Imagine the Los Angeles Lakers playing every night in Madison Square Garden, Bobby Fischer pushing his pawns around the Ukraine or Bambi wandering upon a safari, and you can better understand the dangers awaiting a Davis Cup tennis team on the road. No one knows the peril as well as the U.S., which in the middle 1960s lost three straight years during the early rounds while playing in faraway lands known less for their tennis than as wonderful places to hijack an airplane to. Since winning back the cup from Australia in 1968, however, the U.S. team hardly has been forced to get out of bed in its three Challenge Round victories that were defended in the exotic likes of Cleveland and Charlotte. Until this year, when tennis poobahs, in a momentary outburst of sanity, decreed that the holder of the Davis Cup must compete through the preliminary rounds just like all the challenging nations. This decision compelled the U.S. team to dust off its passports and start learning to play on clay again.
Clay is the predominant tennis surface throughout the world—slow, dusty stuff on which the serve-and-volley game counts for little. Rallies arc long and adventuresome and the essence of tennis as a test of strokes, stamina and wits is there. Thus came the U.S. team onto the tierra roja of Barcelona last week for the interzone contest against Spain.
Believing that their problems would be solved if they could stop Wimbledon champion Stan Smith, the Spaniards had high hopes. Hadn't their No. 2 man, Andres Gimeno, destroyed Smith in Paris and gone on to win the French championship? Their No. 1, Manuel Orantes, owned the best record of any European this season and was the leader in Grand Prix points. In addition, Barcelona's beloved favorite son, Juan Gisbert, always seemed carried away by the screaming crowds at the Club Real de Tenis and he had achieved his finest moments during crucial Copa Davis encounters there.
All of this optimism appeared well-founded, especially after Gimeno continued his domination of Smith in the opening singles match. But then U.S. Captain Dennis Ralston put the key to a tiny windup rocket named Harold Solomon and watched him explode all over the face of Spain.
El Battalador, the fighter, he was called by the Catalonians. But what the 19-year-old Rice University student does best is tease an opponent to death. To begin with, Solomon is 5'5½", so it is next to impossible to even see him across the cord. He cannot serve, volley or hit an overhead and he goes to net only for the handshake at the end. Solomon's arsenal consists of biding time, hitting everything back, then launching his key weapon, the "moon ball." Receiving a shot on his double-fisted backhand, he aims for the clouds, connects with plenty of topspin and puffs it up there. And puffs it and puffs it. One journalist has called Solomon's game, "A threat to low-flying birds," but in the second singles match last week Solomon was the one flying.
Against Gisbert, and all those olés that always accompany the handsome Spaniard in Barcelona, the young American dashed around, changed pace, moon-balled it all over the place and simply administered punishment by way of patience. He beat the Spaniard in five sets and won the most crucial U.S. Davis Cup point in several years. Suspended by darkness, played over two days and possessed of enough passion and nerve to last a lifetime, Solomon's accomplishment merely evened the matches on the scoreboards. But, following in the wake of Smith's sluggish defeat, it also aroused the entire U.S. contingent and inspired the eventual 3-2 victory.
Even before the matches began, the U.S. cause was helped by a certain amount of confusion in the Spanish ranks. Two weeks earlier, Gimeno, a former WCT veteran who had given up the pro life to compete for his country, had suffered ingrown boils and been unable to play against Czechoslovakia. Gisbert, Orantes' regular doubles partner, stepped in and won both his singles matches to again become a national hero. So now the question was, who was No. 2 for Spain?
The Spaniards are consistently bewildered by Gisbert, a wealthy hotel owner's son who grew up on the courts of the Club Real and graduated from the University of Barcelona Law School. To them he is el doble personalidad, due to his momentous Davis Cup collapses away from Spain and his yeoman work at home. "Gisbert is like another man here," said Jaime Bartroli, the Spanish captain. "This is his pista màgica, his magic court." So Bartroli decided to bench Gimeno and play Gisbert and Orantes against the Americans. When his choice was announced on the day of the draw, it almost caused another Spanish inquisition among the press and public, who wanted to know why Gimeno, the conqueror of both Smith and Solomon in their most recent meetings, was not playing.
For his own part Gimeno was furious. But that same day Orantes tore a muscle in his upper back while practicing on center court, and suddenly the odd man out was back on the first team. "Twenty-four hours after they tell me I am not deserving, they tell me I have to play," fumed Gimeno. "You can imagine how I feel. But I have to play. I am member of the team. I do my best and I think I beat Stan."
On Friday, with the familiar gazpacho-colored clay underfoot, the gangly, balding Gimeno did just that. The packed-in crowd of 8,000 watched Gimeno lose the first set 6-8 and get down 3-4, 15-40 in the eighth game of the second. But then Smith double-faulted twice, lost his serve and, soon after, all control of the match as well. Aching to prove himself, Gimeno broke again in six of Smith's next eight service games while pulling out backhand returns from somewhere inside his white terry-cloth cap. The final was 6-8, 7-5, 6-3, 6-4, and the American was humbled. The unexpected success—and now there was only the lightly regarded Solomon against Conquistador Gisbert—created tumult in all corners. Spain was on its way.
Lew Hoad, the former Australian champion who coaches the Spanish team, had figured on two sure points against the college boy and either a victory in the doubles or one over Smith to clinch the match. But Ralston saw it differently. "We've got a surprise for them," he said earlier in the day. "A star is born right here. Solly just might win twice."
Now, under special pressure, Solomon had to win at least once. "I didn't come here to lose," he said. "I just want to move my feet and throw him some moons."
In truth Gisbert should have won the match in straight sets and buried Solomon and the U.S. team right away. But, ahead by 5-3 in the first and second sets and serving for both, he folded. As the crowd roared at Martini, the toothless Italian referee, "Vendetta, Mafioso. Vendetta, spaghetti" Solomon broke through with deft passing shots to lead 9-7, 7-5.
Gisbert, fighting angry and glaring at his youthful adversary as if he should be ashamed of himself, dashed off the next set at love when Solomon was reduced almost to spectator status by a cramp in the wrist. Fortunately, the light was failing and play was suspended until ma√±ana.
Solomon knew full well the situation facing him. If he could not recover and defeat Gisbert, Spain would have a commanding 2-0 lead and, almost as important, if the matches ultimately came down to a decisive Gisbert-Smith confrontation on Monday, the Spaniard would be riding confidently atop his wave of recent victories.
The next afternoon Gisbert came out swarming the net and attacking everything to sweep the fourth set 6-1. He played so well it was frightening. But in the first game of the fifth set Solomon lunged for a backhand, barely caught the ball and won an amazing point that he himself confessed lie didn't even see. Gisbert stared after the ball, glared once more and must have known his spell was broken.
Wearying now in the Mediterranean sun and oblivious to the chants of "Gis-bert! Gis-bert!" from his partisans, the Spaniard faltered and dropped his last three service games of the set. Exhausted, and with his nerves strung out, Solomon threw away his own final two service games but he kept the pressure on and finally won, 6-4, when he skipped around his backhand and slashed a return past Gisbert on the second match point.
"It's moon-ball city," crowed Eric Van Dillen, who helped Smith win the critical doubles match next day. LA ELIMINADORA EN EL AIRE screamed the headlines, but then the moon ball failed on Monday against Gimeno. Solomon lost 6-3, 6-1, 2-6, 6-2 and emotional Latins suddenly realized that they were still in the running. And they still had Gisbert and his pista màgica against Smith.
But it turned out that Stan Smith had some magic of his own: the big serve and power game that had deserted him so badly on Friday. Smith outfought the Spaniard in three dramatic sets, 11-9, 10-8, 6-4, sending the U.S. into the Davis Cup Challenge Round for the 48th time.
But when the Americans play Rumania in Bucharest in October it will be their first Davis Cup appearance behind the Iron Curtain—and Ilie Nastase already has served hyperbolic warning the matches will be held in a football stadium before 35,000 people, and that the Americans "will have chance of zero."
Whatever the Rumanian equivalent of olé, the Americans had better be ready to hear a lot of it.