Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and every other professional tennis player competing today owe George MacCall a debt of gratitude.
In the late 1960s, MacCall pushed for players to be paid at Wimbledon and other major tennis events when they weren’t allowed to accept prize money for fear of risking their amateur status and being barred from competition.
MacCall, a longtime Las Vegas resident, died Wednesday in Southern California after a lengthy illness. He was 90.
“George had such a passion for the game of tennis and for his friends,” said Kevin Janison, the chief meteorologist at KVBC-TV and one of MacCall’s closest friends. “He would push the envelope to make sure he could help them reach their goals.”
MacCall, who had been a successful businessman in the insurance industry, was no-nonsense but also generous, Janison said. And when it came to tennis, he never backed away from a fight.
“He was a crusty guy with a very soft middle,” Janison said. “He could rub people the wrong way at times. He was tough, but he had a huge heart.”
MacCall’s tireless promotion of the sport left a lasting impression in the Las Vegas tennis community, said Ryan Wolfington, executive director for the United States Tennis Association-Nevada.
“He was always trying to promote tennis without making a dime off what he did,” Wolfington said. “I saw kids graduate from his After-School All-Stars program that are now playing college tennis on scholarship.”
MacCall moved to Las Vegas in 1973 and spent virtually his entire time in town promoting the sport and trying to get children involved in tennis.
One of his most fulfilling endeavors was working with the Las Vegas Inner-City Games. Through countless clinics, MacCall introduced tennis to thousands of disadvantaged youth who probably never would have picked up a racket.
MacCall also helped UNLV build its Fertitta Tennis Center in the early 1990s by single-handedly raising $185,000 toward the construction of the facility.
In 2006, MacCall was inducted into the Southern Nevada Sports Hall of Fame for his contributions to tennis.
Born in Kearney, N.J., in 1918, McCall took up tennis at 11. He didn’t become proficient at the sport until he reached his 30s. But he eventually became a world-class senior player, reaching the finals at Wimbledon three times in the 45-and-over division while winning championships at the senior French Nationals, South American Championships, USTA Hard Court and USTA Indoors Championships.
McCall served as U.S. Davis Cup captain from 1965 to 1967, when he had Arthur Ashe, Dennis Ralston and Marty Riessen on his squad.
During that time, MacCall organized a professional tennis circuit, the National Tennis League. Tennis still largely comprised amateurs at the time, but MacCall convinced some of tennis’ biggest names, including Ashe, Rod Laver, Roy Emerson and Stan Smith, to take part in his pro circuit, despite the fear that they could be shut out of Wimbledon, which at that point was an amateur event. The players were able to play Wimbledon while keeping their prize money. It launched a new era in tennis.
In 1973, MacCall got involved with a new concept: World Team Tennis. He became the league’s first commissioner when play began in 1974. He stepped down a year later but stayed involved with the sport as a teaching pro and promoting celebrity tennis matches.
In 1988, the George MacCall Youth Tennis Foundation was formed to help promote the sport in Las Vegas.
MacCall, who still was playing tennis competitively at age 85, suffered a debilitating stroke a couple of years ago.
MacCall, preceded in death by wife Wick, is survived by daughters Polly Johnston of Valenica, Calif., and Robin Sims of Omaha, Neb., and five grandchildren.
MacCall was to be cremated in California. Details for a memorial service in Las Vegas were being worked out.