Stan Smith: The First Champion
As you watch some of the greatest players of all time compete this year at the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals, stepping out from their personal locker rooms, through dry ice and into the spotlight of The O2 arena, I am honoured to be joining you and many of my fellow competitors from the 1970s in the gallery. As we marvel at the performances of Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, I will also reflect on the incredible growth of men’s professional tennis and reminisce with rivals turned friends. The ATP is celebrating its heritage this week, by connecting the champions of the past, with those current and future stars, through the establishment of the Finals Club; an elite group of players, who have competed at the year-end championships, over the past 45 years.
In early December 1970, aged 24, and on the eve of being called up to the U.S. Army, I travelled to Tokyo for the conclusion of the Grand Prix circuit, the Pepsi-Cola Masters, the cherry on top of the cake for the year’s six leading players. It was all thanks to one man, Jack Kramer, the great champion, pro tour leader and most influential person in the game for more than 60 years.
At a time of enormous political struggle and upheaval, when rival circuit promoters looked to sign the very best players, the power-broker flicked through his contacts book in an attempt to bring the sport together; solidify the game and make the decision to switch to Open tennis pay off. Kramer, who wanted to give every player an opportunity to earn a decent living, not just a select few, had formed the idea of a year-end championship in late September 1969. But it was not until 10 months later that an organising committee - including Derek Hardwick, the chairman of the International Lawn Tennis Federation's calendar committee - was formed, and a title sponsor, Pepsi-Cola, found.
One month after the start of the 20-tournament Grand Prix circuit had begun, shortly prior to Roland Garros in May 1970, Kramer finalised an agreement with Yoshio Aoyama, a promoter of international artists, to bring professional tennis players to Tokyo. The great champions had taken part in head-to-head tours in Asia since the 1930s. But now, with Kramer's influence, there was to be a first top-level officially sanctioned tournament. The BBC agreed to finance the total television coverage, which was broadcast by Fuji Television in Japan.
Tokyo was the only really super metropolis city, which had a great deal of sporting interest. Other big cities had their fill of tennis, but Asia was a developing market. The city had an available building, the Metropolitan Gymnasium, a venue for the 1964 Olympics, and the format and also the conditions of the prize money breakdown, were agreeable to all of the participants. There was six of us, initially, in the first year, but later the number increased to eight players in 1972, shortly after the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) was formed at Forest Hills, the former venue of the US Open, in New York City. Kramer, naturally, was one of the founders and its first Executive Director.
Some of my rivals who had arrived in Japan, went on a whistle stop tour of Sapporo and Kyoto to play exhibition matches. But by the time Cliff Richey, who had on the Pepsi-Cola ILTF Grand Prix bonus pool - the forerunner of the Emirates ATP Race To London - the week before in Stockholm, arrived in the capital city, he was a spent force. Having played 40 weeks that year, he slept for 17 hours a day, and visited a doctor who thought he had hepatitis. He was simply exhausted and returned home to Dallas. John Newcombe was called for, but Jan Kodes ultimately stepped in to make up the elite group.
On the eve of the championship, I remember standing alongside Arthur Ashe, Zeljko Franulovic, Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall and Kodes in the lobby of Hotel Okura, listening to Kramer and the President of Pepsi-Cola Japan, Russ Mooney, sat with the flags of the United States, Australia, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia behind them. None of us realised that it was the start of something special.
By day, some of us trained on the clay courts of the Tokyo Lawn Tennis Club, the second oldest club in Japan. At night, the Metropolitan Gymnasium - scene of our battles - came alive, with attendance figures increasing each day courtesy of newspaper publicity and the visits of Her Imperial Highness Princess Chichibu. Trestle tables and fold-up chairs lined each side of the rubberised court, which was connected together and set in the middle of the cavernous arena. It really did seem like a throw-back to the pro tours, which Kramer had organised since the early 1950s and had ended when the sport went Open in May 1968.
Many of the Japanese spectators, geared up to baseball and the home run, delighted in watching us hit big serves and the short points on the lightning fast surface. They also froze in the cold of mid-December, with only blankets, fur coats and scarves to keep them warm. The venue didn't have any heating and we changed in a dark, white-washed locker room, with only a gas heater to keep our muscles from seizing up as we prepared to go out onto the court. The spectators must have felt like they were sitting in a refrigerator during the night matches.
Kramer opted to use the slower of two Wilson balls, but, in the best shape of my life, I used my slice serve to great effect in the deuce court and moved with great fluency.
On 14 December, I played Rosewall in my penultimate match; whoever won clinched the title. It was also my 24th birthday. As I served for the match, the court came apart. ‘Muscles’, who was initially thought best suited to the slower ball and coolness of the building, wouldn’t continue until the court was fixed. We endured a 20-minute wait in the cold locker room, until it was glued back together. I went on to win 6-4, 6-5, when a nine-point tie-break was played at 5-5, with a sudden death point at four-all. Afterwards, Kramer came on and led around 10,000 fans in a rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’; I also received a paddle tennis bat and a bouquet of flowers.
I lost my final match to Ashe, my doubles partner that week, in a third set tie-break the next day. But having finished on a 4-1 record, identical to Laver, I knew I had earned the title by virtue of beating the ‘Rocket’ 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 earlier in the week. I received a cheque for $15,000, a fortune at the time; a bottle of Pepsi-Cola, but no trophy. The win established myself as perhaps the most dangerous of all players to Laver, Newcombe and Rosewall for 1971, when I reached the Wimbledon and US Open finals. Yet, I didn’t have any time to celebrate my Masters title as earlier in the week I had learned that my draft number had come up. I left the stadium at midnight and needed to appear in Los Angeles, at 9 a.m., the next day, on 16 December. It was a rush to get back.
It’s incredible to think back to those halcyon days in December 1970, our visit to the Imperial Palace, and the first Grand Prix circuit, when I finished fifth overall behind Richey, Ashe, Rosewall and Laver. Just like my adidas Stan Smith shoes, that were developed the following year, I didn’t know it would still be around today.
With the likes of Ashe, Laver, Ilie Nastase and Rosewall appearing in the early years, you sensed a very special atmosphere of a big event and the year-end championships subsequently developed at Madison Square Gardens in New York City, Frankfurt, Hanover, Lisbon, Sydney, Houston, Shanghai and at The O2 in London. I’ll forever remember the cold conditions of 9-15 December 1970 and be proud to have won the very first singles and doubles event in Tokyo. I remember too, Jack Kramer; he was the inspiration.
Stan Smith spoke to James Buddell.