AN UNDERSTUDY TAKES CHARGE

When Arthur Ashe was chosen to face Mexico in Davis Cup play, it was hoped he might help U.S. star Dennis Ralston by winning one match. As it developed, he won twice to lead his team to victory
August 08, 1965

When the U.S. Davis Cup team took the court against Mexico in the American Zone final in Dallas last week, there was every reason to believe that the Tie would be still another in the series of close, exciting duels between the two nations. As host city, Dallas knocked itself out for the show. The Junior League, the Jaycees and Neiman-Marcus were all in on it. There were parades, dances, lunches, brunches—the works. One night four "jewels of the Junior League" were auctioned off, the high bidders each getting a girl as a hostess at the matches. Everything, in fact, was a rollicking success, until the players stepped onto the court.

Then in the very first match the show went haywire: a supporting player, not really a principal, decided to become a star. He was 21-year-old Arthur Ashe, the third-ranked in this country, and he beat the wily and seasoned Rafael Osuna, Mexico's top player, in three remarkably easy sets. Dennis Ralston added a second point for the U.S. an hour or so later by beating Antonio Palafox even more easily. The U.S. was stymied the following day when Osuna and Palafox, a practiced doubles combination, beat Ralston and 31-year-old Ham Richardson, but on Monday, Ashe completed his scene-stealing Davis Cup performance by defeating Palafox to give the U.S. the deciding point.

It does not discredit Dennis Ralston to say that Mexico was through when Ashe beat Osuna. The day before the matches began, Mexican Captain Pancho Contreras smiled broadly when the draw pitted his ace against the relatively inexperienced Ashe. "It is just the way we wanted it," Contreras said. "Our idea is to get that first point. Of course, if we should lose...."

Almost from the start of the match it was clear that Osuna would indeed lose. Ashe's serve—the best among the amateur players, in the opinion of Pancho Gonzalez—was never better, and time and again he passed Osuna with his backhand return of service. Ashe had always played in gangbusters style, all out, letting the shots fall where they would. But in Dallas, at Gonzalez' urging, he sacrificed power for control, a tactic that had Osuna constantly off balance.

Osuna, it must be said, was not at his best in the first match. He is 26 and ready to move to New York in the fall to work for a cigarette company. His spirit was gone and, more important, so was his left knee, which was operated on last winter and still hampers his movement. Contreras said the knee was fine, and it was—to sell cigarettes on. After the match Osuna said: "They knew. He hit the ball to my right every time. I don't know who told him." Answer: perhaps nobody. It has always been good strategy to hit to Osuna's forehand, the weakest part of his game.

A short distance away, in what passed for a locker room, Ashe shed his clothes with a slight, curious smile on his face. "I feel wonderful," he said. "This was a little different than just playing for Arthur Ashe." Playing for Arthur Ashe has always been in itself a little different because Ashe is that rarity in American tennis, a Negro. ("Well," Osuna laughed after the draw was announced, his arm around Ashe, "the two slick little brown bodies will meet first.") With the possible exception of Huntington Hartfordcomma the A&P heir comma, no one is as quickly labeled as Ashe. The mention of his name in print is invariably followed by the words "the first Negro to...." That is, win a tournament, get to the semifinals in a tournament, play in the Davis Cup or, in short, do whatever tennis historians determine he is the first Negro to do.

The fuss made over the fact that he is the first male Negro in tournament tennis has rather obscured him as an individual. He is skinny—6 feet 1 inch, 158 pounds—genuinely pleasant and absolutely unflappable. Before the draw, he had to be called away from playing tic-tac-toe (two no-decisions with cup teammate Frank Froehling) on the back of the blackboard where the pairings were to be listed. He also has a wry and distant sort of humor that makes him a bit enigmatic. "I don't know where I got it," he says of his humor. "I've always been this way. I just amble along and these things sort of stumble on me."

Ashe hates to be any sort of a bother. The night before he played Osuna in the first match, he went to sleep at midnight but was awakened periodically thereafter by a swinging party in the next room of the motel. He finally woke up for good—this time out of nervousness—at 5. Captain George MacCall bounded up to his room to greet him at 8:15, and Arthur reported that he had slept like a log. "We try not to get George excited," Ashe explained later, and there is absolutely no way to tell, the way he says these things, who he is putting on—you, MacCall, both or, maybe, no one at all.

Ashe is from Richmond but attends UCLA, where he still needs a semester's credits for a degree in marketing. He plans to concentrate on tennis, however, for the next few months and will not return to finish up until January. Ashe is an ROTC artillery candidate and will be commissioned for a two-year obligation sometime soon after his graduation. After that, any old crystal ball can foresee the sentence beginning: "Arthur Ashe, the first Negro professional tennis player to...."

In Dallas, Ashe not only helped win the Tie, but he also helped his new employer, Coca-Cola, which he and Ralston are now working for—in the grand old amateur tradition—as "market consultants." A market consultant, among other things, will arrive at a tennis match, say, in Dallas, in the shadow of the Dr Pepper clock tower and wonder out loud why there is no Coca-Cola to be had. Which is what Ashe did. Which is why Coca-Cola could be bought at the Dr Pepper stands.

However, in the matter of players doubling in official capacities Ham Richardson set a new record. Not only did he play the doubles, but he also handled TV commentary for the singles—which is approximately equivalent to Don Drysdale working with Vin Scully on the nights Sandy Koufax is pitching. What is more, Richardson was primarily responsible for rounding up the guarantee that caused the match to be held in Dallas in the first place.

Despite his play in Dallas, Ashe at present is not scheduled to play next weekend, when the U.S. meets Spain, the European Zone winner, in Barcelona. The matches in Spain will be held on clay, and Ashe's game is geared for faster surfaces—cement or grass. Captain MacCall is leaning toward Frank Froehling, who has had a spectacularly mediocre year but who is the only U.S. Davis Cupper who has played the European clay circuit. Stockbroker Richardson, who came out of seven years of Davis Cup retirement to play against Mexico, is returning to high finance, so Ralston's doubles partner in Barcelona probably will be Clark Graebner, another pretty good clay man, or Marty Riessen, who usually plays doubles with Graebner. Or it may be Graebner and Riessen, who have had considerable success together.

With all this uncertainty ahead, it is easy to understand why MacCall's mother-in-law, when he told her he wanted to be Davis Cup captain, simply asked: "Why?" When other people persist in asking him, he always begins, "That is a very good question." MacCall, an insurance salesman now, was a commercial airline pilot for almost 20 years—certainly a pair of contrasting vocations—but it is doubtful that anything could prepare him sufficiently for the job he now holds.

Winning in Barcelona will be tougher than it was in Dallas. Manuel Santana will be favored to win both his singles matches, and Santana and Lis Arilla are a good doubles combination. Even Juan Gisbert, the second singles player, will be a challenge on his home surface. Make no mistake about it. A U.S. victory in Spain would be nothing short of a rousing upset, even with Arthur Ashe in the lineup.

THREE PHOTOSIn his match against Rafael Osuna, Ashe served (left), hit overheads (center) and volleyed better than ever before in his career, completely dominating the more experienced Mexican.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)