International Players Championships bid for major tennis status

Tennis people call it ``Butch's Baby.'' The baby is growing impressively. For 25 years, Butch Buchholz has been consumed with the idea of building a professional tennis tournament that would rank with the major championships: Wimbledon and the US, French, and Australian Opens.

His three-year-old International Players Championships, just concluded here, show promise of becoming at least a semi-major soon.

Like the majors, this tournament runs two weeks, has all men's matches scheduled for five sets, and features full 128-player brackets for both men and women. After bouncing around Florida for its first two playings, it is ensconced here at a prominent site on scenic Biscayne Bay.

Both the men's and women's player associations are partners in the enterprise, which ensures good fields and a spirit of cooperation unusual in modern pro tennis.

``When I was playing for money in the early 1960s, we were banned from the big events,'' Buchholz remembers. ``I used to sit around with guys like Pancho Gonzales, Lew Hoad, and Tony Trabert and talk about how great it would be if the pros had their own big tournament - their own Wimbledon. That's the dream we're trying to make come true here.''

Of course the pros no longer need their own major for those reasons, since they now play in all the others anyway. But Buchholz believes there's still room for one more event of this type - and the response so far indicates he may be right.

A temporary stadium (the real one will be ready by 1989 or 1990) was sold out with 11,000 fans for the men's final Sunday in which Ivan Lendl, No. 1 in the world, was upset by fellow-Czech Miloslav Mecir, a fast-improving No. 5. Television coverage for much of the fortnight was provided by ESPN, and there are indications that a major network may be interested in picking up the tournament for the future.

``I have no false illusions,'' says Buchholz. ``We've had a lot of problems, and it hasn't helped us that we've been at three different places in three years. But I like where we are now, and I believe we have a chance to develop the kind of tradition the major tournaments did over time.

``The facility is going to be exceptional. It could be the most extraordinary ever put up. The architects have visited all the Grand Slam sites with the idea of incorporating the best of all four stadiums into the one they'll do here. On the grounds will be every surface; hard, grass, and European clay.

``The landscaping will be so beautiful it will remind you of Augusta National during the Masters golf tournament. Instead of azaleas, we'll have orchid trees, picked because they bloom this time of year.''

Next year, Buchholz will stage the tournament two weeks later, starting in mid-March. The weather is safer (rain interrupted play this year), and there will be less competition from other sporting spectaculars.

The last weekend in February saw the Miami area, avidly striving to regain its previous luster as a tourist mecca, assert itself as the sports capital of the world. In addition to the $1.8 million tennis extravaganza, the golf pros were playing for a million dollars at the Doral Country Club, the horses were running in the famous Flamingo Stakes at Hialeah race track, and the race car drivers were speeding in the Miami Grand Prix.

``All that has been great for the area,'' says Buchholz, ``but it's just too much competition. I think later dates will help our chances for network television, too.''

Dade County is involved with the tennis complex, which will be called the International Tennis Center and will be a top public facility the rest of the year, like the US Open venue in New York's Flushing Meadow.

Mecir beat Lendl in straight sets for the men's title, and 17-year-old Steffi Graf from West Germany thrashed Chris Evert Lloyd, 6-1, 6-2, for the women's crown, but the matches were more interesting than those results might indicate. Or at least the winners were.

Graf, strong and confident, is ranked second in the world now behind Martina Navratilova, and she demonstrated that she's at least that good. She demolished Navratilova in the semifinals with her great forehand.

Mecir, the Czech who mostly stays home, plays with fascinating and befuddling variety and is quickly growing on US audiences for his hustle and imagination. He is the unpredictable opponent the other players least like to face, and has made the adjustment from clay court specialist to man for all surfaces (hard courts here).

Looking like a man who just woke up from a nap, he glides around the court with seeming ease, mixing up his shots, sneaking in to the net for a surprise putaway, mesmerizing the opposition with his wily tactics.

The future looks good for him and Graf - and also for ``Butch's Baby.''

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