From the first serve at Forest Hills, it was anybody's tournament, the most wide-open men's singles championship in years. With Rod Laver gone off to the pros where he belongs, the usual horde of marauding Australians was reduced to one, in effective strength at least, and it seemed time for the young Americans—or someone—to take over. The Americans took a good whack at it, as did a pair of surprising young men from Brazil, but in the end the new U.S. national champion turned out to be from Mexico by way of the University of Southern California.
That Rafael Osuna, the agile and cerebral Mexican Davis Cupper and former U.S. collegiate champ, should win the final match by a 7-5, 6-4, 6-2 score despite being seeded no higher than fourth was only incidental to the excitement generated in earlier rounds by the wholesale collapse of seeded players. The uncertainty of even official attempts to predict the outcome was demonstrated when the No. 2 seed (Australia's Roy Emerson) went out before the quarter-finals, the No. 3 seed (Dennis Ralston) in the quarters and the No. 1 seed (Chuck McKinley) in the semis, the latter two in straight sets. In fact, the most exciting player in the tournament, not even excluding Mexico's Osuna, was not seeded at all.
A lanky youngster from Coral Gables, Fla. who looks like a distracted whooping crane and plays tennis like a windmill spinning out of control, Frank Froehling III, 21, kept American hearts in his high pockets for a full seven rounds. He became the first American to reach the final round of the championships since 1955, and bowed in the end only to the superior stroking and court generalship of Osuna, who has never played better tennis than in this tournament.
U.S. hopes had been riding high since before the tournament began, but they had not centered around Frank Froehling. McKinley and Ralston each appeared to be at the top of his game, while newcomer Eugene Scott (No. 7) and veteran Ham Richardson (No. 8) were each given an outside chance. But Richardson, an aging 30, faded in the third round before David Sanderlin of UCLA, and Scott was beaten by an 18-year-old Brazilian named Thomas Koch. Meanwhile, McKinley and Ralston were having some troubles of their own.
September 15, 1963
With McKinley it was his back, injured in the first set of his opening-round match, which hampered him throughout the tournament. With Ralston it was, as always, his temper.
There was no reason to suspect that McKinley's opening match with an obscure Ecuadorian named Eduardo Zuleta would be one of the most exciting and dramatic of the tournament. Few of the spectators even bothered to watch, figuring they would see McKinley against tougher competition in later rounds. Leaving the stadium nearly empty, they strolled from one field court to another, as is the custom during early rounds at Forest Hills. As a result, most of them missed seeing Chuck hit four blistering serves in the second game that drew gasps from the small crowd. It seemed obvious the match would be a quick one. Then, changing courts after the third game, McKinley reached for a towel and a sharp pain stung the lower right part of his back.
"I must have done something to it the game before," he said later. "Or maybe I served too hard without warming up." Whatever the reason, the next time he served, it was a soft spin, no harder than your Aunt Mabel's. Because he did not grab his back or wince, several games passed before anyone realized something was wrong. Even Zuleta was unsure, thinking for a while that McKinley was merely toying with him. Then it became obvious. Whenever Zuleta hit a drop shot and followed it with a lob, McKinley would wait until the ball was shoulder-high, so that he could volley it with a forehand instead of an overhead. Noting this, Zuleta began to run McKinley forward and back, mixing lobs with drop shots. It made for a marvelously exciting match, an old-fashioned baseline game with long rallies. "I was the Bitsy Grant of 1963," said Chuck later. But he seemed a losing Bitsy. Zuleta, in command, won the first set, then the second. As word of the upset spread, the stadium began to fill with people, few of them realizing even now that McKinley was hurt.
McKinley hung on to win the third set. Then, in the 10-minute recess before the fourth, a hastily summoned doctor fed him some pills to ease the pain and sprayed his back with a solution that kept the area warm. Considerably revived, McKinley reappeared and beat Zuleta easily in the last two sets, though still serving at only half speed.
For the next few days Chuck's aching back was a major topic of conversation around Forest Hills. He won, but he was forced to rely upon finesse rather than his usual explosive power game. And in the quarter-finals he came within a point of losing to Koch, the same young Brazilian who had beaten Scott. That McKinley reached the semifinals at all was a tribute to his courage and superior all-round game but, once there, his defeat by Osuna was so definitive that it is difficult to see how he could have won even with a sound back.
Unlike McKinley, Dennis Ralston's problem at Forest Hills was mental, not physical. Playing against Owen Davidson, an Australian left-hander, in an early match, he seemed to have both himself and his famed temper well under control. Then he made two poor shots, got what he considered a bum call and dropped the third set. Sputtering and fuming, Ralston stormed off the court to the stadium dressing room. Davis Cup Captain Bob Kelleher hurried back to soothe his angry star, but Ralston would not be soothed. When he received another questionable call in the fourth set, he walked over to the linesman, spun his racket around and machine-gunned the official in angry pantomime. When he dropped the game, Ralston threw his racket about 20 feet. There were some mild boos from the crowd and one long, loud one. Ralston stared fiercely at the gallery and dared the booer "to come on down here and do that." Asked later what he would have done had his heckler come down from the stands, Ralston answered, "I'd have hit him over the head with my racket."
Two rounds later, Ralston was eliminated by a poised, mature, sophisticated and unruffled young Brazilian of 22 named Ronnie Barnes, who on the tennis court seems to be everything Dennis Ralston is not.
Meanwhile, unsung and unseeded, Frank Froehling had scored the sensation of the tournament by deftly dispatching Roy Emerson in four sets, thereby eliminating the last of the six Australian male players before the quarter-finals. Although Emerson had not been playing well this year, his early form at Forest Hills (he had won his first three matches without losing a set) made many people think he was on his game again. But Froehling's big serve, the most powerful in tennis, was never better, and when Emerson had to face it the 1961 champion could only shake his head in disbelief as shot after shot from Froehling's racket sped past him. The score: Froehling, 6-4, 4-6, 9-7, 6-2.
After beating Emerson, Froehling almost came to grief against England's Bobby Wilson, a seasoned and very competent tournament player who was seeded sixth. Froehling somehow rallied to win the five-set match, gain the semifinals and beat Ronnie Barnes, hardly working up a sweat. Then came Osuna and a defeat that seemed inevitable once it got under way.
Few players at Forest Hills in the recent past have displayed shrewder generalship on the courts than the new Mexican champion of the U.S. It has been a long time since the lob was used as a weapon of high strategy in a national championship, but in both of his critical matches last week Osuna lobbed his way to victory with consummate skill. His lobs against McKinley when the latter was facing the sun forced so many errors that Chuck began to lose the confidence his game depends on. He made foolish mistakes—returning serves with dinky chipping shots that were so much chicken meat to the agile Osuna instead of smacking his returns across the net in true McKinley style.
It was hot in the stadium when Osuna went out against Froehling's battering power strokes. Many of the spectators had taken off their jackets, leaving a panorama of white shirts as a background for lobs. Osuna took full advantage of the situation.
Standing farther behind the baseline than any top player within memory, Osuna gave himself plenty of time to cope with Froehling's big serve. When one of these cannonballs came crashing over the net, he would catch it late and send it up in the air, time and again, against the backdrop of white shirts or high above the stadium, in the sun. Such tactics, besides breaking the strongest serve in tennis six times in three sets, effectively smashed U.S. hopes for a U.S. championship.