Ed and Marilyn Fernberger, who are promoting for the 16th consecutive year the tournament that has evolved into this week's $225.000 U.S. Pro Indoor Championships, are fond of calling it "the winter Wimbledon."
There is no real harm in such gaudy self-admiration, although no rational being would ever mistake The Spectrum for the All England Club, nor the slushy South Philly landscape for suburban London in the summer.
No roses here. No hydrangeas or strawberries and cream. "Center court" is atop a hockey rink, and next week the cavernous arena goes back to being the home of the Flyers and 76ers. Like most indoor tournaments, tennis is the charm and stale hot dogs and popcorn the trappings.
The U.S. Pro Indoor has become important because it is professionally promoted, year-round, and has annually drawn strong fields. It is unofficially thought of as the first milestone of the new season and a January trade convention of the game. Promoters, officials, international press and camp followers gather here, despite melancholy weather and surroundings.
And this year, the tournament is the second event in the new "Super Grand Prix" - a series of 32 tourneys, including the traditional "Big Four" (Australian, French, Wimbledon, and U.S. championships), with at least $175,000 each in purses that is intended to give tennis one readily recognizable major event most weeks.
In the 34 weeks of "Super Grand Prix" tournaments (the French and Wimbledon are two-week events), there will be no competing men's competition of comparable stature. Made-for-TV extravaganzas, challenge cups, Davis Cup and other team competitions, and similar "special events" are supposed to be confined to weeks when no "Super Grand Prix" tournaments are scheduled.
This is the result of a merger last March between World Championship Tennis (WCT), Lamar Hunt's Dallas-based enterprise, and the Men's International Professional Tennis Council, the autonomous, tripartile body (three representatives each of players, world-wide tournament directors and the International Tennis Federation) that governs the $12 million Colgate Grand Prix circuit.
WCT's "World Series of Tennis" has been absorbed into the Grand Prix. WCT is promoting eight "Super Grand Prix" tournaments, Plus several grandiosely named special events (WCT singles and doubles championships, World Cup, Tournament of Champions, Challenge Cup, etc.) with the designated 16 non-Grand Prix weeks.
In the eight WCT-affiliated "Super Grand Prix" tournaments, players earn points toward the WCT playoffs (doubles in Kansas City, May 3-7; singles in Dallas, May 9-14) as well as in the Grand Prix standings that determine $2 million in year-end bonus awards and berths in the $400,000 Colgate Masters in New York's Madison Square Garden the first week in January 1979.
In effect, WCT has sacrificed independence and identity for "peace in our time."
The goal is to make the tennis circuit approximate the PGA tour in golf, where there is only one major tournament a week, but on a worldwide scale.
Tennis has not been like that. There have been as many as four or five far-flung tournaments per week, with the top players scattered among them. The consequent diffusion of TV and press coverage has bewildered all but the most esoteric followers of the game.
The "Super Grand Prix" is a giant step in the right direction, but hardly a complete solution.It is the most visible part of a sprawling, 99-tournament Grand Prix that includes several tiers of tournaments from $30,000 up.
Players will generally compete in the highest-category tournament for which they are eligible in a given week, based on computer rankings, but one requirement of Grand Prix qualifications is that a player "drop back" into a lesser event four times a year.
The intent is to help struggling smaller tournaments, but this rule will inevitably counteract the attempt to focus public attention on the "Super Grand Prix." If a player has a noteworthy winning streak going for instance, as Guillermo Vilas did last summer, and he plays in a $50,000 event in East Overshoe, that is bound to be important.
It is also the nature of tennis that fans are drawn by certain head-to-head confrontations, such as Jimmy Connors vs. Bjorn Borg. Witness last weekend's "Pepsi Grand Slam," a contrived, four-man TV event in Florida, but ultimately a compelling one because Borg-Connors is a rivalry that commands attention wherever it occurs.
Thus certain televished "special events" are destined to be magnified in the public eye, even if they are not as significant to purish as the larger tournaments of the Grand Prix circuit where new talent is nurtured and the celebrities of th "star system" make their reputations.
Moreover, the new rules make it difficult - doubtless intentionally - for players to compete in World Team Tennis for four months during the summer and still qualify for the Grand Prix bonus pool. To qualify for bonus money, a player must compete in a minimum of 20 tournaments.
In concept, the Grand Prix is simple. Players accumulate points in each tournament they play and, at the end the raibow, the top 50 share in the $2 million pot of gold made up of a $675,000 lump sum from Colgate-Palmolive plus 15 percent of the prize purse from each tournament.
The No. 1 man who meets qualification requirements collects a $350,000 bonus to add to his winnings in each individual tournament. No. 2 gets $200,000, No. 3 $100,000, and so on down the line, the bonuses scaled according to order of finish.
The top eight men in the singles standings also qualify for the Masters, regardless of whether they have played the minimum number of tournaments.
There is a separate "bonus pool" for the top 35 finishers in the doubles standings, and the top four teams qualify for the Masters.
In practice, however, the Grand Prix is complex and unwieldy, the standings almost incomprehensible from week to week because of the complicated qualification requirements and additional incentives for players to enter more that the minimum 20 tournaments.
After playing 21 tournaments, a fellow can discard his poorest result and count his best 20; after playing 24 tournaments, he can count his best 21; after 28 tournaments, his best 22, and, after 32 events, his best 23.
This is designed to encourage players to enter more tournaments. But it is confusing - the Grand Prix standings are relative at any given time, depending on how many events each man has played - and unlikely to influence the real drawing cards to compete more.
"I don't see how the public can possibly understand how the Grand Prix works. Most of the players don't," Dick Stockton, the defending champion who was beaten in the first round here, said. "I personally think players shoudl be allowed to count all the points they earn in as many tournaments as they choose to play, be it 15 or 35."
Why is the structure of pro tennis so confusing and seemingly unmanageable?
Historically, the tennis boom came at a time when a player's freedom of choice was an issue in many sports, "reserve clauses" were tumbling, and application of U.S. antitrust laws discouraged rules that might be construed as anticompetitive.
Moreover, the international nature and traditional fragmentation of tennis, is not conductive to a single, supreme authority, a "commissioner" as is common in U.S. pro sports.
And, finally, the game has grown so fast, in popularity and riches, that it has defied control in direction.
Players such as Connors, Borg and Vilas - millionaires before their 25th birthdays - have not experienced the "hard times" and pioneering spirit that welded the PGA into a cohesive group that has stood together ever since, for "the good of the tour." (Note, for example, Jack Nicklaus' resolute refusal to engage in tennis-style "challenge matches" against Johnny Miller, Tom Watson or other likely riva's because they might detract from the luster of regular tour events.)
Property values have increased dramatically since Jack Kramer in order to combat the emerging WCJ, conceived the Grand Prix as an "umbrella" to bind remnants of the bid, pre-1968 "amateur" circuit together with burgeoning pro events in a unified, modern professional tournament circuit.
When Cliff Richey won the inaugural Grand Prix in 1970, his bonus was $25,000. In 1978, Vilas collected $300,000 for winning the same competition for the third time.
Vilas has not entered the 1978 "Super Grand Prix." He is the only top-ranking player to opt out, presumably because he did not want to sign an affidavit saying he would not accept "appearance money" under the table from tournaments in addition to prize money.
Apparently, in these wildly inflationary days of pro tennis, he and his Coach-Manager Ion Tiriac think there is more money to be made on the open market of chaos than the more $1 million or so a player of Vilas's caliber can make from an orderly pro circuit.