Macon once hosted top-tier tennis event

sports@macon.comOctober 7, 2013 

Professional tennis is back in Macon this week in the form of the Butlercars.com Tennis Classic, a USTA event for women being played at Stratford.

The tournament, which is part of the USTA Pro Tennis Circuit, carries a purse of $25,000 and features some of the top up-and-coming players in the world, many of them having already played at Wimbledon, as well as the other three majors, the U.S. Open, Australian Open and French Open. The field includes 20 of the top women’s players in the world with rankings between 88 and 200. One of the most recognizable names is Marietta native Melanie Oudin, who advanced to the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open in 2009.

This is not Macon’s first foray into the professional tennis world. One of the best sporting events, if not the best ever in the city, was the Macon International Tennis Tournament that had a four-year run from 1968 through 1971. The first year, the event was held at Wesleyan College on one court in their gymnasium. As a result of the location, you can imagine the lob was not an effective shot.

There were 24 players in the field, including nine Americans and 15 internationals, including the entire British Davis Cup team headed by Mark Cox. The top American seed was Texan Cliff Richey, while Denmark’s Jan Leschly was the top foreign seed. Leschly went on to win the title, beating Britain’s Mike Sangster in five sets.

I was working at WMAZ radio and television at the time, and the late Bob Savage and I did the play-by-play account of the finals match on radio. Just imagine how exciting tennis play-by-play is on the radio.

In year two, the MITT moved to the Macon Coliseum where two portable courts were brought in, and they proved to be problematic as duct tape had to be used to keep them together. The tournament was promoted with a 30-foot-high racket located in downtown Macon at Third and Cherry streets. More than 19,000 fans turned out for the week-long tournament which featured players from the United States, Czechoslovakia, Spain, Denmark, Germany, Egypt, Chile, Yugoslavia, Brazil, New Zealand and Hungary. In the singles final, Spain’s Manolo Orantes defeated Cox 10-8, 7-5, 4-6, 9-7, while in the doubles competition Jan Kukal and Jan Kodes of Czechoslovakia defeated Cox and Peter Curtis, also of England, 13-11, 10-8.

Tennis legend Arthur Ashe, who went on to win three Grand Slam events, and Romania’s Ilie Nastase, a seven-time major championship winner, highlighted the field in the third year, which saw attendance increase to more than 22,000. Richey beat Ashe in the singles final 2-6, 6-3, 8-6, while Bob Carmichael and Terry Addison of Australia defeated Romania’s Nastase and Ion Tiriac 14-16, 6-3, 8-6 in doubles.

In 1971, Richey was the top American seed, while Nastase was the top international. A young Jimmy Connors was also in the field and played one match after midnight due to the length of other matches that day. Local tennis professionals Rob Danner, at the time at Idle Hour, and Robbie Smith of the Macon Tennis Center both were invited to play in the MITT in 1971. Danner lost to American Jim McManus 6-2, 6-0, while Chile’s Jaime Fillol beat Smith 7-5, 6-2.

The irascible Nastase was fined three times during the tournament for his temper outbursts and for playing one of his matches in pajamas. He lost in the finals that year to Zeljko Franulovic in five sets 6-4, 7-5, 5-7, 3-6, 7-6. Franulovic and Kodes lost in the doubles final to Clark Graebner and Tomas Koch 6-3, 7-6.

The 1971 event was a financial flop, falling $10,000 below its budget needs. As a result, it was the final MITT.

Jaime Kaplan, who went on to an outstanding high school, college and professional career, got into tennis as a result of the MITT. As a 9-year-old she got the opportunity to hit balls with Kukal during the event and was hooked on the sport at that point. Kukal and fellow countryman Kodes were hosted by Kaplan’s family during the tournament. All the players stayed with Macon residents during the week-long event.

Kaplan is still very much involved in the tennis community, and you can expect to see a lot of her during this week’s event.

Contact Bobby Pope, who hosts the “Saturday Scoreboard” at 4 p.m. on Fox Sports 1670, at bobbypope428@ggmail.com

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