History of The CountryWide Classic
By Cheri Britton
Starting in 1927, the Countrywide Classic has gone through more than just a few name changes. The tournament was first known as the Pacific Southwest Championships. For five decades it was an amateur only event, in line with the Grand Slams. Until 1984 it was held at the Los Angeles Tennis Club.
This prestigious club is still located on Clinton St. It’s a strictly traditional club, much like Wimbledon. When Billie Jean King was just twelve years old, she was excluded from a group picture at the LATC because she was wearing tennis shorts instead of a tennis dress.
The Pacific Southwest tournament had an ‘intimate feel’. Jack Kramer recalled in his autobiography that he not only played the greats of men’s tennis at the time, but also players from the UCLA and Southern California teams. That must have been a great learning experience for all concerned. To put this all in perspective, the PSC was at least the third most important tournament in the West, and the biggest outdoor hard-court tournament in the world! Remember, at this time, Roland Garros (the French Open) was the only Grand Slam not to be played on grass.
Now for a bit of mystery and detective work: Just when did the ‘Powers that Be’ allow professional players to compete with the amateurs? The evidence seems to point to the ‘Open Era’. This was in 1968 and the new rules allowed Pros to play in the Grand Slams along with amateurs. Obviously this was a great change in international, as well as domestic, tennis. Although there is no definitive answer, all the evidence points to around this time. Rod Laver turned Pro in 1962, and he won the Men’s Singles Title in 1968.
There’s more history of the Countrywide Classic to come! It’s just too big a story to put in one little article, and during the build-up to this fantastic ATP event, expect more articles about the history and some of the fantastic Californian tennis players that have made this event what it is, one of the best.
The Countrywide Classic – Homegrown Men’s Singles Champions, 1930 – 1960
The first Californian born men’s singles Champion of the Pacific Southwest Championships, held at the Los Angeles Tennis Club, was Henry Ellsworth Vines, Jr. His friends called him ‘Elly’, but the media christened him ‘the Californian Comet’. He won the tournament two years running, in 1930 and 1931, before being beaten by Fred Perry. He is still known as one of the greats of men’s tennis.
The next ‘homegrown’ Champion (for anyone that has knowledge of California Tennis) needs no introduction; John Donald Budge. Known by the world as Don Budge, he is the first tennis player from the University of California in Berkeley to win this great hard-court event. An interesting article could be written just about this Californian tennis legend, so perhaps later.
Then comes the infamous Bobby Riggs. More remembered for the “Battle of the Sexes” against Billie Jean King, his status as the top male singles player for three years running seems to have been eclipsed by that event. Jack Kramer, in his 1979 autobiography, noted that he thought Riggs was in the top six of men’s singles tennis players of all time, even bettering Pancho Gonzales.
So, what about Pancho Gonzalez? Even his name invites controversy. Wikipedia says he was born ‘Richard Alonso Gonzalez’, though there are many variations to the spelling of his last name, as well as his first. Let’s just call him Pancho. He was reportedly the ‘McEnroe’ of his day, using rage as a means to an end. Early in his career he used it to propel his game, but later it became a stalling tactic, according to some. Whatever, he was still a formidable fighter, even pushing the limits of his capability in the Fall of his career.
The story goes like this:
Here he was, aged 41 and a grandfather by all accounts, going to Wimbledon in 1969, and playing Charlie Pasarell in the first round of the men’s singles. The match lasts 5 hours, 12 minutes. Pancho saves 7 match points in the 5th set, and wins by 22-24, 1-6, 16-14, 6-3, (and eventually) 11-9. This Wimbledon record remained for 21 years, when Micheal Chang and Stefan Edberg played another 14 minutes longer in 1992. New rules were introduced to stop this kind of match marathons from happening again at Wimbledon, but there still could be another record-breaking men’s single match, although that is highly unlikely. Pancho was one of a kind, but still an inspiration to young players everywhere.
Cheri Britton is the editor of http://www.womens-tennis-apparel.com/ . Her passions are ladies tennis apparel, tennis, and the promotion of the game of tennis worldwide. She also watches far too much tennis than is good for her.