History Lesson: Barnstormers laid the groundwork for today’s pro game

History Lesson: Barnstormers laid the groundwork for today’s pro game

When it comes to assessing and even understanding these great players, tennis history is complicated, and potentially cruel.

This week on Tennis Channel, we're looking back some of the sport's most important players, personalities and moments throughout its colorful history. On Monday, from 12-3 p.m. ET, watch the documentary Barnstormers. Here's a preview, and a present-day perspective.

Chances are you’ve never heard of Kevin Sullivan. But tennis owes a major debt to him. 

Kevin was one of many people I spoke to in my role as researcher-story editor on Tennis Channel’s 2016 documentary, Barnstormers. Long before Open tennis began in 1968, these were the professional tennis players who trekked all over the world, playing in one city after another, earning prize money in dim-lit gyms and musky arenas. 

Alas, such was tennis then that these players were banned from all of the Grand Slams and Davis Cup. As player and longstanding tour leader Jack Kramer once told me, “It was terrible. Our sport was split in two and so it was always hard to get traction with the public.”

While Kevin hit many times with Pancho Gonzales, his legacy has nothing to do with what he did with his racquet. For several years in the early 1960s, Kevin was responsible for logistics for the one-night events that were played all over North America. His most important task was to haul and then lay out the 1,600-pound court from one city to another, an activity that would start after midnight with a long drive and often require the court being ready in the next venue by 3:00 p.m.—early enough in the afternoon so that the tour’s star, Gonzales, could warm up for his match by hitting with Kevin.

Night after night, one day after another, across back roads and highways, Kevin crisscrossed North America, equipped with a drill, bolts and all else it took to put the court in place and then swiftly take it down. 

“Once I got the flu and couldn’t speak,” Kevin told me. “I wrote a note to Jack and said, ‘When do I get to sleep?’ Jack wrote back, ‘that’s not in your contract.’”    

From left to right: American player Ricardo "Pancho" Gonzales, Ecuadorian Pancha Segura, American Jack Kramer and American Frank Parker during their arrival in Paris in December 1949. (AFP via Getty Images)

One of Kevin’s colleagues was a man who went on to become a prominent tennis instructor and, eventually, be inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. This was Vic Braden, who noted that a significant percentage of his time was spent apologizing to people for Gonzales’ churlish behavior—brushing off children seeking autographs; deciding not to show up to a sporting goods store; berating a linesman. Had Gonzales been anything less than the tour’s best player, it would have been hard for this to be acceptable. But he was fantastic, graced with an elegant game and a competitive spirit on a par with such future warriors as Rafael Nadal.

Consider the likes of Kevin and Vic the roadies for such incredible players as Kramer, Gonzales, Pancho Segura, Frank Sedgman, Tony Trabert, Lew Hoad, Ken Rosewall and many more. But the way the barnstorming life worked was that roadies and players alike were both unsung heroes. For when it comes to assessing and even understanding these great players, tennis history is complicated, and potentially cruel.

It’s often noted that Laver missed five years of Slams from 1963-‘67. But consider Gonzales and Rosewall. Though Gonzales won but two Slam singles titles, only a fool would consider him less of a tennis great than such three-time Slam winners as Stan Wawrinka and Andy Murray—excellent players, but nowhere near the dominance or longevity of Gonzales.

Check out this data point: Gonzales won the U.S. Nationals in 1949 and did not play another major until the 1968 French Open, when, at the age of 40, he reached the semis, in the quarters beating the titleholder, Roy Emerson. Three years later, in the finals of the Pacific Southwest Open—a tournament then considered the second-most important in the U.S.—the 43-year-old Gonzales beat a rising teen, Jimmy Connors.   

Rosewall’s amateur career ended when he won US title in 1956 at the age of 21. During the early 1960s, when Laver ruled the amateurs and won six majors, Rosewall was the world’s best pro. Soon after Laver joined the troupe, Rosewall and Hoad beat him repeatedly. Though by 1965, Laver had reached the top, in the spring of ‘68, the first Open Slam was won by Rosewall, the 33-year-old Aussie maestro beating Laver in the finals of Roland Garros. That was one of four majors Rosewall won in the Open era. He also reached the finals of Wimbledon and the US Open at the age of 39 in 1974.   

Barnstormers: Pancho Gonzales

The cases of Gonzales and Rosewall are only the two most obvious. There were other greats might have captured more glory had the game been Open. Butch Buchholz was a Top 5 amateur when he turned pro the year he turned 20. Who knows what kind of victories he would have accumulated? The late Barry MacKay was the Goran Ivanisevic of his day, owner of a massive serve. Might MacKay have gotten so hot at Wimbledon one year that he would have taken the title? Spaniard Andres Gimeno also turned pro quite young and was such a formidable and fit player that he won Roland Garros at the age of 34 in 1972. On and on it goes. 

Gracious as all the ex-barnstormers are, if you really want to make one grimace, ask how he felt whenever he would hear word of an amateur raising the trophy at Wimbledon. 

“He was a fine player,” MacKay had told me about one such winner, “but I’ll tell you this: I really liked my chances against him.” 

Off the court, the entire troupe hoped dearly that the ILTF would at last approve Open tennis. A painfully close moment came in 1960, when a motion to make that happen failed by five votes. 

“I became a pro young, figuring I’d get a jump on Open tennis,” said Buchholz, whose tennis resume includes once playing 29 matches in 31 days in 30 cities. “But then it didn’t happen. It was frustrating.” 

“Let me tell you something,” Segura once told me. “Sure, we wanted Open tennis. But right in front of me, every night, were a bunch of guys trying to take money out of my pocket. Of course, it was great to play in front of big crowds, or famous people, but when you get right down to it, a real player doesn’t care if anybody’s watching. He just wants to beat that guy.” 

And even, on those rare occasions when an unscrupulous local promoter would surface, for not a single penny. If the legacy was long-term, such matters as the Gonzales serve, Hoad volley, and Rosewall backhand represented the here and now of a life spent circling the globe in pursuit of a little ball and a few extra hundred dollars a week.

The tipping point came in 1967. Herman David, chairman of the All England Club, had frequently attended a pro event held in London and always been struck by the gap in quality between the pros and the amateurs. Eager for Wimbledon to truly be the world’s premier tennis showcase, David in 1967 gave the green light for the Wimbledon World Pro Championships, an eight-man tournament to be played in late August at the All England Club. It was a smashing success, including color coverage on the BBC, a sparkling Gonzales win over Hoad and, fittingly, Laver beating Rosewall in the final. 

David soon after proclaimed that in 1968, Wimbledon would be open to all. With tennis’ biggest domino toppling, the entire sport soon followed. The time had come for the barnstormers to cease burning candles and at last step into the spotlight.