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Zany world of media tennis events

By Phil Elderkin / February 16, 1983



Los Angeles

For the past five years I have been playing occasionally in what some of my more imaginative colleagues laughingly call celebrity tennis tournamants. Of course they are not celebrity related at all, but media events that are often preceded by rumors that this Hollywood personality or that TV star may make an appearance. The fact is I have yet to look across the net at one of these affairs and see anyone resembling Johnny Carson or Elke Sommer.

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Basically these tournaments are the inventions of public relations firms that are trying to do their clients' business some good. By luring the media out to one of these events, they are able to show reporters new products they normally wouldn't walk across the street to examine. And it's all so wonderfully tax deductible for the company involved!

Let's say the Super Bowl is in town and some national sportswear manufacturer is bringing out a line of new spring clothes. What his PR representative does is get in touch with the National Football League and offer to underwrite a tennis tournament for the visiting media.

What happens is that an invitation to compete in this ''celebrity'' event is included in the same packet that contains the writer's or sportscaster's game credentials. At the event there is seldom any overt quest for publicity, but the new line is sure to be prominently displayed in the room where you lunch or the trophies are awarded. You are also given an elaborate press kit when you leave, just in case you should suddenly see an earth-shaking story in fuchsia warm-up suits with vertical stripes.

The lasting memories, however, come from playing in the tournament itself - and from the renewed friendships which frequently constitute a pleasant spinoff.

The one thing I've never understood, though, is why no one ever arrives on time for these things, including the public relations people who run them. It seems to be considered gauche.

Because of the large number of people who play in these tournaments, competition is usually a round-robin doubles event where players keep switching partners and everybody gets to play a cross-section of opponents. Scoring is 1-2 -3-4, with no ads, the team reaching four first getting one point for winning the game.

As soon as one team wins six games, the set is over. Individual scorecards are turned in to a committee at the end of the afternoon, the person with the highest number of points being declared the winner.

The problem with these tournaments is that quite often people who have never played tennis before will enter, although I can't imagine why. But you can spot them right away, because they are the ones who are always trying to borrow a racket from the club's head pro.

Their standard line after they've tied themselves to your throat on the court like an albatross is, ''Don't worry, I'll get better. I just haven't played for a while.''

Not too long ago I drew a partner, who somehow managed to double fault eight straight times. All 16 of his serves, if I remember correctly, either hit the retaining fence on the other side of the court on the fly or the first bounce.

If this had been baseball and he had been aiming at the short left field wall in Boston's Fenway Park, he undoubtedly would have been sent directly to the Hall of Fame.

Instead he would go on to establish some kind of media tennis record by never returning service once during the afternoon. Late in the final game of our set, which we lost 1-6, he did manage to dink one ball over the net during an exchange of shots. I wish I could say the opponent playing opposite him was so dumbfounded that he just stood there and watched the ball. He did not. He closed out the set by launching a missile off my foot for a winner.

A couple of years ago I had just gotten into position to receive service at the start of a media tournament when a lady who apparently had great authority at one of Los Angeles's finest tennis clubs screamed at me.

''Sir,'' she yelled, ''you cannot play on our courts in those sneakers!'' When I asked why, she replied: ''The soles are not absolutely white and you will leave marks on our courts. You will either have to buy some white-soled shoes in our tennis shop or become a spectator.''

If there had been $30 in my wallet at the time, I probably would have grudgingly done as she suggested. But since I would have been hard pressed to buy a new can of balls at that point, I asked the lady if we simply couldn't put my sneakers to a test.

Without looking to see whether I had her approval or not, I went into this wild dance in which I scuffed the bottoms of my shoes all over the place. My partner, who said he'd made a study of Indian customs, stopped me on the theory that I might bring rain and ruin the tournament.

Actually the lady was horrified at my actions. But she agreed to make an exception and let me play when no marks showed up on the court.

Believe it or not, I have actually won three of these tournaments - due chiefly to the fact that I drew good partners. My prize one time, probably from the nation's best known tennis manaufacturer, was a brand new racket - but without any strings.

Well, maybe strings would have been carrying public relations a little too far!