Old Masters Return for U.S. Open Event

— In 12 years as a professional athlete, Richey Reneberg earned $4.4 million in prize money with an investment strategy that maximized his skills and energy on a tennis court.

Now, from an eighth-floor office above Park Avenue, he talks to investors, accountants, financial advisers and business associates about the latest twists and turns of hedge funds.

Unlike most of his former adversaries, Reneberg, winner of three singles titles and 19 doubles crowns, has escaped the gravitational pull of the tennis world.

As he takes the court at Flushing Meadows this week for the U.S. Open's Masters Doubles Championship, Reneberg is a rare commodity: Someone who earns a living outside tennis.

Annual Return

The Masters competition is financed with $394,000 in prize money from the U.S. Tennis Association. Once a year, dozens of former top men and women players, now in their 30s, 40s, and 50s, step back onto the U.S. National Tennis Center courts for a week of camaraderie and competition.

Organized by Vic Kasser, a Philadelphia club player and former USTA director, the tournament is part reunion, part flashback.

"The invitations go to former Grand Slam champions [meaning those who won the U.S. Open, Wimbledon, the French Open or the Australian Open], former top 10 players, and world-class former players who are still competing at a high level," Kasser says.

This year, he invited 68 male and female players. Their Masters' matches are played on outside courts as a sideshow to the U.S. Open championships, largely out of sight of the tens of thousands of fans who watch the younger stars in the Arthur Ashe and Louis Armstrong stadiums and grandstand.

"It's a good way to see the guys," says Reneberg, who maintains friendships with a handful of fellow retired players, but sees many more of them during the U.S. Open Masters event.

As a businessman, husband, and father of two children, Reneberg limits his tennis workouts to once every week or two. As a player in the Masters' events, he says, the lack of practice means "there's a much higher risk of making an idiot of yourself."

In his sparsely furnished office recently, seven or eight tennis racquets were stacked against a wall. Nearby, two large tennis bags sat behind him under a window overlooking Park Avenue.

When a photographer placed one of the racquets on his desk to shoot a picture, Reneberg was focused elsewhere, explaining an investment option to a client over the telephone.

Tennis Temptation

The racquets were a reminder that Reneberg and his fellow former competitors face a wide range of temptations to stay within the tennis industry.

Many top players vanish from center court at the end of their playing careers only to reappear as tennis teachers, coaches, broadcasters, or corporate promoters.

John McEnroe, who won 77 titles and earned $12.5 million as a player, now dominates the U.S. airwaves during the four Grand Slam tournaments.

Gene Mayer, who ranked fourth in the world in 1980 and earned $1.3 million in his playing career, now stages promotional tennis events and coordinates paid appearances by celebrity players.

Gigi Fernandez earned $4.6 million in prize money, winning the U.S. Open women's doubles championship five times between 1988 and 1996. Today, she is a college coach in Florida.

Colin Dibley, whose 148-mph serve was the fastest in tennis for 24 years — until Greg Rusedski and Andy Roddick hit 149- mph rockets — operates a tennis academy in Meyersville, N.J. He estimates his tour prize money at about $700,000 between 1970 and 1980.

McEnroe does not play in the Masters' events — trapped, perhaps, in the broadcast booth — but Reneberg, Dibley, Mayer and Fernandez appear regularly for round-robin doubles' competition (singles was dropped some years ago).

"As long as you live," says Reneberg, "you have some competitive spark in you. But it's different when you're making a living from tennis."

Serious Business

But not that different, apparently. Whether he is explaining the intricacies of a hedge fund to a client of his company, Taconic Capital Advisors, or competing in a celebrity event, Reneberg likes to win.

He and his partner, Jim Grabb of Los Angeles, a retired player who writes about tennis, have won the U.S. Open Masters 35 doubles competition the past two years. As active pro players, they won the U.S. Open men's doubles title in 1992.

"Tennis? I'm not in and I'm not out," says Grabb, who has tried working in real estate. "It [tennis] holds a special place in my heart. But I really haven't gotten heavily involved."

That puts Grabb in limbo between sport and workplace.

Former pro player Tom Gorman, meanwhile, has positioned himself inside sports but outside tennis. A former captain of the U.S. Davis Cup team, Gorman is a consultant for a cable television venture, YES, which programs major sports properties, including the New York Yankees, the New Jersey Nets and Manchester United.

Most participants say they play the Masters event for friendship.

Gorman plays for a competitive reason as well: He wants revenge. As an active player in the 1970s, his nemesis was Romania's Ilie Nastase, who now promotes tennis projects from Paris, Bucharest, and New York. Nastase is a regular competitor in the Masters' events.

Thirty years ago, Gorman recalls, "I lost to him 12 or 13 times in a row before I beat him, so I still owe him a lot."

Two years ago, Gorman began paying back. He and his partner, Jaime Fillol of Chile, won the Super Masters Men's 55 Doubles title, defeating Nastase and Tom Okker, the Dutch player who lost to Arthur Ashe in the first U.S. Open singles final in 1968.

"No matter what the age," says Gorman, smiling, "[victory] still has meaning."