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The Handsome Eight

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The Handsome Eight was the name given to one professional and seven amateur tennis players who signed with a New Orleans promoter named Dave Dixon in late 1967 and 1968 to play for a newly formed professional tour, World Championship Tennis (WCT). The WTC was backed financially by a wealthy Texas oilman, Lamar Hunt, who had, in 1960, been the prime founder of the American Football League. Taken together with a rival group called the National Tennis League, which had such prestigious professionals such as Ken Rosewall, Rod Laver, Pancho Gonzales, Andres Gimeno, and Fred Stolle, as well as another recently signed top amateur, Roy Emerson, so many of the world's top players were lost to amateur tennis that a final impetus was given to the push to create Open Tennis, which would let both professional and amateur players compete in the same tournaments.[1] As a direct result, 12 Open tournaments were authorized for the year 1968 by the International Tennis Association, and the first Open tournaments were held in the spring and summer of 1968.

Who they were

The Handsome Eight were Nikki Pilić of Yugoslavia, Earl "Butch" Buchholz and Dennis Ralston of the United States, Pierre Barthes of France, Cliff Drysdale of South Africa, Roger Taylor of Great Britain, and John Newcombe and Tony Roche of Australia. At the time of the formation of the Handsome Eight, Buchholz had already been a professional for seven years. All of them were fine players, prominent in their own countries and with many amateur titles to their names, but only Newcombe and Roche were quite at the very highest level of the game as exemplified by Rosewall and Laver in the other touring group.

For many years the London Daily Telegraph had published an annual unofficial ranking of the top ten amateur tennis players in the world. At the end of 1967, Lance Tingay, who complied the list that year, considered Newcombe to be the world's best amateur, with Roy Emerson, of the rival professional group, as the #2 player. Roche was #5, Pilić was #7, and Drysdale was tied with two others for #10. The other four of the Eight were not ranked.[2]

French Open

Of the 12 Open tournaments played in 1968, the three most prestigious were the national championships of France, Great Britain, and the United States. The first of these, the French Open, was played in Paris in May. For reasons unknown at this date, none of the Eight participated in the tournament. Six members of the rival professional group, the National Tennis League, however, were among the top eight seeds, and all four of the semi-finalists were NTL players. In the final, Rod Laver defeated Ken Rosewall in four sets.

Wimbledon

A month later at the British championships at Wimbledon, the world's most prestigious tournament, all of the Handsome Eight participated, with six of them among the top 16 seeds. Barthes and Taylor were unseeded, but Newcombe was #4, Ralston was #9, Buchholz was #10, and Drysdale, Roche, and Pilić were the final three seeds, #14 through #16.

In the matches themselves, Pilić lost in the first round to the unseeded Herb Fitzgibbon. Barthes lost in the second round to the unseeded V. Korotkov, Drysdale lost in the third round to the unseeded Tom Edlefsen, and Newcombe lost in the fourth round to the #13 Arthur Ashe. Both Ralston and Buchholz lost in the quarterfinals, Buchholz to his touring companion Tony Roche, and Ralston to the #1 seed, Rod Laver. Roche, the #15 seed, lost to Laver in the finals in three quick sets.

United States Open

At the final national championships of the year, the United States Open at Forest Hills in New York City, all of the Eight participated except for Earl Buchholz. Roche and Newcombe were seeded #2 and #4 respectively, while Ralston was #6 and Drysdale was #16. The top seed was Rod Laver, the winner of the French Open and of Wimbledon.

All seven players advanced to at least the third round. In that round Taylor lost to the #7 seed, Clark Graebner, while Barthes lost to the #8 seed, Tom Okker. Unseeded Nikki Pilić lost in the fourth round to teammate Dennis Ralston, while Roche was shocked in the same round by the 40-year-old Pancho Gonzales, seeded 13th, in straight sets. Ralston lost in the quarterfinals to #3 Ken Rosewall, while Drysdale, who had preciously upset top-seed Rod Laver in the fourth round, was beaten by an amateur, #3 Arthur Ashe. Newcombe was also beaten in the quarterfinals by another amateur, Clark Graebner. In the finals, the American Arthur Ashe beat another amateur, Tom Okker of the Netherlands.

1968 rankings

Unofficial rankings for the year 1968, including both professionals and amateurs, were made by Bud Collins, the noted tennis commentator who, at the time, was a journalist for the Boston Globe. Tony Roche and John Newcombe of the Handsome Eight were ranked #4 and #6 respectively, while Dennis Ralston and Cliff Drysdale were #8 and #9. He judged Rod Laver to have been the world's #1 player for the year.[3]

Subsequent careers in the Open Era

All eight players continued to compete throughout the first few years of the Open Era, with varying degrees of success. They are listed here by ascending number of singles titles won in 1968 and subsequent years.

  1. Earl Buchholz was the world's best junior player for several years, then turned professional at age 21 and won a number of professional tournaments before the Open Era. Once Open Tennis began, however, he apparently never won another title in either singles or doubles. His most notable year for Grand Slam tournaments was 1969, when he made it to the quarterfinals of both the Australian Open and the United States Open—the previous year he had reached the Wimbledon quarterfinals. He was never ranked in the top ten world players by either Bud Collins or, beginning in 1973, by the ATP's (Association of Tennis Professionals) computer-generated ranking service.
  2. Dennis Ralston played sparingly in the Open Era after appearing in eight tournaments during the first year. He won one singles title in 1970 and was a finalist in one tournament in both 1969 and 1970. As well as being a quarterfinalist at both Wimbledon and the United States Open in 1968, he was a quarterfinalist in the United States Open of 1970, after beating the #1 seed Rod Laver in the 4th round, and was a semifinalist in the Australian Open of that same year. He also won five doubles titles in the Open Era. But after being ranked the world's #8 player in 1968, he was never again ranked in the top ten world players by either Bud Collins or, beginning in 1973, by the ATP's (Association of Tennis Professionals) computer-generated ranking service.
  3. Pierre Barthes, who was a more successful doubles player than singles player, never got past the fourth round of any of the four Grand Slam tournaments in singles. He was a finalist in six other tournaments, however, and in doubles won six tournaments, including the 1970 United States Open with his teammate Nikki Pilić. He played his last match in a Grand Slam tournament in the doubles competition of the 1980 French Open. He was never ranked in the top ten world players by either Bud Collins or, beginning in 1973, by the ATP's (Association of Tennis Professionals) computer-generated ranking service.
  4. Roger Taylor was also a successful doubles player: he twice won the United States Open, in 1971 with John Newcombe and the following year with Cliff Drysdale. He won his last doubles title in 1977. He also, however, won three singles titles between 1971 and 1975. In 1973 he reached the quarterfinals of the French Open as well as the semifinals of Wimbledon. He was never ranked in the top ten world players by either Bud Collins or, beginning in 1973, by the ATP's (Association of Tennis Professionals) computer-generated ranking service.
  5. Nikki Pilić won the United States Open doubles title with Barthes but also won four singles titles from 1969 through 1975. He lost the singles finals of the 1973 French Open and reached the quarterfinals of the United States Open that same year. At the Australian Open he never advanced beyond the third round and at Wimbledon beyond the fourth round. He was never ranked in the top ten world players by either Bud Collins or, beginning in 1973, by the ATP's (Association of Tennis Professionals) computer-generated ranking service. He was, however ranked #15 1973 and #33 the following year.
  6. Cliff Drysdale, one of the first players to use a two-handed backhand, was equally successful in the Open Era with five singles titles and seven in doubles—he was 37 when he won his last singles title. He and teammate Roger Taylor won the 1972 United States doubles. In 1968 he reached the quarterfinals of the United States Open, beating #1 seed Rod Laver in the third round, and in 1971 he made the quarterfinals of the Australian Open. He was ranked by Bud Collins as the #9 player in the world in 1968, 1969, and 1971.
  7. Tony Roche never won a Grand Slam tournament as a professional (he had won the 1966 French Championships as an amateur) but did win 12 singles titles, six of them of 1969, and was the losing finalist in three Grand Slams. He was also a semi-finalist in another three Grand Slams and a quarterfinalist in four more. He was also a superb doubles player, winning Wimbledon four times as a professional with teammate John Newcombe as his partner, as well as the 1976 Wimbledon mixed doubles with Françoise Durr. As a professional he won 27 doubles titles. He was ranked by Bud Collins as the #4 player in the world in 1968, #2 behind Rod Laver in 1969, and #3 in 1970.
  8. John Newcombe was the most successful of the Handsome Eight, winning 32 singles titles as a professional and 41 doubles titles, many of them with Tony Roche. He was ranked seven times among the world's ten best players and was considered to be the #1 player in the world in both 1970 and 1971, as well as being the #2 player in both 1973 and 1974. As a professional he won Wimbledon twice, the Australian Open twice, and the United States Open once. He also won 11 Grand Slam titles in doubles. Jack Kramer, the long-time promoter and top player himself, calls Newcombe in his 1979 autobiography one of the 21 best players of all time.[4]

Notes

  1. For the first announcement of the new league, see the New York Times article of December 24, 1967, about the rival groups at [1]
  2. Total Tennis: The Ultimate Tennis Encyclopedia, by Bud Collins, Sport Classic Books, Toronto, Canada, 2003, page 917
  3. ibid., page 917
  4. Writing in 1979, Kramer considered the best ever to have been either Don Budge (for consistent play) or Ellsworth Vines (at the height of his game). The next four best were, chronologically, Bill Tilden, Fred Perry, Bobby Riggs, and Pancho Gonzales. After these six came the "second echelon" of Rod Laver, Lew Hoad, Ken Rosewall, Gottfried von Cramm, Ted Schroeder, Jack Crawford, Pancho Segura, Frank Sedgman, Tony Trabert, John Newcombe, Arthur Ashe, Stan Smith, Björn Borg, and Jimmy Connors. He felt unable to rank Henri Cochet and René Lacoste accurately but felt they were among the very best.