When Tennis Went Electric

Thursday, July 07, 2011 /by

Van_alen_jimmy_2 For much of its 125 years, tennis has seemed to exist outside history. It was sealed off from the professional sports revolution for decades, hidden behind club walls; its signature tournaments remained unpaid and uncommercialized all the way until 1968. Even now the biggest of those tournaments enforces a dress code that isn’t even “so last century”—it’s so the century before the last one.

This is the point in the season when the game goes into a full-blown time warp. After two weeks in their all-whites at Wimbledon, the birthplace of tennis, many ATP pros jump straight across the Atlantic to visit America’s version of the All England Club, the Newport Casino. This building, the first designed by McKim, Mead, & White, is where the U.S. Nationals (now known as the U.S. Open) were first held, in 1881. The tournament, and big-time tennis, left the old-line resort town and its rows of mansions behind long ago—the Nationals moved to Forest Hills in 1914—but for one brief, strange, and electrified moment in July of 1965, the staid old town and its staid old sport found themselves perfectly aligned with history, and the rapid changes in it that the 1960s were producing.

From July 6 to July 12 of that year, the Casino didn’t know what hit it. To start, for the first time in its 85-year history, professional tennis players were allowed to walk on its lawns. Ten male pros, including Rod Laver, Pancho Gonzalez, Ken Rosewall, and Pancho Segura, were invited there by tournament director Jimmy Van Alen, a child of Newport's mansion row and as unlikely a revolutionary as history has known. “A lot of people,” said one of Van Alen's "guinea pigs," Butch Buchholz, “thought the grass would turn brown when we pros stepped on it." The event that they put on may still stand as the most unconventional in the sport’s history.

Van Alen is most famous now as the inventor of the tiebreaker, even though he hated the 12-point version that became the standard; he wanted “sudden death,” in the form of a 9-point breaker, rather than what he derisively termed the “lingering death” of the 12-pointer. By 1965, Van Alen, a ukele-playing former captain of the Cambridge (England) tennis team who had grown up with Rembrandts on the walls of his bedroom—Bud Collins dubbed him the “Newport Bolshevik”—had been on a decade-long war against deuces of all sorts. It had all started when, as tournament director in 1954, he had watched in an ever-escalating rage as two lesser-known American players, Hamilton Richardson and Straight Clark (are those classic tennis names or what?), played a final that ended with these tongue-twisting scores: 6-3, 9-7, 12-14, 6-8, 10-8. The match lasted long enough that Van Alen had to move the doubles final, which included Rosewall and Lew Hoad, and which most of the fans had come to see, to a smaller side court without enough seats. From then on, Van Alen was hellbent on ridding the sport of those “damnable deuce games.”

“Any fathead can do better than this,” he said.

But the tiebreaker was only the first of Van Alen’s many hare-brained schemes for revolutionizing tennis and making it palatable for the masses (the masses that this blue blood had never met). None of them, including the tiebreaker, were even considered by his fellow amateur tennis officials—they thought Van Alen was a traitor to his sport, if not his class. So he took his money and his schemes to the dark side, to the pros. Van Alen’s experimental tournament at the Casino in ’65 finally gave him a chance to do tennis his own loony, and fun, way.

He offered $10,000 in total prize money, a princely sum in those days, but the cash came with a catch. The players had to play by his rules, known as VASSS—Van Alen Simplified Scoring System. That included the tiebreaker, which had yet to be named and was referred to at that point as an “extra game” (for some reason, Van Alen's original breaker was an eight-pointer; naturally the first one played ended at 4-4, which necessitated a second tiebreaker). VASSS also jettisoned the traditional knock-out tournament in favor of round-robin groups. Games and sets were the next to go; matches were scored point-by-point, ping-pong style, up to 31. Even more ridiculous, the money that each player had earned—Van Alen awarded $5 per point won—was tallied up and flashed on a scoreboard above the court. When a match was over, Van Alen stood beside the court and rang a bell.

“Sounds half-VASSS to me,” Segura quipped.

And what about the court itself? It wasn’t safe from Van Alen, either. In a sign of how much has changed, he had a new service line installed three feet behind the baseline, to deter the serve-and-volleyers who then dominated the game to an often-boring degree. The pros generally went along with the experiment, though Pancho Gonzalez threatened to quit mid-match and yelled, “How did I get myself talked into this?” (Van Alen’s wife, Cindy, watching from the sidelines, remarked that Pancho “must be a horrible person to live with.” When Gonzalez got wind of the comment, he repeated it incredulously to his friend Segura. Little Pancho wasn’t all that surprised: “She doesn’t know the half of it, does she buddy?” he said.) The worst of it for the pros may have come at night, when Van Alen held parties in the Casino and performed on the ukelele.

In the end, the one thing that didn’t change were the winners. Laver finished first in points, Rosewall second. And while only the “extra game,” the tiebreaker, survived from his scoring system, Van Alen did introduce another element to pro tennis that would make a strong comeback in the following decade: electric lighting for night matches.

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Dylan That's where the second part of our Newport summer of ’65 saga picks up—with electricity. Two weeks after Van Alen took down his lights at the Casino, another, very different revolutionary figure arrived in town, similarly bent on shocking the traditionalists in his own line of work. On July 25, Bob Dylan went electric at the Newport Folk Festival.

Dylan, along with his partner in pure-minded leftist politics, Joan Baez, had been the darling of that gathering the previous two years, and he was the headline act again in ’65. This time though, he chose the festival to make his break with folk purity. Rather than the old socialist-style work shirts and jeans he’d always worn, Dylan showed up in a leather jacket. Rather than strum his acoustic guitar—symbol of all that was uncommercial and authentic—he plugged in an electric guitar—symbol of all that was popular and thus base and stupid—for the first time anywhere. Rather than sing with Baez, he was backed by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, which included Mike Bloomfield on lead guitar. The band played and the crowd booed until, as legend has it, old folkie and former Dylan backer Pete Seeger pulled the plug on the whole thing. Dylan, of course, had the last word. After his electric debacle, he wrapped up his later acoustic set with a message to the pure-minded folk cult: “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” Dylan was officially a star; he had left purity and politics behind. Rock and roll, for the first time, was going to be taken seriously. The quasi-socialist youth movement that had grown up around folk was dead.

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Is it merely a coincidence that these two events, Van Alen’s wacko tennis tournament and Dylan going electric, happened within two weeks of each other? While it’s true that one had nothing to do with the other, the ideas behind them were the same, and they were part of the same set of changes that transformed the country over the course of that decade. In both cases, a refuge from commercialism—amateur tennis and folk music—was successfully invaded. Not long after, those refuges would disappear.

The Newport Casino was the second old-guard tennis establishment to (grudgingly) welcome the pros; Longwood in Boston had done the same the year before when it held the U.S. Pro Championships there for the first time. Looked at chronologically, these were the warm-up events that were necessary before the pros could finally leap the highest club walls of all, those at the All England Club, which they did when they were invited to play an eight-man tournament there in the fall of ’67.

In this sense, tennis was running right alongside the rest of 60s history. That decade was, more than anything else, about the collapsing of hierarchies and dissolving of boundaries. The inspiration was the end of segregation in the South, but the idea radiated everywhere. Martin Luther King's famous use of “free” made it a buzzword everywhere (free love, free jazz). Old boundaries between men and women started to fall; in 1968, the same year that professional tennis players made their Grand Slam debuts, women were allowed to enroll at Yale and Princeton for the first time (it never fails to boggle my mind that this happened so recently). At the same time, Pop Art permanently erased the divide between fine art and commercial art. Bob Dylan, starting at Newport in ’65, erased the boundaries between rock and folk, between commercial and non-commercial music.

“Open” was tennis's version of “free”; open tennis was a call for freedom from the outdated restrictions of amateurism. James Van Alen, the Bolshevik of Newport, may have seemed slightly cracked at the time, and much of his vision went unheeded. But he’s a crucial figure in the sport’s history not just because he invented the tiebreaker. By desecrating the previously pure Casino lawns for three years—he held his VASSS event in 1966 and ’67 as well—he made it easier for the staid old sport to collapse another hierarchy: the ancient distinction between gentlemen (amateurs) and tradesmen (professionals). He let the pros inside the club, and they never left. Once opened, the sport has thrived beyond even his wildest imaginings.

It’s doubtful that Jimmy Van Alen played “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” on his ukelele on the final night at the Casino in that revolutionary summer of '65. But it would have been appropriate.

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Enjoy the Davis Cup, as well as the pro tennis from Newport, this weekend. I'll be back on Monday.

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