In the classic eyes-right, eyes-left newsreel sequence, a tennis gallery seems to be viewing a game as monotonous as a metronome. Actually, tournament play provides a constantly changing spectrum of style, stroke and strategy. In these pages an expert who analyzes the game as skillfully as he once played it tells what to look for when the best amateurs of the U.S. and Australia compete at Forest Hills.
Of all the top amateurs playing tennis today, the most interesting on the court is probably the least imposing off it. This year's Wimbledon winner, Rod Laver (sketched at right in a typical flurry of forehand action), is a scrawny, bowlegged and freckle-faced five feet eight inches of taut muscle topped by a mop of carrot hair who for sheer attraction at courtside would have to give way to almost any presentable ball boy. But once in action, this young racket wizard from Queensland unleashes a combination of speed and technical brilliance unmatched in amateur circles. Laver's big weapon is a sizzling service that is doubly difficult to handle since it comes off the left side. Laver sends it over the net with cannonlike force, and he can vary its kick and spin with such cunning that receivers find him almost impossible to break. And to back up his serve Rod Laver has a resourceful repertoire of forehand and backhand drives, all controlled by a lightning-fast wrist action.
Laver, the virtuoso, is almost the exact opposite of his fellow Aussie, Roy Emerson (above), who has no outstanding strengths but who has also no outstanding weakness. Modest and solid, Roy is a player who can be beaten only by someone who matches his unremitting competence with unrelenting brilliance.
Whether the two young Americans, Dennis Ralston (shown at right in a characteristic straight-arm serve) and Chuck McKinley, his Davis Cup teammate, can achieve the brilliance to match Laver's virtuosity or the stamina to match Emerson's endurance is one of Forest Hills' most interesting questions. These two exuberant youngsters have toned down a little since USLTA officials put them both on probation for the 1961 season for misbehaving here and abroad, but both are still young, both have a long way to go and both are still subject to adolescent temperament.
Dennis (the Menace) Ralston is a graceful stylist to whom topflight tennis comes almost too easily. He strokes the ball with a minimum of effort, bringing the racket back on his forehand with a short, circular motion that enables him to disguise the speed he actually puts on the ball. At times Ralston looks as though he could beat anyone, and if he could match his natural ability with a comparable ambition, he would undoubtedly be a great champion. But Dennis, who has often been reproached for seeming to quit when things turn against him, can go down in defeat before the clumsiest second-rater. Or he can beat himself with annoying outbursts of temper and truculence. In the recent Davis Cup American Zone finals in Cleveland, he kicked his racket, swore loudly and managed to turn both the crowd and Nonplaying Captain David L. Freed firmly against him.
Chuck McKinley (shown at left under the characteristically stern gaze of an official) is also frequently in trouble for showing too much spirit. Despite the fact that he lost out to the Australian master at Wimbledon in straight sets, McKinley, who charmed the English but outraged the Italians with his antics, is the U.S. amateur best equipped to rock Laver's brilliant rhythm. To beat Rod, however, Chuck's temper would have to be under complete control and his strokes in perfect working order. More than any other player today, McKinley is an aggressive, go-for-broke competitor. A well-conditioned Trinity University (Texas) sophomore, he plays tennis with a gusto found more frequently on football and soccer fields than on well-mannered country club courts. He doesn't know what it is to be cautious or to play the percentages. Like a boxer who keeps throwing haymakers right up from the floor, he hits every ball as if he were trying to knock it clean out of its fuzzy cover. Since he lacks the form and grace that distinguish most top tennis players, Chuck, a stocky 5 foot 8 and 160 pounds, tries to make up the deficit by sheer drive and power. He has amazing speed, which enables him to make the sensational saves that have become his trademark, but the sheer momentum of his onslaughts often works as heavily against him as it does for him.
Fighting every minute, McKinley leaps about the court like an angered rhino, charging, plunging, falling, skidding, banging away at every oncoming shot with all his might but completely unable to change course once he is under way. He is capable of beating any amateur in the world on a day when all his thunderbolts are striking home, but for this uninhibited youngster that would be a rare day indeed. Unfortunately, as Chuck discovered at Wimbledon, Rod Laver has just the kind of dexterity to turn aside his furious charges, for, with the tiniest flick of his wrist, changing the direction of spin of his shots at the very last moment, Laver can catch most opponents off balance.
From the point of view of anyone wishing to study the fine points of tennis, Rod Laver's wrist action, which is analyzed in the drawings on this page, is one of the most interesting mechanisms in the game. Strong, fast, flexible and thoroughly disciplined, Rod's wrist is the gyrocontrol by which he keeps himself constantly on course. Usually Rod hits his forehand and backhand drives with a topspin, but by a unique ability to reset his wrist in midstroke just before contact with the ball he can hit the ball flat, give it topspin or impart a low-bouncing underspin. Time after time, Laver is thus able to wait until his opponent is committed to a certain defensive attitude and then catch him completely off base with the shot that is least expected. It is a trick that makes Laver the most formidable player in the amateur field today, and one worth watching anytime.