Before the Davis Cup matches began in Bournemouth last week, one gloomy British tennis buff was insisting that his countrymen had such an ingrained belief in Yankee superiority on the tennis courts that they could not possibly win. Even so, on the occasion of the closest approach to a British breakthrough since the 1930s, such pessimists were in the minority. Britain's fans took their seats in the wooden grandstand armed with Union Jacks in anticipation of an orgy of flag-waving. One old party even appeared in a scarlet cutaway over a Union Jack weskit, with Jacks emblazoned fore and aft on his black silk topper. Alas, the British lion again failed to roar, it lay down almost without a whimper.
Part of the fault lay in the weather. At four o'clock in the morning on the first day of this crucial match between the winners of the American and European zones, storm warnings were posted along the British coast. The gray clouds that scudded over Bournemouth made it seem more a day for grouse shooting than for tennis. Britons, with some justification, blamed the lateness of American zone competition for the fact that Wimbledon's grass courts were too sodden with September's rains to be fit for play in these interzone semifinals. So the matches were played on the En-Tout-Cas courts of a seaside summer resort, complete with Victorian hotels, potted palms, a long boardwalk—and a chill wintry wind.
It was a predominantly middle-aged crowd that moved from the Bournemouth boardwalk into the temporary wooden stands at the West Hants Lawn Tennis Club to watch Britain reclaim its oldtime stature in international tennis. Many of them must have recalled vividly the time when a young American upstart named Don Budge sent British Davis Cup chances down the drain for a quarter of a century. But the hope that shone in their eyes for a historical resurgence faded fast after husky, handsome Mike Sangster, hitherto undefeated in this year's cup competition, took the court against the U.S. Wimbledon winner, Chuck McKinley.
Conditions were rough. The court, although it had been protected by a tarpaulin, was slow on the bounce and slippery underfoot. The balls looked like mud pies. The strong wind whipped and swirled erratically, making every lob a major gamble. It was so cold that McKinley didn't strip down to his T shirt until the start of the second set. But all these difficulties bore equally on both players, and it was McKinley whose courage and determination surmounted them, while Sangster grew increasingly uneasy and ineffectual.
McKinley pulled ahead in the first set 4-3 and never lost the lead thereafter. The fact that Sangster did not even get his racket on the smash with which McKinley won set point was in character with the whole match.
If Britain's Mike Sangster was the goat of the first day, the hero was America's Frank Froehling. Playing for the first time in Davis Cup competition, this lanky, ungainly youngster showed a veteran's poise in coming from far behind to defeat Britain's Billy Knight in the afternoon match.
At the start of the match it was Knight who appeared to be in charge. Knight played solidly and methodically, while Froehling, looking like The Rail-splitter, or even one of his split rails, could not seem to find his form. Knight took the first set 6-4, which brought a brief but heartfelt waving of flags. Soon afterward Froehling was down 5-0 in the second set, and the match seemed all but over. But Froehling refused to quit. "I asked myself what I was doing wrong," he told former U.S. Cup Captain Bill Talbert later. "And I decided I was playing too tentatively, so I changed tactics."
Suddenly slamming his power-laden forehand into every corner of the court, Froehling fought back to 5-3; then Knight took a bad fall trying to return one of Froehling's drives from the baseline. He lost his racket and opened a nasty gash on his left knee. Some British sportswriters have made much of this injury, but Knight himself insists, "It didn't hinder me at all. It certainly didn't slow me up."
Whatever the reason, the tide had clearly turned. Froehling went on to win the next two games, evening the score. Knight made it 6-5 on his own service, but that was his last serious threat. Froehling kept the pressure on, aced Knight for the 8-6 set point and went on to win the next two sets 6-4, 6-4. The decisive change in the climate was symbolized in the third set when, with the count 1-1, Froehling took a love game off Knight's service.
The second day was still windy but clear. British spirits seemed to recover along with the weather, and at lunchtime the talk among the fans taking sandwiches and pints of bitter on the lawn or fortifying themselves with a cold pork pie and a cuppa from a thermos jug in their cars was that Sangster was itching for revenge. When Mike teamed up with cool-headed Bobby Wilson against McKinley and the notoriously short-fused Dennis Ralston, the still optimistic English told each other, "You'll see. England isn't finished yet."
As the doubles began, it looked as though this might be true. The American team won the first game with some difficulty. Britain followed by taking a love game on Sangster's service; then, thanks to a double fault by Ralston, broke the American service. The American team steadied to win the first set 6-4 and got a slight edge in the second set. Then things began going seriously wrong. Sangster's big first serve, one of the most powerful in tennis, started to click, and Ralston's play became increasingly uncertain. Britain took the second set.
With the pressure on, all participants began showing signs of nerves. Sangster nearly blew up when a fault was called on one of his sizzling first serves down the line, waving his racket threateningly and shouting a curse in a voice that could have been heard some distance out to sea. Ralston began mumbling and recreating his bad shots in pantomime. McKinley angrily laced occasional balls into the stands and, after firing one wild drive, hurled his racket some 30 feet straight in the air, catching it on the way down like a drum major.
In this erratic third set, mistakes were more or less evenly divided. The U.S. fumbled a chance to win it 6-4, and both teams stumbled on to a 7-7 deadlock, with the British sustained mainly by Sangster's strong service and with the Americans unable to win the points that counted. McKinley finally won for the U.S. 9-7 with a well-placed shot clean past Sangster.
At the tea break, it still looked like anybody's match, but it was, in fact, all over. Throughout the whole two days the British players had shown an inability to make a sustained comeback once things had gone against them. When they returned after the break they appeared to have already thrown in their cards. The Americans broke Sangsters hitherto powerful service twice to take an easy 4-2 lead and pushed right on to win 6-2, with McKinley's decisive slam past Wilson wrapping it up. During the tea break Chuck McKinley's attractive blonde wife had said, "I hope they win this one so we can party tonight and not have to wait until tomorrow." She did not have to wait.