The setting was genteel, but for a while last week at Mexico City's brick-red Chapultepec Sports Club the 4,000 feverish partisans crowding the awning-covered stands had heady visions of reliving the revolutionary days of a quarter of a century ago when Mexico threw off the Yanqui yoke.
It had been predicted, with some real justification, that the Mexican Davis Cup team would win for the first time over its neighbors from the U.S. After young Rafael Osuna, the remarkable University of Southern California sophomore who burst upon the world with his doubles victory at Wimbledon, upset the enigmatic Barry MacKay in the opening singles, it seemed likely that the moment of deliverance was at hand.
But such was not to be. The pride of St. Louis, Earl Buchholz, who at 19 is fast developing into the finest amateur tennis player in the U.S., blunted the uprising in the second singles, beating Mario Llamas in four sets. Then, on Sunday, Buchholz and Chuck McKinley, his teen-age fellow St. Louisian, forced a retreat as they took the doubles. On Monday, in a wonderfully exciting match that had the crowd shouting "Mario, Mario, Mario!" in great thunderous waves reminiscent of a bull fight, MacKay regained the touch that had deserted him two days earlier and crushed the revolt, outlasting a gritty and determined Llamas 6-2, 6-4, 1-6, 12-10.
The American victory was far closer than its 3-1 edge would indicate. At the end Llamas was still fresh and determined. MacKay, on the other hand, was white with exhaustion, caused partly by Mexico City's high altitude. It seemed almost certain to those watching that if the match had been carried to a fifth set, Llamas would have won. This would have left the fate of the matches up to Osuna and Buchholz, and there too the U.S. was in very bad shape. In the doubles the day before, Buchholz had fallen hard. That night doctors discovered he had burst a blood vessel in his leg. Captain Dave Freed was determined to play Buchholz anyway, but nobody at Chapultepec was more pleased than he that Buchholz was not forced to test the leg against the speedy Osuna.
Buchholz plays what has come to be known, for lack of a better description, as the big game, and it was upon his style of play rather than his condition that Freed was depending. Before the matches began on Saturday, he told reporters, "We're going to have to depend on the big game to beat these fellows. That's the only thing they don't have—and we do. That's why we've decided to use Buchholz in the second and fifth matches, instead of Tut Bartzen, even though Tut is our clay champion. We'll have Barry's big game against Osuna, and Butch's against Llamas."
On a very fast surface, such as boards, grass or Mexico's clay, a good big game is hard to overcome. The Mexican team, if not their followers, were more or less resigned to seeing MacKay's mighty service whistle past young Osuna, but they were hopeful that Llamas, a leading Mexican player for 11 years, would prove to Freed that while Buchholz's game was big it was not yet big enough.
The first set of the MacKay-Osuna match did little to upset their expectations. MacKay, towering a good six inches over his opponent, looked fit and confident. Osuna was cautious, his large brown eyes—so large they seem crowded by his Aztec cheekbones and hawk nose—watchful but wary. In the seventh game, however, there was a shadow of things to come. MacKay opened it with an ace, his third, but then double-faulted, his second. Suddenly the doe-eyed hawk took wing. He twice returned the unreturnable service for placement points, he lobbed, chopped, dropped delicate little half volleys just over the net, and ultimately he carried MacKay to deuce five times before the American prevailed.
It was a flurry, but not a fluke. Even though MacKay ran out the set, 6-3, a surprised excitement began to ripple through the crowd. Before long the excitement became frenzy. Osuna took the first game of the second set at love, acing MacKay for the fourth point. In the fourth game he broke MacKay's service. He slumped briefly but recovered, and then he began to break Mac-Kay's heart by hitting back the big first serve—not with desperate little plops designed only to keep the ball in play but with incisively angled shots that sometimes passed MacKay, sometimes caught him halfway to the net, sometimes literally tangled him in his feet.
Osuna's own service, ineffective in the first set, became sharper and flatter, spitting off the clay like butter off a griddle. In the 10th game of the fourth set he found himself at match point, MacKay serving, game score 30-40, the U.S. trailing 4-5. MacKay never hit a better first service. It caught the far corner of the court on Osuna's backhand. Osuna laced it back cross-court for a placement ace.
To anyone who saw Osuna in the Saturday match alone, it seemed certain that an international tennis player of the first rank had moved on stage. His service, while no cannon-ball, was fast, flat and controlled. Unlike many players who have grown up with the big game, he displayed a full repertoire of shots—half volleys of a delicacy reminiscent of Vincent Richards.
But that was Saturday, and in the light of what happened Sunday it is only prudent to note that Osuna, for all his brilliance, had a good deal of help from MacKay in scoring his singles victory. MacKay got only 51% of his first services into play, scored only 11 aces and double-faulted a shocking 21 times. It is unkind but fair to say that on a bad day nobody can break MacKay's service as effectively as MacKay.
At 12 noon on Sunday, Osuna was still a god to a gallery popping with optimism. Teamed with 24-year-old Antonio Palafox, he was considered an inevitable winner in the doubles. Even Dave Freed smiled sadly and shook his head when asked to predict the immediate future of his young doubles combination of Buchholz and McKinley.
The smile, it soon developed, was something of a come-on. The day before Freed had plotted on a chart every shot in MacKay's game with Osuna and had discovered that Osuna rifled serves to his backhand straight back into MacKay's teeth. Osuna's forehand return, however, was weak, particularly when he was unable to come in on the ball and instead was forced to take a step to the right. In the doubles Buchholz and McKinley succeeded in placing 60% of their serves deep on Osuna's forehand. They also rushed the net faster, helping to minimize Osuna's speed, which had so upset the slow-moving MacKay the day before.
The strategy began to pay off handsomely after the third set when the Mexicans led 2-1. On set point in the fourth game, Osuna hit a soft second service into the net. This was bad enough, but he sank still further in the fifth set when he collided with Palafox, almost knocking him out. Finally, at 6-5, the U.S. leading, McKinley aced Osuna. On balance, Freed's shot chart won the doubles.
The fourth singles decided the issue. MacKay won the match for the U.S. and, for all intents and purposes, earned for it the right to challenge Australia for the Davis Cup this December (the U.S. must now face only weak Venezuela). It was not a refurbished MacKay so much as an opponent made to order that brought ultimate victory. Where Osuna had been incredibly fast, often beating MacKay to the net on his own service, Llamas was a slow, controlled player who depended on placements for his points. Against this type of game MacKay had a chance to try placements himself, and at this he is almost unbeatable among the world's amateurs.
He proved this conclusively on Monday in a game that was by far the best of the test match. After a bad start, Llamas, encouraged by the noisy crowd chanting his name, got better and better. But just when it seemed he would break through, MacKay would shock him with a beautiful cross-court placement. MacKay's service also came to his aid. He aced Llamas 19 times, seldom double-faulted and got his first service in most of the time. In the 20th game, with tension becoming almost unbearable and the spectators groaning in suppressed but polite excitement, MacKay broke Llamas' serve with a brilliant cross-court placement. And two points from the end Llamas committed one of his rare double faults. It was a sad denouement for the crowd that had cried "Mario, Mario, Mario!" but it served as a lovely comeback for MacKay.