By TERRELL LESTER
Editor at Large
TULSA CHALLENGE POSTER: The autographed poster from the Tulsa Challenge is displayed proudly in the home of writer Terrell Lester.
Editor’s Note: Terrell Lester enjoyed an award-winning career as a sports writer and columnist for the Tulsa World. This article is his remembrance of the Tulsa Challenge tennis event in 1985.
It was stretching on into the afternoon, a comfortable Sunday afternoon in July 1985.
I had watched on television earlier in the day as Wimbledon crowned its youngest champion ever, 17-year-old Boris Becker.
Quite a show. Becker was athletic. Good looking. Fearless. And 17.
He had summoned all his uncommon skills and unmatched power to take down Kevin Curren, 6-3, 6-7, 7-6, 6-4, becoming the first unseeded player to win the most famous tennis tournament in the world.
Hours after the television coverage had ended, and I was still recalling the scrambling, diving exploits of the sandy-haired Becker, the telephone in my den rang.
It was an acquaintance, Stan Reilly, calling from London.
Through my wife, Glenda, and her employer, Tribune/Swab-Fox Companies, I had been introduced to Reilly. He was an easy-to-like, globe-trotting, fun-loving, tennis-talking entrepreneur.
As president of International Sports Marketing, he had entered into a business relationship with Tribune/Swab-Fox, parent company of The Tulsa Tribune.
Reilly had connections many of us could only fantasize about. His passport read like a world atlas.
He telephoned my home that Sunday afternoon 30 years ago with an even more excitable than usual tone in his voice.
“What would you think about bringing Boris Becker to Tulsa,” he said, in a half-shout.
Reilly had just been in conversation with Becker’s famous manager, Ion Tiriac.
Through a series of quick-hitting questions, Reilly wanted to know from me what types of venues might be available in Tulsa to stage an exhibition featuring the newly minted Wimbledon champion.
Reilly was ecstatic. He had an agreement with the hottest property in tennis. And he had a business partner in a respected Tulsa media firm.
We talked about venues.
The Mabee Center was mentioned. Not workable, Reilly said. No alcohol was permitted.
The Fairgrounds Pavilion? Not suitable, he said. Not exactly the right fit for the tennis fan base. Besides, seating was limited. This was, after all, Boris Becker.
Tennis facilities in Tulsa were incapable of accommodating large crowds.
Eventually, Reilly settled on the downtown Convention Center. The dates, Sept. 17-18, would fall just nine weeks following Wimbledon.
While Reilly pulled off a major sports coup by landing Becker, he took it yet another step by pulling in Curren.
Throughout August, during which Becker competed in the U.S. Open, the blueprint for Reilly’s Tulsa Challenge ‘85 was worked and reworked. The player lineup underwent a change or two. But Becker was firm. Tiriac was firm.
When the spectacle, billed as “an international tennis event,” finally arrived, on Tuesday, Sept. 17, 1985, the $35,000 purse had attracted a quartet of tennis headliners: Becker, Curren, Vitas Gerulaitis and Guillermo Vilas.
He was the dark, fearsome, mustachioed presence always lurking an arm’s length from Becker.
He was a legend before Becker was born.
A native of Transylvania, he carried the nickname “Count Dracula.”
I was awestruck. Starstruck.
Before the matches began that first day, Tiriac conducted a youth clinic.
I was captivated.
I volunteered to drive him to his hotel, to a couple of engagements.
In private, he was not as fearsome as he was perceived.
We chatted. We laughed. Well, I laughed. He stared. That same stare he would level at Bob Uecker two years later in a Miller Lite television commercial.
Still, I thought that we had become comfortable enough that I asked for his autograph.
Certainly, as a newspaperman, such requests were unprofessional. But, this was, for heaven’s sake, Ion Tiriac. One-time Olympic hockey player. French Open tennis winner (in doubles with Ilie Nastase). Manager and coach to the stars.
He obliged my wide-eyed request. Maybe not with a smile. But, at least, without a glare.
Larry Egge of Tulsa made a similar request. A request he seldom made.
Egge was a trainer for the event, as a member of Eastern Oklahoma Orthopedic Center. It is never good form, Egge said, to seek autographs from those who might be perceived as “clients.”
Still, as I had advanced earlier, Egge broke through Tiriac’s stone-like exterior.
“My first impression of Ion Tiriac was, in a word, intimidating,” Egge said recently.
“That mustache. Those dark eyes. That stare. Yet, after a while, I found him to be very nice,” Egge said, adding that the event program featuring Tiriac’s signature, continues to be a prized possession. As are those memories of two days in September, 30 years ago.
The event attracted, according to published reports, 63 working journalists to a press conference at the Westin Hotel/Williams Center on that Tuesday.
The Wichita Eagle-Beacon, with two representatives on hand, quoted me concerning the hoopla surrounding the arrival of Becker.
“I think this is probably the biggest thing we’ve ever had around here,” I told columnist Bob Getz. “I’m just guessing, but I don’t think we’ve ever had this kind of media interest even for University of Tulsa football or basketball games.”
I might have exaggerated a bit.
But despite the media build-up, the crowds did not come out.
The Tuesday night attendance was reported at 1,600. Tickets ranged from $12.50 to $30. Reilly admitted that the prices might have been a bit high.
The Wednesday night attendance was said to be 4,500.
Becker defeated Gerulaitis, 6-3, 6-2, on Tuesday, and Curren took down Vilas, 6-4, 4-6, 6-4. Curren sprained an ankle in that match and his appearance against Becker was in doubt until right up to match time.
Overnight, tournament officials had Curren’s doubles partner Steve Denton flown into Tulsa to be available should Curren fail to start.
Denton was not needed, although Curren was concerned about taking the court.
“Obviously, playing on it was not the best thing to do,” Curren told The Tribune at the time. “But I felt an obligation to the people who came out to see us play.”
And they saw first-tier tennis.
The finals proved almost as riveting as the Wimbledon finals two months before. Becker beat Curren, 6-7, 7-6, 6-3.
Vilas tripped Gerulaitis, 7-6, 1-6, 6-3, in the third-place match.
A pair of three-set matches in an exhibition is virtually unheard of.
As Egge commented in a recent conversation, “One thing you don’t realize about tennis players of that caliber, if you’re not sitting close by, is how hard they hit the ball.”
‘It’s ! I don’t know how you could see the serves, much less return one,” he said.
Due to a cocktail reception, the Wednesday schedule began almost an hour later than the scheduled 7 p.m. start time. The finals match did not end until 12:30 a.m. Thursday.
First National Bank and Trust hosted the get-together in its Top O’ The First club. The quartet of players signed the original oil of their likenesses, created by Tulsa artist David Hicks.
Numbered lithographs, also signed and measuring 15-inches-by-25 inches, were sold. I received No. 82 of 180.
It is on the short list of my most coveted pieces of sports memorabilia.
Much of that feeling is based on the two-day presence of Becker.
Here he was, at the age of 17, on top of the tennis world.
“All his life changed drastically,” Tiriac said at the time. “I just hope he can still be a kid.”
Becker displayed a shy demeanor. His boyish good looks reminded not of a West German athlete but of a Mississippi River Tom Sawyer.
He was patient with the media. He was polite. He was downright parsimonious with his words. He was, it was quite apparent, a student of Ion Tiriac. Minus the fearsome façade. Words were at a premium.
One of the most apt descriptions of Boris Becker came during that decade from the French tennis player Henri Leconte.
“He just hit ball, make winner, win, say thank you and go bye-bye.”
Becker arrived in Tulsa, hit the ball, collected his $15,000 first-place check and left.
No one recalls him even offering “bye-bye.” But a few thousand recall his stay in Tulsa two months after winning what proved to be the first of three Wimbledon championships.
In Later Years
Becker won Wimbledon in 1985, 1986 and 1989. He completed the tennis Grand Slam, winning nine major singles championships overall.
Now 47, Becker is the coach of two-time, reigning Wimbledon champion Novak Djokovic. …
Tiriac, now 76, was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2013. Three years before that, he was listed as the richest man in Romania, with a wealth estimated at $2.2 billion, U.S. …
Gerulaitis, who had years earlier appeared at Tulsa Tennis Club as a teenager, died in 1994 at the age of 40. Once the No. 3-ranked player in the world, he had a penchant for the nightlife, a regular at famed Studio 54 in New York City. As an actor, he had a few movie roles. …
Vilas also was a Tiriac protégé. A native of Buenos Aires, Argentina, he was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1991. The now-63-year-old Vilas won four Grand Slam titles, including the 1977 U.S. Open. He was the second-most popular, certainly the most charismatic, player in Tulsa Challenge ‘85. …
Curren, a native of South Africa, became a U.S. citizen in April 1985, the same year he played in Tulsa. It was widely held that Curren and Becker had two of the most powerful serves among the pros of the 1980s.