Over bad grass, through sudden-death tiebreaks, for record amounts of devalued dollars came the U.S. Open, trying its best to present us with the elusive Mr. Tennis. What with all the best players in the world assembling for the first, last and only time in 1972, the West Side Tennis Club figured that Mr. Tennis surely must emerge from Forest Hills. Somebody who would win the tournament big, personally eliminating all the other elite, establishing himself as clearly dominant in the game. Somebody, say, like Mr. Golf, Jack Nicklaus, or Mr. Hockey, Valeri Kharlamov. That was what this Forest Hills was supposed to determine.
Instead, the 1972 Open went a long way toward proving just the opposite. It only seemed to offer more evidence that, along with the tennis "boom" everybody keeps raving about, there has developed a fascinating leveling process at the top of the game. Due to age, injury, changing surfaces, interchanging psyches, international politics, ecology, Vietnam and the layered look, there are—pick a number—maybe as many as a dozen men separated in ability only by a net cord. On any given day...? Perhaps not. But, as Forest Hills demonstrated, there is no Mr. Tennis.
What this gem of an Open did produce was the Australian Disappearing Trick, an overworked and straining Stan Smith, a couple of quarterfinalists named Frew and Roscoe and, finally, the championship of this strongest field in the universe fought out between a black man who represents the Doral Country Club and a Communist swinger from Bucharest. Tennis? Anyone.
For a long time, of course, the tournament looked like it belonged to Arthur Ashe, who had won the first Open in 1968 and not much since. Indeed, before all the upsets, he picked the winner as "either Laver, Smith or me." Bin if Forest Hills marked the resurrection of Ashe, even more did it signal the arrival of Ilie Nastase, the dark-eyed clown prince from Rumania whose magic at net and flair with a racket have usually bowed to the demons of his temperament. At Wimbledon in July he almost put it all together in a memorable final against Smith, however, and then last week he went all the way.
September 17, 1972
Seeming far out of it against Ashe, behind two sets to one and two games to four, he suddenly regained interest and composure and blew Ashe away, 3-6, 6-3, 6-7, 6-4, 6-3, to become the first Iron Curtain champion of America. "I am just winning my round and seeing what is happening," Nastase explained about his performance at the Open. Included in this repertoire, however, were scenes of the Rumanian hitting shots from behind his back, comically peering through the net, covering his eyes after impossible winners, drop-kicking tufts of grass and scrambling into the celebrities' seats for unnatural recoveries.
Most of the time Nastase was sheer joy to the eye, a laughing child, but in the third-set tiebreaker of the final match, he showed why he had earned the nickname of Nasty. Because he did not agree with a call, he threw a towel at linesman Jack Stahr. After losing the tiebreak 5-1, he served a winning game in the fourth set and then hit the ball at Stahr. Nastase was zealously booed when he changed sides.
Moments later, after Ashe had broken at love and served at love for a 3-1 lead and what looked like an easy victory, Nastase very quietly gave everybody the well-known international gesture that means all sorts of bad things. This done, his anger spent, the dashing new champion settled down and went to work.
From the beginning, Nastase had been outserving Ashe, firing his low "flat parabola," as Ashe called it, beating him at his own game. Then Ashe began volleying better and, in truth, he had only to hold service twice to run out the match. "When I have somebody 4-3 on grass," he was to say after the match, "I'm usually the winner."
But Nastase's talent and newfound zest for combat were too much for him. Leading 4-3 in the fourth, Ashe could only watch as Nastase slashed returns out of reach. Ashe saved three break points in that game only to lose it on the fourth when Nasty passed him at the net. Nastase held for 5-4, and then Ashe was broken again when he blew an easy overhead to lose the set.
Arthur quickly broke back in the first game of the fifth set, but lost his own serve for the third straight time, and it was tied. From deuce, on his own serve in the sixth game, Ashe missed two backhand volleys and fell behind 2-4 as Nastase, jumping up and down and pounding his gut with his fist, really sensed the victory. Ashe managed one break point in the final game but could not come through, and Nastase held at 6-3 for the championship.
"This is a great player," Ashe told the crowd afterward. "And when he brushes up on his court manners, he'll be even better." Nastase had an answer even for that. First he looked puzzled, then he waved his $25,000 winner's check at the beaten American, and then he stuck it on his forehead.
Long before Nastase and Ashe came to grips with one another, there were nearly as many Australian bodies scattered around the borough of Queens as there were cans of Foster's Export Lager beer stocked inside the locker room especially to accommodate the Aussies. Ken Rosewall, John Newcombe and Rod Laver, who among them had been to Forest Hills finals nine times and won five championships, all were eliminated prior to the quarterfinals. With the exception of Ashe and Cliff Richey, so were all other members of Lamar Hunt's World Championship of Tennis outfit who were seeded at Forest Hills.
It wasn't that people they hadn't seen for a while and weren't used to playing were beating the WCT stars. It was their own lesser-known tour brethren who were knocking them off. Only Tiny Tom Okker of the WCT seeds was beaten by an outsider—young Roscoe Tanner of Stanford, who served 21 aces past the Dutchman. But the WCT favorites were happy to cop any other plea that came along. For instance: the grass was as awful as ever at Forest Hills, resulting in terribly funny bounces that never occur on the immaculate indoor carpets on tour. The best three-of-five set matches were a punishing adjustment from the two of three to which they are accustomed. And, whoa, boy, what about this grotesque nine-point, sudden-death tiebreaker, when what they are all used to is a sedate best-of-12, win-by-two pansy of a tiebreak?
"All of us are under the most pressure, coming in here and being expected to win," said Ashe, speaking for WCT. "But we aren't used to the five-setters, most of our guys aren't physically in shape and we haven't been on grass in a year. The grass here actually looks funny to me."
"What these guys forget," Tom Gorman, an independent pro, said in rebuttal, "is that except for Wimbledon, we haven't seen grass either. They could have prepared the week before at Merion or Orange."
Criticism of the grounds, however, paled before the oral onslaught unleashed by the players upon the tiebreak system. In the players' defense, it is painful for anyone's fate to be determined by a bad bounce in sudden death, especially when a $160,000 purse is at stake. Still, as Tournament Director Billy Talbert pointed out, the system puts a "finish line" on a match, and it is the most exciting breakthrough for spectators since Joan Kennedy took up the game.
Rosewall, Newcombe and Laver all lost two sudden-death tiebreakers to hasten their exit. Laver's upset to Richey may have contained the most surprise, if only because it meant that since the Rocket won his second Grand Slam in 1969 he has not only failed to win eiter Forest Hills or Wimbledon but has been eliminated in the quarters or earlier in both tournaments (four losses, two no-shows). This time Laver won the first set against Richey, but at age 34 and with his aching back (supported by a brace) proving too much of a handicap, he then dropped the next three straight.
A lesser man would have defaulted, for Laver could hardly walk that night. "I tried to stretch out a few times," he said, "but I kept getting spasms."
Laver and Richey actually had been playing for the right to meet Frew McMillan, a South African who wears a Ben Hogan cap and hits everything with two hands. But that's the kind of Open it was. By this time practically everybody who was anybody had departed the lower half of the draw, and attention was focused on the meeting between Smith and Ashe.
Burdened with Davis Cup responsibilities, Smith, the defending champion, had not played a tournament since his victory at Wimbledon, and he looked ragged in the early rounds. Against his good friend Ashe, whose game is nearly a mirror of his own, he simply was not ready. For all purposes, it was over early when, after saving one set point to reach 6-6, Ashe went to serve in the tiebreak, behind 2-4. Here was Smith, one of the few players who likes sudden death, with three set points going for him and in wonderful position. Yet on all three of Ashe's serves to his backhand, the tall Army corporal failed to put the ball in play. He lost the tiebreak 4-5, the set 6-7 and his title 6-7, 4-6, 5-7, double-faulting on match point.
Afterward, Smith dejectedly admitted he was unable to "hang in, like I usually do." But Ashe thought Smith to be tired and "mentally not out there."
"Since when does Arthur have a degree in psychology?" snapped Dennis Ralston, who has coached both men. "No secret reasons for this. You can't win every big tournament. Arthur just outplayed him."
In the semifinal he also outplayed Richey in straight sets. After saving two set points in the 12th game of the third, Arthur went on to win still another tie-break. Ashe used to lose tiebreaks in his sleep, but for the tournament he was 5-0 in the little monsters.
In taking the women's championship for the third time, Billie Jean King didn't win any tiebreaks. She didn't have to. Nobody got a set from her and, aside from a fairly stiff tussle with Margaret Court in the semifinals, Ms. King's biggest challenge was seeing how many sentences she could construct in her tacky trophy-acceptance speech using only the words "Virginia Slims."
The spokeswomen for the tour that is sponsored by the "You've Come a Long Way, Baby" cigarette firm have been claiming for a year now that the women outdrew the men and "saved" Forest Hills in 1971. That is, of course, stretching the point at least 100 millimeters. In reality, last year's tournament was missing many of the big-name male stars and subsequently it came under the spell of a little girl, Chris Evert, who is not on the women's tour and still isn't old enough to smoke outside her own bathroom.
Nevertheless, the women made much noise about "striking" Forest Hills this time because of the unequal distribution of prize money, which was weighted 3 to 1 in favor of the men. Reportedly, the Virginia Slims girls could not get Msss. Court, Evert and Evonne Goolagong to go along with them on such short notice and, finally, Publisher Gladys Heldman, the grand duchess of the tour, persuaded the girls (whom she refers to affectionately as "the little broads") to call off their strike for this time.
Pre-tournament hoopla surrounding the first appearance together of King, Court, Evert and Goolagong surely approached the atmosphere when that other girl quartet, the Lennons, did their first national number. Unfortunately, at Forest Hills, the prospectus generated far more excitement than what turned up on the court.
King and Court did meet, of course, but the girls of summer—Chris and Evonne—never got to each other or the other two. Ironically, it was two of "the little broads" that did them in. First Goolagong, not unlike a debutante getting cold feet in front of pushy New York society, was appalled at the interview room and labeled it an "animal cage." Then she went out and lost in the third round to Pam Teeguarden after blowing two set points at 5-4, 40-15 and letting her erratic forehand scattershot everything the rest of the way.
Pam Teeguarden turned out to be a kinky free spirit from Los Angeles who regularly receives acupuncture massages from her brother and claims to own "the world's largest Afghan." But no sooner did she get interesting than Kerry Melville, a shy 25-year-old from Australia, put the Afghan owner out with the loss of only two games.
Seventeen-year-old Chris Evert, in the meantime, was making her way back to the semifinal round she had attained at Forest Hills last year. The same ecstasy with which Open crowds greeted her every eyelash move in 1971 seemed absent this time—perhaps because she was winning much more easily—and early on she even seemed to be getting upstaged by her little sister Jeannie, 14.
The press quickly made a starlet of Jeannie—"What do you think of 'golden oldies'?" was one of the more intelligent questions—until she was thrashed by Lesley Hunt in the second round. Chris herself went out to Melville 6-4, 6-2. She could not solve the Australian's polished forehand top spin or a fluttering drop shot that kept her panting all afternoon. Once again in the semis, it was bye, bye, Ms. American Pie.
The King-Court match should have been better. Margaret had beaten Billie Jean easily at Newport two weeks before, serving as well as she ever had. But her comeback following the birth of a son has not reached the point where the Australian's nerves are steeled for the big ones. There were six break points in this particular big one, four against King, two against Court. King won them all, and the match, 6-4, 6-4. She also won an easy final 6-3, 7-5 when Melville succumbed to the "many stupid errors" that constantly plague her game.
But Billie Jean was anything but joyous after the victory. "Next year the women's money better be up," she barked, "or else I'm not coming back. Me or any of us. And I mean up—up to par—exactly the same as the men."
"Give 'em a year's notice, Billie," Gladys Heldman hooted, prompting her. "Right on."
"God, Billie Jean's beginning to think she's some kind of cabaret star," moaned a top male player after listening to her babble on at the microphone. And the record one-day crowd of 14,683 that watched her final and the two men's semifinals on Saturday was hardly drawn by the King-Melville match. Tournament Director Talbert is well aware of that, too. He also knows that the men, who formed a new players organization last week, the Association of Tennis Professionals, with Jack Kramer as the executive director, will start to wield tremendous power on their own. And one of their first efforts may be the abolition of sudden death at Forest Hills. That would be a shame. You've come a long way, tennis. Don't stop now.