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Robert J. Kelleher dies at 99; pivotal tennis official became federal judge

As president of the U.S. Lawn Tennis Assn., Robert J. Kelleher pushed to let amateurs and professionals compete together. As a judge, he presided over the 'Falcon' and 'Snowman' espionage cases.

June 20, 2012|By Claire Noland, Los Angeles Times
  • Robert J. Kelleher, the non-playing captain of the U.S. Davis Cup team, serves in the seniors doubles match in 1962.
Robert J. Kelleher, the non-playing captain of the U.S. Davis Cup team,… (Los Angeles Times )

Robert J. Kelleher, who helped lead tennis into the modern open era while serving as president of the U.S. Lawn Tennis Assn. and who later became a U.S. District Court judge based in Los Angeles, has died. He was 99.

Kelleher, who was also captain of the U.S. Davis Cup team in 1962 and 1963, died Wednesday at his Los Angeles home after a long illness, said his lifelong friend, former Mayor Richard Riordan.

Before 1968, only players classified as amateurs were allowed to enter the major international tennis tournaments. Professionals were not welcome at the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon and what is now called the U.S. Open.

But assumptions weren't necessarily valid.

"I had been around for a great long time and knew how tennis was operating, how the so-called amateurs were all paid under the table," Kelleher told The Times in 2000, the year he was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

When tennis great Billie Jean King introduced him at the ceremony, she said that "every professional tennis player living" should thank Kelleher, the Harvard Law Bulletin reported in 2000.

"He gave the big push we needed to make open tennis a reality in 1968," King said. "Instead of peanuts we were getting under the table as amateurs, it was prize money on top of the table, and the game took off."

From his perspective, "it was a political coup," Kelleher said in 2000 in The Times.

"The entrenched people who had been running tennis — nationally and internationally — liked it the way it was," he said. They had "the political strength to defeat it several times before. It was a real uphill pull to succeed."

But succeed in challenging tennis' establishment is what Kelleher and his British counterparts did in the spring of 1968. Herman David, then chairman of the All-England Club, which hosts Wimbledon, and Derek Hardwick, then chairman of the British Lawn Tennis Assn., joined with Kelleher to pressure the International Lawn Tennis Federation to allow amateurs and professionals to compete together and be paid legitimate prize money.

Kelleher aimed to legitimize international tennis — and make the sport more popular and profitable.

"Tennis is a marvelous sport to play and watch, but we've swallowed some of our own myths about its popularity," Kelleher said in February 1968 in Sports Illustrated. "Look at the sports pages, look at TV. Where is tennis? It is a minor sport that has a chance to realize its potential as a healthful recreational and consequential spectator sport if it can get up-to-date."

Once the tournaments were flung open to all players, the sport did flourish — as fans streamed through turnstiles to see such stars as King, Jimmy Connors and Chris Evert; television executives paid increasingly higher fees for the rights to broadcast matches; and the athletes collected fatter paychecks. Tennis also experienced a recreational boom.

Kelleher had been elected president of the U.S. Lawn Tennis Assn. (now called the U.S. Tennis Assn.) in 1967. After his two-year term ended, he returned to practicing law and was appointed to the federal bench by then-President Nixon in 1970.

Among his most famous cases were the 1977 espionage trials of Christopher Boyce and Andrew Daulton Lee, who were convicted of selling classified information to the Soviet Union. The men's stories were turned into the book and movie "The Falcon and the Snowman."

Lawyers said the judge was a stickler for formality, according to a 1983 profile in the Daily Journal, and he agreed. "I believe in them," Kelleher said of the rules by which he ran his courtroom. "They contribute to the settlement of knotty problems."

A Kelleher decision from the early 1970s declared for the first time that prosecutors were immune from civil liability over their official acts while in office. The ruling was overturned but was ultimately upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The high court also upheld a Kelleher ruling that a person must have actually bought or sold securities to be able to sue under federal laws forbidding misrepresentation in securities transactions, the Daily Journal reported in 1983.

The judge attained senior, or semi-retired, status in 1983 and never officially retired from the bench.

Robert Joseph Kelleher was born March 5, 1913, in New York City. The son of a textile distributor, he grew up in the Forest Hills neighborhood of Queens and was exposed to tennis from an early age.

As a child, he served as a ball boy at the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, which hosted the U.S. national championships from 1923 to 1978. (Under its new name, the U.S. Open, it moved to its current home in Queens' Flushing Meadow)

"He was involved in tennis all the time," said Riordan, who was a neighbor growing up. "He was a promising young tennis player."

Kelleher earned a bachelor's degree in 1935 from Williams College in Massachusetts, where he was captain of the tennis team, and a law degree in 1938 from Harvard University.

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