Bob Malaga - Cleveland's Mr. Tennis
One Bratenahl Place
Bob Malaga was a multi-faceted man with unlimited drive who will always be Cleveland’s “Mr. Tennis.” Cleveland was synonymous with the best in international tennis for nearly two decades due to his tireless efforts. He made Cleveland one of the world’s tennis capitals for more than a decade. He spurred a tennis boom nationwide.
Malaga was also a judge, Ohio Lottery leader, state tennis champion, Olympic tennis captain, Cleveland Barons hockey team president, and the first paid executive director of what is now the U.S. Tennis Association.
Robert Stephen Malaga was born on October 31, 1926. He was raised in Collinwood, the only child of a Cleveland policeman. He grew up around East 156th Street and Lake Shore Boulevard in the St. Jerome Parish.
Bob was always interested in sports. He starred in football and basketball at Cathedral Latin High School in the 1940s. In 1945, he won the Ohio scholastic tennis championship.
He won a scholarship to Michigan State for both his football and tennis ability. However, his fame in football history is forever secure, if only because of one game. Playing with the varsity as a freshman. He kicked the extra point that beat Kentucky 7-6, thanks to a miss by the rival kicker, George Blanda, who became a master of the art in the National Football League.
He was president of the Phi Delta Phi legal honor society at the Western Reserve University School of Law.
He served as an assistant Ohio attorney general in 1953 and an aide in 1957 to Governor C. William O’Neill. He later practiced law with Strangward, Marshman, Lloyd and Malaga.
By 1959, Malaga had complained so much about local tennis apathy that colleagues in the Northeast Ohio Tennis Association made him president and challenged him to stir things up. He complied. In each of the next three years, and began thinking about the Davis Cup.
He convinced the United States Lawn Tennis Association to the American Zone finals, a Davis Cup preliminary, at the Cleveland Skating Club. Greater Cleveland was the site of six preliminary rounds from 1960 to 1963. Crowds flocked to the competition, putting Cleveland on the tennis map.
In 1963, Malaga also brought the Wightman Cup to Cleveland. finals to Cleveland, pitting the United States’ top women tennis players against Great Britain’s.
Flush with success, Malaga went after the Davis Cup in 1964. He worked the tennis conclaves all over the country, asking them for their votes. His slogan was “Take the game to the people, not the people to the game.” When the final ballot was taken in February, He brought the Davis Cup finals, one of the world's significant sporting events, to Cleveland in an unbelievable coup.
Malaga outbid coastal cities in 1964 by guaranteeing a new stadium and $100,000. Then he coaxed local leaders to back him up. Sports Illustrated featured him that same year: “He is a bald man who does not wear a hat. His eyes do not dart about, his whole head does. . . . He is an aggressive man but not pugnacious, a cigar smoker who does not jab out with the cigar. He brought the Davis Cup to Cleveland by careful planning and polite cajolery.”
Malaga and civic leaders constructed the $200,000 complex in Cleveland Heights, named in honor of Cleveland philanthropist and lawyer Harold Terry Clark, an avid promoter of American participation in the Davis Cup competition.
The site hosted the first Davis Cup final played in the Midwest in 1964. Crowds filled more than 7,000 seats for all five matches, with Australia winning three and the United States two. Arthur Ashe played on the U.S. team that year, the first African American to do so.
World Tennis Magazine called it the top tennis tournament of 1964, outshining Wimbledon.
He had no time to bask in his success. The day after the last match, Governor James Rhodes summoned him to a meeting in Cleveland with Mayor Ralph Locher. The governor put him in charge of the "Save the Indians" committee. Malaga helped sell $1 million in season tickets.
From 1967 to 1973, when Malaga was president of the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association, he promoted the sport in California, North Carolina, and many other places. He brought the Davis Cup finals back to Cleveland in 1969, 1970, and 1973 and staged many other leading tournaments here. He hosted top stars such as Arthur Ashe and Ilie Nastase, plus a 16-year-old Chris Evert. “Watch her,” he told the Plain Dealer in 1971. “She’ll go far.”
When the city’s last Davis Cup final returned to Cleveland on November 30, 1973, the match was held in Public Hall. But, unfortunately, the golden era of Cleveland tennis came to an end later that year, when the Harold T. Clark Stands were dismantled. Cleveland Heights wanted to use the stand for other purposes.
A new stadium opened in 1978 on the South Marginal, near the Shoreway opposite Burke Lakefront Airport. The courts hosted numerous amateur and professional tennis competitions, including the Western Open, the U.S. National Amateur Harcourt Tennis Championship. The Championship of the Americas, Parks Tennis Tournament, and the Urban League Annual Tennis Tournament.
The building was good, but the venue did not have the look of the suburbs, and there was too much noise from airplanes and traffic. As a result, it ceased to be used for tennis in 1988. Malaga told the Plain Dealer that Cleveland would have remained a tennis hub if not for that move.
Ohio Governor Rhodes made him executive director of the Ohio Lottery Commission in 1975, a probate judge in 1980, and a municipal court judge in 1981. Malaga led the National Tennis Foundation, U.S. Davis Cup committee, Cathedral Latin Alumni, and more at various times. He coached the Cleveland State University tennis team and started a booster club for their basketball team. He was honored by the Ohio Supreme Court, several athletic halls of fame, and more.
Robert Malaga died on July 21, 2012, and is was buried in Lake View Cemetery. "Bob Malaga did things for tennis and Cleveland that will probably never be duplicated," said Jack Herrick, a tennis and squash partner.
The Davis Cup is the premier international team event in men's tennis, run by the International Tennis Federation (ITF). The competition began in 1900 as a challenge between Great Britain and the United States.
The Wightman Cup was an annual team tennis competition for women from 1923 through 1989 (except during World War LL) between the United States and Great Britain teams.