You can play Laver but you can't beat him

Sept. 15, 1969
Sept. 15, 1969

Table of Contents
Sept. 15, 1969

Yesterday/Vander Meer
Willie And Clyde
Marje's Show
  • It is recorded that the first intercollegiate football game was held at New Brunswick on Nov. 6, 1869 between Rutgers and Princeton and that Rutgers won 6-4, the scoring and playing rules being considerably different than they are today. What is not known are the names of the heroes of that game, for, surely, in a sense, they were the first All-Americas. It was not until 20 years later that such a list was officially compiled, and since then hundreds of players have been so honored, by newspapers, magazines and, more recently, television. Now, on the 100th anniversary of that first game, the writer boils down the list of All-Americas to 11, the first All-Century team

19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

You can play Laver but you can't beat him

Australia's Rod Laver proved again at Forest Hills last week that the best players in the world are no match for him as he waltzed away with the men's singles title to complete his second Grand Slam

By Roy Blount Jr.

One thing worked out neatly at the U.S. Open at Forest Hills last week: the best player in the world won. By beating a fellow Australian, Tony Roche, 7-9, 6-1, 6-2, 6-2, top-seeded Rod Laver added the U.S. Open title to the Australian, British and French ones and completed the Grandest Slam, or at least the first Grandest Slam, or at least the first Grand Open Slam, in tennis history. Laver has now won five of the seven big-four tournaments held since the creation of open tennis, and it looks as though the sport will have to be opened considerably wider, to include angels, highly trained kangaroos or something as yet unenvisaged, before anyone else will be in Laver's league.

This is an article from the Sept. 15, 1969 issue Original Layout

As a factor at Forest Hills, though, the hardnosed Aussie lefthander would have to take second place to the weather, which let everyone down. "I live in a near-tropical country, where we have monsoon rains, and I have never seen 5½ inches of rain in 24 hours before," groused Owen Williams, the South African tournament director who was brought in to transform the U.S. Open but was hard pressed to do more for it than the rain did to it. The 13-day tournament grossed nearly twice as much—$500,000 would be a good guess—as last year, but Williams estimated that the rain—which canceled play on two days, interrupted it on three other days—cost the enterprise some $100,000. Williams' rain-checks-but-no-refunds policy also angered a number of fans. "The public in this country is certainly spoiled with regard to rain-outs," Williams exclaimed at one point. "In England there are no refunds, no rain tickets, no anything. But here if you don't give their money back they want to kill you."

But then nothing looks more deflated than a wet tennis crowd. On Saturday, when showers of considerable force first delayed play and then interrupted the taut semifinal match between Laver and Arthur Ashe, some 11,000 sodden fans huddled together under the stands comparing the day's outing with the festivities at Woodstock. There were no muddy sleeping bags or stoned young people kneaded into the surface of the grass courts in the Forest Hills stadium, but a tarpaulin cover and the use of hovering helicopters as improvised drying-off devices failed to keep them truly playable. They gave rise to bad bounces ("You get to know the patches after a while," noted semifinalist John Newcombe), they got so chewed up around the baselines that, when a player bounced a ball preparatory to service, it frequently got away from him and on Saturday, at least, they sounded downright squishy from the stands. Laver declared that grass courts in general were obsolete for championship play, and by Sunday, Williams was recommending a more sophisticated system for draining, drying and covering the courts; even more preferable would be an all-weather surface.

The grass wasn't the only thing that failed to hold up. The U.S. Davis Cup team was also washed away. Bob Lutz lost to Tony Roche in the first round—no disgrace—but on one horrible afternoon Clark Graebner, Stan Smith and Charlie Pasarell all disappeared. Graebner had to default with a twisted ankle, Pasarell lost to a lesser Australian, Terry Addison, and most stunningly, Smith got beaten by Ilie Nastase, one of two Rumanians who will challenge for the Davis Cup later this month. Most disappointing of all, the No. 1 U.S. doubles team of Smith and Lutz lost in the third round, in straight sets, to Earl Buchholz and Ray Moore, virtually a pickup team. Smith and Lutz were late for the match and nearly had to default because they journeyed to Connecticut to have lunch with officials of PepsiCo, Inc. The U.S. should still be comfortably favored over Rumania in the Davis Cup—Graebner's ankle is supposed to be healed by then and Ashe demonstrated that he was close to the top of his game—but the Open was still a blow to U.S. court prestige.

It was something of a leap forward for capitalism, however—to a good many fans' irritation. It may be inconsistent to applaud the elimination of hypocritical amateurism and then to complain about having COME TO MARLBORO COUNTRY emblazoned on the new $167,000 Forest Hills scoreboard, but then there was also "Spalding" on the front and back of the ballboys' shirts and "Pepsi" on the drink cooler behind the umpire's stand and the new IBM board proclaiming ponderous and not always comprehensible statistics, and there was Arthur Ashe wearing pastel shirts instead of the traditional white—not out of color consciousness or independence but because of what is known as a tie-in. That is, a certain pastel-shirt company has reached a certain special agreement with the USLTA and Ashe. There also was the Borden's yogurt booth, whose staff of girls kept giving people promotional buttons to wear (none of the players wore them, though) and the fact that a can of domestic beer set you back 75¢ and an everyday ice-cream sandwich 30¢.

There were other rough spots in the proceedings. Leaflets were handed out in protest of Williams' back-home implication in apartheid, and Ashe announced that he had had to talk an unnamed group of protesters out of an attempt to disrupt the tournament. The world's and history's only prominent black player said he told the dissidents to give him time to get himself admitted to the South African meet in March—a project to which Williams is lending his support. Finally, Vice-President Spiro Agnew, in presenting women's singles champion Margaret Smith Court her trophy and check, stimulated a good deal of heavy murmuring in the stands by announcing that runner-up Nancy Richey—a fully developed competitor who if anything probably played a bit over her head in reaching the finals against the masterful Mrs. Court—would surely "continue to improve."

And yet, despite the unfriendly elements and possible grounds for complaint, there were many times during the tournament when the tennis and a beer were worth all they cost and more. The still-arresting Pancho Gonzales, dabbing away each drop of sweat on his forehead aborning and occasionally shouting "EeeeeeARRGHhitthatballthatwayeeeeargh" at himself, won a picturesque five-set match from long-haired Dane Torben Ulrich before bowing out to Roche in the fourth round, and in a postmatch interview Ulrich strengthened his claim on the role of the Allen Ginsberg of tennis by declaring he saw no reason why "I can't keep on developing for two or three hundred years." Roche and Newcombe fought magnificently through five semifinal sets before Roche finally won 3-6, 6-4, 4-6, 6-3, 8-6. And Laver—hitting winners off Ashe's big serve, clipping the corners with looping top-spin ground shots and contriving by acrobatics or foresight to be in the right place again and again—earned every one of the $16,000 he won in the richest tennis tournament ever. The U.S. Open was on uncertain footing in more ways than one, but it imported a lot of class.