland Nets, making his second big pitch in three years for Bjorn Borg, the 20-year-old Wimbledon and WCT champion. This time he was supposedly offering Borg a $1.5 million package for three years, which included jobs for Bjorn's fiancee, Romanian player Mariana Simionesou, and his coach, Swedish Davis Cup captain Lennart Bergelin.
Meanwhile Borg's agents, the men from Mark McCormack's Cleveland-based International Management Corporation, reportedly were trying to extricate the young Swede from a verbal commitment to play the "World Series of Tennis," which up until this year was called the "World Champtionship of Tennis." It is the circuit of 12 tournaments promoted by WCT that leads to rich doubles and singles playoffs at Kansas City and Dallas in May.
It seems that Colgate-Palmolive, new sponsor of the Grand Prix series of tournaments, was putting pressure on Borg to play its events. The Grand Prix formerly ran from May through the end of the year, complementing the January through April WCT season, but now goes year-round and clashes head-to-head with WCT the first four months of the year.
Hence, the latest "war" in tennis: a bidding contest for the top talent between the two rival groups.
Byzantine politics and backroom dealing are deeply rooted in tennis, which Herbert Warren Wind once called "the Balkans of sport." Big money has brought a new cast of characters to the fore, the natilly dressed agents and power brokers who have supplanted the old administrators.
Players are profiting richly from rival tournaments, abundant endorsements and exhibition opportunities. Incestuous arrangements are common. The sport is alive with intrigue and thriving as the Balkans never have.
In a nutshell, this is the current situation in men's pro tennis: the rich are getting richer; the poor are getting richer, but not nearly as fast; the public is getting enriched and tripped off at the same time.
But most of all, the public is confused.
Fueled by the continuing participation boom in tennis - poll-takers tell us that more than 30 million Americans now play, and the phenomenon is not confined to the U.S. - the pro game has happened on a giddy Brave New World of prosperity.
Prize money in men's tournaments this year will be in the neighborhood of $10 million, not counting WTT salaries and fees for exhibitions. As recently as 1964 the prize money for the U.S. Pro Championships was only $10,000, the total for the pro tour less than $100,000.
"Sometimes I have to pinch myself to make sure that it's not a dream," said Ken Rosewall, who still is beating kids at age 42, but soon may start picking on guys his own age in the growing Junior Veteran (35-and-over) and Grand Masters (45-and-over) prize-money circuits, another recent spinoff of the sport's boom economy.
Last year Jimmy Connors earned $687,335 on the courts, Ilie Nastase $576,750, Raul Ramirez $465,942, Borg $424,420, Arthur Ashe $373,886, Manuel Orantes $361,884, Harold Solomon $253,432. Rosewall, No. 16 on the men's list, pocketed $120,120.
Those figures are for prize winnings only, and do not account for endorsement or appearance revenue that some agents say can double or even quadruple a player's on-court income.
But while the players are reaping this boutiful harvest, the public is becoming increasingly bewildered. Thoughtful observers can't help but think that disenchantment will naturally follow.
Even insiders find it difficult to keep up with what tournaments are being played, who is in them, how they fit together and what they mean.
There has been an alarming proliferation of hockey "challenge matches," meaningless four-man tournaments, taped-for-TV "Specials."
This is one of the reasons for the popularity of the Virginia Slims women's tour. Most of the time, you at least know who's going to play.
One suspects, sadly, that if a ban were placed on all events misusing the words "world" or "classic" in their titles, two-thirds of all pro tennis would disappear.
All those power brokers, furiously squeezing as many bucks as possible out of tennis while it is hot, have inundated us with what TV commentator Bud Collins calls "schlock around the clock."
"We have to dovetail tennis, which isn't a heavy hitter in TV ratings yet, with other sports, so it doens't get killed in the ratings," suggests Arthur Ashe, noting that the major commercial networks have cut back their tennis coverage this year. Network executives also tend to favor the "schlocky" events, simply because they know they will have "big-name" players in them, no matter how contrived the situation.
"There should be a plan so that when somebody turns on tennis on TV, he'll know who's playing, what they're playing for and how it ties in with what he saw last week," added Ashe.
"There's got to be some coherence. Now you have taped events, live events, special events, all on at the same time and sometimes involving the same players. To be the unintiated, it's mind-boggling. You see a guy on one channel, playing a match taped at Hilton Head last fall, and you turn the dial and he's playing a one-set World Team Tennis match on a court with 10 colors. Unless you follow tennis every day, it's impossible to figure out what the hell you're watching."
Pro tennis, quite simply, is careening out of control, and the joyride could end in disaster unless responsible forces take controL.
The best candidate to assume a strong role is the Men's International Professional Tennis Council, a tripartite board made up of three representatives each elected by the players, tournament directors, and the International Lawn Tennis Federation.
Originally an arm of the ILTF, but now autonomous, the council displayed lack of muscle and administrative inefficiency in its first couple of years of existence. But it has grown gradually stronger and plans to hire a full-time administrator in the near future.
Says Cliff Drysdale - first president of the Association of Tennis Professionals, the male players' guild, and now one of the players' representatives - "There is absolutely no question in my mind that the council as presently constituted is a respobsible body, and can give the pro game the direction it needs."
That direction has been lacking for several reasons. The landscape of tennis has change so dramatically in such a short time that there are few people who can chart it. And because American antitrust law make officials wary of any consolidation of power that could be construed as restraint of trade, the fundamental law of the sport's economic surge has been laissez-faire.
As a result, tennis now is the only major sport in which you know the players, but can't tell the events without a scorecard.
The four-and eight-man events, which skim the top players and threaten, the sponsorship money that is the lifeblood of tournaments, are endangering the system that developed the players and spawned the "special events" in the first place.
But, hopefully, a reversal of the confusion and conflict is in the offing.
WCT's Lamar Hunt and his chief lieutenant for tennis, Mike Davies, met in Paris last week with the Pro Council. They were trying to put together an agreement that would incorporate WCT's "World Series of Tennis" into the Grand Prix in 1978.
Such a plan was tentatively agreed to last spring and announced in May, but it fell apart and Davies declared war in the fall and went about signing up a strong but expensive field for his 1977 circuit.
"War of any sort is costly, for both sides," Davies said this week. He is convinced that it is time for all the tournament promoters in tennis to realize that they are chewing off the same bone and work toward the mutual good.
"What the future holds, I'm not sure," said Davies, who admits flatly that WCT made a bad mistake in splitting its own operation into two and three simultaneous tours for four years, instead of concentrating the talent.
"The major tournaments should be for 32 or more men, with a rotation system for about 50 players overall. Everybody else would play in two or three smaller circuits, with $50,000 or $25,000 tournaments. This way there would be a clear distinction between major and minor leagues, and I think that is very, very important.
Meanwhile, the ATP seems ready to take a strong stand with its membership to limit the number of exhibitions and "special events" that are endangering the major tournament circuit.
"The playes have benefitted greatly in the short term from the wars in tennis," said Drysdale, who still is a regular competitor on the circuit at age 35. "At the same time, I don't think the grass-roots interest in tennis has been eroded at all.
"But in the long term, I think we have to sort our house out or there will be negative reaction. We've had some feedback already, and I'm optimistic that an accommodation can be reached between WCT and the Grand Prix, and that the exhibitions will run their course.
"I think the players realize this is necessary," he said, "because none of us wants to kill the goose that laid the golden eggs."