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Steve Flink: Owen Williams was always and remains “Ahead Of The Game”

12/3/2013 12:00:00 AM

At 82, Owen Williams has made the wise decision to write a book. In his brand new memoir, Ahead of the Game, Williams muses about the broad spectrum of his life, his many triumphs and wide range of credits, the challenges met, the tasks confronted with such relish and gusto, and the unswerving way he approached it all. Born and raised in South Africa, he briefly became the best player in his country, played at Wimbledon a bunch of times during the 1950’s, went to Forest Hills to participate at the U.S. Championships, and made a decent living during the days of “shamateur” tennis.

To be sure, Williams was a highly respectable player, joining the renowned Australian Frank Sedgman to secure some doubles titles, reaching the quarterfinals of the men’s doubles at Wimbledon alongside his compatriot Abe Segal, garnering a No. 7 seeding among foreign players at the 1954 U.S. Championships, making it to the the round of 16 in that tournament. Williams prided himself on the attacking nature of his play, and in 1955 he reached the penultimate round in singles at the South African Championships.

But what he did on the court paled in comparison to what he achieved outside the competitive arena. Over a long span of time, Williams established himself as a man of extraordinary vision and clarity of thought, as a fellow who was comprehensively well “ahead of the game”. From 1959 to 1968, he promoted pro events in South Africa. He was the founder and publisher of SA Tennis Magazine for twenty years (1962-81), an eminent television commentator on the game in South Africa, and a much revered Tournament Director at the South African [Open] Championships from 1966 to 1981, not to mention WCT events in that country and a pro tournament in Atlanta.

Perhaps his two most prominent roles were as Tournament Director of the U.S. Open in 1969 and as Executive Director of WCT across the decade of the 1980’s. Clearly, Williams was a prime time mover and shaker in the world of tennis for a good long while, although his business pursuits took him into many other sports in the field of promotion, including golf, ice and field hockey, polo and motor racing. Even now, at a time when others of his stature might have put their feet up and slowed down considerably, Williams represents chess champion Garry Kasparov and has had deep ties in recent years to golfer Nick Price as his agent. So much for slowing down!

In Ahead of the Game, Williams leaves no stone unturned in giving the reader an unvarnished view of how he was shaped and what made him who he is. We learn quickly that he was diagnosed with Infantile Paralysis as a child. He was three years old, and confined to a bed for three to four months. As he writes in the book, “Infantile Paralysis most often left the sufferer a cripple for life. I have no idea how I made such a complete recovery.”

But that is precisely what he did. Williams fared quite well in the juniors, particularly in 1949 when he turned 18. He made his way out into the world of amateur and, eventually, “shamateur” tennis. He confirms in Ahead of the Game that “I learned a love of the game and it became my extended family.” The sport would take him into the company of the elite, and he writes with charm and amusement about practicing with the celebrated Frenchman Jean Borotra, a leading member of the famed “Four Musketeers”, also known affectionately as the “Bounding Basque”. He learned many things from Borotra about the game, gamesmanship and the nature of competition, but he also was influenced by Borotra’s style and golden touch with members of the opposite sex. Writes Williams, “Bounding out of the car would come the great man himself and a flurry of hand kissing would begin immediately.  He kissed gloved hands, bare hands and bejeweled hands with equal fervor. He sometimes kissed his way all the way to the shoulder or neckline and I would hear him murmur, ‘My darling, if only I had met you before your husband’, in French, of course. I decided he should have been ‘The Kissing Basque.’”

Of his brief time with Sedgman in the early fifties as a doubles partner, Williams writes, “He was the best singles and doubles player in the world and considered to be the fastest player alive. Later on, I became known as one of the better doubles players on the tour and I give the credit to Frank for those fun weeks when I was proud to call him my partner. By close association, I learned the essence of the men’s doubles game that is so different from singles or mixed.”

Williams recollects a doubles match he played against the imperious and enterprising Ted Tinling, a man who became one of the game’s most crucial fashion designers, historians and leaders. Williams writes of Tinling, “One could learn a great deal about life, human nature, Wimbledon, the fashion business and the English people in general from this giant of an intellectual that was Ted Tinling.”

That is high and well deserved praise from a man who has more than his share of intellectual firepower. In any case, Williams describes with specificity and fascination the world he inhabited as an amateur player being paid under the table. He cites the example of the deal he made to play the American tournaments during the grass court season leading up to the big Enchilada at Forest Hills.

Williams was dealing with an influential USLTA official named Bill Clothier, whom he believed had a day job with the FBI and the CIA. He explains how the process of negotiating worked. “He [Clothier] tried a straightforward invitation and then added first class travel and wonderful lodgings.  Finally, all of the above plus $25 per day for every day of every tournament in which I actually played singles, doubles or mixed. This was an American Specialty—you were only paid when you played. Worse still, once you were out of the tournament, you were expected to leave town. No $25 a day and no roof over your head. This was an antiquated amateur rule that “The Good old boys’ had not bothered to update.”

And yet, Williams bargained shrewdly with Clothier one year before Wimbledon as they sat down to figure out a plan for the American summer. Williams would play the tournaments leading up to Forest Hills, then compete there, and follow up with appearances in Midland, Texas; Los Angeles; San Francisco and Mexico City. He would receive round trip travel on the Queen Mary. In Mexico City, Clothier would pay Williams $2,500.00 in cash, a lofty sum in those days. None of his agreements for money were put on paper; they were all “gentlemen’s agreements.” Moreover, Williams had a secret contract with Dunlop Sports which paid him handsomely. Add that piece of employment to a deal he made to raise his weekly tournament playing fees from $200 to $400, and no wonder Williams wrote, “I was suddenly the highest paid player in the world. No if’s, buts or maybe’s.”

But Williams quit playing the tour in 1956 at 25. “I had come to the sad realization that, although I could happily tour for another five to ten years, the bummer was that I knew instinctively that I could never become No. 1 or win Wimbledon. I sensed there were bigger and better things ahead.”

Indeed there were. Williams was a savvy and superb businessman. He established no fewer than 20 different companies over a 25 year span in Johannesburg, and his influence was felt far and wide, both inside tennis and beyond. But among the most substantial tennis challenges he faced was improving the plight and raising the profile of pro tennis in South Africa. The one and only Jack Kramer—the face of professional tennis first as a player and later as a promoter—was disillusioned with the financial state of the South African pro tournaments around 1960. He asked Williams to take over the enterprise. Williams guaranteed Kramer 3000 British pounds for just over a fortnight for the five players—Australians Ashley Cooper, Mervyn Rose, Mal Anderson, Ken Rosewall along with the immensely appealing Pancho Segura.

Williams did everything he could but after paying the players he lost money—about $1,000.00.Kramer offered him a refund but Williams refused. But the honorable Kramer wired $1,000.00 into Williams’ bank account. Kramer saw this as an investment, and told Williams, “You will be good for Pro Tennis and Pro Tennis will be good for you.” Over the years, those words proved demonstrably true.

While he threw himself full throttle into every business project, perhaps Williams did his finest work in running the South African Open. In the book, he points to 1966 as a prime example of how well his tournament did during his tenure. In 1966, Wimbledon sold 250,000 tickets but the South African Championships was in second place at 62,000. Forest Hills was well behind at 32,000 and Roland Garros came in at 25,000. The Australian Championships drew only 15,000 according to figures compiled by World Tennis Magazine.

That the South African event did so well was no accident. Williams knew exactly how to promote it. He would announce only one name player at a time. “In this way,” he writes, “I received dozens of stories in the press day after day and built up excitement.”

Williams explained his philosophy on running that tournament remarkably well in Ahead of the Game. He writes, “Everything I did in those pioneer days was with 110% effort and platoons of willing helpers with fanfare and publicity to match. I was not a publicity seeker, but it came with the territory. I made bold statements and big announcements that served four purposes. Everybody knew what I was doing; fund raising was easier (it was never easy),  volunteers signed on like enrollment camps in wartime, and the dreaded municipality looked like real schmucks when they announced that they had not yet approved of this or that.”

One of the audacious moves made by Williams was establishing as many as 5000 grounds passes. He had seating for 6200 and then people swarmed in for the grounds passes. “We ran out of tickets but just let everybody else come in for free. The atmosphere was so electric that it gave me goose bumps just to see the happy crowds rushing from one court side to another yelling “ Hurry, Roger Taylor is down two sets to love on Court 6 against somebody from the Orange Free State.’ My rationale was—if I got them there once, they would keep coming back.”

Having displayed such a gift for making tournaments vastly appealing to the public, having demonstrated innovative skills few possessed, having made clear that he fully believed in the potency of his own notions, Williams was the right man at the right time to step aboard the U.S. Open ship as Tournament Director in 1969. He joined forces in New York for that historic tournament alongside U.S. Open Chairman Joe Cullman of Phillip Morris, and World Tennis Magazine publisher/founder Gladys M. Heldman, a dynamo if ever there was one. Heldman was his advocate and the game’s most far reaching voice of authority. Cullman was a supreme businessman and a deeply practical thinker.

Williams accepted the role with optimism. Cullman made certain that Williams had a 24 hour car service in New York at his disposal, and set Owen and his family up in a sterling double penthouse at the highly regarded Westbury Hotel. Williams went to work tirelessly, and spent about a year in New York working on the Grand Slam championship. He writes of the experience, “The Open was a resounding success and I often pondered whether I could have pulled it off without Alistair [Martin, USLTA President], Gladys and Joe. And the answer is an emphatic NO. Joe was one of the most powerful and revered CEO’s in America. Alistair was this tall, elegant, waspy patriarch. Add Gladys’ persuasive powers to a Tournament Director who worked seven days a week for nearly a year and had his finger prints on everything, and you had the required mix for a cocktail of success.”

That was not a hyperbolic assessment. Williams made a number of critical moves—including the establishment of the U.S. Open Club—that propelled the tournament and set up a framework for other tournament directors to follow. He also altered the ticket buying policy sweepingly, working with Tiketron and widening the windows of opportunity for fans. He moved the starting date of the tournament from Friday back to Wednesday, with the goal of establishing a Monday start to make it a true fortnight of tennis. Williams points out that today’s U.S. Open Prize Money is $34.3 million; at his 1969 US Open the figure was $130,000, up from $100,000 the year before when the first U.S. Open was staged. But his contribution to the Open stretched well beyond the financial element; above all else, he wanted to alter the flavor of the tournament. “In 69’”, he writes, “I was wanting positive publicity and lots of it. I was also trying to create a new breeze. It was not change for change’s sake but to send the message to all and sundry that this Forest Hills was going to be different.”

Meanwhile, Williams found a better way to utilize the stature and tennis celebrity of Don Budge, who had completed the first ever Grand Slam sweep of the four majors back in 1938. Budge had grown accustomed to as many as 60 complimentary tickets a day for the Open. Williams knew that made no sense. He told Budge he would limit that number to four tickets a day and only two a day for the semifinals and finals.

Budge readily accepted that change. He told reporters that he would rather have a couple of seats a day that meant something than an excessively large number that was more than he could give away. When Williams thanked him for the good publicity, Budge told him, “It was also to get a message to all the free loaders that I was no longer their ticket provider.”

That 1969 Open was a landmark event as Laver secured his second Grand Slam by ousting countryman Tony Roche in the final. Williams had played an indispensable role in shaping the event and making it more significant in the public eye. As he says in the book about the feeling he had leaving New York that October the month after the Open, “The blueprint for the future was laid out, and I had a five year contract. I met with the four decision-makers and Gladys, my most ardent supporter, urged me to make a quick decision. She was deeply disappointed in me when I said I had to go back to Joburg and make the decision from there. She looked defeated, almost betrayed. ‘We had some so far, achieved so much, what was there to think about?’ That was Gladys.”

Williams thought he might well be returning. As he wrote, “Half of me thought I would be back for four more years, so I did not complete the new stadium plan I had started to format. My subconscious was, as usual, way ahead of my conscious. In simple terms, I favored a site to be owned by the USLTA, five hundred to a thousand acres in Westchester or New Jersey. It would be the opposite of the Flushing plan, which was all about concrete and mass transport, while my plan was about parking and family friendly courtside…. My rationale was not based on snob appeal, but rather on playing unequivocally to your base.”

He would later be in favor of moving the tournament to Randall’s Island for similar reasons. Williams writes justifiably, “I often ponder how completely different U.S. Tennis would have been if I had returned for four more years.”

The bottom line, of course, is that he decided in the end that his business interests back home in South Africa were going to suffer considerably if he did not return and tend to his knitting. He eventually elected not to accept the four year extension contract with the U.S. Open. Had he chosen to stay on, it might well have turned into ten years or more. Undoubtedly American tennis would have been altered enormously by his creativity and originality. The Open would have been a different place, but it was not to be.

Be that as it may, Williams would move on to hold two more very important roles in the tennis universe. He served on the Men’s International Professional Tennis Council from 1976 for about five years. That organization was central in running the game until the end of the 1980’s; by then it had been renamed the Men’s Tennis Council. There were three ATP player representatives, three members from the International Tennis Federation and three tournament directors. Williams’s seat came under the banner of “Rest of the World”, and he ran against Wayne Reid, the former President of the Australian Association. Williams was elected by one vote against a formidable friend and adversary.

In 1981, he became the CEO of World Championship Tennis, working for the esteemed yet “enigmatic” Lamar Hunt. This was not ideal timing for Williams because WCT’s heyday had clearly been in the seventies. The epic Rod Laver-Ken Rosewall final round clash at the WCT Dallas Finals in 1972 had been invaluable in the evolution of WCT, and the luminaries of that decade kept it all flourishing. WCT in the seventies was enormously important for the game and the fans, but across the eighties the impact of the organization gradually diminished, through no fault of Williams. He celebrated some large triumphs at WCT during the first half of his tenure and even beyond, but it became an increasingly difficult job.

He sums up his experience this way in the book: “For me, the saddest part of nearly a decade at WCT was also one of the main causes of us closing up shop. It was the ever increasing demand for greater and greater appearance money. The fact that the agents kept asking more of WCT than of the Grand Prix events was both galling and yet understandable.”

Williams became an American citizen on December 10, 1990. He would live in New York for a long while and now resides in Florida. After WCT, he ran a few tennis events here and there, yet his business pursuits led him largely elsewhere. But what he did from the fifties through the eighties in the sport was nothing short of stupendous.  Ahead of the Game is a compelling and refreshingly honest memoir which I enjoyed immensely. Williams was a leader most of us knew and admired from a distance, but from where I stood his was an unfinished portrait. The author has fully remedied that matter, allowing us to see him up close with clarity and candor. His story needed to be told, and Williams regales the reader from beginning to end with the size of his personality and the vast scope of his ideas. For those invested in the history of the game, this book is mandatory reading.

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Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.