The Era Of Lenglen And The Barnstormers Returned To The Modern Day Tour
by John Flaherty, BTB Contributor
When the 2020 BNP Paribas Open was abruptly cancelled on March 8 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus and the safety of the participants and attendees at the event it felt like my world had come crashing to a sudden halt. It was analogous to a Formula 1 driver cutting a corner too closely and hitting an embankment sending the vehicle spinning uncontrollably. But when the engine in my head came to rest it gave me pause and time to reflect on the game of tennis, especially its history.
It has been a season like no other over the last 100 years, but if the past is prologue to the future, we should have anticipated a pandemic in 2020. Ironically, not since the Spanish flu ended in April 1920 have we seen “professional tennis” on a different level. Not the type of Tour play that is on display weekly, but the kind that was played between March and the commencement of the Western & Southern Open in late August.
To The Professional Game, She Was Always The Woman
The birth of the professional game can be traced back to the Roaring 20’s, and, to many people’s surprise, was started by a woman named Suzanne Lenglen of France. In honor of her heroism, a stadium court, which will have a delicately pleated retractable roof added, is emblazoned with her name at Roland Garros.
She was indeed the first barnstormer by agreeing to play for money and divorcing herself from the tennis convention of the day. Madame Lenglen’s courageous, or, more appropriate, “iconoclastic” example encouraged her male counterparts as Bill Tilden, Fred Perry, Ellsworth Vines, and eventually showman Bobby Riggs turned professional shortly thereafter.
The term barnstormers came from 19th century theatre groups the performed in barns. In tennis, these brave pioneers were likened to a ragtag bunch of scofflaws willing to play anytime and anywhere embracing a peripatetic lifestyle. As legendary Hall of Famer Tony Trabert remarked, “We were more similar to the Harlem Globetrotters.” And they embraced the frontier mentality of arriving in a town with a stick to make a quick buck and then saddle up and depart for the next location on their journey.
The barnstormers played in unconventional venues and stayed in different hotels virtually every night. They crisscrossed the countryside in a station wagon, which was their caravan of choice, filled with equipment, balls and suitcases. These rebels to the tennis establishment of the day sometimes did play in barns and warehouses barely illuminated with meager 25 watt bulbs or in high school gyms where the court was too short. In some instances the baseline was a yard removed from the back of the wall, and the basketball hoop could be situated directly overhead forcing the player to toss the ball sidearm to execute a serve. In some countries the barnstormers were even forced to play on asphalt where court lines were drawn, or other times it was on a wooden surface in an army barrack causing them to get splinters imbedded into their hands.
When possible they used a portable canvas court that was pulled tight with block and tackle and placed over concrete, wood, and even ice! The officiating was dubious as professional linespersons didn’t exist like today, and people were literally taken out from the stands to call lines. The barnstormers played in front of crowds of anywhere from 400 to 5000 people, and, on occasion were denied recompense for their performance. Players could be on the road for months unable to return home as the tour stretched globally.
It was a demanding schedule as they could be in Phoenix one night and Dallas the next. Another Tennis Hall of Famer Butch Buchholz recalls competing in 29 matches in 31 days and sleeping in 30 different beds. “We’d arrive at 2:00 AM to the hotel, rise the next day completely exhausted, get in some practice and then play our matches.” (They typically consisted of a preliminary match, followed by a featured match, and concluded with a doubles match.) “No one had an edge over their opponent as everyone was under the same physical duress.” Some even experienced unhealthy weight loss due to irregular eating habits. But in the interest of increasing turnout at upcoming events they conducted myriad press conferences and made local TV appearances. They were essentially traveling salesmen on a mission to win the battle for professional tennis.
These events weren’t just exhibitions where the outcome was predetermined as the barnstormers were committed to winning! It was similar to having Federer and Nadal traveling together and playing every day.
Although the Roger-Rafa matchup didn’t occur in any of the 2020 professional events, fans were treated to some fantastic tennis. The first of which were the three Tennis Point Exhibition Series in May at a German tennis academy. The shortened matches were best of three sets, with four games to win a set, and tiebreakers at three all, and were live-streamed as well as broadcast on Tennis Channel. The exhibition set a precedent for the following ones as spectators, line judges, ball kids, and post-match handshakes at the net were not permissible, and unmanned TV cameras were used.
The two UTR Pro Match Series, which were prize money competitions, contested at a private court in West Palm Beach, Florida were staged thereafter. The first four-player round robin event featured top-60 Americans Reilly Opelka, who was the eventual champion, and Tommy Paul and top-50 Hubert Murkacz and Miomir Kecmanovic. A similar style event at the same location occurred two weeks later with four female pros in the top 69 competing. Like the Tennis Point Series, players called their own lines and an umpire was present for overrules. But in addition to unmanned cameras overhead drones were in play which provided a unique perspective for viewers.
Both the German and Florida events were part of Tennis Channel’s Re(Open) Tour as was the Credit One Bank Invitational in late June in Charleston, South Carolina. The WTA Tour tournament played on green clay was renamed and changed to an exhibition as a result of the pandemic. It featured a 16-player women’s all-star field using Laver Cup rules. Earlier in the month the infamous Adria Tour, an exhibition event held in Serbia and Croatia, took place. It was a fundraising initiative hosted by Novak Djokovic and drew an impressive list of highly ranked male professionals, however, it did not enforce necessary health safety precautions and as a result four participants contracted coronavirus; the remaining events were subsequently cancelled.
The most ambitious venture during the exhibition season was Patrick Mouratoglou’s UTS (Ultimate Tennis Showdown). It was conducted over five weekends from mid-June to mid-July at the eponymous tournament organizer’s academy in the south of France. In an attempt to attract a younger demographic, the format was radically updated implementing a scoring system consisting of points won over the course of 10-minute quarters. The 10-man field, made up from some of the sport’s biggest names, played each other in a standard round-robin form with an eventual semifinals and final to determine the champion.
And if the calendar could not get any more active, the month of July saw the continuation of the UTS plus Thiem 7, All-American Team Cup, TopNotch Match Play 120, Bett1 Aces Berlin, and World Team Tennis competitions. The most notable of these events was the Berlin tennis exhibitions which consisted of six men and women each taking part in competitions first on a grass court at the Steffi Graf stadium and then on hard court in a disused airport hangar in a setting reminiscent of the barnstorming days.
Like their predecessors, some of the world’s best players today were reluctant to participate in unsanctioned events by governing bodies. Notables were Nadal, Kyrgios, and Andreescu. Interestingly enough each generation faced a formidable opponent at the time, one physical and the other invisible, and each scenario demanded a change to the status quo in order for professional tennis to survive. Ironically, barnstorming was the panacea for both.
John Flaherty, a BTB team member, has been a marketing professional for 25 years having led marketing departments at Rolex and S&P 500 company Gartner. He holds a B.A. from Old Dominion University, where he competed on the Division I level varsity tennis team for three years. John began playing tennis at the age of three years old and many years later received ATP points in doubles and singles while competing on tour .His passion for the game has never relinquished as John has penned articles for Inside Tennis and TennisMatch Magazine, and served as an official racquet reviewer for Tennis Magazine.