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  • Tom Eastman

The 1979 Ear of the Year Award

Kindly indulge in a brief time passage, back to Sunday, August 5, 1979. A capacity crowd sits under clear blue skies and a hot sun, watching two of the top clay court specialist in the world battle one another at center court.

The taller of the two, sixth seeded Jose Higueras of Spain, still upset over a referee's earlier call against him, commits three unforced errors to give his opponent, fourth seeded Harold Solomon, double match point at 6-4 in the tiebreaker of the third and final set. Sweat drops in streaks from his curly dark hair and beard; across the net Solly can barely hold onto his racquet due to cramps. The match is three house and 30 minutes long when Solly returns a Higueras volley with a cross-court forehand to accomplish what Deon Joubert, John Sadri, Brian Gottfried, Corrado Barazzutti, and Guillermo Vilas have been unable to do all week. He beats him.

In doing so, the diminutive righthander became the Champion of the 1979 Volvo International Tennis Tournament. A parallel between the victor and the tournament can be drawn. The popular and boyishly good looking Solomon is known in the tennis world as much for his easy smile as he is for his sharp two fisted backhander. As for the tournament, it has in its five years at the Mt. Cranmore Tennis Stadium matured into one of the friendliest yet most organized tournaments in New England, if not in the world. It was an appropriate marriage.

For his part, Solly won $25,000 and a new Volvo. What did the tournament and the Mt. Washington Valley receive? National recognition as a classic sporting event and beautiful area, a boost to an early summer drop in business, and as always, a great deal of pride and satisfaction. They also won something else, for the same achievements mentioned above and numerous other. The 1979 Volvo International is the recipient of the 1979 Mountain Ear "Ear of the Year Award," given annually to those persons who, in our estimation, have made a contribution to the enhancement of the resort community of Mt. Washington Valley. Congratulations, everyone. You're now driving an admired and well oiled machine.

Another time passage, this one earlier in the summer, and questions are bouncing around town faster than a Roscoe Tanner first serve. Will there be enough gas this summer for tourists? Even if gas is available up here, will tourists be willing or able to afford or obtain gas for road trips to the North Country? The Mt. Washington Valley Chamber of Commerce is in touch with the State's Departments of Energy and Vacation Travel and local gasoline dealers almost every day, trying to learn the latest gasoline situation. There is gas in the Mt. Washington Valley during the early summer, thus answering the first question concerning its availability. As the season progresses, though, the answer to the second question is found by looking at the vacancy signs on motel windows and by the lack of traffic traveling south from the Scenic Vista in Intervale at 5:00 p.m. every day. A third question is posed: Will Volvo make up the the earlier losses of the summer?

It certainly helped, according to Frank Connolly of the North Conway Bank. "There's no question - Volvo gave the shot in the arm that the Valley's economy needed this year. It restored confidence for the rest of the summer season and the strong foliage business," Connolly said in December. "This was the year that people realized what an event like Volvo could do for them. In the past, I've always heard a complaint or two about Volvo not being necessary because it came at the height of the tourist season anyway. Well, I'm not going to say that the Valley wouldn't have been able to survive without the tournament this year, but I will say that I didn't hear too many complaints about the traffic this time either."

While no sophisticated studies have been done to pinpoint the economic impact of the tournament because its spinoff effect throughout the year is too difficult and intangible to determine, some rough estimates are usually employed. Mike Perlis, executive director of the MWV Chamber of Commerce, says that a conservative estimate for the week alone can be obtained by multiplying the number of tickets bought by $100. Despite the fears about gas, a record number of 59,746 persons paid to watch the Grand Prix event, stay in hotels, buy food, and shop, pumping at least six but more likely eight million dollars into the Valley's economy. Some tennis goers stayed a second week; others liked what they saw and either told their friends or made plans to return at other times during the year. "The demographics of the average tennis watcher, studies have shown, are higher than those of the average tourist, and I think that that fact is an important piece of information for the local economy," says Perlis. "This year, we really needed the business, as we learned that we just can't count on always having it all in the bag. The tourist season really didn't start until the end of July. The tournament not only helped us out, promotionally and economically, but it was a tremendous success in its own right as well," he continued.

In just what ways was the 1979 version of this smooth running vehicle a success? For starters, the tournament attracted six out of the top 10 ATP players in the world, and seven of the top 10 of the Colgate Grand Prix standings as of December 1st. The field of 64 players contained 26 of the top 50 as well. "Very few tournaments get 3-7 of the top players. We consistently get more than that," says Nancy Jones of Volvo International's North Conway staff. The players come for a number of reasons, none of which can be taken for granted. Above all, they obviously are competing for the prize money. But as tournament director Jim Westhall explains, money loses some of its significance when it is used as the only drawing card for a player who is young and already rich, and who thinks of himself as a man of the world.

"It's the hospitality, friendliness, and commitment of the people in the Mt. Washington Valley which make the difference for the players, the media and tennis enthusiasts, and believe me, they spread the word," Westhall said. As the director for both the Volvo International and Volvo Games, in Palm Springs, California, Westhall is now constantly on the road talking and covering the tennis scene, and he says that the success and organization of Volvo International is now being looked at by others as the model to follow. "Bud Collins was covering the Davis Cup in San Francisco last week and was trying to beat out a story which he had to read on the air only 20 minutes from when I saw him. He was stuck for a story and he had no time, but he still came over to talk to me, and told me that he thinks that the Volvo International is now one of if not the best run tournaments in the country," Westhall related. "Like a pretty girl which has always been there but never really noticed, people this year are standing back and admiring the qualities which make the Volvo such a special and popular tournament."

The tournament was aided by Mother Nature this year with the weather: only one rain-threatening day out of the eight. Qualities, though, which were the result of human effort contributed just as importantly to the reputation Volvo now has as New England's premiere tennis tournament. Behind each basket of fruit for the players, the very popular shuttle bus from the tournament to Main Street, the friendly ambience of the volunteers, many of whom never even got the chance to take in any of the matches themselves, was a lot of pride, dedication, and hard work. In other words, large doses of Valley Spirit.

Valley Spirit and Volvo Spirit became meshed into one five years ago when the tournament was moved from Bretton Woods to the specially built Mt. Cranmore Tennis Stadium, now the third largest outdoor tennis facility in the country. A lot was learned the hard way in making the first model to come off the assembly line in 1975, largely through hours of dedicated volunteer work. Each year, since then, the end product and production line have improved, while the commitment has remained the same. In 1979, those five years of experience culminated in a classic model.

The tournament itself has come into its own. Ticket sales were obviously spurred by Super Father of the Year Jimmy Connor's brief but energetic stopover in North Conway, but the quarter, semi, and final play saw some of the finest tennis ever played on the clay courts of the MCTC Stadium, Jimbo, Borg, Gerulaitis and McEnroe notwithstanding. The event itself has become an attraction which both tennis enthusiasts and tourists can appreciate, in addition to the players, according to Westhall.

"Obviously, the field of players is the main attraction, and there's no way that a top player will be in North Conway next summer if we don't make him want to come here. That's my job," explained the director. "People also realize though that we're putting on an honest show with sincerity, and a good one at that. They just don't want to watch tennis, they want to watch it in North Conway."

The picturesque setting of the Valley referred to by Westhall is one of the tournament's main attractions, and the promotion of that feature is one of the major reasons why the Mt. Washington Valley Chamber of Commerce decided to co-sponsor the Volvo International nearly five years ago. Through the television coverage and media exposure, the Valley receives promotional advertising for free which would otherwise be too expensive for the Chamber and State to afford.

But as Westhall noted, there is no time to look back too long at past success. "We can't pretend that we're the only ones dong a good job. The media and the players now have extremely high but well deserved expectations for the Volvo International, and if we are to continue growing, we've got to keep on doing a good and better job each year," he stated.

The director's comments aside, the Mountain Ear does take this one time out to salute everyone directly or indirectly involved in the Volvo International's success, particularly in 1979, with the 1979 "Ear of the Year." You put out a top-of-the-line model.

And just for fun -- the Ear of the Year Runners Up:

NOTE: Tournament Director Jim Westhall passed away at age 88 in 2015.

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