Veteran stars relish opportunity to compete on their own tennis tour

A new brand of tennis has sprung onto the scene, one full of world-class players and free of petty arguments. This is Grand Champion, not Grand Prix, tennis, and only men 35 and older need apply.

Pros such as Rod Laver, Marty Riessen, Bob Lutz, and Charlie Pasarell once again find themselves back where they began - playing in front of small crowds and in an atmosphere similar to what they played in before Open tennis, with amateurs and pros in the same draw, began in the late 1960s.

Money certainly is not the only, nor necessarily the most important motivating force for these players. The prize money available to them in the 35 's is greater than the money they received in the first years of the regular pro tour, yet more importantly, they enjoy the opportunity to continue playing and the chance to give something back to the game.

The tour's friendly, less-intense mood appeals to the veteran stars, who are still talented enough to draw spectators, though not in great numbers.

Says Lutz, ''I don't know if people would pay to see other 35-year-old athletes, but in tennis I guess they remember the names. The players are very good, and the quality gets better because more and more guys are playing on it.''

The circuit came about through the efforts of the players themselves. According to Pasarell, one of the founders and president of the Grand Champions, ''Tennis has changed tremendously since 1968. We all thought there had to be a way to bring back the old ways of tennis to clubs and cities which no longer could afford a major tournament.

''. . . (W)e are all close friends, and felt these tournaments were a way to get together off and on during the year. But what we've found is that there was a real market for us, both with cities and with sponsors.''

There may be as many as 40 events for the 35's circuit next year. And the popularity of Grand Champion tennis has even spread to the women, for a tour for veteran women stars is also in the works.

In part the tour's great success is due to the continued high caliber of play. Riessen, one of the best all-around athletes ever to play professionally, competed for the US Davis Cup team last year. Three other players, Jaime Fillol , Bob Lutz, and Ilie Nastase, made the final 16 at this year's US Open.

Many of these veteran stars believe they still have the talent to play on the Grand Prix tour, but some of the desire has faded. They no longer want to funnel all their energies into tennis or spend so much time away from home.

For Australian Colin Dibley, who didn't join the regular pro tour until he was 26, participation in Grand Champion events is a way to extend his career. The lax schedule enables him more time with his wife and two children. ''If you play well on this circuit,'' he observes, ''you can still make a decent living.''

Winning, however, is not easy against such proven competition. Of his opponents, Dibley says, ''They're still playing well and they have a lot of pride.''

Twenty years of traveling to the same tournaments doesn't seem to dampen anyone's competitive fires. Says Riessen, ''We're all friends, but there's nothing worse than losing to a friend. ''

The circuit's emphasis is different from that of the regular pro tour. The athletes come to town not only for the tournaments, but also to participate in clinics and to socialize with the sponsors.

There is a sense of commitment and dedication not often found among players that have come along since the Open era began. Today, the emphasis seems to be on the star player and show business approach.

''The players have become much more selfish,'' says Dibley, who, like many older players, is concerned that the social aspects of the game have been overtaken by the monetary rewards. The antisocial behavior of some players, he believes, may cause sponsors to pull out, a withdrawal of support that could affect many players, especially younger ones coming up.

According to Dibley, there's a night-and-day difference in attitudes. ''So many of the players today feel the game owes them a living. People in this group don't feel tennis owes them a living. Instead, we feel that we owe a lot to the game.''

This year's Grand Champion tour will culminate Dec. 15-19 in Marco Beach, Fla., where 16 players will compete for $100,000 in prize money in the richest 35's event ever.

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