When pro tennis was fun

During a particularly entertaining doubles match at last year's US Open, John Newcombe returned a shot near the umpire's chair and re-entered the court on the opposite side of the net. His change of sides startled Fred Stolle, now faced with three opponents. The impromptu humor elicited much laughter, but not from John McEnroe or his doubles partner, Peter Fleming.

Their soberness did not surprise Newcombe or Stolle, who later agreed that today's players don't enjoy themselves the way the game's pioneering pros once did. Enormous prize money, they feel, has been a major culprit in this saddening development.

Both Australians remember the barnstorming spirit that existed as recently as the '60s. Newcombe really got a taste of it when he became a charter member of the World Championship Tennis (WCT) tour in 1967. The players, known as the ''The Handsome Eight,'' reminisced recently about their experiences in the circuit's official newspaper, ProTennis.

The defending Wimbledon and US champion at the time, Newcombe gave up the chance to defend his titles to sign a three-year contract for $45,000 a year. ''That was a big decision to make,'' he said.

For those, like Newk, who signed, tour life was seldom dull.

John and his countryman, Tony Roche, once started a chocolate cake fight in a Baltimore hotel. On another occasion, the players entered an Orlando, Fla., arena through rodeo chutes and competed before two dozen spectators.

One of the best remembered efforts in WCT history was Dennis Ralston's ice slide. Playing on a court laid over a Kansas City ice rink, Ralston collided with a linesman at the edge of the court and slid to the end of the arena. ''I almost quit the tour right then," he said.

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