By Tom Dye
I hope Las Vegas can play a role in promoting tennis nationally and give the city another major event like the Alan King/Caesars Palace Tennis Classic which had a successful run from 1973 to 1985. The city still has smaller tournaments, such as the Las Vegas Open at UNLV, for up and coming players but should again become a major destination on the pro tour.
Tennis flourished in Las Vegas during an era when Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe and other U.S. Stars were having a huge impact on the sport. King and Caesars with the help of U.S. Tennis great Pancho Gonzalez developed a tournament that appealed to locals and brought in tourists who filled the stands at Caesars. The tourney was held in the spring and was a major stop on the Grand Prix tour prior to the legendary Wimbledon event in the United Kingdom where tennis originated.
Caesars gave tennis a huge boost in 1975 by hosting a challenge match between Connors and Australian legend Rod Laver. Laver, who was 36, twice in his career had won all four Grand Slam tennis tournaments in one year and Connors, 22, was coming off a season in which he won three out of our. Connors was cocky and brash and gave the sport a new look with his metal racket and devastating two-hand backhand shot. Laver with his 200 singles titles represented old-school tennis with his smaller wooden racket and dazzling array of shots and ability to volley.
The match did not disappoint and resulted in a four-set victory for Connors. Connors won two other challenge matches, defeating Spanish star Manuel Orantes and unpredictable Romanian Ilie Nastase.
The Caesars tournament attracted the big stars on the tour. The fans braved endured the spring heat in Las Vegas and eagerly awaited the 1979 showdown between Connors and Swedish sensation Bjorn Borg. Borg. The Swede with his devastating topspin shots won easily but Connors wound up with four titles in the tennis classic. Other rising stars such as John McEnroe, who made his debut while still an amateur, and intense Czech champion Ivan Lendl also showcased their skills at Caesars.
The personalities of the players contributed to the rise of tennis. They enjoyed the hustle of 5-6 Harold Solomon, the style of flashy left Roscoe Tanner and the quiet class of other U.S. Stars such as Arthur Ashe and Stan Smith. McEnroe added to the theatrics of the tourney with his “you have got to be kidding” comments to the linesmen when he didn’t like a call.
Las Vegas fans would have liked to have seen more of the top women although Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert did play here in special events. World Team Tennis held a match in Las Vegas which proved to be a strong draw.
The Williams sisters and new stars have kept the U.S. strong in women’s tennis, but the sport needs to develop more talent on the men’s side. Las Vegas could help rejuvenate tennis in the U.S. by building a major tennis indoor venue and recapturing the excitement of the Caesars classic. Indian Wells, Calif., near Palm Springs, replaced Las Vegas as a major stop on the men’s tour and the community also hosts a major women’s event. Indian Wells has excellent facilities and draws big crowds. But Las Vegas still has successful tennis programs and a much larger population than in the days of Caesars tournament.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Reno, Nev., native Tom Dye is the former Las Vegas Review-Journal sports editor now living in Ogden, Utah. He worked for the R-J for 36 years overall covering the Alan King Tennis Classic for six years.
Yet another lineup of Caesars Palace sports promotions in the 1970s was the sport of boxing, which is being reviewed by former R-J Sports Writer Jim “Catfish” Hunter.