On a sweltering New Year's Eve, on the chewed-up center court of the Milton Club in subtropical Brisbane, America broke Australia's tennis monopoly and won the Davis Cup for the second time in eight years. The individual hero of this almost unbelievable achievement was a 22-year-old Peruvian named Alex Olmedo. Olmedo upset the world's two best amateur players—Mal Anderson on the first day and Ashley Cooper on the third—and in between joined with Ham Richardson in capturing the vital doubles. Thus he won two of the U.S.'s three points and shared in the third. Barry MacKay of Dayton failed to match his peak performance of last year as he lost to both Cooper and Anderson in the singles.
Last February, when 70-year-old Perry T. Jones was named captain of the U.S. Davis Cup team, two individuals figured prominently in his plans for recovery of the international tennis trophy. One was Olmedo. The other was professional Promoter Jack Kramer. This last drew some pointed criticism, but the aging captain merely shrugged his massive shoulders and said: "When I took this job I knew there were some things about it which I could not handle. I am not a tactician. I am an executive and an organizer. So I decided to get the best men possible to help me. Number one on this list was Jack Kramer, who, I think, is the most brilliant man in the sport."
Jones had to battle to get Olmedo on his team. His selection was resisted by American tennis officials on the grounds he is not an American, but Jones's persuasiveness won the young player the unanimous approval of the Davis Cup Selection Committee. There were other difficulties. Kramer was fighting a private war with the Australian amateur tennis officials over venues for his pro matches, while Jones, as a tennis ambassador, was attempting to keep the Australian brass happy. It was an awkward position for both Jones and Kramer, but they never wavered.
Another distraction was the case of Ham Richardson. As the No. 1 player in the U.S., Richardson had been begged to leave his job as an aide to Senator Russell Long of Louisiana in order to make the trip. He expected to play in both the singles and doubles. But Jones and his staff of advisers felt that Richardson's diabetic condition might work to his detriment over a three-day test in intense heat. So they decided to bench him in the singles and play him in the doubles only. This was a sharp blow to Richardson's pride, and, after failing in the final hours before the matches to convince Jones otherwise, he issued a strongly worded statement criticizing Jones. The American captain drew scathing comments from the Australian press for benching Richardson. Even Harry Hopman, the Australian captain, said with a complacent grin: "We are pleasantly surprised that MacKay was named instead of Richardson. We think Richardson is the strongest man on their team."
January 12, 1959
These barbs were all that Kramer and company, who seldom miss a trick, needed. They spread the clippings around the U.S. dressing room before the first day's matches, then cornered Olmedo at a prematch meal and gave him a fire-eating pep talk.
"Look at what they're doing to the old man," Kramer said. "They're making him look like a bum."
"I'll win for Mr. Jones," said Olmedo grimly. "They can't do this to my good friend."
With this incentive Olmedo took the court in his first match and shook Australian confidence by whipping Anderson 8-6, 2-6, 9-7, 8-6. This was Olmedo's first challenge round—he had never even seen a Davis Cup match until 10 days before in the interzone final at Perth—but he was the picture of relaxation. Loose and perfectly poised, he flitted from one side of the court to the other, pulling off phenomenal shots. He repeatedly made tricky drop shots or stop volleys, and he was never tentative on the volley.
It was a frustrating defeat for the thin, nut-brown Queenslander. Anderson had two set points in the first set when he led 6-5 and 40-15 on Olmedo's service. After winning the second set with the only two service breaks of Olmedo in the match, Anderson had five opportunities to take the third set in the 14th game. He had set point in the 12th game of the fourth set, but Olmedo, as in previous sets, fought his way out of the hole with deep, well-placed first services and pressure volleying.
When Olmedo dropped the second set so easily after taking the first, a cold shiver went through the American camp. Olmedo has always been a player of promise, but his career has been hampered by a failure to bear down when given an advantage; or, expressing it another way, some feared he lacked the "killer instinct." It was a thought that was permanently dispelled before the end of the three days.
With the U.S. one up, MacKay was so keen as he took the court against Ashley Cooper that he seemed ready to jump out of his skin. Every time he hit a cannonball service or sent a shot zooming across court he would leap high in the air and click his heels together. He swept through the first set 6-4. In the second he broke Cooper's service in the first game and moved to a 3-0 lead with a second break of Cooper's service. Then, with the score 30-all, MacKay was fed an easy lob at net. He smashed it, but Cooper lofted another. MacKay smashed again. Cooper again returned it high. MacKay smashed the third one into the net. Then he netted a volley on the next point to lose the game, and he never got into the battle after that as Cooper gained in confidence and effectiveness.
"If only MacKay had put one of those overheads away," said Kramer afterward. "He had Cooper reeling."
With the match score 1-1, the U.S. sent Olmedo and Richardson against Anderson and left-handed Neale Fraser in the doubles. This developed into the longest and one of the most exciting doubles matches in Davis Cup competition. It took a total of 82 games and four hours to decide the issue. Each team had set point in the 70-minute opening set before the Australians finally won by breaking Olmedo in the 22nd game. The Americans led 8-7 with advantage, but Richardson double-faulted at set point. The Australians also took the second set 6-3 for a two-set lead. It looked bad. But the Americans battled their way through the marathon third set to win it 16-14 and remain alive.
STRATEGY FOILS FRASER
The Yanks came out after the intermission with a tandem trick which had been suggested by Pancho Gonzales, the world's greatest active tennis player. Pancho noticed that Fraser had played superbly during the first three sets and was killing the Americans with his backhand return of service across court. It was a deadly shot. So, starting the fourth set, the Americans employed the tandem against Fraser, who played the backhand court. When Richardson served to Fraser, Olmedo, instead of taking the normal net position on the right-hand side, parked himself at the left on the same side as the server. This meant that Richardson had to advance to the opposite net position. The same strategy was used when Olmedo served. The maneuver so cut down the effectiveness of Fraser's backhand return of service that he scored only one winner off it in the last two sets. In fact, the Australians got only two points on the Americans' service in the fourth set. Still, the match finished on a tense, cliff-hanger note with the Americans finally winning by cracking the wobbly Anderson serve in the 11th game of the fifth set. Two fine volleys by Richardson put the U.S. in position, and then Olmedo made a miracle shot. Fraser hit a blinding smash at Alex' feet, but Alex lowered his racket and lobbed the ball neatly to the back court for a winner which left the crowd gasping. Then Olmedo held his own service for victory of 10-12, 3-6, 16-14, 6-3, 7-5.
Even leading two matches to one after the second day, the Americans were conceded no better than an even chance to regain the cup. Cooper, who is rated the best amateur in the world, figured to take Olmedo, and there was a tossup in the battle between MacKay and Anderson. But Olmedo reached into the clouds for the tennis performance of his life to win 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, 8-6. Cooper's powerful service, his chief weapon, failed him, but there was no assurance he would have won had he been at his best. With beautiful racket action, coordination and anticipation the agile Olmedo at times toyed with the Australian ace as a matador might with a charging, angry bull. Cooper made two fighting lunges, neither successful. Down 5-1 in the third set, he won three games in a row but finally lost the set 6-4. In the fourth set Olmedo had a 4-3 lead and 40-love on his own service when Cooper came back with a series of powerful forehand crosscourt shots to break Alex's delivery and knot the set. But two passing shots by Olmedo broke Cooper in the 13th game, and the Peruvian put all his might into his service in the final game for victory.
"We did it, Cap. We won," he yelled happily as he went to the dressing room, his cheeks wet with tears. "By golly, we did," said the happy Captain Jones.
As the Americans neared victory, the normally unpartisan Australian galleries began to feel edgy and to yell for the home talent. This resulted in some burlesque incidents. Inept line calling contributed to the confusion and invoked demonstrations from the excited galleries. In the tense third set of the doubles, with the score 9-10 against the Americans, Richardson served and then missed a volley return. He complained that the linesman had signaled out on the serve but had not called it aloud. The umpire upheld the linesman, saying the ball had been in play. Richardson rushed to the umpire's stand to protest. Cliff Sproule, the tournament referee, walked onto the court to question the linesman, who admitted he had put out his hand involuntarily. The referee ordered the ball played as a let. The fans barracked in the Cooper-Olmedo match so much that the players protested, and twice the umpire made an announcement to the fans to refrain from making sounds when the ball was in play. In the first game of the third set a fan yelled "You beauty!" on a service by Cooper which would have made the score 30-40. Olmedo protested, and Umpire George Valentine ordered the ball played as a let. But Referee Sproule walked on the court and overruled the umpire. Olmedo won the next point anyhow and achieved the service break. Another time in the second set, when Olmedo suffered a bad spill, he went to the sidelines to get a towel with which to rub off the dirt. Sproule intercepted him and said, "Play must be continuous." Olmedo also won this tug of war and completed toweling off before resuming.
Olmedo credited both Kramer and Gonzales for tips which helped him in his victory over Cooper. He said Kramer advised him that when Cooper missed his first service it would be a good idea to jump around a lot before the second service in order to disconcert the Australian. Cooper served 11 double faults. Gonzales told Olmedo that Cooper was slow on the court and that he should move the Wimbledon champion around; also that Cooper closed in too tight on the net and was vulnerable to lobs. Alex praised Gonzales' help, saying to the gallery at the cup presentation, "Gonzales helped me most—he is what you call the most tactic guy in the world."
Olmedo became a hero on three continents. Congratulations from Peru piled up at his hotel door. He had messages from Peruvian President Manuel Prado and the governor of his home town of Arequipa. A wire from Movie Star Kirk Douglas said, "Now you are more than a chief. You are a superchief." At the end of the cup presentation ceremony the crowd yelled, "We want Alex. Give us Alex. Speech, Alex."
Officials were forced to let Alex and other players talk briefly, and the fans gave Olmedo an ovation of several minutes.
Captain Jones proved to be an intriguing character. In his perennial bow tie and dark glasses he made an unusual figure at courtside. He delighted galleries with his unbridled enthusiasm and defiance of tradition. When Americans hit a good shot he would stand up and applaud vigorously. Once, in Perth, he fell over backward in his chair and lay sprawled for several moments like a turtle unable to get back on its feet. The crowd guffawed.
Olmedo tells a Jones anecdote stemming from his match with Anderson. When Alex changed courts he looked around for the captain, and Jones was not in his seat. Then Alex saw Jones at his elbow, eyes wide with excitement. "I told Captain not to worry. I would win. He was nervous. I had to give him confidence."
Alejandro Olmedo y Rodriguez, 22, was born in Arequipa, Peru, son of the caretaker cum pro at the local tennis club. He came to this country four years ago, scared and broke, and deposited himself with Perry Jones at the Los Angeles Tennis Club. Olmedo was given lessons. Olmedo was taught English. Olmedo was sent to college. Olmedo played Kramer. He played Gonzales. In short, Alex Olmedo underwent an intense processing that eventually led to his winning the Davis Cup last week.
Off the court, Alex' recreational needs are simple—western movies and girls. Like most other Latin residents of southern California, he drives a vintage Mercury ("Mexican Maserati"). The car is incapable of driving past a pretty girl. Alex loves to hoot at them good-naturedly, to scold them if they smoke in public ("a pretty girl like you shouldn't smoke on the streets") or, if his original approach has been well received, to arrange a date—to go to a cowboy movie or a dance.
As a playboy, however, Alex is harmless. "Alex is not a wolf," insists one friend, "he just falls in love with every girl he sees." Olmedo admits he would like to get married. He has no girl in mind, just marriage. It is an attitude which may yet give Davis Cup Captain Jones and staff a major headache. If Jack Kramer's pro tour offers enough money, Alex Olmedo may forsake his amateur standing next year and set out in search of the wherewithal for marriage. "Alex has been a hungry player since he came to this country," another friend says. "Mr. Jones saw to it that he got to the best places and dressed in the most tasteful clothes and went to the right tournaments. But Alex has never had any real money. He's quite frugal; in fact, you could say parsimonious. But then he has had to be."
The toast of two continents who may well star in ticker-tape parades in Los Angeles and Lima early this year, Olmedo is a tempting morsel to entrepreneur Kramer, and it is hard to imagine the world's most exciting tennis player going back to answering phones in the Peruvian consulate in Los Angeles to earn enough money for his coffee and beans. Of course, Alex would like to win at Wimbledon and Forest Hills. He would like to defend his personally won Davis Cup. But he frankly admits he wants to exchange his two-room apartment, where he frequently opens and cooks his own cans of food, for a hillside home, a real Maserati and a wife to open those cans.