Everyone in tennis knows that Great Britain can no longer count on Fred Perry's forehand, that the British only own Wimbledon, they certainly don't win it anymore. But there the British were last week, at home on the No. 1 court at Wimbledon with only Rumania to beat to advance to the Challenge Round for the first time since 1937. Rumania? Rumania—that neat little place Richard Nixon visits to draw crowds? Britain might no longer be a competitive tennis power, but Rumania—the same as every other Communist country—had never before even reached the Interzone finals, much less the Challenge Round, much less Cleveland, Ohio, 44101.
When the United States defends the Davis Cup in Cleveland next month, though, it will be Rumania and not Great Britain across the net. Of course, in a way that is in keeping with what has been perhaps the most bewildering Davis Cup in years, one shaped by strange, bitter, even sad, circumstances.
The tennis politicians, for instance, effectively eliminated several countries from the outset by continuing the ban on all contract pros. Mexico knocked Australia out of the running, then lost all chance itself when its beloved Rafael Osuna was killed in a plane crash. An injury to Manuel Santana ruined Spain's hopes and the favorite-South Africa—was certainly helped to defeat by a series of flour bombings by British demonstrators while the Africans were trying to contend with the British players at Bristol.
The British were not really expected to get even to that point in what was supposed to have been a transitional year. Mark Cox, 26, was starting only his second full season of Davis Cup play, and Graham Stilwell and Peter Curtis, both 23, their first. But after easily moving past Switzerland and Ireland as expected, Great Britain won three tension-filled 3-2 ties in the space of six weeks, upsetting West Germany, South Africa and then Brazil as Stilwell conquered the favored Thomas Koch in straight sets.
August 24, 1969
Cox is the left-handed Cambridge graduate who burst upon the scene last year, when he became the first amateur to beat the pros in an open tournament. Stilwell, a more relaxed and natural player than his teammate, is a former bad boy of British tennis. More has been done for him financially by the Lawn Tennis Association than for any player in its history. For four years, though, the LTA has received little back in return. Now his reformation has brought Stilwell sweet vindication and a reputation as the most improved player in the world.
Together with Curtis, Cox and Stilwell also captured the imagination of the British public and in the Interzone final they would be playing again at home on the surface they like best—grass—against a Rumanian pair who were basically hard-court exponents. The British were heavily favored. 'To be quite objective about it, it's bloody ludicrous for us to be playing our fifth straight tie at home on grass," said Owen Davidson, the former Australian Davis Cupper who, in his second year as coach of the British team, is credited with much of its recent success. "But you know," he smiled, "we'll take it."
The Rumanian team of Ion Tiriac and Ilie Nastase, the one an international ice hockey player and karate expert (Tirry Baby), the other a romanticist and rock music fan (Nasty), had come through a much easier draw to Wimbledon, having beaten Egypt, Israel. Spain (without Santana), Russia and India. As a doubles team, the two had accumulated wide experience in international competition, but their lack of practice on grass figured to hurt them in the singles. Moreover, Rumanian Captain George Cobzuc left himself open for some second-guessing when he had his team play in the German Open on Hamburg clay courts the week before the final tie, instead of practicing on grass.
"So," countered Tiriac, a swarthy curly-haired veteran of 30 who glowers a lot and whose facial contortions are not unlike those of Actor Gabe Dell when he impersonates Count Dracula. "It is better to play against the best players in the world than to sit around looking at the grass."
Nastase, a lieutenant in the Rumanian army, broke in. "This grass, it is very good...for football," he laughed. "Ahhh, but we are strong." The flamboyant 23-year-old Nastase is a perfect foil to his serious, brooding teammate. Last year he ended Tiriac's eight-year reign as Rumanian champion before making a tour of the Caribbean circuit and playing in five tournaments in the United States. In London, Nasty pranced around in trim corduroy pants and buckle shoes, playing his portable tapes of Jimi Hendrix and The Bee Gees and denying that he ever was, as the British press insisted upon calling him, "a former shepherd boy."
"I am not ever a shepherd, just my father has sheep. I not even like sheep," he said. "I like Bee Gees. I like college girls."
In the opening singles on Thursday it was the menacing, side-whiskered Tiriac against the pink-cheeked, cherub-faced Cox in what appeared to be nothing more than a man-vs.-boy situation. Appearances were not deceiving. As the British had progressed into each succeeding tie, Cox's nerves had become worn and his look haggard. On this day he was tight from the beginning and Tiriac took charge. Cox broke Tiriac's service at 3-5 in the first set but, apart from that game, he scored only 12 points against service in the entire match and the Rumanian won easily 6-4, 6-4, 6-3.
Stilwell, on the other hand, came out moments later and was decidedly composed. A stocky 5'6", Stilwell churns rather than runs, much the way Chuck McKinley used to do. Churning now, and far superior to his opponent, he easily disposed of a shaky Nastase 6-4, 4-6, 6-1, 6-2. However, having come through the first day with a 1-1 score, the Rumanians felt that they were in command.
The next morning London newspapers called for Headly Baxter, the captain of the British team, to pair Stilwell instead of Cox with Curtis in the doubles. Cox's mental state could have been shattered for his last singles match if he had been replaced at this point, however, and Curtis had gone off his form when Britain had lost in doubles to Brazil. So Baxter decided instead to insert Stilwell for Curtis in order, as he put it, "to have more chance of winning the tie, if not necessarily the doubles." The Rumanians, receiving the news in their dressing room, were overjoyed. "I believe they are squirming," said Tiriac.
Although this was their first time together in the Davis Cup on grass, the Rumanian stars have a distinguished doubles record which includes a victory over Ken Rosewall and Fred Stolle in the French championships this year. At Wimbledon last month the Rumanians withdrew in pique after not being seeded, but they presented their case more effectively this time by playing. Stilwell and Cox had not been paired together for four years and were no match for the Rumanians. Nastase, who is especially imaginative in his use of the ball at the net and quick and clever in his recoveries, contributed the flair while Tiriac provided the solidarity, and they cruised to a 10-8, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 victory.
"To switch players was the biggest mistake they could have made," said Tiriac. BAXTER BOOBS IN CUP, declared a headline next morning. But Owen Davidson, for one, did not feel Britain was dead. "The press," he said. "If we win, they all play God Save the Queen. If we have a bad day, they scrub the team. We were down 2-1 to Brazil and won, and Brazil is a better team than Rumania."
That last afternoon, Stilwell, proving himself the most consistent performer of the tie, evened things up for Great Britain with a 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 win over Tiriac that was surprisingly trouble-free. The momentum had quickly shifted back to England so decidedly that one could almost hear the London journalists humming the anthem in the press gallery.
The final singles would match the two erratic, emotional protagonists, Cox and Nastase, if they both did not collapse in a heap of scrambled brains first. The Englishman began strongly, breaking Nastase in the fourth game for a 3-1 lead. But at 40-love on Cox's service something happened that brought about a curious change in both men. Cox served a let that Nastase thought was out but that the line judge called in. Infuriated; Nastase complained to the judge for a moment, then stood completely still, making no effort, as Cox served a winner right past him for 4-1.
Nastase went to his bench, rattled his rackets, kicked a chair and threw a few well-chosen Balkan hand signs at Cox and the judge before returning to the court. It looked as if he had lost all concentration and was through.
But Cox, though running out the set, 6-3, was the one who was finished. In a peculiar about-face that saw Nastase playing with anger, Cox with timidity, the latter won only three of the next 10 games, lost the second set 6-1 and never again found his edge.
At 3-all in the third set, he led 30-love but was broken. Then, up 5-4, Nastase served a love game to win the set. In the final encounter the Rumanian served three more love games before Cox finally put up some belated resistance.
When it was over—3-6, 6-1, 6-4, 6-4—Nastase threw his racket high in the air and shouted: "Bravo, Nastase! Bravo! Bravo!" There were kisses all around, that being the Rumanian way, and a lot of hugs, too. Then Tirry Baby carried Nasty all the way to the dressing room where some friends were already celebrating the victory.
On Sept. 19 Rumania will play in Cleveland for the Davis Cup. Count Dracula will bring his karate and his growl. The shepherd boy will bring his tape recorder and his Bee Gee cartridges. It should be fun.