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TENNIS / BILL DWYRE : Senior Tour May Soon Be Dubbed 'Great Let of Life'

October 10, 1994|BILL DWYRE

It is not yet the lucrative senior golf tour, referred to affectionately by Jim Colbert as "the great Mulligan of life." But the senior tennis tour has completed its first year, and its founding father, Jimmy Connors, pronounces it well and growing.

It is called the Champions Tour, with sponsorship by Digital PC, and it makes a stop this week at the prestigious Sherwood Country Club in Thousand Oaks.

It starts Wednesday night, with two matches: Guillermo Vilas-Tim Gullikson and Roscoe Tanner-Larry Stefanki. The next day, after two more afternoon matches, the current star of the show and frequent winner of these events, Connors, takes to the court to play the Vilas-Gullikson winner.

And, very likely, that will be the time for spectators to get a full picture of the competitive nature of this over-35 tour, because, where there is Connors, there will always be that burning fire of competition.

"If you know anything about me, you know I'm never going to walk out on that court and give less than 110%," he said recently during a conference call interview. "First of all, there's $150,000 in prize money, not exactly chicken feed. Then, you have to know that there are 10, 12, maybe 20 guys out there where, if you're not in shape or not quite ready to play tennis on this level, they're set to step right in and take your place."

The business side of Connors, who created this tour with the help of friend and financial adviser Ray Benton, actually is hoping for more of that.

"I want the guys on the (ATP) tour now, guys in their early 30s having a tougher and tougher time, to start thinking about the Champions Tour," he said. "Matter of fact, the way some of these guys are burning out and breaking down after about six or seven years on the tour, we may have to make it an over-30 tour."

The 11 stops this year could easily grow into 18 or 20 in the next few years, according to Connors, and the anticipated presence of additional name players such as John McEnroe, Yannick Noah, Andres Gomez and Ivan Lendl could quickly take this to another level of fan interest and corporate backing.

"Those guys are all talking about playing a couple of Champions events next year," Connors said. "That would be nice. New blood. Fuel the fire for the guys playing now. And it would add lots of credibility to our tour."

After Wednesday night's start, the event has day-night sessions Thursday, Friday and Saturday and the final Sunday afternoon, starting at 1.

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Connors got a bit feisty when, during the conference call, he perceived a question to be comparing his 1991 run to the semifinals of the U.S. Open with Andre Agassi's run to the title this year.

"Don't compare 1991 to anything," he said. "It took me 22 years of hard work to get to that, to have 22,000 people on their feet, screaming, there just is no comparison."

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The great tragedy of the Champions Tour, of course, was the recent loss of Vitas Gerulaitis, who died Sept. 18 of carbon monoxide poisoning in New York a few days after competing in a tour stop in Seattle.

Gerulaitis did his last interview with free-lance writer Mimi Shachat and, among the things he said in that Sept. 15 discussion, printed recently in New York magazine, was that, in his heart, he never really left the tennis tour, even though he got too old for it.

"After you leave the tour, you miss your friends," he said. "My saddest days were when I knew my tennis-playing days were at an end. I love hanging with the guys. . . . It's sort of a celebration of a good period in your life."

Ironically and sadly, Gerulaitis also said, "I love to entertain. Once it's in your blood, you never lose it. I'm single, rather be in a hotel. I don't even own my own home. Actually, I'm a gypsy. And to be perfectly honest, I have the greatest life."

Tennis Notes

Jennifer Capriati is alive and well in her new home in the Palm Springs area, has slimmed down and, despite a few nagging injuries, is playing every day. Also, she has a new dog that chews up her tennis shoes. No word, however, on exactly when she will make her tour comeback. . . . The Amateur Athletic Foundation has a junior tennis league in conjunction with the U.S. Tennis Assn., and the year-round program, for youngsters who live mainly in depressed areas, recently began its September-November session. . . . Was there sad irony the other day in Martina Hingas' first tour victory being over Patty Fendick? A 14-year-old beats one of the few college graduates out there playing?

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