Marty just might be the man

Steadying down—and coming up stronger at 29—relatively unknown Marty Riessen may be the best bet for a U.S. victory at Forest Hills
August 29, 1971

As the time for Forest Hills nears, there is a growing feeling that the best hope for a U.S. victory rests not with Arthur Ashe (who was the last U.S. player to win, in 1968), or Stan Smith or Cliff Richcy or Clark Graebner, but with a bowlegged, 29-year-old ex-basketball player named Marty Riessen.

While Riessen is not really what one could call an unknown, he docs have some remarkably hazy credentials. For example, he was never ranked better than fifth as an amateur and he was never once trusted with an important Davis Cup assignment. He has spent most of his career as nothing more than what he calls "a good quarterfinalist." Still, if any American seems to have a chance of beating John Newcombe, it would by Marty Riessen.

If it is too much for one to accept that Riessen is tops on the U.S. list, one surely will shudder further to learn that Forest Hills—which begins Sept. 1—is no longer the premier event in the nation. There were as many top players at Fort Worth last week, in just a routine World Championship of Tennis tournament, as there will be for the U.S. Open. And what happened at Fort Worth? Well, a guy named Rod Laver, who had not won a tournament in three months, upset Marty Riessen in the finals 2-6, 6-4, 3-6, 7-5, 6-3.

For the competitors the genuine championship in this country will not be decided on the playing fields of Forest Hills but rather on the temporary courts of Madison Square Garden, where the WCT playoff finals are scheduled Nov. 26.

Part of the reason for the Open's devaluation is the fact that many of the best WCT players are skipping Forest Hills. There is nothing political in their actions. It is simply that the Open means playing two weeks on bad grass for a relatively small amount of prize money that must be split with women players and New York cabdrivers. Besides, since Forest Hills falls between open dates on the WCT schedule, a player who passes up the Open can put together a full month of vacation and come back well-rested for the tour's final six point tournaments and the playoffs.

"The whole thing is the points," Riessen says. "They have saved it for me and changed everything. You don't even hear guys talking money anymore. Everybody talks points."

The WCT system is simple enough: for each of its 20 tournaments, the champion earns 10 points, the runner-up seven, on down to one point for winning a first-round match. At the end of the year the top eight pointmen qualify for the $100,000 playoffs, and throughout the year seedings are based strictly on points. Reputation, gate appeal or the size of a guarantee don't count here. Rod Laver was seeded fourth in WCT because Rod Laver was fourth in points.

Riessen is now seventh in the standings and almost guaranteed a playoff spot. "If it weren't for the points, I would never be seeded," he says. "A guy is not supposed to get better at 29 or 30, so people like Emerson and Gimeno with their old reputations would still be ahead of me."

Before Lamar Hunt put his mobile Babel on the road, tennis was a world that honored certain special spheres of influence. Only occasionally would the best players from various sections of the globe have to face off against each other. The talent was spread thin, which was fine for the players at the top, who never faced a tough opponent until the quarterfinals, and the money also was spread thin—and under the table—which was dandy for the promoters. As late as 1967 a player like Riessen had to scuffle for $300 a week. So far in 1971 he has made $50,000 and he has a good chance to reach $75,000.

Riessen is seeded sixth, third among Americans, at Forest Hills. Arthur Ashe is just ahead of him in WCT points, but since Riessen knocked him out of Wimbledon, Ashe has failed to last past the quarterfinals in six straight tournaments. Riessen's other U.S. competitor is the Wimbledon runner-up, Private Stan Smith. The two have not met this year, but Marty took him the last time they faced each other last fall.

Riessen has always been a spoiler, an embarrassment no high-seeder wanted to draw in an early round. "Even when things were the worst for me," he says, "I always knew the others respected me. I knew the big names didn't want to have to play me." His career is a succession of mammoth upsets followed by thundering collapses. Even this year—after he beat Ashe at Wimbledon—Riessen promptly rolled over and played dead for one Oom Parun of New Zealand.

A few weeks after that Riessen beat Laver and Newcombe on successive days in Teheran and then won the tournament over the best young player (and the fastest server) on the tour, Australian John Alexander. This is his best sustained streak ever, and for all 1971 he holds six victories over Newcombe and Laver—three apiece—which accounts for 35% of their WCT defeats. Still, whenever Riessen wins a big one, everybody seems to assume that the opponent was off. Offering what amounts to the consensus, Ashe says, "Marty's so sound, he's always in shape, and he just works his tail off all the time. He can beat any player who isn't at his very best."

Riessen, the son of a teaching tennis pro, was a high school basketball scoring sensation and a skinny, 6'1" starting playmaker for three years at Northwestern. During that time—for seven years, 1961-67, altogether—he also was a perennial spare on the Davis Cup team.

While Riessen never got a chance, every captain wanted him around because he brought qualities of cooperation and team spirit that were seldom displayed by the individual heroes. For the same reasons Riessen has always been a valued doubles partner—first as a teen-ager with Chuck McKinley, then with Clark Graebner, now with his close friend, Tom Okker, the Dutch firefly. Okker and Riessen are now the top WCT doubles team.

Still, through most of the decade, Riessen could never advance his own personal cause and, with failing confidence, he drifted through the horse latitudes of the USLTA realm. At last, after he and Graebner blew a 6-0, 5-2 lead to lose the doubles to Ecuador in 1967, Riessen wanted out. He turned pro in 1968.

Riessen earned his master's degree at Northwestern by writing a thesis on what makes champions. He solicited the opinions of many coaches. "Maybe I was subconsciously looking for the answers to apply to myself," Riessen says. "You see, I think in typing me as the guy who never won the big match, people instilled that thought in me. And let's face it: I never did win the big match. When it got close near the end any good player would start to work on my forehand."

Improvements in his forehand and serve—which Riessen attributes to switching to a lighter racket—are part of the reason for his sudden success. But he also believes that he has found a new mental and physical maturity. Nevertheless, since his whole record is one of unpredictability, it is difficult to figure out how Riessen will fare in the Open. With Ashe far off form and Laver a late scratch, Newcombe becomes an even more solid choice. Especially if he is lucky enough to stay well clear of Riessen in the draw.

PHOTOTO RIESSEN, POINTS ARE EVERYTHING

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)