In a welcome contrast to the first half of last summer, the 1980 season is progressing in a much more favorable and typical fashion in Mt. Washington Valley. The weather is seasonally warm, gas is in adequate supply at the pumps, and Main Street in North Conway is a non-stop parade of traffic during the day, comparable in magnitude to its appearance two years ago.
Along with these other perennial signs of the season in the Valley, yet another returns this week, as the 1980 Volvo International Tennis Tournament gets under way at the Mt. Cranmore Tennis Club Stadium July 27th- August 3rd.
Now entering its sixth year in the Valley, the tournament has truly come into its own as one of the top 10 events in the world of professional tennis in the views of many. Action this year on the red clay courts of MCTC promises to live up to the high standards this North Country hit has become known for in the years since its move from Bretton Woods, as the World's top tennis stars return to vie for the $25,000 first prize money and a new Volvo sedan. The 64-man draw boasts a formidable field of talent, with five of the top 10 and 16 of the top 25 Association of Tennis Professional ranked players entered in this year's tourney.
The tournament has consistently drawn a strong field of players in its eight-year history, something which Volvo International tournament director Jim Westhall is particularly proud. Westhall, who has coordinated the event ever since its beginnings at Bretton Woods in 1973, has worked with executive assistant Susan Putney all winter long on signing players for the tournament, and now comments that the prospects for this year's extravaganza are especially bright.
"The Volvo is most definitely a tournament which is on the upswing in terms of prestige and as a quality sporting event. We now have instant name identity and recognition in international tennis, and our appeal to spectators is being broadened all the time," the director stated. "Of the 93 professional tennis tournaments played throughout the world, we have one of the most beautiful settings with some of the friendliest people, too. It's those people who voluntarily devote their time and efforts to this tournament which sets it apart from all the others, and they're the ones who make it possible," he continued, noting that the tournament's emphasis on integrity and efforts to improve the overall quality of the week-long affair are also key factors behind its success.
That emphasis on improving the tournaments is a constant priority for Westhall, and he commented that the effort has and will continue to pay off in terms of ticket sales and player participation in the future. "The all inclusive key to the success of this tournament is the people of the Valley themselves. The better job we do each time, the better the impression we make and the more coverage we receive. We've always done a good job in the past, but I think with the competition being what it is, we all have to be aware of the need to continue to find ways to make the tournament better. It's just a matter of fine tuning an already smooth running vehicle."
Westhall's comments about the greater attention being given to the tournament are backed up by the increase in ticket sales prior to the start of play, and also by the number of press credentials that have been requested by various members of the media. According to Susan Putney, 65,000 spectators are expected to attend the series of tennis matches throughout the week, which is 5,000 greater than the record figure for persons attending last year's event. She added that over 350 members of the press have already expressed their intention to cover the matches, and more are anticipated.
The tournament had always enjoyed favorable press relations with members of the media, something Westhall appreciates. "Many tournaments neglect the value of the press coverage, which is a mistake.Here in the Valley, we've always had a good product which has been recognized as such, and we've been treated fairly because of it," he commented. "We've been very fortunate, but we've got to continue to put on a good show. Once you drop below the standards which you've set from past performances, then things can become difficult for you, which is the way it should be. Like a politician, you've always got to run as though you're in second place, and go from there."
CBS has provided coverage of the finals play over the past few seasons, but this year has cut back on its golf and tennis coverage. The Volvo International was one of the tournaments which the network decided not to cover this year, a decision which Westhall believes could be reversed in the future if efforts of the sort he described were demonstrated in standing room only ticket sellouts at the tournament. Despite the CBS decision, the tournament will still receive television coverage for Saturday and Sunday as a result of a new agreement worked out with the USA TV network of New Jersey, a cable network of 5-million subscribers which services the entire country. Film clips of tournament play will also be shot and delivered to Portland and Boston television stations for use on their evening news programs throughout the week by the tournament's own service. In addition, radio coverage will be given by a number of New England stations, including WBZ with Bob Lobel, the voice of the Calling All Sports program.
The media and general public attending the Volvo International this summer will no doubt be treated to some of the best tennis played on clay anywhere. The tournament's field of players this year measures up to the superior quality of past draws, with defending champion Harold Solomon and Jimmy Connors heading the list. Currently ranked #6 on the ATP computer, the 27-year old "Solly" has been a busy man since winning the title last year against Jose Higueras of Spain, and is a good bet to repeat the performance in 1980. A stocky competitor know for his determination to win, the champion has always been well received by Volvo spectators. Prior to his victory last year, he had been remembered for ruining '75-'76 champion Jimmy Connors' chance for a third title in 1977 before losing to eventual champion John Alexander.
Discussion throughout the week centered on whether '75-'76 champion JImmy Connors would decide to enter this year's field. A wait-and-see game had been played prior to the '79 tournament with Jimbo last year, with the third ranked ATP player finally departing after a brief appearance to be with his wife and newborn son. Playing in a tournament in Washington, DC, during the week prior to Volvo this year, Connors had been hesitant to commit himself one way or the other. It is reportedly his preference to play no more than two consecutive weeks at a time, and the Volvo would make it three straight after the US Pros at Longwood and the Washington tourney, Jimbo finally gave definite word on Thursday that he would come after all to Westhall's pleasure. With Connors in the field, he is an overwhelming favorite for the title, despite losing to Jean-Louis Clerc at Longwood in the quarterfinals, His last victory in 1980 came in Birmingham at the US National Indoor Championships in early March. He had also won in Philadelphia and in Memphis.
"Fast Eddie" Dibbs will also be returning to the clay courts of MCTC Stadium this week to try to regain his '78 crown. Dibbs has won the title at Sarasota this year, and was also runner-up at Houston. More recently, he won the US Pro Championships at Longwood, and is currently ranked #10 on the ATP computer. Always a fierce competitor on the court, Dibbsie is certain to be in the running for the Volvo finals on Sunday, August 3rd.
Joining Solomon, Dibbs and Connors at this year's tournament are other Volvo favorites such as Jose Higueras, Roscoe Tanner, John Sadri, Manuel Orantes, Victor Pecci, Raul Ramirez, Stan Smith, Corrado Barazzutti, and Brian Gottfried. A newcomer expected to dazzle the crowds with his racket wielding talents is Ivan Lendl, touted as the future of European Tennis and quite possibly a serious threat to perennial Volvo contenders for the title. While talented on all playing surfaces, the 20-year-old Czechoslovakian prefers to play on clay, a preference which he demonstrated earlier this year when he beat Dibbs, Higueras, and Gottfried on his way to winning the Volvo Grand Prix tournament title at the Houston National Championships. The youngest player currently ranked in the top 20 of the ATP standings, he should prove to be one of the more exciting players to watch in this year's Volvo.
Another player making his first visit to Volvo this year is 14th-ranked Yannick Noah of France, the first great tennis player to come forth from that county in 50 years. Only 20 years old, he has won five Grand Prix titles in his career and this May reached the final of the Italian Open, one of the world's premier events. He is currently ranked among the top 15 on the ATP list, a step ahead of Volvo wild card entry Pat Dupre of the United States.
The 1980 Volvo will also feature the youngest player ever to appear as a competitor in the field of 64 when 15-year old tennis sensation Jimmy Arias steps out onto the courts. Arais was given a wild card by Westhall on the advice of tennis developer and enthusiast Hy Zausner of the Port Washington Tennis Academy, noted for his eye at spotting tennis talent. The youngest player ever ranked on the ATP computer, he has been competing on the Penn national satellite circuit and has beaten some accomplished players there.
The 1980 Volvo International promises to be just as, if not more, successful as its predecessor last year. Already a traditional rite of summer in the scenic setting of Mt. Washington Valley, the tournament has now taken on an identity of its own. The mountains, the relaxed country fair atmosphere, and the infectious hospitality of the 500 dedicated volunteers who make the tournament run each year all are just as much a part of the Volvo International as the play taking place on the clay surfaces of the Mt. Cranmore Tennis Club Stadium's courts. The Volvo offers something for tennis enthusiasts and casual spectators alike. Welcome back summer, and welcome, Volvo.