They fashioned the Cupa Davis into papier-m√¢ché in Bucharest. They created silver-foil models of it, put it on pennants and posters, on ashtrays and soda-pop stands, on baby dresses and T shirts. They made it into cookies and Davis cupcakes, guarded it with rifles, rubbed it, serenaded it, surrounded it with velvet ropes and stood long hours in the pouring rain just waiting to look at it. It must also be said that the Rumanians kicked some dirt on the cup last week and roughed it up a bit, too. But ultimately they did not take it away from the U.S. as they should have because of the contrasting performance traits of two well-known soldiers of tennis: the spirited relentlessness of Corporal Stan Smith, the puzzling collapse of Lieutenant Ilie Nastase.
After Smith crushed Nastase in the opening singles, after Nastase fell apart in the crucial doubles (somewhat dumb struck by the sight of young Erik van Dillen turning into a 155-pound version of Bob Lutz) and after Smith dispatched the flimflam of Transylvania's own Ion Tiriac for the conclusive third point on the final day, the differences were clear.
The U.S. team, in defense of the championship, having traveled from the Caribbean to Mexico to South America to Spain and finally to this mysterious site deep in the Balkan interior, had, to put it simply, competed. The Rumanians, lying in wait on their home grounds with a bunch of thieving linesmen they must have recruited from the donor list at the local eye bank, had not. The Rumanians came to play, all right. But the Americans came to play tennis. And it all got pretty hot.
"Chokers," "quitters," "cheaters" was what U.S. Captain Dennis Ralston called the Rumanian pair. Though Ralston is an emotional sort, there was reason to agree with him. Nastase and Tiriac, who had lost in the Challenge Round twice before on U.S. soil, tried every trick and swindle this time, but they only succeeded in stirring up trouble—for themselves. It was a bizarre aberration to present to their own Rumanian public, who, filled with anticipation, had flocked to the scenic greenery of the Progresul Sports Club and who deserved much better.
October 22, 1972
For weeks this populace had been guaranteed by the two players and anybody else considered expert in the game that the Americans would be easy victims on the faraway clay of Bucharest. "We should be 10-1 for favorite," was the way Nastase put it.
Tiriac was more descriptive. "The U.S. players not like the soft stuff," he said. "Wait till they see ours. Godzilla [Smith], he feel like he serving on the beach."
In truth, after heavy early-week rains flooded the Danube and left nearby villages wallowing knee deep, the sun came out and the clay was solid enough. Besides, Smith turned up as a much-improved player on the fudgy surface; he was able to serve and move and volley effectively throughout the competition.
Smith also managed to inject his own brand of connivery on Sunday, a chill, gray day that seemed made to order for the sorcery of Tiriac. In order to win the deciding point in a Davis Cup final for the fifth year in a row, Smith found he had to battle his own erratic game as much as the Rumanian. After losing the first set he took the initiative in conmanship. On game point in the opening game of the second set Smith bluffed the referee into overruling a linesman's out call on his service. With another chance, he aced Tiriac to win the game. Tiriac, who could only admire such robbery, applauded with his racket, and Smith laughed and waved him off.
The American won the second and third sets, the latter even after being stripped clean on four different points by those marvelous line judges. But now he was bereft of his Anglo-Saxon cool. He lost his temper, made errors, faked wild swings at Tiriac and made unkind gestures at both him and the referee.
It was only after Tiriac won the fourth set that Smith came back into his groove. Calmer, he destroyed Tiriac, taking the deciding set at love and permitting the brooding giant across the net only eight points. The roaring multitudes who had disrupted proceedings all weekend with shouted protests and rhythmic clapping were finally silenced.
The Smith-Tiriac encounter went 4-6, 6-2, 6-4, 2-6, 6-0, and all that remained was for Nastase to redeem himself in front of his countrymen against a personal punching bag, Tom Gorman. This he did (6-1, 6-2, 5-7, 10-8) but it was long after anybody was counting. If Nastase ever wants to know what went wrong on this embarrassing weekend for Rumanian tennis, he need only ask himself.
This was the first time in 35 years that a Davis Cup final had been held anywhere except in the U.S. or Australia, and the only time in Eastern Europe. Because of rumors that Black September terrorists would make Bucharest their next target, extraordinary security was set up around the American team and its two Jewish members, Harold Solomon and Brian Gottfried. Rumanian President Ceausescu let it be known that "heads would roll" if there was a hint of an incident. As a result, the U.S. players walked, talked, rode in private limousines, took meals and practiced while surrounded by 20 unsmiling secret police, officially known as "translators."
"Translate for us, George," van Dillen joked one day to the players' favorite G-man. "Translate what that heavy object is sticking out under your coat." George did not crack his un-smile.
The American team lived in isolation on the 17th floor of the sparkling new Intercontinental Hotel. They were watched by monitored cameras. They rode a private elevator. They were not allowed near windows, and they disappeared nightly upstairs to eat meals with their guards and watch movies sent over by the U.S. Embassy. When they did go out it was only to practice or to the matches at Progresul. They left and returned by different routes each time. It seemed silly, but after Munich who is to say.
What the U.S. contingent missed outside was a city of such surface calm and lack of color and noise that it was difficult to imagine it as the home of two outrageously demonstrative tennis stars.
Though Rumania has been called "an island of Latins in a sea of Slavs," Bucharest itself is a kind of Balkanized Paris. It is considered fashionable to speak French there, to wear berets and to regard the gardens of Cismigiu Park in the center of town as a reasonable facsimile of Versailles. Bucharest even has its own Arc de Triomphe, near which Nastase and Tiriac were quartered in regal surroundings normally reserved for visiting dignitaries of the Communist Party.
Except for the native dress, which tends to be predominantly dark and lifeless, much of the Western world can be seen in the cultural fiber of Bucharest. Oscar Wilde is in the theater, The Liberation of L.B. Jones at the movies and The Forsyte Saga on TV. Vintage Connie Francis ("Stupid Cupid") is heard all over town and Ernest Hemingway comic books flood the newsstands. Most Rumanians are on a 7-to-3:30 workday. After that they crowd stores and trolley bus shops, where peasants sell steaming ears of corn out of paper bags.
Into these unfamiliar surroundings came the grandest competition in tennis, a culmination of the sport's five years of spectacular growth in Rumania. As the 33-year-old Tiriac's popularity reached a zenith and Nastase showed signs of becoming one of the world's best, the number of tennis players increased more than tenfold. Alexandru Lazarescu, the secretary general of the Rumanian Tennis Federation, estimates that 25,000 Rumanians now play the game. "In historical theory, the people make interest in game and heroes," Lazarescu said. "Here is opposite. Nastase himself has created game and followers."
The city was in the grip of the Davis Cup. Officials tripled the seating capacity of Progresul to almost 7,000, and all those who could not afford Rumania's highest-priced sporting ticket ever (150 lei: about $9.50 for the series) seemed to gather downtown at the spectacularly ornate Central Army House for the draw.
Beforehand Nastase, laughingly referring to Tiriac's age, said Rumania had "one and one half players." But the elder partner just glowered when informed of the remark. "Is right," Tiriac hissed, "I am the one and one half player. I play with bums all my life. "But Nastase alone should beat the Americans here."
Because of recent form and experience, Ralston had chosen Gorman over Harold Solomon for the second singles spot. He figured the U.S. could beat Tiriac twice and capture the doubles for a 3-2 victory. "Nastase should beat Smith on the clay," he said the night before the matches began, "but if Stan wins the first match it's extra cake for us. It'll be all over."
In the opener between the champions of Wimbledon and Forest Hills, Nastase began his nettling routine early, but he was tight and nervous. He was leading 9-8 in the first set and serving when the Argentine referee, Enrique Morea, ruled double fault on the first point. The call unglued Nastase and eventually he missed an easy volley to drop the game. Smith held and Nastase double-faulted twice more in his next service to lose the set 9-11. It was not much of a margin but it finished Ilie.
Smith dominated play from there, blanketing the net, giving the Rumanian only five games in two sets and, just as important, never letting the suddenly stunned crowd get into the match as he finished it off 11-9, 6-2, 6-3.
Gorman, who followed against the wily Tiriac, was not as fortunate. Despite losing some line decisions, the handsome Irishman was rolling along at 6-4, 6-2 and twice was a break ahead in the third set before his opponent finally began to show some life and broke back twice to tie. And now Tiriac, realizing the cup was almost gone before it had arrived, went to his bag of tricks.
Glaring at linesmen, sitting down, refusing to play, appealing for lets, Tiriac was a master of guile and deceit. He took the crowd by the neck, and led it to strangle Gorman. On set point against him, the American blew an easy overhead smash to lose 6-4. After the 20-minute break Gorman lost everything else—except his class.
In the last two sets the Rumanian put on one of the fine tragicomic displays of his time. As the Balkan shadows turned to night he directed the crowd, which booed and whistled Gorman's backswing apart. It chanted "TIR-I-AC, TIR-I-AC" and hurled epithets at Referee Morea. Tiriac continued to intimidate linesmen, to stall and laugh, to rest and fume, to delay and, almost incidentally, to play some marvelous tennis. He himself called Morea every four-letter word invented and at one point even grabbed the referee and pushed him. He was, as he loves to say of himself, "Dracula—ready for bite." As Bud Collins of the Boston Globe put it, "Gorman needed a cross, not a racket."
On the sidelines the U.S. team, especially van Dillen, was in an uproar and began screaming curses at Tiriac. Some shady customers started down from the crowd toward the Americans but they were stopped by the ever-present "translators." Soon the slaughter was over 4-6, 2-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-2. Gorman was in tears and Ralston was furious. "Tiriac should be thrown out of tennis for life," he said. "This is the most disgraceful day in the history of the Davis Cup." Smith was calmer. "Excitement is good for tennis," he said. "It just shouldn't take over completely."
Now the doubles on Saturday was the critical point, for surely Smith and Nastase would split victories in the final singles. The Rumanians, who had ripped Smith and van Dillen easily at Charlotte last year while taking advantage of the younger American's inability to return service, were confident. The Progresul noise was tuning up and they planned to shake the senior from Southern Cal at least as easily as they had Gorman. On the other side, however, van Dillen was optimistic. "Watching Nastase choke out of his mind makes me feel good," he said. "If we get ahead early, look out."
Then all van Dillen did was go out and play the finest doubles match of his life. He lost his first service game and double-faulted twice in his second, but the Americans won it anyway and that was the extent of van Dillen's errors. He was decisive at net, quick on recoveries, creative and daring.
Nastase meanwhile was in perfect form. In the sixth game he walked to the side of the court to converse with the James Van Alens of Newport, R.I., who had been applauding Rumanian errors much as nearly 7,000 others had been screaming for American blood.
"Bitch," Nastase said to Candy Van Alen. "I pay you five dollars," he told Jimmy. "You get out."
The Van Alens stayed to watch Nastase and Tiriac lose 11 straight games and the match 6-2, 6-0, 6-3. Tiriac, looking stiff after his theatrics of the night before, held service only one time, while Nastase stayed out of position much of the afternoon and was a pitiful target the rest. It was over in 67 minutes and with it went all Rumanian hopes for the cup.
The American winners had the usual worn phrases prepared about team and spirit and sacrifices being "worth it," but that is the kind of stuff that truly makes the difference in the Davis Cup. Nastase and Tiriac might take note. While they were being routed in the doubles, they stopped speaking. From the fifth game forward, Nastase refused to wait for Tiriac as the teams changed courts. Finally it had come down to that. The Rumanians were swindling each other.