All the right elements are present. First the names: John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors, Vitas Gerulaitis, Guillermo Vilas, Roscoe Tanner, Jose Higueras and Harold Solomon.
The place: Madison Square Garden -- one of the foremost indoor sports arenas in the world.
The event: The Colgate Grand Prix Masters tournament beginning today.
The format: The heady lineup is of players who have qualified for the event by amassing the most points since Grand Prix play began in Australia last January.
The opening matchups Wednesday are Connors-Higureas and Gerulaitis-Vilas in the afternoon with McEnroe-Solomon and Borg-Tanner at night. Thursday has Gerulaitis-Solomon, McEnroe-Vilas, Tanner-Higueras and Borg-Connors. Friday it is Solomon-Vilas, Connors-Tanner, Borg-Higueras and McEnroe-Gerulaitis. The top two in each division gain the semifinals.
The eight players have been divided into two groups. Each group will play a round robin. The two players with the best records in each group will each play the No. 2 players from the opposite group, with all matches the best of three sets. The Saturday semifinals and the Sunday finals are both to be televised nationally.
Sounds like a promoters' dream, doesn't it? It might be this year, but it hasn't always been that way, and there is no guarantee that it will be so grand next year.
This Masters event, in many ways, reflects the strengths and weaknesses of professional tennis in general.
LONGEVITY: This is the 10th anniversary of the Masters. Starting in 1970 in Tokyo, the first event had a modest attendance. This year's show will nearly sell out the Garden for five days (Saturday and Sunday are already sellouts). Moved to a different city every year until 1976, the Masters signed a three-year contract with the Garden in 1977.
Madison Square Garden likes the Masters. The single session indoor attendance record of nearly 19,000 was set there the night that Connors played Vilas n 1977. But next year's Masters may be moved to another country. A large part of any tournament's long-term success is due to the permanence of a good site.
This is definitely a strength of pro tennis: most of the world's major tennis events are at the same site in the same calendar week year after year.
PRIZE MONEY: This is an obvious strength of the pro game. The first Masters event had total prize money of $45,000, and Stan Smith won $15,000 by defeating Rod Laver in the singles final. There was no doubles prize. This year's Masters has $400,000 with a $100,000 first prize. The first place doubles prize is $40,000.
Prize money has shown a steady increase since 1970. This can be likened to a steady increase in earnings for some corporations. This rise reflects growing confidence in the product. This increase was partly because of competition from Team Tennis and exhibitions, partly because of television and larger draws and partly becuase the public seemed to like the idea.
TELEVISION: Definitely a weakness of pro tennis. I am often asked if tennis is overexposed on television. It is not so much overexposed as ill-exposed. There are three major problem areas.
One has to do with live versus taped broadcasts.No one likes taped sports events unless the delay is only an hour or so. World Championship Tennis has a series of events taped well in advance that frequently competes with live Public Broadcasting System (PBS) programming during the summer.
While these tapes are moneymakers for WCT, and the players earn enormous sums in the process, they leave the public confused about the time frame of the matches.
The second problem is that many of the live broadcasts are "specials" -- involving only two to four top players. This is known as skimming. While tennis is struggling to promote more line programming of tournaments, the networks love these specials because they know in advance who will play, they can spend time and money to promote the broadcasts and production costs are low. But in the long run, it harms the tournaments because the public gets spoiled by seeing top stars such as Connors, Borg and Tanner all the time.
The third and most vexing problem is that there is no central authority in pro tennis responsible for television contracts. There are at least 10 different entities that negotiate separately with the three commercial networks, PBS and foreign government-owned stations. The situation shows no signs of improving because of the proliferation of cable, subscription, and paid TV here in the U.S. and low "rights fees" paid by government-owned TV abroad.
It was live PBS summer programming of tennis tournaments four years ago that first etched pro tennis in the minds of the general public.
Next Saturday and Sunday's live coverage of the Masters on CBS is more than just a boon for tennis, in general. It will further solidify the Masters in paticular, in the minds of the public.
The prestige of Madison Square Garden will make it difficult for Volvo, the new sponsor of the Grand Prix, and the Men's Pro Council to move the event. "Tennis definitely needs more coherence, simplification of scheduling and more live events for television.
SPONSORSHIP: With the exception of Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the French Open, roughly 75 percent of all prize money comes from the sponsors. Without them, tennis is dead. The ideal scenario entails having the same company sponsor the same event every year at the same location on the same dates.
In 1980, the Grand Prix will have its fourth sponsor in 10 years. Pepsi-Cola was the sponsor for three years, from '70 to '72; then Commercial Union from '73 to '76 and Colgate from '77 to '79. Volvo now takes over the 92-tournament Grand Prix and with it complaints about the Americanization of pro tennis.
These corporate sponsors love the identification with tennis but complain about lessening player responsibility amid rising prize money levels. Some sponsors of major, nontelevised events also decry the inability of tennis to spread the wealth derived from TV revenues. As in many other fields, the ability to get TV coverage after shelling out enormous sums for prize money depends almost entirely on who negotiates the contracts. Tennis players in particular need to pay more attention to their sponsors. After all is counted monetarily, Colgate will just about break even on this year's Masters even though the Garden may sell out every session.
ATTENDANCE: Finally, with the exception of package-for-TV specials, attendance at tournaments is a key barometer of how tennis is faring out there in the hinterlands. In some cities, like Chicago and Detroit, tennis never got off the ground no matter where the event was held.
Madison Square Garden, on the other hand, is the most famous indoor sports arena in the world. If you can fill the Garden, so the analogy goes, you can fill any other arena. Of course, having the Masters in the athletically vacant week between the NFL playoffs and the Super Bowl doesn't hurt either. Some events around the world cancel before the first ball is hit because ticket sales don't meet expectations.
I predict this year's Masters will break all indoor attendance records. This is another plus for pro tennis and I hope it spills over onto the U.S. winter indoor circuit.
This year's event should be memorable. Jimmy Connors loves playing in New York City, but he has lost to Borg eight times in a row. Borg, meanwhile, has never won a tournament in New York. Gerulaitis has never beaten Borg in a tournament. Vilas is now a bit outclassed by the big three. Tanner had a poor autumn, and Solomon and Higueras are longshots. That leaves John McEnroe. My pick is McEnroe, for the tournament and the undisputed No. 1 ranking for 1980.