Who is the Greatest Tennis Player of All-Time? Federer, Sampras, Riggs? Aspen Hustle – Part One
The La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club has played a large part in our family’s life over the years. My wife Sally, our son Mike and I used to live up the street until we forsook the beauty of the ocean for the lure of the golf courses in the desert. The Club was our home away from home — to play a little tennis, visit with friends, walk the beach or have a glass of wine on the promenade, hoping to see a green flash at the sun’s setting. Developed by a true patron of tennis and tennis players William S. Kellogg, the Club was transformed from its original marina design into a hacienda style resort right on the sand. It sprawls along the beach front, quietly welcoming generations of families who come each summer for their vacations. And during the quiet months it remains its humble self, filled with locals who play on its 16 courts and who still sit on the promenade after a set or two, hoping to see a green flash. The green flash occurs on rare occasions when the sun hits the horizon at the end of a very clear day.
The Beach and Tennis Club is not the grandest of all resorts in the world, but it has a certain something that many of the newer and bigger operations do not possess. Perhaps, it’s soul. It is probably the soul of the Kellogg family that continues to oversea the property. It could be the eons of paint that cover the adobe walls resulting in a color you can’t quite identify. Is it salmon? Is it orange? Is it tan? The rooms are small, but are continually being upgraded. The grounds are kept immaculate with an infinite variety of palm trees swaying in the sea breeze high above the court fences. And there are roses, lots and lots of roses. Nothing significant has changed at the Club for years and probably that’s what makes it so special. My wife can attest to that. She started playing here as a young girl in junior tournaments, then in women’s events and finally in national senior championships, winning titles along the way. She is just one of the many champions who have played at the Club through the years. Stoffen, Mako, Budge, Gonzales, Kramer, Bond, Ralston, Olmedo, Bundy-Cheney, Fleitz, Brough, Laver, Emerson, Smith, Lutz, Ramirez, Edberg, Osuna, Pasarell, Roddick, Conners, Segura and a million more.
So it is with great excitement that we have returned to the La Jolla area, correcting the mistake of having left in the first place, and especially on this day returning to the Club to lunch with old friends.
Old friends are not just old, as in this case, but old as in good friends for a long time. Jay Smith the most vociferous of the luncheon attendees greets us with his usual enthusiasm, “”Marv, Sally, great to see you. Roger was fantastic yesterday, wasn’t he?! The greatest player I’ve ever seen!”” Jay speaks with some authority, a former teaching pro out of Los Angeles, a connoisseur of tennis for many years, a heady competitor himself and now a scratch golfer. “”He has everything,”” continues Jay. “”His serve may not be as big as Roddick’s, Pete’s or Pancho’s, but he’s consistent and his placement is superb.”” His wife Sheri nods. She lets Jay do most of the talking most of the time. She sits quietly and waits her turn, usually when things quiet down. Learning the game in later life, Sheri herself has become a keen observer of the game.
“”Uh huh,”” agrees Sheri.
“”I’d have to agree too,”” adds Mardi Stein, another of our table companions. She has played social tennis at the Club for years and like Sheri, what she lacks in skill she makes up for in dress. These two are perhaps the best dressed players this side of Sharapova.
Mardi’s husband Shel, who is usually as quiet as Sheri, breaks in, “”I believe there are 8 critical skills to tennis greatness.”” Shel is a fine player and tough competitor. He is intelligent and mindful on and off the court so his opinion counts here. “”Most champions possess 3 or 4 of these abilities in spades – a big serve, killer forehand, lethal backhand, aggressive volley, fantastic return, great court coverage, concentration and the ability to win critical points. I think Federer has them all. He is the greatest by default.””
“”I wouldn’t disagree,”” says a voice from behind me. I turn to see that Jack and Carmen Stone have arrived to join the luncheon party. “”He is the best I’ve ever seen,”” continues Jack, and Jack has seen a lot of tennis players over the years. He has been a member of the Club for 50 years and still plays a respectable game of doubles. His wife Carmen still turns heads when she enters a room. Her beauty is not just skin deep. She is lovely in every way and shares an interest with Sally in matters of a spiritual nature.
Sally chips in, “”He plays in the ethers.””
“”What? What are you talking about?”” demands Jay.
Sally has a tendency to see things in a different light, even if she is agreeing with everyone, as she was here. “”Don’t you see the way he moves around the court? He is absolutely one with the ball. He moves on a different plane, like Michael Jordan did on the basketball court. He is fluid. He is liquid. He is airborne. He is the greatest tennis player of all time. No one comes close!””
Words began to fly, but finally I couldn’t take it anymore. “”I strongly disagree!”” I volunteered. The table conversation stopped. I continued, “”I believe the greatest player is the one who has made the greatest impact on tennis to date and that was Bobby Riggs!””
“”Riggs?!”” yelled Jay. “”He was a hustler. What did he ever do? What have I missed here?””
Now I had to explain myself. Diners at nearby tables were perking up their ears as our discussion became more heated. “”First of all he was great – a world champion at the age of 21. He won the singles title at Wimbledon, 3 U.S. titles, played on the Davis Cup Team. He also won Wimbledon doubles and mixed doubles titles. He loved tennis and he too had all the shots and some trick ones not seen today. Yes, he was a hustler, but he was also a tennis promoter. In fact the single biggest tennis event, actually the single biggest athletic event, in history was created by Riggs. The Battle of the Sexes $100,000 Winner-Take-All match against Billie Jean King in 1973, uplifted the awareness of tennis to the level of a major sport. There were 30,000, standing-room only at the Houston Astrodome with another 50 million TV viewers around the world. Not even the 2008 Democratic and Republican Conventions reached 40 million and they were the largest viewed in history Riggs efforts along with Billie Jean King’s did more for women’s lib than all the efforts up to that time. That event helped women break the equal pay and equal everything barrier in many, many fields beyond tennis. Besides all that he was a man in his mid-50’s who could still play at a very high level. Sally and I know this from personal experience because he came to Aspen in 1976 to help us open a fabulous new tennis club called The Tennis Club.
Back in the mid 70’s when Sally and I first got together she was ending her career as a touring Virginia Slims tennis pro, still ranked in the top 20 in the world, and I had just left a top marketing and promotional position with Hallmark Cards in Kansas City to pursue my entrepreneurial destiny. We were offered a chance to go to Aspen with a deed to 25 spectacular acres of land along the Roaring Fork River just south of town to develop a world-class tennis resort for a New York investor. The deal was worked out on a paper napkin as we had lunch at the center court restaurant on the grounds of the old Forest Hills Tennis Club where the U.S. Open was being held. Sally would be the head rackets pro and I would supervise construction of the new club and the sale of 20 luxury condominiums scheduled to be built on the club property.
After Sally played her last Slims tournament in Austin, Texas, we packed our bags and headed for Aspen. The investor had wisely hired a local Aspen attorney, Andy Stern, for us to work with to secure the necessary local government approvals before starting construction on the project, as well as build an interest in the club for local and non-resident memberships. We would also have the 20 condos to sell.
So it was with great anticipation and a sense of freedom that we made our way by car along Interstate 70 out of Denver through the lower reaches of the Rockies toward our future.
We hit Glenwood Springs, then turned south on Highway 82 for the last 40 miles up along a narrow alpine valley bordering the Roaring Fork River. Cascading water ran from the higher elevations of Independence Pass and the Continental Divide into the river and down the valley. The fresh air and the possibility of wandering trout streams felt good to my soul. The aspen trees with their shimmering golden leaves welcomed us along our new path. “”Sally, I know I’m going to like this project. I know it!””
As we passed through Carbondale, still climbing, the ranches looked grander, the cattle looked bigger and the river looked clearer. Finally at an altitude of 7,500 feet we entered the little town of Basalt, where yet another whitewater river roared. This one, running east to west, called the Frying Pan, falls into the Roaring Fork which runs south to north. The biggest landmark in Basalt is an old cowboy bar called the Frying Pan Restaurant and Bar. Right out of the 1800’s, it is a hangout for after work ranch hands. “”Let’s stop,”” I said, eyeing some fishermen laying their catch out on the porch of the restaurant. I’ve got to check this out.””
We climbed the steps and peeked into the creels the men brought to carry their catches. “”Looks like you’ve had a good day,”” I ventured.
“”Always a good day here. Always a good day,”” was the response from an old weather-beaten local still casting into the Frying Pan near the porch. But better still was the response from the restaurant. Wafting out of the doorway was the smell of fresh, pan-fried trout. The fisherman, who looked as if he had been in these mountains since birth, continued to fill me in, “”Rainbows. We mostly catch rainbows with an occasional brownie here and there from the deep pools near the waterfall. But, if you’re adventurous you can try a few high mountain lakes where you might catch some golden trout – above 10,000 feet. Great eatin’.””
My mouth was watering, not only from the smells escaping from the nearby kitchen, but from the possibility of wandering stream and lake banks and actually catching fish. The most precious times in my youth were spent with my father doing just that – hopping from rock to rock, casting, reeling in, moving along and casting again with the promise of a fish dinner in the evening and all the while not paying attention to how my feet got me from one rock to the next.
“”Could you give us a little background to this area? I asked. “”Tell us about Aspen.””
That brought a smile to the old man’s face. His hands continued doing the tasks of a fisherman without his thinking about it. “”Well, it goes back to the Ute Indians. For hundreds of years they used to summer in the high meadows here, hunting elk. In the late 1800’s silver was discovered and all hell broke loose as miners came and raided the place. A large mining camp on the Roaring Fork developed called Ute City. It’s now Aspen, but even then it had everything – an opera house, hotels, banks. Actually they’re still here today – the Hotel Jerome, the Wheeler Opera House, even the Ute City Bank. But like many good things, the boom didn’t last. The price of silver crashed and the population which was nearly 12,000 dwindled to 800 people.”” He stopped to cast again.
“”In the 30’s, I believe it was, a wealthy Chicago industrialist named Walter Paepcke tried to build a ski resort, but World War II changed things. The area was turned into a training ground for the 10th Mountain Division to get our troops ready to fight the Germans in the alpine areas of Europe. That was my unit and after the war a bunch of us returned here. We loved it and knew it was special. Some of the men, like me, became ranchers. Others like Friedl Pfeifer formed the Aspen Ski Corp. That’s how Aspen came to be.””
We thanked our new friend and went inside to see if the trout tasted as good as it smelled.
The canyon narrows the last few miles into Aspen, winding above the river, then opens up into the last high meadow before climbing almost straight up to Independent Pass, the top of the Rocky Mountains with an altitude of over 12,000 feet. On that last high meadow sits the town of Aspen, now a sophisticated, refurbished Victorian village with its own airport capable of handling small private and corporate jets. Meticulously restored, the town glows from the faces of its charming multi-storied buildings and brick chalets with their arched windows and peaked roofs. The Aspen Music Festival was in full session when we arrived, with hundreds of student, classical musicians inhabiting every nook. Every street corner and every open window above every store along Galena, Hyman and Main streets was enlivened with their magical music making. They rehearsed 24/7 to the delight of the locals and their instructors who included many of the world’s greatest musicians such as Itzhak Perlman.
Above the rooftops and the din, stood the most majestic of all mountains, Aspen Mountain, called Ajax by the locals. It soared from the center of town up through the clouds to 11,000 feet. This was indeed a sublime place and no wonder so many free-spirited celebrities like John Denver, Jack Nicholson, the Kennedys, Clint Eastwood and Merv Griffin made Aspen a regular stop or a second home.
So in the summer of 1975 we moved into an old sod-roofed ranch house in the middle of those 25 acres with the Roaring Fork River rumbling nearby. For the next year we worked hard and long to bring the proposed project to fruition. But it was when we got near the end of the construction phase that we decided that we needed a dramatic event to launch the membership program and to start the condominium sales.
We had it all. Our new mountainside complex boasted three indoor tennis courts, 12 outdoor courts, two squash courts, 16 racquetball courts, a full indoor gymnasium, an indoor swimming pool and spa, plus a beautiful restaurant, lounge and bar. On top of this, it was staffed by top health practitioners. Although there were five other tennis clubs in town, there was nothing like this in Aspen at the time. But we needed a big event to not only draw attention to the project, but also to draw attention to Sally, the first female head pro of a major tennis club in the U.S.
At a special breakfast meeting with our Aspen attorney, Andy, our New York investor, Ben Goldstein, and a few key Aspen local leaders, we proposed bringing Bobby Riggs to Aspen to play Sally in a winner-take-all exhibition tennis match. This was just 3 years after Bobby had played and beaten Margaret Court in a “”Battle of the Sexes”” match, claiming that no professional woman player, no matter how strong could beat a professional man player, no matter what his ranking. He proved it once. Then, of course, a few months later with that same bravado he took on Billie Jean King. Over 50,000,000 people worldwide watched that eventful match on TV. Bobby was featured on the cover of Time magazine. History was made as the glass ceiling of a cement tennis court was broken, thanks to Billie Jean.
We felt we could draw the attention we wanted with the help of Bobby. Fortunately, he was available. The deal we worked out was simple. It guaranteed him $3,500, plus a chance to win the $1,000 winner-take-all challenge money. Naturally we had to include his airfare, room and board, but that was easy. We were a resort. We also asked that he make himself available for socializing with our locals. He was only too willing. We planned to invite everybody in town to enjoy the event and the particular glam that he brought with him. Having never met Bobby Riggs, I really did not know what to expect, so we tried hard to cover all VIP treatment bases.
One of the key supporters of our project was the president of the local branch of a statewide bank chain. He suggested that their bank chain co-sponsor the event, not only to defray our costs, but as an incentive to their customers. They ended up giving away tickets at all of their branches throughout Colorado, for any new deposits of several thousand dollars or more.
Coloradans love any excuse to visit Aspen, so the event would not only bring potential new members to our club, but fill hotels, restaurants and the club stands. It would be a great promotion for everyone involved. The event was starting to grow and grow, taking on a life of its own. Again, I had never met Bobby Riggs, so I didn’t know what to expect. But, this event was starting to ramp up — big time!
Copyright 2008 Marv Huss