The fierce two-country rivalry between Australia and the United States for world tennis supremacy which has continued with almost no outside distractions for more than two decades resumes this weekend at Forest Hills when the two nations take opposite courts in the Challenge Round for the Davis Cup.
Captain of the Australian team once again is Harry Hopman, 53 now but little changed in the last 20 years. His hair is thinner but still the color of faded brass. He hasn't gained an ounce. He does wear heavy-rimmed, glassless spectacles to conceal a hearing aid. And he also wears now a wide-spread—and debated—reputation as a shrewd tennis tactician who can win Davis Cups at the drop of a towel.
This year is Hopman's greatest challenge. Measured against the great Australian teams of the past, Hopman's 1959 team is strictly second-grade. Neale Fraser, who'll play singles and team in doubles with Roy Emerson, is the only veteran returning. Rod Laver, a 20-year-old lefthander who was runner-up to Alex Olmedo at Wimbledon, will play the other singles matches. Bob Mark, another youngster, is unlikely to see action. Arrayed against this lineup are: Olmedo, who is the best amateur in the world today; Barry MacKay, the hard-hitting giant from Dayton, Ohio; and Earl Buchholz, 18, the flashy but temperamental St. Louis schoolboy. Bernard (Tut) Bartzen is also on the U.S. team, but primarily to serve as a skilled trial horse in practice.
At best, for Hopman, the matches are a 50-50 proposition, and they probably should be rated a 7-to-5 bet for America, simply because of the presence of Olmedo—who almost singlehandedly beat Australia's "first team" last year, scoring singles victories over Ashley Cooper and Mal Anderson and teaming with Ham Richardson to win the doubles.
Yet Harry, waging familiar psychological warfare, gives the outward appearance of being confident, almost to the point of cockiness. He announced the other day that the U.S. had been lucky to win in 1958. Olmedo, he said, caught Cooper when the latter was worrying about his impending wedding. He described Anderson as "just a country boy." And, he added, "I have three players who can beat Olmedo," referring to Fraser, Laver and Emerson.
Harry doesn't really believe that, of course. Nor does Perry Jones, 70-year-old captain of the U.S. team, who feels that this year's cup competition is a tossup. Jones says flatly, "We have the established bona fide amateur champion of the world in Alex Olmedo, and I expect him to win his two singles matches."
Olmedo is a boy of strange moods. He is inclined to lapses in concentration, and sometimes he shrugs off a match as of no consequence. But, starting with the Davis Cup Challenge Round last December and continuing through the Australian, U.S. Indoor and Wimbledon championships, he proved himself a big-match, or climax, player. With a possible $100,000 professional contract in the balance, the lackadaisical Latin will guard against letdowns this week.
Olmedo should win both his singles assignments—against Laver and Fraser. This means that to retain the cup the United States must come up with another point.
That point is unlikely to be won in doubles. Fraser and Emerson don't measure up to some of the great Aussie combinations of the past, but they are an experienced pair who play functional doubles by the basic rules. They both have good services. They return well. They punch that first volley low. They have sound overheads and quick reactions at the net. Fraser, the left-hander and backbone of the team, plays the backhand court, which gives them forehand strength on both wings. In adding the U.S. nationals last week to their Wimbledon crown the two Australians proved themselves the best in amateur tennis today.
It would take a superb, over-the-head performance by the Americans to win this particular match. Olmedo and Buchholz are a new team, still feeling their way. Alex has a deep, effective service, and he moves in almost effortlessly to make that first volley, but he is almost too grooved and relaxed. I would like to see him with a little more "bounce"—some of the fire he shows in his big singles victories. Nevertheless, he is a real craftsman, in doubles as well as in singles.
But Buchholz is still young and impetuous. He often tries to knock the cover off the ball and is inclined to go for risky angles instead of playing the percentage shot low down the middle. One of the basic rules of doubles is to keep shots low, but in going for the big shot Butch often hits the ball too high, thus setting it up for volleying kills.
There is, of course, a possibility that Barry MacKay will be moved into the doubles slot with Olmedo. The big boy's thundering service may be too valuable to leave on the shelf. In any case, the responsibility for an American victory appears to rest with MacKay, either in doubles or as the No. 2 singles man. Barry is a player whose booming game matches his moods. He's inclined to run to extremes. When he is down he can be very bad. When he is up he can be dynamic.
Currently he's riding a wave of high confidence. He's won three tournaments in a row, and he's beginning to look like the MacKay of 1957 in Melbourne, when for one smashing weekend he was the equal of any amateur of his day.
Harry Hopman has done an excellent job this year with an average Australian team. It would be a big feather in his cap if he could win the cup again—for his ninth victory in 12 tries. But don't bet on it. I have to go with the home team—particularly with MacKay up and Olmedo batting clean-up.