Each year, it is sad to report, the once eminent Davis Cup matches have become more a candidate for an obit column than the eagerly awaited climax to the tennis year. In steamy Cleveland last week all hands were zealously pounding nails into the coffin lid as if they could hardly wait for the corpse to cool before stuffing it underground. Early on in practice Arthur Ashe, the only player still involved in the competition with sufficient gate appeal to cause even a flutter of activity at the ticket window, announced that in all probability this would be his last appearance in what has become a hypocritical shadow of its former self.
"Unless the cup is opened up to the contract professionals," said Ashe, an independent operator who has earned a tidy $60,000 in prize money on the tennis tour this season, "it will be the last time I play. The Davis Cup is one of the biggest names in tennis. Therefore the best players in the world should be playing in the matches."
Dwight Davis Jr., whose father presented the cup in 1900, was having none of that. The contract pros such as Rod Laver, John Newcombe and Tony Roche were all right in their place, but that place was not in a Davis Cup match.
"When my father put up the cup," said Davis, "it was a spirit of competition he was seeking; it was to spread the game among amateurs and sportsmen of all nations. If the contract pros were allowed in, it would just be the U.S. versus Australia every year. No other countries have the contract pros capable of winning a Davis Cup match. If that happened, I'd retire the cup." Considering what happened on the court last week, as the U.S. swept West Germany in the Challenge Round, the patient may be dead before he can be retired. A capacity first-day crowd of 7,500, perched on temporary stands constructed in the backyard of Roxboro Junior High School in suburban Cleveland Heights, saw this year's contest wrapped up virtually as soon as it started.
Not since the pre-World War II days of long white-flannel trousers and Baron Gottfried von Cramm has Germany been exactly a force to be reckoned with in world tennis. It was a bit of a miracle that the Germans made it to Cleveland even this year, as they had to rely almost solely on the services of a couple of 31-year-old businessmen who are seldom seen outside the Ruhr Valley, let alone on the international circuit.
The Germans best player was a lefty named Christian Kuhnke, a limber, rangy attorney who possesses a big serve, a strong volley and the retiring habits of a hermit. Christian doesn't like interviews or cocktail parties. Despite this gross failing, Kuhnke had managed to win 15 of his 16 matches while Germany was making its surprising way past six other nations to the Challenge Round. Outside of these Davis Cup eliminations, however, his only victory of note came in the Kingston, Jamaica International in April.
Kuhnke's partner, Wilhelm Bungert, is only slightly better known. Bungert was the losing finalist at the last all-amateur Wimbledon in 1967 but has been barely seen in big-time tennis circles since, preferring to expend his energies on the sporting goods business he owns in D√ºsseldorf, just a few kilometers up the Autobahn from Kuhnke's home town of Cologne.
The ultimate result was therefore thoroughly predictable, despite some wistful prematch chatter about an upset that was generated by U.S. Captain Ed Turville's choice of Cliff Richey to back up Ashe in the first day's two singles matches. There had been powerful sentiment among the cognoscenti in favor of going instead with blond, gangling Stan Smith, ranked No. 1 in the U.S. Richey, however, has been on a fitness bender for some months, has almost been able to keep his temper under control and has won three tournaments this year, including the National Clay Courts, and a total of $48,500 in prize money.
In addition, the stubby Texan's rather fierce competitive instincts were alerted further by the German reaction to his being chosen over Smith. "We're pleased with Richey's selection," grinned the challenging team's assistant captain, Ingo Buding, when the draw was announced. "In a close competition any slight advantage is important and Cliff is temperamental." Australian pro Fred Stolle, who had been signed on to coach and work out with the Germans, put it more succinctly. "They should have picked Smith," he said.
The German team may have also hurt its chances by taking a curiously casual approach to prematch preparations. As it was last year, when the U.S. whitewashed Rumania 5-0, the Challenge Round was held on an asphalt court covered with a green, waterproof paint. To tune themselves in to the court's fast surface, the U.S. team had been in town for two weeks. The German squad drifted in from a Nassau holiday, in time for only four days of practice.
Their lack of preparation showed from the start of the opening match in which Bungert met Ashe. Arthur required just 19 minutes to win the first set 6-2, then swept the remaining two sets, 10-8, 6-2. Wilhelm can be a deceptively indolent player who seldom comes to the net and often appears to be dozing on court, or perhaps mulling over the inventory of the store back home in D√ºsseldorf. "But," warned Ashe as he readied for the match, "he can look like that and still blow you off the court."
Not this time. Ashe broke the German's second service of the opening set after taking him to deuce, then broke him again immediately with the aid of two Bungert double faults. In the second set Bungert started putting a little steam into his serve, kept the ball on Ashe's forehand, his weakest side, and held service until the 17th game, when he was broken at love. The final set required only 16 minutes. Ashe ran off the last five games against a tiring Bungert with the loss of just four points.
"Was I tense?" Ashe asked following his decisive victory. "I'm still tense and I'll be tense until it's three-nothing our favor tomorrow. Then I'll go out and get drunk." Somehow Arthur seemed too cool to be believed. Only his prediction of the score carried conviction.
Richey was all furious determination when he took the court against Kuhnke after Ashe had dispatched Bungert. Obviously out to make Captain Turville's choice look good, he broke Kuhnke's first service and ran out the opening set 6-3. "I enjoy being put down by the other guy before a match," Richey said later. "It makes you try harder."
Trying harder, Richey bounced all around the court, making one incredible retrieve after another. He kept the pressure on his left-handed opponent's weak backhand with a soft, high-kicking spin service, which he followed rapidly to the net, winning point after point with devastatingly angled volleys. Richey won the second set 6-4, came back with six straight games to take the third set 6-2, scoring match point with a sizzling service ace that thundered past the dazed Kuhnke's attempt at a forehand return.
"Just before match point," Richey said, "I couldn't help looking over into Fred Stolle's eyes. He looked a bit green."
No greener than the German doubles pair of Bungert and Kuhnke looked again the following day. Then the old, familiar twosome of Smith and Bob Lutz clinched the match in a brief 77 minutes with a lopsided 6-3, 7-5, 6-4 victory.
So if the Davis Cup is to be buried soon, at least it will be laid to rest in U.S. soil, where it was born 70 years ago. What could save it from such a melancholy end may be nothing more than a new format, possibly a tennis version of the world team championships that now take place regularly in professional and amateur golf. The zonal eliminations could continue in their present form, except that all players—contract pros, independent pros, amateurs—would be eligible to compete. The object would be to come up with a workable number of, say, eight finalist nations. These eight would assemble for a week or so at a single venue and play a round-robin tournament in which each country would play singles and doubles matches against every other finalist. Obviously, Australia and the U.S. would still dominate the competition, but certainly Davis' original concept of genuine, worldwide participation in the Davis Cup matches would still be upheld.
Almost any change would be an improvement. If the contract professionals are admitted to the present form of competition, the matches may dwindle down to a two-team exercise, for instance, but certainly that is better than the one-team formality in fashion today. Some imaginative thinking by the international Davis Cup committee is needed to keep the coffin lid from being nailed down tight.