Young man with will of win

The rarefied atmosphere at 7,400 feet has long made it risky for foreign players to take on Mexico's Davis Cuppers at home, but an even more potent Mexican peril today is an agile whirlwind named Rafael Osuna
August 26, 1962

According to Australia's shrewd Harry Hopman, the two toughest places in which to compete for the Davis Cup are Italy and Mexico. Last year Italy's cuppers proved the first part of this theorem when they knocked the U.S. out of play in Rome. During the past month Mexico has sustained the second part by defeating first the Americans and then the Yugoslavs to become the American Zone cup champions for the first time ever.

Excitable crowds and a rarefied atmosphere arc two prime dangers facing foreigners in Mexico City, according to Hopman, but this year there is a third and more dangerous factor: the small whirlwind named Rafael Osuna, who, with his partner, Antonio Palafox, knocked the Yugoslavs out of contention last week in three almost effortless matches.

Young (23) Osuna is not much to look at. About five feet 10, with a loose-jointed walk, he carries his shoulders hunched and his chin pointed up. He has large, sad eyes, a bony nose, crooked teeth and shiny black hair. When he walks onto a tennis court he has the air of a little boy about to take a licking. The result is that the gallery, even outside Mexico, is almost instantly on his side.

The number of lickings this superb young athlete has taken in recent years, however, is small—and growing smaller. Two years ago he teamed with Dennis Ralston to win the doubles at Wimbledon, then beat Barry MacKay in the Davis Cup matches. Last year in the American Zone finals in Cleveland he won his first singles and the doubles to give Mexico a 2-1 lead going into the final day.

Osuna reached the semifinals of the nationals at Forest Hills last summer, only to lose to Australia's Roy Emerson, the tournament winner. This year at Wimbledon his fantastic agility made him the No. 1 crowd-pleaser of the tournament.

Osuna is exciting to watch. He has incredibly quick reactions. "I have seen him volley shots that are already past him," says Pancho Contreras, the Mexican cup captain. Osuna also has balance, touch and speed, the gifts of a champion. He is an athlete first, a tennis player second. The first sport he took up was ping-pong. "I was 6," says Rafael, whose father is an engineer in one of Mexico's leading oil firms. "My older brother Jesus taught me. I was short and could not see over the tabletop, so I had to stand on soapboxes." By the time he was 10 Osuna had become, incredibly, the sixth-ranking ping-pong player in Mexico. "When you played him all you could see was his head," recalls Contreras. "But he was quick, so quick."

About that time Osuna started playing a little tennis with Jesus, but he didn't like it. "It didn't come to my attention," he says. The family moved to Tampico for a few years, and Rafael played basketball, baseball, football and soccer there. He was especially good at basketball. When the Osunas returned to Mexico City, Rafael made the top basketball team at the Chapultepec Sports Center (where last week's cup matches were held), even though he was many years younger than most of the other players. Osuna is still interested in all sports. Returning from Europe after a campaign that began in England and ended in Sweden last month, his first questions were: 1) How is Mickey Mantle's leg? 2) Who won the Griffith-Dupas fight? and 3) What happened to Arnold Palmer in the PGA?

By the time he was 18 Rafael had become good enough at tennis to enter the U.S. junior championships. Later he got a full tennis scholarship to USC. He arrived in Los Angeles in the spring of 1959, unable to speak a word of English, took a quick cram course and started classes that fall. He wasn't a dedicated scholar. "I wish I were out of school," he said recently, "but I'll probably wish I were back in when I get out."

Osuna's college life is largely taken up by tennis. He rooms with rival Davis Cupper Dennis Ralston and works on his game five hours a day. But at the moment he has no long-range plans or ambitions and is content to be young and attractive to girls ("I love them all") and to see all the places that tennis takes him to. Now that he has triumphed in the Davis Cup, he has become something of a national hero—"the promise of Mexico" is how one Mexican woman put it.

"Sometimes," says his friend Pancho Contreras, "Rafael does not care, and he will be beaten by a player of second rank. But when Rafael cares, it doesn't matter who is on the other side of the net. He is the best. He has tremendous will of win."


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