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Renowned players grace USPTA Championships

Pauline Betz Addie and Bill Tilden.
Pauline Betz Addie and Bill Tilden.

May 2002 -- USPTA’s International Championships are as old as the Association itself, with the first being played in 1927. In the early years, the organization represented both professional coaches and players. The official tournament’s champions list illustrates this with an impressive list of professional players – including Bill Tilden, Jack Kramer and Pancho Segura – who have claimed the title.

Vinnie Richards, a prolific tournament winner and a founding member of the Professional Lawn Tennis Association of the United States (PLTA), won the Association’s first two tournaments and the fourth and seventh. However, Bill Tilden got in on the action early, too, and was the National Professional Champion in 1931 and ’35. Two years after becoming the first player to achieve a Grand Slam and one year after turning pro, Don Budge added his name to the PLTA champions list in 1940 by defeating Fred Perry, then again in ’42 by defeating Bobby Riggs.

Perry and Riggs would challenge for the title again and win, Perry twice and Riggs three times. Jack Kramer also owned the title, in 1948.

“It is a policy of the PLTA to run an active national tournament each year and since the first in 1927 both the quality and interest have increased on a considerable scale,” reported the 1945-46 PLTA Official Guide. However, there were years when the tournament wasn’t held, such as 1944, when enough players were not available (presumably because of the war effort); and 1952-61.

Many of the most well-known professional players among the men, including Kramer, Riggs and Budge, were PLTA members. Although women professionals such as Pauline Betz Addie, Alice Marble and Sarah Cooke joined PLTA in the ’40s and were very popular touring players, the Association’s first women’s tournament wasn’t held until 1969.

The men’s tournament continued to produce excitement. PLTA’s 1951 Official Guide and Yearbook announced the 1950 champ this way: “A new star blazes across the pro tennis horizon in the person of Francisco “Pancho” Segura – surprise winner of the 1950 National Professional Championship at Cleveland. Runner-up in the dramatic final match: Frank Kovacs.” Segura and Kovacs had beaten Kramer and Riggs in the semifinals, and the singles and doubles field split a total purse of $10,000. Segura would go on to win again in ’51 and ’56.

For some years, the PLTA sanctioned additional tournaments, including the National Professional Clay Championships, other surface-specific tournaments, the annual fall and spring tournaments, regional championships and circuits. While the major annual tournament was open to nonmembers, not all sanctioned tournaments were. The first annual fall tournament, played at Cresthaven Yacht and Country Club in Whitestone, Long Island, was described in the 1948 yearbook like this:

“Thirty members of PLTA entered the tournament, which was closed to fully paid-up PLTA members … The tournament was designed to give the PLTA pros a chance to get together, play each other, have dinner parties, talk over their mutual problems, and in general get to know each other better. And that is certainly what took place.” In 1964, the Association began holding national team championships for competition between the divisions. There were 11 divisions at the time: Eastern, Florida, Mid-Atlantic, Middle States, Midwest, New England, Northwest, Southern and, recently added, San Diego, Texas and California. New England and Florida dominated the early years, accounting for four of the first six team-match championships. Members of the 1968 winning Midwest team were given blazers and USPLTA emblems.

Though the USPLTA Championships were open to nonmembers, very often it was Association members who were vying for the national championship title. In 1967 – 10 years after the PLTA moved the U.S. from the back of its name to the front to become the USPLTA – “The men’s singles had an unprecedented draw of 53 players, thanks to the heroic efforts of Tournament Director Ted Withall,” according to the 1968 yearbook. The total purse was $5,000, and the men’s open champion was member Sam Giammalva of Houston, who defeated member Warren Woodcock, a teaching pro in Florida and New Jersey. Giammalva also teamed with member Jason Morton of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for the doubles title.

In the late 1960s, senior age divisions were added to the men’s tournament, and women played their first USPLTA Championships at the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas in 1969. Ann Rockwell of the Bonanza Country Club in Las Vegas defeated nonmember Linda Van der Meer for the open singles title. Rockwell teamed with another Las Vegas pro, Jo Schwickert, to defeat Van der Meer and another nonmember, Valerie Scott, in open doubles.

The championships continued to progress because of changes in the industry and the Association. 1968 marked the beginning of the open era of tennis, and in 1983 the USPTA Executive Committee made a dramatic change to the championships.

Members had continued to compete against nonmembers in the championships, though many of the nonmembers competing were playing professionals who were no longer represented in the industry by USPTA. Prize money was raised through USPTA, especially through national sponsorships and endorsements, and member dues supported the overall project. Many believed that USPTA’s resources should be reserved for the benefit of USPTA members. The Executive Committee voted that only USPTA members would be eligible to compete in USPTA tournaments beginning in 1984.

The USPTA International Championships have remained highly competitive. Accomplished and experienced players from many backgrounds have made their marks on the championships. Peter Doohan, Jim Parker, Pat Serret, Viktoria Beggs, Kim Barry and Cammy MacGregor are just a few. Seventy-five years later, the tournament continues to be a highlight of the World Conference on Tennis, held each year in September.

* A complete list of USPTA tournament champions is in the annual USPTA Membership Directory.
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