The face of Spain, as seen in the textbooks and on postcards, is often embodied in the stark view of the glistening basilica that sits atop Mt. Tibidabo. Both church and mountain are clearly visible from the Real Club de Tenis Barcelona and it was in this majestic and surpassingly Spanish setting last week that the U.S. Davis Cup hopes for this year died. The death rattle was accompanied by a waving of handkerchiefs, a raising of olés and a hurling of seat cushions—all phenomena you would not expect at Forest Hills but which are understandable in a land that loves bullfights and soccer and has fewer tennis players than there are courts in the U.S.
Spain was playing in its first Davis Cup Interzone Tie and, further, it had two remarkable heroes. First it was young Juan Gisbert, who rose to the occasion when Dennis Ralston suffered another of his fits of Davis Cup fright. And then there was Manolo Santana, in both singles and doubles, who settled the issue. Cavorting on a surface that was approximately the color and texture of jellied madrilene, Santana showed again that he is the best clay-court player in the world and that he possesses all the prime qualities of the complete athlete—ability, courage, competitiveness and sportsmanship. He exhibited them in abundance during the 4-1 rout of the Americans in Barcelona.
Please, no anguished clarion calls for a reexamination of U.S. tennis. The result was as fair as it was decisive. The Davis Cup is no longer the province of three or four nations. "It is a much bigger thing now," says Pancho Gonzalez, the U.S. coach. "For the first time many of these small countries have a chance, and they work hard at it." Below Australia, which stands alone as a tennis power and is certain to retain the cup, there is another level of competence where six or seven countries are closely bunched in Davis Cup talent. Which of these countries can beat the others depends mostly on whose courts and before whose crowds the matches are played. So the Americans better get used to the effusive crowds of the Emerging Tennis Nations, because they are going to see plenty of them.
The Spanish crowd tried, it really did, but its charming conscientiousness added to the din rather than detracted from it. Those spectators who had seen a match before or who had been so good as to read the "forma correcta" instructions that were slipped into the program felt impelled to devote considerable time to policing the less restrained element. This they did with "shs" so loud they could be heard above the improper cheers. "Shs" embellished with a Spanish lisp are every bit as menacing as boos, hisses or any of the other historically approved methods of noisy disapprobation.
August 29, 1965
But if the crowds seemed noisy at first, it became obvious later on that they had been behaving with considerable restraint. The scene that transpired when the verdict was clinched with a victory in the doubles for a 3-0 lead was something straight out of your neighborhood bullring. Santana and his partner. Lis Arilla, were hoisted on willing shoulders and carried about like matadors. Cushions, flung high and long, glided to rest on the court in a gay litter. Ball boys scooped them together and rolled on them, tumbling in an aimless ecstasy. Then Jimmy Bartroli, the Spanish captain, got out the ball bags and started flinging tennis balls to the happy spectators. There may have been past receptions in Barcelona equal to this one—Columbus came back there after discovering America—but it is difficult to conceive of one surpassing it.
The people of Barcelona are a stubborn lot, still clinging to their Catalonian heritage. Madrid is a suspect place, where taxes go, never to return. But when it came time for Copa Davis, for what was probably the first direct encounter between the U.S. and Spain since San Juan Hill, all such provincial concerns disappeared. The papers were full of hardly anything else. Bigger-than-life posters of the players tilled Plaza de Catalu√±a. Temporary stands had been erected to bring the capacity to 5,000, and all the tickets were sold early.
The preliminary excitement ended in despair, however, when at the draw, made under Franco's stern likeness, Ralston and Gisbert were selected for the first match. Bartroli had decided to use Gisbert only a few hours before, and his countrymen were nothing short of contemptuous of his chances. "Dennis will kill him," Santana said, dismissing the subject. One sports daily could hardly contain its sorrow. "Expectation and silence," read the account. "It was the innocent hand of the President of the Diputación that drew the papers. The first name. Juan Gisbert! A murmur. The second. Dennis Ralston! A cry of sadness: 'Oh!' "
Ralston began against Gisbert the next day as if determined to confirm the worst of the local fears. He dashed through the first set 6-3 and gamboled off to a 4-1 lead in the second. And then, as if this lead had already decided the whole match, Ralston stopped applying pressure. "I feel the difference in him," Gisbert said later. "He stops coming to the net, and so I do. I fight him more, and I start winning and I see him thinking, 'Hey, how can I lose to thees guy?' " Startlingly, Gisbert broke Ralston's serve seven straight times and eight out of nine to win the second set 8-6, the third 6-1 and the last 6-3. The U.S. was finished before it had begun.
To win, the Americans knew they had to take the first point, the sure one. Then there were hopes of two more points with a victory in the doubles and in Gisbert's second match, against Frank Froehling. Going for the U.S. team was its superb physical condition. There was also hope that, should it go down to the fifth match, Ralston could beat a tired Santana, who was also known to have an injured hand. As it was, Santana, who had breezed past Froehling 6-1, 6-4, 6-4 on the first day, played so strenuous a game in the magnificent doubles of the next day—he twice pushed his partner, Arilla, out of the way to take a shot on Arilla's side—that he aggravated his hand injury and it is doubtful he could have played his usual game against Ralston.
But the point was moot. The Spaniards had won the doubles and the cup series, and on the final day Gisbert beat Froehling. Both the doubles and Gisbert's second win were achieved in five sets. Had Ralston taken his opener, the results might have been reversed by a more inspired American squad. When Santana asked to be excused from the last match, American Captain George MacCall agreed, convinced that Santana's injury was painful and legitimate.
Even with Santana's departure, Ralston had a struggle to get by the mustachioed, powder-puff replacement, Juan Manuel Coudor. Ralston's troubles with Couder were, in a sense, the summation of a terrible few days. Not only had he been hapless against Gisbert, but in the doubles he had been clearly overshadowed by his inexperienced partner, Clark Graebner. In his first Davis Cup match Graebner was responsible for carrying the U.S. to a two-set lead. Ralston repeatedly hit balls timidly, pushing them when a big hit was needed.
Such inconsistency is nothing new with Ralston. MacCall, who was given the captain's post in part because of his long friendship with Ralston, was bewildered. Ironically, he was unable to help Ralston's game, but he turned out to be a fine captain. He and Gonzalez both did a splendid job and deserve to be retained.
But whither Ralston? He is clearly the best American player, but he is apparently not the best American Davis Cup player. He readily admits his anguish before Davis Cup matches. "He gets so nervous, you just can't believe it," says Linda Ralston, his pretty blonde bride of 18 months. "Denny takes it more seriously now than he ever did. He was tired out there, but I know there is no reason that he should be tired, because he has never been in better shape. That's what the nervousness does to him."
On the plane back from Barcelona, MacCall had a long talk with Ralston. "Denny must face some truths. My friendship with him is nothing if I can't be honest," MacCall says frankly. "I just don't know how to consider him for the team anymore. Now he wants to go back to finish college, sell insurance on the side and still play big-time tennis. Well, the stress factor is already so big with him just playing tennis. How will it be with all these things?
"We've got to figure out how to deal with this stress. We can't just go on guessing or hoping. Four other guys on this team worked awfully hard to see him dump it all in the first match."
Ralston is obviously confused. When things begin to go against him on the court his self-doubts quickly overcome him. His concentration and confidence depart. He lowers his head—a telltale sign that always signals his defeat—and he becomes morose and angry.
Part of Ralston's torment is not really his fault. He was praised too much too young. "What does bug me," he says, "is that everybody figured I was so good, they can never understand now why I lose. Look, I'm just no Gonzalez, no Kramer. I don't even think about the pros anymore. I'm not constituted to devote all of my life to tennis."
His teammates are as befuddled about his repeated and strange failures as he is. "We know he's better than all of us," Froehling says. "But I think it's obvious now that he'll never be great, and we ought to appreciate that. Look, to be great you need one great shot—a shot to save you when things go wrong. Denny hasn't got it. Pancho tells him that all the time. I think Denny understands now that he will never be great.
"You've got to really enjoy the game, too. I lost the finals in Ireland a few years ago and I was stomping all around and throwing rackets. You know. Jorgen Ulrich, the Danish player, came over to me afterward and told me I ought to get out of tennis. "Look,' he said. 'You obviously don't like playing tennis. Why not get out of it?' He was right. I play tennis now because I like it."
One wonders if Ralston can ever learn to like the pressure game. He already has undergone one change of court temperament—when he traded his rebellious ranting for the restrained grimaces of his present blue period—and the manufactured change may have hurt his game. Meanwhile, as they wait to see if the best young U.S. players, Arthur Ashe and Cliff Richey, have any chance for greatness, the officials of the U.S. Davis Cup teams can look forward to more bizarre matches abroad and start adjusting themselves to olés, flying cushions and very loud "shs."