For 355 days of the year the giant concrete eagles atop the stadium at the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, N.Y. stare in complete boredom at the inactivity below them. The seats in the big horseshoe are empty; a community statute forbids their use for other entertainment, such as concerts and outdoor light opera to which the stadium is ideally suited. The green turf of the center courts, pampered like a rare orchid, is kept unruffled.
Then suddenly for a brief 10-day period in late summer—the period overlapping the dying days of August and the borning days of September—you can almost see the feathers rise on the motionless birds which form a grim guard over the arena. Deeply tanned young men and women in inevitable white move around with catlike grace. The place swarms with spectators. These are the U.S. National tennis championships—men's and women's singles and mixed doubles.
This year marks a milestone in the American sport, steeped in the tradition of Little Bill Johnston, Big Bill Tilden, Ellsworth Vines and Donald Budge. This is the Diamond Jubilee event—the 75th birthday of national competition in a game which began with rackets like butterfly nets and balls as dead as sponges. Today the rackets are strung with violinlike tautness and the fuzzy white balls are precision-made and changed every seven games. But the scene is little changed. The same serenity and dignity of years gone by still pervades Forest Hills' tennis acres during these climactic 10 days. Elderly devotees still sit in comfortable chairs on the brick and stone portico of the clubhouse to watch the matches, whichever they may be, on the clubhouse court. They seldom wander the 100 yards to the bustling stadium or adjoining grandstand where the most important conflicts take place.
Spectators sip tall drinks under bright umbrellas at an outdoor lounge near the main stadium entrance. They hang over wire fences to watch action on the so-called field courts stretching between the stadium and the clubhouse. They leap from the stadium to the adjoining wooden grandstand, and vice versa, with electrifying word that one of the seeded favorites is in dire straits from the pressure of some damp-eared unknown from somewhere.
September 2, 1956
While the pageantry may have varied little in 75 years, each tournament has its own unique characters and questions. The three big questions of the Diamond Jubilee event are:
1) Can Australia's Lew Hoad become the first man since Don Budge (1938) to make tennis' Grand Slam in one year—the Australian, French, Wimbledon and U.S. championships?
2) Can Althea Gibson become the first Negro to win the American tennis crown?
3) Can Dick Savitt, the former Wimbledon champion, make good a comeback and inject new spirit into the U.S. Davis Cup hopes?
To my mind there is little doubt that Hoad will complete his coveted sweep. The husky, blond Australian is virtually unchallenged now in amateur ranks.
This moody Sydney youngster, who plays tennis with something between haughtiness and condescension, has compiled a spotty record in this, his best season. He has lost matches in insignificant tournaments to players who shouldn't press him even a little. But in the big test, he has come through magnificently.
We must repeat that this is a new Hoad, unfettered by the shackles of the usual Australian regimen, now a confident, independent young man with few problems. He comes here after a restful ocean trip from Europe on the Queen Mary. His attitude has never been better. He is happy and relaxed. He goes where he pleases and does as he pleases—so far, I imagine, as it is agreeable to his bride of a year, the former Jennifer Staley.
Our national tournament never has been in such danger of so thorough a domination by the smooth-stroking young men from the bottom of the world. Even should Hoad slip up somewhere along the line, there are half a dozen Aussies capable and ready to step into the title vacated by Trabert.
The best of these, outside Hoad, of course, is the other 21-year-old Sydney "twin," Ken Rosewall, the dark-haired youngster with the line-splitting back-court strokes. Rosewall is one of the tennis masters of the age—a picture of shotmanship from the backcourt—but a toy in the grip of Hoad's awesome power.
QUARTET IN RESERVE
Australia has a strong second line in left-handed Neale Fraser, Roy Emerson, Ashley Cooper and Mai Anderson, youngsters ready to step into Davis Cup competition, if necessary. When the handsome, curly-haired Fraser is hitting with his twisting service and controlling his erratic ground strokes, he can beat any amateur in the world.
The United States banner in the Nationals will be carried by the usual old guard, with just a sprinkling of new names. The best bets for keeping the title at home are the Davis Cup veterans, Vic Seixas, 33, and Ham Richardson, 23. Seixas is a superb athlete whose remarkable fighting qualities have carried him over many a major hump—and may do the same again. Richardson is perhaps America's most improved player, enjoying his finest season ever with wins over all the world's top players. A new, more realistic approach to his weaknesses can account for the strides forward made by our recently married Rhodes scholar.
Uncle Sam's second platoon is made up of Art Larsen, Herbie Flam, Tut Bartzen and Eddie Moylan, and there is the youth crop headed by Sam Giammalva, Barry MacKay, Mike Franks and improving Mike Green. A dark horse who bears watching is Dick Savitt, the onetime champion who retired from competition at his peak to go into the oil business in Houston.
Savitt won at Wimbledon, defeated Frank Sedgman en route to the Australian championship and became the world's top player in 1951. Then he dropped virtually from sight, emerging only briefly each year to play in the Dallas and Houston tournaments, where he gave America's aces, Seixas and Trabert, a real run for their money.
Now Savitt has been transferred to New York by his company, D. D. Feldman Oil and Gas. He has entered the national tournament. He is indefinite about Davis Cup plans. But his return to Forest Hills pricks the imagination and gives rise to the thought that Uncle Sam's Davis Cup outlook may not be utterly hopeless. Savitt, in his early 30s, still is capable of playing winning tennis if he can devote himself to the task. A towering bear of a man with a tremendous service and an overpowering ground attack, he could reattain the heights of five years ago.
The women's singles offers a renewal of the rivalry between Shirley Fry, the Wimbledon champion, and Althea Gibson, the big Negro girl who was the sensation of the spring season.
Miss Fry, who has been knocking at the championship door for some 10 years, won at Wimbledon this year, and now she is bidding for the title she could never win as long as Maureen Connolly and Doris Hart, both now pros, were swinging amateur rackets.
Miss Gibson, after several years of defeat and frustration, found herself on the recent worldwide tour which took her from Calcutta to Wimbledon. She won 17 tournaments, 12 in a row, and excited galleries in the tennis capitals of the world.
Her defeat at Wimbledon was a heartbreaking setback. She came home, explained that she was completely exhausted at the time of the All-England championships and didn't play her best. She promised to get in shape for the Nationals.
Now, from all reports, she has kept her word. Her victory would climax a dramatic saga of sport.
BIOPERSE: Lew Hoad
Lewis Hoad began to play tennis eight years after he was born in Sydney, Australia on November 23, 1934. Two years later, in his first tournament, he made the acquaintance of Ken Rosewall, then also aged 10, now his Davis Cup doubles partner.
At 16, Hoad won the Australian Junior championship, thereby catching the eye of Harry Hopman, newspaperman and tennis authority. Hoppy trained Hoad and Rosewall, turning his youthful protégés into a closely knit doubles team. When at 17 the boys made their first worldwide tour under the watchful eye of the ever-present Hoppy, they excited the tennis world with many upset victories.
Since then they have, together and separately, held almost every major tennis title, but it is Hoad who has emerged as the world's best amateur.
He is a stocky boy, with enormous legs and arms. An occasional smoker and beer drinker, he stays in year-round condition. He enjoys most sports, baseball particularly, and jumps at a chance to see his favorites, the Dodgers.
In 1955 Lew married pretty Jennifer Staley. A player herself ("I just hit and giggle"), her steadying influence is given much credit for her husband's improved play. To Australians, no sporting event outranks the Davis Cup. Hoad's expression hardens with Cup talk, and he conveys a strong impression that as long as he is around to defend it, the Cup will stay where it is.