As we head out to the U.S. Open this week, albeit virtually, I thought it appropriate to highlight the lives of three centenarians — each of whom has shared a lifelong love of tennis: Dr. William Manger, Robert Ryland, and Ted Withall.
My family has their own interesting bit of tennis history, much of which has been forgotten as what once appeared in print magazines and newspapers has not yet been digitized.
Growing up in Westchester County, my family belonged to Pelham Country Club and the New York Athletic Club, but my father also had fond memories of playing tennis at the Manger estate in Pelham Manor where he was invariably impressed by the Manger’s butler donning white gloves to bring them iced tea down at the tennis court.
Thanks to a lifetime of tennis — and the D.A.S.H. Diet — Dr. Manger celebrated his 100th birthday on August 13th, 2020. The founder of the National Hypertension Association and an emeritus clinical professor of medicine at New York University, he is the author of “Live Longer, Live Better: Avoid the Risks” (with Dr. Edward Roccella), which stresses the importance of preventive health to avoid conditions like obesity, heart disease, stroke and high blood pressure. Looking at him today, I think its safe to say he’s on to something!
The tennis community continues to celebrate the life of Bob Ryland — the first professional Black tennis player — who died on August 2nd, 2020, also at the age of 100! His obituary appeared in The New York Times, written by Neil Genzlinger. You can read it HERE
According to the Times: “Mr. Ryland was a top player in the American Tennis Association, a Black organization, winning its men’s singles titles in 1955 and 1956. In 1959, then in his late 30s, he was invited to join Jack March’s World Pro Championships, and was paid $300 for playing a tournament in Cleveland.” That, according to the Black Tennis Hall of Fame, made him the first professional Black player.
Jack March was actually my father’s first cousin, but my grandparents raised him as my father’s brother. He was given tennis lessons and a private school education. At some point, he changed his name from Jack Le Massena to Jack March ( it was because they used to tease him by calling him Jack the “lemon squeezer.”) Maybe that’s why he was so inclusive later in life — inviting Black players like Bob Ryland and Althea Gibson to participate in his tournaments. Jack was also known to quietly usher them into private clubs to practice, usually early morning before they opened.
Being a few years older than my father, Jack was naturally always a little better player. And as you can see in their 1936 Hackley team photo, my father always looked up to him (note the way he holds his racquet!).
My grandfather, Frederick V. Krais (1900-1966), was a founding member of the Eastern Tennis Umpires Association and “morally opposed” to tennis becoming a professional sport. He wrote a “strong letter” to the USLTA stating that he thought it would lead to “unsportsman-like behavior,” like gambling. Clearly, that was a battle he didn’t win!
So while Jack was allowed to earn money as a “pro,” my father was encouraged to remain an “amateur,” go to law school and pursue a career in business. He won the U.S. National Boys Doubles with Richard Shipp on the wood courts of the Park Avenue Armory in 1939, and continued to play “the circuit,” i.e. Forest Hills, Newport, Southampton, etc., but never turned “pro.”
Arthur Ashe, winner of the 1968 U.S Open at Forest Hills, was a huge fan of Bob Ryland’s, once telling Dick Schaap after running into Ryland in the Midtown Tennis Club locker room, “You know, he used to be my hero.” The first time Ashe saw Ryland play was in 1955 at the Banneker playground in Washington, D.C. across from Howard University. Ashe was about 12 years old and Ryland had just won the American Tennis Association National Championships.
Back in those days, blacks never got to play on grass, but that year the USLTA (United States Lawn Tennis Association, now the USTA, which organizes the U.S. Open) invited Ryland to play at Forest Hills. He got crushed by Bob Perry in the first round. “But he was some player on clay,” Ashe said.
Ashe came to New York to hit with Ryland in 1957. Recalling the time, “He beat the hell out of me …. My only dream in tennis was to become good enough to beat Bob Ryland.” Ryland served as a mentor to both Ashe and Gibson throughout their lives. Come to think of it, he outlived both of them!
In order to maintain his Davis Cup eligibility, Ashe had to play as “an amateur” and therefore could not accept the $14,000 first-prize money. It was instead given to the runner-up, Tom Okker. Ashe received just $280 — a $20 per diem awarded to players for expenses — a pittance compared to the millions of dollars the men’s and women’s champions receive today.
I had been told that when Arthur Ashe won Forest Hills, he had to change clothes in his car rather than in the men’s locker room of the Club. However, Clark Graebner, who actually played Ashe in the semi-finals that year — losing in a close 4-set match (4-6,8-6,7-5,6-2) — later told me, “I have known Arthur since we were twelve and played in the the Orange Bowl together, and I can tell you, that is categorically untrue. He was accepted, and respected, and treated like all the other guys on the tour. Wherever we were, he was there with us.”
In an article written for Gene Scott’s Tennis Week magazine in 1984, Linda Pentz called Jack March “The Eccentric Pioneer” of the sport. “From 1950-65, he took on a stable of names that would make today’s hungry management firms drool: Pancho Gonzales, Lew Hoad, Bobby Riggs, Pancho Segura, Fred Perry, Frank Kovacs, Don Budge, Frank Parker, Bill Talbert and Alex Olmedo.” They were all part of the star-studded line-up who gathered at the Cleveland Arena to play in March’s event for the princely sum of $15,000 total prize money.
“The prize money was almost incidental,” March said. “There wasn’t much of it. They all wanted to play because it was a fun thing. And they wanted to play because there was no other tournament.” He added, “If I had not run that event, there would have been no tournaments for 15 years. We had the top eight players in the world. We had everyone from Tilden to Laver.”
Pentz reported that March said it all started when Bill Tilden went to jail and the thirty pros on his tour, March included, had to stop playing and look for jobs as teaching pros. (In 1946, Tilden was arrested after he was discovered having sexual contact with a 14-year-old boy and was sentenced to a year in jail. He served a second one-year sentence in 1949 after making sexual advances to another young male.)
March’s solution was the annual World Pro Tennis Championships. “It was a little more than your run-of-the-mill tournament,” Pentz wrote. “March wanted entertainment to bring in the crowds. And he needed sponsors — he found them in Pepsi and Leisy Brewing Company. March sewed endorsement logos (large ones) on the backs of his players’ shirts. And he set up a bar, umbrella tables and even a dance floor at one end of the court. When a player complained that he couldn’t see “Pancho” Gonzales’ serve amidst the brightly colored umbrellas, March told him, “Go home then. You’re defaulted. I had complete control,” laughed March.
Gonzales (who changed the spelling of his name to Gonzalez in 1965 according to his nephew, Greg Gonzalez) “was March’s most successful protagonist,” wrote Pentz, winning the title 12 times over the tournament’s 15-year existence.” His success was underscored by the fact that March only allowed players to serve once. “We used the ping pong scoring system — the first player to 21 (and only one serve). The crowds loved it!” March recalled, “Gonzales dominated tennis for 15 years.”
March drew his players from the pool of pros who were excluded from participation in the major events during the pre-Open era, and took issue with Jack Kramer being billed as the “World Champion.” In a letter March wrote,” As you know, Wilson’s Jack Kramer is U.P. at P.L.T.A. and that group, naturally, permits him to bill himself as ‘world’s champion’ when he hasn’t won a tournament in 2 years!” (claiming the title belonged to Gonzales — and also implying “Big Pancho” had been discriminated against as an Hispanic-American).
On Bob Ryland, March told Pentz, “I had the first black player ever playing a pro tournament — they were barred in those days. But I just said I don’t give a damn. I’m just going to do it.”
If the clubs wouldn’t let them play, March would simply find another venue, once opting for the cafeteria of the TRW industrial plant! The fans were there to see great tennis and that’s what March gave them.
Setting the stage for the famous Battle of the Sexes match in 1973 between top women’s player Billie Jean King, and former No 1 ranked men’s player, Bobby Riggs, March told Pentz “it was the presence of women on his program that caused the most ruckus — from the men pros.”
“They gave me such a bad time. We would fight and fight about it each year,” March told her. Regardless of what the other guys thought, he invited Doris Hart and some of the other women players to compete, too. The guys said,”What are you doing with these girls? They don’t draw flies,” but when Althea Gibson played Pauline Betz Addie he said, “They didn’t even mention Gonzales and Hoad; she got the publicity.” (Pauline’s husband was then writing for The Washington Post.)
Money under the table has been paid in the history of the game going back to the early 1900s in amateur tennis. “In 1930, they bet Tilden $500 he couldn’t jump over the net,” March said. “I can name 50 matches that have been thrown,” he told Penzt. And, I personally recall Jack claiming Riggs threw the match against Billie Jean King, too. Whether you believe that or not, there was apparently lots of money on that match.
According the The New York Times (9/19/73), the promoter had a $1,000 bet with Sidney L. Shlenker, an Astrodome exec, on the size of the gate receipts: another $1,000 with Riggs on whether his lob can hit the roof of the Astrodome, and $10,000 with two Las Vegas friends on King winning the match.” And Dick Butera, owner of the Philadelphia World Team Tennis franchise, had “heard Riggs was a 6‐1 favorite and immediately went in search of a bookmaker.”
Another centenarian — and friend of both Jack and my father — was Ted Withall, the legendary director of tennis at the Boca Raton Hotel & Club from 1957 – 1970 (succeeding Fred Perry) who lived in Boca until he died last year.
Ted grew-up in San Diego, California, where his childhood friend was Red Sox left-fielder Ted Williams.
When they celebrated Ted’s 100th birthday in 2018, he told us he thought that playing catch with Williams as a child might have helped him develop the hand-eye coordination that made him a good tennis player.
From 1951 to 1956, Ted’s career took him to upstate New York where he succeeded Pancho Segura as the tennis pro at the Concord Hotel where he taught during the summer months.
He left the Boca Hotel in 1970 for the Tennis Club in Fort Lauderdale because it presented a new concept in tennis clubs: condos surrounding tennis courts!
Ted was a great friend of Bobby Riggs who was a notorious gambler and admitted male chauvinist. He was a guy’s guy and would bet on anything. As a teenager, I recall going to watch him play tennis with Mr. Withall, Uncle Jack and my father.
He had just finished betting some ladies at the club that he could beat them even if he placed a chair in the middle of the court. He then adjourned to the grill room to watch, and bet on, the football game, while playing (and betting on) a game of backgammon with my step-mother, Pat Weigel. Life around these guys was anything but boring.
Riggs was also a notorious sand-bagger on the golf course. Like many tennis players, he was an excellent golfer, too. In fact, he was the 1962 club champion at Plandome Country Club on Long Island. But he would tell unsuspecting opponents that he rarely played. According to Plandome legend, he loved to compete and would do anything to win a bet — even once hitting a golf ball into the swimming pool! But there was at least one time I know of that he lost … and it was to Ted Withall!
Tennis truly is “the sport of a lifetime” and a great equalizer, as well. Like many sports, it evens the playing field of life and brings people together. As Gene Scott one said, “You can do it until you’re 90!” It’s great exercise, doesn’t take hours of time out of your day, and its much easier to carry a racquet than a set of golf clubs. Gene called golf “a four letter word.”
I guess it’s time to get back to playing tennis again.