Top 8 Most Influential People in Tennis
The revolution that changed the game of tennis forever came in 1968 with the advent of Open Tennis. The All England Club chairman, Herman David, was responsible for that by throwing Wimbledon open to amateurs and professionals alike in defiance of opposition from many nations affiliated to the International Lawn Tennis Federation.
But Herman David was not the only person responsible for the way the game has developed and here I will offer a list of those who, in my opinion, have been the most influential. In naming a Top Eight, I am going to cheat because many come in pairs and I will include them as one.
1. Jack Kramer
The 1947 Wimbledon Champion had a vision during his war years in the US Coast Guard of creating a professional tour. As soon as he had gained sufficient recognition by winning Wimbledon he did so, signing up Pancho Gonzalez and then almost every Wimbledon champion as soon as they won the title – Frank Sedgman, Lew Hoad, Tony Trabert, Ashley Cooper etc. All the while Kramer was trying to make the ILTF see sense and allow Open Tennis. Even when he began signing up lesser players, they wouldn’t budge. Eventually it was Herman David’s disgust at realising he was running a second rate tournament. Wimbledon, he argued, had to be the best. So, in 1967, he asked Kramer to bring 8 top pros to play an experimental tournament on the Centre Court to see if the public would come. They did. So the next year, David made it an Open Wimbledon. When the ATP was formed in 1972, it was to Kramer that they turned for their first CEO. The Association would probably never have got off the ground had he not agreed. By then Kramer had been travelling the world with his great friend Donald Dell, a lawyer and US Davis Cup captain, talking to tennis leaders and explaining how a new pro tour could work. It became the Grand Prix circuit which eventually morphed into the ATP tour.
2. Gladys Heldman & Billie Jean King
Oddly, it was Billie Jean King’s objection to the way Kramer treated the women as second class citizens at his Pacific Southwest Championships in Los Angeles, that sparked the formation of an independent women’s tour. Billie Jean turned to one of the most influential people in American tennis at the time – Gladys Heldman, the bright, opinionated editor of World Tennis Magazine. Between them they set in motion the creation of the Virginia Slims circuit which came about by Gladys phoning her great friend Joe Cullman, CEO of Philip Morris, and enlisting his help. Cullman put up the money and by then, Heldman had signed up nine players for a token dollar so that she could work independently from the USLTA who were furious at the thought of a rival circuit which challenged their authority. The battles were numerous but, with Heldman resolute behind the scenes, and Billie Jean leading the way on court – not least with her headline grabbing match against Bobby Riggs which was labelled The Battle of the Sexes – the women’s game grew and grew.
3. Philippe Chatrier
The visionary Frenchman will always be associated with the re-building of Roland Garros in the 1970’s after he had become President of the French Federation but, after forming a life long friendship with Kramer, Chatrier also worked tirelessly on a global scale to develop the game and was to become the most innovative President the International Tennis Federation has ever known. After the Wimbledon boycott of 1973, Chatrier was voted in as the first Chairman of the newly formed Pro Council which took over the running of the game. His tenure was never smooth but Philippe left his mark in numerous ways on the game he loved.
4. Lamar Hunt & Mike Davies
A life long sports fanatic who already owned American football & soccer franchises, Hunt could not resist getting involved in tennis in the late sixties & took over a pro touring group called World Championship Tennis from promoter Dave Dixon. Hunt realized he needed a tennis person to run his tour and, making an inspired choice, asked Mike Davies, a former British No 1 and member of Kramer’s touring troupe, to take on the job. Using ideas that had been percolating in his mind for years, Davies, a Welshman who had left school at 15, used Hunt’s money to take professional tennis up a notch and created a world wide tour after signing up 32 players to contracts. The WCT Finals in Dallas became a showpiece of the game, not least because of Hunt’s personal involvement. He was not averse to hammering in nails to hold up the bunting courtside while Davies ensured player’s facilities were top notch. So was the tennis. Ken Rosewall’s five set defeat of Rod Laver in 1972 was a classic.
5. Butch Buchholz & Charlie Pasarell
Buchholz, another Kramer pro, and Pasarell, a former US No 1, both had bold ideas and the drive to make them happen. Buchholz fulfilled his dream of wanting to create the 5th biggest tournament in the world when he built what is now the Miami Open on Key Biscayne with its state of the art stadium while Pasarell did something similar, step by step, in the Californian desert. First at La Quinta, then at the Grand Champions, Indian Wells and finally down the road at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, Pasarell and his partner Ray Moore, built a 16,000 seat Stadium. Now owned by Larry Ellison, it is setting new standards for how the game should be presented.
6. Arthur Ashe
The first black man to win Wimbledon; the second President of the ATP; an activist and a role model for all sportsman of any colour, Ashe was a rare human being who died at 49 from a contaminated blood transfusion. While touring the world, he discovered an 11-year-old called Yannick Noah and would doubtless have brought even more talent to the game had been allowed to live. Like Buchholz, Pasarell, Moore, the first ATP President Cliff Drysdale and many others, Ashe spent hours in hotel rooms listening, talking and writing the rules of the modern game. His legacy lives on.
7. Martina Navratilova & Chris Evert
The names are intertwined. Navratilova and Evert spent fourteen years creating a rivalry at the top of the women’s game that will never be rivalled. Evert was already established as a world No 1 when Martina fled Czechoslovakia; changed her diet; hit the gymn and became one of the strongest female athletes in the world. To keep up, Chris had to increase her body strength as well and the pair continued to meet in Grand Slam finals all over world. In all, they met in 61 finals. Now, their influence is still felt from the TV commentary box. They set the standard for women’s tennis.
8. Venus & Serena Williams
Athletically, the Williams sisters took that standard and raised the bar. Richard Williams brought them up to be champions and, having told the world exactly what they would achieve before they were ten, proceeded to help them do it. “They will both be Wimbledon champions and both be No 1 in the world,” he had said. That’s exactly what they became. Richard also knew that Serena was more talented and so it proved. But Venus led the way and, quietly behind the scenes, has been a leader, meeting with Grand Slam chairmen to advocate equal prize money. Both will continue to have an immense impact on their sport.