The old game stages a rally

April 04, 1966
April 04, 1966

Table of Contents
April 4, 1966

Wreck Island
Ruffians' Game
Unknown Soldier
Sporting Look
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

The old game stages a rally

Playing on a rubber surface that slowed the ball but not the action, the pros last week reminded everyone what ground strokes are like

Something new was added to indoor tennis at Madison Square Garden last week, and if it endures, as seems most likely, a bit of subtlety will have been restored to a game that has been criticized by Tilden era oldsters as too dependent on the pure violence of the big serve and big volley. The long rallies of other years, with their geometric precision of attack and defense, the tactical placing of the opponent to set him up for sudden death, the effective use of spin—these came back to the sport at what was billed as the 1st Annual Madison Square Garden Invitation Tennis Tournament, a professional affair promoted by Jack Kramer and the Garden jointly and a true four-day tournament, not just an exhibition featuring a few touring stars.

This is an article from the April 4, 1966 issue Original Layout

What was new, relatively, was the court itself, made of a rubber composition developed by the UniRoyal-U.S. Rubber Co. and already tried out in Los Angeles, Chicago and Detroit. It had its first thoroughgoing test under the feet of a representative array of topflight players at the Garden. To judge by the quality of the play and the enthusiasm of the crowds (35,981 in four days), it was a grand success.

It seemed also to play a significant part in the outcome. Kenneth Rosewall, who at 5 feet 7 never has been an exponent of the big game, won the singles prize of $5,000—the most generous purse since the professional game began—by knocking off Pancho Gonzalez in a wildly exciting semifinal and going on to take his Australian compatriot, the top-seeded Rod Laver, in the finals on Saturday night.

Up to that point, Laver had been the only player to achieve consistent success by following his hard service instantly with a charge to the net. His serve-and-volley attack defeated the Welshman Mike Davies in the opening round and then crushed Earl (Butch) Buchholz Jr. in the quarter-finals and Andres Gimeno of Barcelona in the semifinals, as he lost only two games in the latter two matches. Finally, Laver encountered Rosewall, who had been seeded second to him.

A red-headed left-hander whose wrist, like that of Lew Hoad, is noted for the deception it puts into shots, Laver holds the distinction of being the second man (Don Budge was the first) ever to win tennis' amateur grand-slam. He is also one of the most imperturbable players the sport has seen since poker-faced Helen Wills, his demeanor remaining throughout a match as unruffled as his neatly parted hair. Although he is only an inch taller than Rosewall, Laver's service combines force with accuracy, and his volley is not only powerful but scientifically angled (that wrist again) to put the ball where no man can retrieve it.

Rosewall, on the other hand, is almost Laver's opposite in style. He does all things well but is spectacular chiefly at the net, placing himself in precisely the right spot after each shot and, with his extraordinary reflexes, presenting the illusion of a wall beyond which nothing can pass, not even lobs. There is beauty in every one of his moves. With this style he had defeated a violently determined Gonzalez the night before, and now he faced a coolly determined Laver.

Rosewall handled the big Laver serve with no substantial difficulty, though he had had some trouble with the Gonzalez delivery. The rubber surface slowed the ball just enough so that he was able to come in on it. Once the ball was in play after the serve had been returned, he was more than Laver's equal. He proved this in the seventh game of the first set by breaking his fellow Aussie's service on a smashing overhead volley and a backhand passing shot that set the gallery screaming. He went on to win the next two games too, for four in a row, taking the set 6-3.

Outwardly, Laver appeared undisturbed at this point, but inwardly there must have been some stirring of the pulse, for his game seemed to take on new life as the second set began. He broke Rosewall's service in the first game, then held his own service in the second. Just like that, there was Rosewall, at 0-2, with his task clearly defined. Rosewall then called into play his ground strokes, which may be the best in the game. He loosed one of his backhand passing shots to even the set at 3-3. Laver turned his head so as not to suffer the pain of looking at it. Rosewall made the seventh game a love job. Next he broke Laver's service, and possibly his heart, with a hair-raising ball that teetered atop the net, then dribbled over onto Laver's side.

Now Rosewall was in command once more, and he proved it. He topped off the match by winning his service in the ninth game and that made it 6-3, 6-3. The soft-spoken Laver made a gentlemanly speech to the effect that he would try for revenge next year.

The financial effect was to give Rosewall $5,000 for winning the singles, $750 for coming in second in the doubles to Laver and Buchholz, and $100 for being a first-round winner. Total: $5,850.

It was by no means easy, especially getting past the 37-year-old Gonzalez, who is the perfect figure of a tennis player and has been a professional since he was 21. Rosewall's semifinal match with Gonzalez was, in fact, the ultimate in dramatics. What with Pancho ordering ball boys about, picking lint off the service line, protesting the use of strobe lights by photographers and taking a relaxing stroll through the gallery after losing his second service, it was clear that he intended to win. Victory would have been a magnificent comeback for a fellow who had retired from the game, so to speak, in 1962.

There is no suggestion here that he should retire again now. Gonzalez adds a dimension to the game that the truly great players always have given it. He still has what is fashionably called a charisma about him. What he was up against, though, was youth cum excellence—Gonzalez is 37, remember, Rosewall 31—an insistent opponent who so confused Gonzalez with cross-court shots and net play that he howled in dismay when, in the 12th game of the second set, he drove an utterly easy shot into the net. He was anguished by three double faults in that set, and that was pretty much the story of the whole affair. Gonzalez made his own errors, and Rosewall compounded them for him.

The tournament was most certainly a financial success in that it excited a tennis-hungry New York and, with $25,000 in prizes at stake, drew a likely total of $175,000 or so at the gate, an estimate which led Promoter Kramer to declare it a fixture. It presented once more, for the nostalgic, 44-year-old Francisco (Pancho) Segura, the venerable Ecuadorian with the two-handed forehand, and introduced an interesting rookie, Pierre Barthes, the French Davis Cup player, who is 20 years younger than Segura and possesses a serve that can scar the court, though there is little else to be said for his game. It also disclosed that Lew Hoad may be at the end of the road. He had the misfortune, to be sure, of coming up against Gonzalez in the quarter-finals—an accident of the draw, perhaps—but he lost to him by a humiliating 1-6, 1-6, about as bad a beating as the Australian has ever suffered. Hoad also depended heavily on his partner, Rosewall, in the doubles. What with Hoad's errors and almost desultory play, both Australians were lucky to reach the finals of the doubles, which they lost to Laver and Buchholz 3-6, 2-6.

As in all tournaments, there was good play and bad play. What counted was that, in the main, the good outweighed the bad and that there has been a revival of hope for those of us who would like to see tennis restored to something like—although not necessarily the same as—the game played in the days when a point needed more than a big serve, a charge to the net and a volley.