It will come as a disappointment to those who keep lists of sports' all-time losers to learn that the U.S. Davis Cup team is not likely to be a candidate this year. In fact, there is a very good chance that the team may actually win the cup from Australia next December, thanks to a combination of fortunate circumstances.
To start, the best of the Aussies—John Newcombe, Tony Roche and Roy Emerson—have turned pro. Of course, Australia has been no problem to the U.S. team for some time, for the simple reason that the U.S. team has lost long before reaching the Challenge Round—to Spain in 1965, to Brazil in 1966 and last year to Ecuador. Each of these defeats was on clay in the winner's ball park. This year, through luck and a little persuasion, most of the U.S. team's matches will be played at home on harder, faster surfaces more suitable to, say, Arthur Ashe's game. This week, for instance, the team, which has already beaten the British Caribbean and Mexico, both by 5-0 scores, will face mighty Ecuador in Charlotte, N.C. Playing on the soft clay of the Guayaquil Tennis Club, Ecuador could be dangerous, but on the faster acrylic fiber in Charlotte, is unlikely to win a point.
The most impressive thing about the U.S. team so far this year is its determined attitude, something that has been missing in recent years. The man responsible for the change is Donald Dell, the new Davis Cup captain. At his prime as a tennis player 10 years ago, Dell never reminded anyone of Pancho Gonzalez, though he did get in his licks in a cup round and was once ranked fifth in the country. But as the newest American Davis Cup captain, this young Washington lawyer, who speaks intimately with the Kennedys and is a known figure in swinging joints on three continents, has managed to turn a group of tense, disheartened and disinterested players into a genuine team which collectively has been driving itself into an exhilarating state of exhaustion, all for the sake of the 40-pound bowl of silver plate—the Davis Cup. Overnight the American team has pride once again, and to a man they firmly believe that though their captain may possibly make a tactical mistake or two along the way, he will lead them with flair and style.
More than a few people said USLTA President Bob Kelleher was crazy to offer the job of captain to Dell, who, at age 29, is just a few years older than his players. And there were others who thought Dell was crazier to take it. "But damn it all," said Dell, "I care about tennis. And I care about the Davis Cup." Dell was at Wimbledon last year—that was right after the U.S. had been humiliated by Ecuador—and he kept hearing how it was Arthur Ashe (who lost two singles matches) who had blown it for America. "Suddenly I realized we didn't have a team at all," said Dell. "We had a bunch of players who were satisfied because they had not lost their matches. It was a sort of 'I got mine, so what the hell' attitude."
June 9, 1968
So, when Dell resigned from the Office of Economic Opportunity, where he was working for his close friend Sargent Shriver, and took a leave of absence from his Washington law firm to become Davis Cup captain, he knew exactly what he had to do. In fact, there were all kinds of problems facing Donald Dell. One of them was Arthur Ashe. The facts that Ashe was playing on slow clay courts in Ecuador, where he is not at his best, and that he had to devote more time learning how to be a soldier than playing tennis explain largely why he fell on his face last year in South America. Try telling that to a proud young man who is not in the habit of making excuses for himself. Dell invited Ashe down to his Georgetown apartment for a few days of laughs and finally a good old heart-to-heart. "Arthur, do you want to be a dandy little weekend player," Dell asked him, "or do you want to be the best amateur in the world? If you're going to play Davis Cup, stop fretting about the Army. Stop worrying about civil rights. Look, I'm giving up everything—everything—to get that cup back. And if I'm going to do it, then dammit, so are you."
And that, essentially, is what Dell told the rest of his team. Then he shook the USLTA by naming Dennis Ralston as coach. When the team gathered at Richmond before the start of the zone finals against the British Caribbean team, Dell made it quite clear that he would take care of all details, make sure they were well fed, put up in the best places, dressed in the most stylish clothes money could buy. "But anyone who wants to make a bundle out of this is on the wrong team," Dell told them. During the next week Ralston apparently tried to kill as many tennis players as he could. For six hours a day players, coach and captain sprinted, jogged, jumped and squatted. They also went through those brutal two-on-one drills made famous by Australia's Harry Hopman in which one player gets balls shot back at him by two players at rapid fire from every conceivable angle. "When you consider that tennis players are by nature the biggest prima donnas alive," said Clark Graebner, a player who in his younger days often acted like the biggest prima donna alive, "it was really amazing the way we put out for Dell and Ralston."
Meanwhile, Dell was planning well beyond his first four matches. Eventually, the American team will have to play away from home, most likely Italy, which means the dreaded clay. But Dell hopes he has a solution. While Ashe, Graebner, Charlie Pasarell and the doubles team of Bob Lutz and Stan Smith are working hard on cement courts, Dell has sent Allen Fox, Herb Fitzgibbon, Marty Riessen and Cliff Richey to Europe for the summer to play on clay courts.
In his program to get tennis out of what he calls "the ghetto of the country club," Dell ignored such establishments as the Merion Cricket Club on Philadelphia's Main Line and offered his show to Charlotte, where the U.S. team will play Ecuador. "The Merion Cricket Club runs a wonderful tournament and its grass courts are fabulous," said Dell. "But they can stuff in only 2,200 people to see the matches if they really squeeze. The Coliseum in Charlotte holds 12,000." What's more, Dell plans to hold the matches at night and indoors. If you don't think that didn't shake up the old USLTA, then you've never walked into a crusty old men's club whistling Alexander's Ragtime Band.
"I don't care what anyone thinks," Dell says. "I just want to show the world what's wrong with American tennis—which is nothing. I think we can prove that next December in Adelaide, Australia."