The SDS called it "a ruling class festival," but the sad truth is that if this is the best that the capitalistic pigs—and the Commie red rats, too, for that matter—can manage to amuse themselves with, then the Establishment is certainly on shaky ground. The real tennis ruling class was a hemisphere away last week, at home in Australia, as the U.S. whipped Rumania 3-0 (5-0 if you collect Green Stamps) in the Davis Cup Challenge Round in Cleveland.
Routs in the Challenge Round are not to be sneezed at and, Lord knows, we get them regularly enough, since the archaic rules permit the defending nation to sit on the sidelines all year and expend energy only in doctoring up the home courts. By the time the challengers arrive, weary and spent after a year of tussling with opponents scattered all over the good green earth, what little chance the challengers might have had is pretty well dissipated. By itself, this situation almost managed to destroy all tennis interest in Australia, where a succession of Indias and Mexicos showed up for euthanasia exercises every Christmas.
While it is still boring, discriminatory new rules have succeeded cleverly in making the Challenge Round rather senseless, too. With only petty jealousy—and the traditional death wish—as motivation, international amateur mastodons (from the smaller countries, mostly) have opened the Davis Cup up to pros. That is, certain pros. Selected pros, those whom the national organizations can control. Which is to say, as one high amateur official does: "Look, there's no mumbo jumbo to it. We're keeping the contract pros out. Anybody else can play. It's that simple." The result is that the best team in the world—the Australians: Laver, Newcombe, Roche, Rosewall, Emerson, Stolle—is included out, since it is all under contract for good American dollars. The U.S. team could beat Rumania before breakfast every day playing on Jell-O and not turn a head. Only tennis could take its premier event, the Challenge Round, and transform it into the Runner-up Bowl.
So it is hardly surprising that there was no television of the Cleveland event and precious little other press coverage. True, Clevelanders, who, unlike their brethren in Sydney and Melbourne, are not experienced in these massacres, hardly left a seat empty in the Harold T. Clark Stadium, but then the fantastically diligent Cleveland tennis organization pulled in 15,000 paying customers for the girls' Wightman Cup a few weeks ago, and P. T. Barnum lunged from his grave with admiration at that news. At last Saturday's deciding doubles match, however, even some of the most patriotic Buckeyes had begun to cheer for the Rumanians, chauvinism taking a back seat to the hope of getting one's money's worth.
September 28, 1969
It was a forlorn hope, though, even on the challengers' side of the net. Ilie Nastase, the attractive young Rumanian, was candid enough to say afterward that he and his teammates had never really figured on more than two points—beating Stan Smith twice in the singles. Nastase and his partner, Ion Tiriac, had been a good enough team to get to the finals of the French championships and had been undefeated in their first six Davis Cup matches this year, but Nastase just wrinkled his nose at the suggestion that he and Tiriac thought they had a chance against Smith and Bob Lutz in the doubles. "We had only 10 days to practice on this court," he said. "Sure, we beat the British at Wimbledon on the grass, but it takes too long to learn how to run on this kind of court."
The Clark court had been slow for the Wightman Cup, making for long, exciting rallies, but by the Challenge Round the cement surface had been painted lengthwise and buffed for speed so that in the opening match Arthur Ashe beat Nastase 6-2, 15-13, 7-5—48 games in which there were only four points during which the ball went over the net five times. It was dull; Ashe won more with cold efficiency than with his usual élan. Nastase kept playing it safe, hitting cross-court, as if he were still home on surfaces that some top international players consider the slowest in the world. "The clay instincts are completely different," Ashe said afterward, with some sympathy—and bitter memories too, perhaps since so many fast American games came a cropper on slow courts in recent years.
Australia was not altogether absent in Cleveland. Denied permission to employ Laver and his cohorts this year, the Aussies, fielding two koala bears and a wallaby, were eliminated from the cup months ago. Somewhere along the line after this, however, Harry Hopman, the irascible, perennial Australian captain, surfaced as coach of the Rumanians. For Hopman, a master technician and strategist, it was the ultimate chance at playing Pygmalion with a team that, before this year, had won a grand total of eight Davis Cup matches in 25 years. He took charge. While Captain Gheorghe Cozbuc sat by the court, smiling graciously and providing his players with water, Hopman scribbled notes furiously in the stands. Earlier—although he is 62—he had hit vigorously with his charges in practice and ushered them about paternally, instructing them, as he always did his Aussies, in the evils of a free press.
The old master did not have enough to work with, though, and, especially after Nastase beat Smith at Forest Hills, there was no chance that the Americans would take their challengers lightly. Under Captain Donald Dell and Coach Dennis Ralston (ineligible to play as a contract pro) the U.S. team was well briefed, in good shape and a happy ship, rocked only slightly when Dell had to decide who should play the second singles with Ashe. Off his play this year and his potential—and despite the loss to Nastase—Smith was expected to be the choice. Cliff Richey, however, beat Smith in practice, and Dell had shown a disposition in the past to go with a hot player. But he called the team together Wednesday and said Smith was it. "If I don't go with the big serve on this surface," he explained, "we're giving up a natural advantage."
Smith, then, felt perhaps as guilty as dismayed when he came into the locker room down 2-1 in sets to Tiriac in the second of the opening day's matches. What drama could be distilled from the proceedings was here, for if Tiriac won and showed Smith vulnerable the Rumanians still had two more shots at him and a chance for the upset. "I'm letting all you guys down," Smith said, shaking his head.
"No, Stan," Dell replied, "if you lose you're not letting anyone down but yourself." There was no false banter; Dell only emphasized that Smith should concentrate more on getting his big first serve in.
On the other side of Roxboro Junior High, in the Rumanian locker room, Tiriac was fuming. An utterly charming man away from the court, he is singularly perverse on it, complaining, glowering, stalking and weaving like a bull at bay.
Now he was unhappy because he could not get any hot water for a shower. Ashe, better versed in the intricacies of American plumbing, had found an obscure valve so that he and his teammates had plenty of water. Tiriac had to go back out cold on a raw, windy day, and he promptly lost serve at 15 in the first game. Warmed up, neither he nor Smith could break the other thereafter, and the set went to the American 6-4 to tie the match at two sets apiece.
Despite their good size, both Tiriac and Nastase have more guile than power. Indeed, their simple inability to put away easy volleys was a significant element in their defeat. But they were tireless dandies, and Tiriac had gone ahead of Smith with a series of beautiful flip-wrist backhands down the line.
Now, as the last set proceeded with close games, Smith began to pass Tiriac with his own (but harder) backhands down the line. At 4-4, with Tiriac serving under a threatening dusk, Smith's backhands got him to love-40. Tiriac came back with four straight points, and he would have held serve with the next point, but he hit a typically soft smash, Smith was able to retrieve it and passed him with another backhand in the next exchange. At last, after four deuces, Smith broke serve with his fifth winning backhand of the key game of the whole match. He held serve at love to put the U.S. up 2-0 and effectively conclude matters.
Smith and Lutz ended things for real the next day 8-6, 6-1, 11-9. That they played well together again and, more important, that Smith showed he could come from behind against a wise and trying opponent under pressure, establishes the Americans as more formidable than ever. It is especially unfortunate, then, that all that can be said with assurance is that they are champions of the Davis Cup and the second-best national tennis team in the world.