How It Happened

A retrospective look at America's tennis revival

The decision was made at the Top Level, that summit where sportsmen, publishers, industrialists, statesmen and such labor leaders as George Meany meet in their mutual concern for the public welfare. The President himself was there, covering the story for Sports Illustrated.

They discarded the usual plans--open tournaments, professionalism and various publicity stunts--and then a trim, youthful official of the Justice Department who had just finished his eighth consecutive book with the word Enemy in the title, unfolded the project itself. There was occasional sadness in his voice (the undertaking was indeed a last resort), but occasionally his eyes gleamed with boyish delight and muscles rippled energetically beneath a faded, blue Lacoste shirt.

"There is only one thing according to history, gentlemen, that really gets this country moving again and that is a good, tangible red-scare."

Suspicion, displeasure and bewilderment swept through the conference room in that order.

"Unfortunately," he went on, "the Soviet Union does not yet have players who can challenge our own..." a sigh of relief interrupted him but he raised his voice urgently: "We cannot afford, however, to wait until they do. For when that day arrives they'll have hundreds of prospects, we'll have none, and it'll be too late."

"Therefore," he concluded in a dramatic voice, "even though our family motto is We Fight to Win, the only thing for us to do is supply the Russians with players who can threaten us ... beat us ... make us look second class."

And so it began. Two handsome young men, a thin, dark southpaw from California and a tall blond from Georgia were shipped to Moscow University, where the C.I.A. assimilated them. The sports pages noted briefly that "two fine young prospects" had been expelled from the amateur ranks for smoking pot at Forest Hills, tragically ending their fine careers.

Few took notice, because tennis, after all, had become a very insignificant sport. An editor of the New York Times even cut the little story from the late city edition, substituting one of their fillers: "Ty Cobb never owned toothbrush."

But several months later people on the subways began to see glowering headlines on the back pages of the tabloids:

Reds Gaining in British Tennis

Russians Rush Aussic Net

Enemy Favored at Forest Hills

A bit of a Congressional investigation ensued; nasty little episode in which a well-known manufacturer, influential in Lawn Tennis Circles for almost four decades, was implicated in a foreign plot to debilitate American youth and admit Ralph Bunche to the West Side Tennis Club. Soon there was a crash program in which thousands of courts were built in parks and school-yards across the country. Weeds grew in the sandlots until the basepaths and pitcher's mounds were indistinguishable, until the "pock ... pock ... pock ... splat ... Gee I think your shot just missed by an inch, Bobby" replaced Chubby Checker singing The Theme From Mother Courage as our national sound.

Everyone played; people of every age and every possible background. And of the millions who played there were hundreds who truly excelled, because when people are given a chance to develop their skills, it always happens that the skills were there to begin with.

The Russians? They had their propaganda victory a while back, and by now they've developed some good players. Last year they even beat Australia and came over here for the challenge round. It's unlikely, however, that anyone will take away our Davis Cup in the foreseeable future.

The success of that Russian Davis Cup team caused a bit of a scandal down in Melbourne, they say. The foreigners kept winking at the Australian coach.