I find myself more and more reminiscing about my early days in tennis. I was 14 when I first started playing. At that age, I had no idea that tennis history was in the making in my home town of Kona. Right about then, Hawaii hosted the Avis Challenge Cup, showcasing the world’s top professional tennis players.
Home of the Avis Challenge Cup
Today it’s known as the Holua Tennis & Pickleball Center in Keauhou, Kona. In 1976, they called it Tres Vidas Kona Centre Court. It was located near the old Kona Surf Hotel at the end of Alii Drive. They built the stadium in the middle of a lava field. And it seated about 2,000 spectators.
A Whole New Concept of Professional Tennis for Television
On February 15, 1976, NBC-TV Sports debuted a series of 15 matches. Ten of those matches were exclusive colorcast live from Keauhou, Kona.
In television circles, coverage of the Avis Challenge Cup was a quantum leap of progress. Why?
- Prize money
- Communications logistics
- Tennis talent assembled
The only other live television coverage from Hawaii to the mainland had been transmissions of the moon-shot.
Hawaii’s Governor, George Ariyoshi, elated to host this historic Hawaii tennis event, stated, “This new tournament offers us the privilege of seeing the world’s finest tennis players in action, in close range, and undoubtedly this event will provide inspiration to our own young players of the sport.”
World Championship Tennis Invites Eight of the Game’s Most Accomplished Players
- John Alexander – 24, Australia
- Arthur Ashe – 32, United States
- Bjorn Borg – 19, Sweden
- Rod Laver – 37, Australia
- Ilie Nastase – 29, Rumania
- John Newcombe – 31, Australia
- Raul Ramirez – 22, Mexico
- Ken Rosewall – 41, Australia
Tennis history note: Before the ATP, the World Championship Tennis (WCT) tour was the most competitive and rewarding circuit.
The players were divided into two groups. Each player competed in a round-robin format. Each time a player won, they received a $10,000 paycheck, the loser got nothing.
The four players with the best records advanced to the semi-finals in a $50,000 winner-take-all. Then, the eventual winner of the finals received $100,000.
The total purse amounted to $320,000. This was the most prize money that was ever offered in this type of tennis competition.
The Avis Challenge Cup Consisted of 15 Matches in 4 Months
Arthur Ashe and Raul Ramirez played the first match on January 21, 1976. It was held in the Honolulu International Center (Neal Blaisdell Center). After that, Kona hosted all except one match every Sunday. And the event concluded with the finals on May 23.
Because of this historic Hawaii tennis event, I had the opportunity to see professional tennis in person for the first time!
Ball Boy Try-Outs
I remember showing up at the old Kona Lagoon Hotel tennis courts for the ball boy try-outs. I wasn’t sure how many they would select in the end. But I remember thinking there were more kids than they needed. There were a bunch of guys that came in from Hilo too!
This is where I first met Ira Gordon, the Official Referee for the Avis Challenge Cup tournament. He ran us through various drills in sprinting, catching, and throwing. After two days of performing these drills, I was fortunate to make the cut!
Nastase and the Time Clock Rule
Ira Gordon remembers the match between Nastase and Alexander. Before the match started, the official from WCT met with Ira and handed him a little box with a stopwatch inside. The official informed Ira they were going to start something new in this tournament.
They were going to use a time clock between points. If a player violated the time clock rule, the penalty would go as follows:
2) Loss of point
3) Loss of game
4) Loss of set (or match, can’t remember).
The time clock rule was specially designed for Nastase because of all his court antics. Sure enough, in the first game, Nastase received a warning for arguing with a linesman on a call. Later in the match, he tried it again, but after the second time, he never tried to violate the rule.
Indoor Surface Not Always Ideal for Outdoors
They installed a synthetic rubberized carpet court surface at the Honolulu International Center. They used the same surface in Kona, although it had never been used outdoors before.
Ira Gordon remembers it had rained hard the night before Borg’s match. On Sunday, it was bright and sunny. As the players warmed up, they complained about the surface being too slippery.
So, they pulled up the carpet and dried it with towels. People had come from all over the world to watch the match. But after an hour’s delay, trying to make the court playable, Ira had to call off the match and postpone it for Monday. Of course, the spectators were not happy since a lot of them had flights to catch.
“The Best Player I’ve Ever Played”
Bert Okuda was a fellow ball boy and shared this story.
“My biggest memory was the day before Ken Rosewall played his match. He was there to practice, but his partner was late, so he asked me to hit! I didn’t have my racquets, so I sprinted back to the Kona Surf and came back to hit with him for 30 minutes. Super nice guy and he had some nice comments for me afterward. So, I guess I can say that he is the best player that I have ever played. Fun times back then! Everyone was so into tennis.”
Avis Challenge Cup Finals Day – Ilie Nastase vs. Arthur Ashe
Back then, who knew that the Avis Challenge Cup would be a once in a lifetime experience . . . I’m lucky to be able to say, “I was there!”
I remember . . .
- The excitement of the crowd in anticipation for matches to start!
- Seeing 2,000 fans packed in the stadium court every Sunday!
- Being up close to the pros and getting their autographs!
Prince Trivia Note
I also remember seeing the Prince Classic aluminum racquet for the first time. The great Don Budge (age 61 at the time) used the racquet during a clinic he ran for the ball boys. He mentioned it would revolutionize the future of tennis.
I was intrigued by the huge head size (110 sq. in.)! Back then, we all played with wood or aluminum frames that were about 65 sq. in. I guess you could say this is where my journey with Prince racquets began…maybe more on that in a future article!
The Finals Highlight
That day, I was assigned to monitor the scoreboard for the match. Back then, the scoreboards were large wooden structures in the corners of both ends of the court. It had horizontal slots to insert the players’ names.
I added the set scores into the vertical slots. I remember I worried I might enter the wrong number in the slots on live television! I felt tested that day, as the match proceeded to 5 sets. In the end, Nastase won the match, 6-3, 1-6, 6-7, 6-3, 6-1.
My takeaway from the match? Well, there’s something that reminds me every day that “I was there!” Can you guess what that was?
If you think you know, put it in the comments below, or contact me for the answer!