Let us face it, tennis fans and vessel lovers. Compared to the Davis Cup, America's Cup, Rose Bowl, Wightman Cup or Old Oaken Bucket—and even your old fraternity beer mug—the Aetna World Cup does not stack up in the hoary-tradition department. It has never been bent out of shape in some undergraduate tug-of-war. It has not sat rusting in some spotlighted trophy case since the administration of Franklin Pierce. In fact, despite its grandiose name, the world took little note last week when a group of superior athletes met in Trinity College's small gymnasium in Hartford, Conn. to battle a fourth time for the cup's possession.
The idea of the World Cup is to pit the best players from the U.S. and Australia against each other for seven matches, five singles and two doubles, with $20,000 going to the winners, $10,000 to the losers and any residue of goodwill to the sponsoring insurance company, which foots the bills and gives ticket and program proceeds to charity. If you think this sounds a little like the Davis Cup, you're right. Except, of course, that a few dozen tennis-playing countries and several vast continents are eliminated right off the bat—er, racket—without any of their players getting a chance to lace up a shoe. Perhaps it is all a capitalistic plot by Aetna to avoid associating its name with Rumania's Ilie Nastase.
Anyway, it was just Aussies vs. Yanks in Trinity College's gym, fighting it out the way they so often have in Davis Cup finals. The deciding match came on Sunday in a confrontation between America's tall Stan Smith, voted the best player on earth in 1972, and stubby Ken Rosewall, at 38 an ancient of the sport who last represented his country in international play 17 years ago. That was in the 1956 Davis Cup and since then Rosewall has helped to bring professional tennis from the dim courts and paltry—sometimes nonexistent—paychecks to the point where he earned $100,000 for winning the last two pro championships.
Even though Rocket Rod Laver was kept out of play by an aching back, Australia led 3-2 going into the Smith-Rose-wall match, so Smith had to win or the remaining doubles match between Marty Riessen and Arthur Ashe of the U.S. and Aussies Roy Emerson and John Newcombe would be meaningless. In the first set Smith broke Rosewall to take a 6-5 lead and had only to hold service to win it, but Rosewall broke back to force a 12-point tie breaker. Stan took that tie breaker, but from then on he hardly seemed to be in the match. Rosewall won the next two sets, 6-0, 6-4, and took the World Cup for Australia for the third time in four years. The meaningless doubles match was also won by Australia, 7-6, 3-6, 6-3.
It was time for the Aussies to give out with their victory chant, which ends, "Moll moll honolu, Tiparoo tiparoo. We are the boys of kangaroo. Who are we? We are they, we are the boys of kangaroo, ya ya ya." We presume that it is only chanted late at night after many celebration beers.
The World Cup started in 1970, the result of much hard work and patient haggling by Jim Smith, a persistent seeker of decent tennis facilities for Boston's inner city, and Bud Collins, columnist for The Boston Globe and a man of many distinctions, one of which is that he once was Abbie Hoffman's tennis coach at Brandeis University. "A real character builder," he describes himself. Smith had the idea, Collins had the contacts and with much help from former Davis Cup captain Donald Dell and Arthur Ashe, they plowed through 10 miles of red tape and got it going. For a bit of instant tradition, they ordered their trophy—on credit—from the same Boston jewelry store, Shreve, Crump & Low, that for $750 had crafted the Davis Cup back in 1900. SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, its publisher's arm being gently twisted by Collins, paid part of the tab.
The first year two Aussies, Newcombe and Fred Stolle, stood off four Yanks, Ashe, Smith, Clark Graebner and Cliff Richey, to win $11,000 (the losers split $9,000). There was some money left over to buy and refurbish some tennis courts at Jim Smith's Sportsmen's Club, where the surfaces had been unfavorably compared with a cobblestone street. In 1971 the prize money went up to $30,000 and Dennis Ralston was the hero in a U.S. victory, even though the Aussies took unfair advantage by showing up with four men. But the event was now getting too big for Smith and Collins.
Enter Aetna, which figured it might as well join Commercial Union, Virginia Slims, Miller High Life, Michelob and all the other American companies riding the tennis wave. Aetna moved the show to its sports-starved hometown, Hartford, and agreed to help the Sportsmen's Club each year in addition to kicking in to some Hartford charity. A dingy armory was rejected as the site and Trinity College was picked until a 10,000-seat civic arena could be completed. Last year the Aussies took a 2-1 lead in the series and did it convincingly, whomping the Yanks 6-1. Charlie Pasarell was the lone American winner.
The squads this year were Smith, Riessen, Ashe and Bob Lutz for the U.S., with Ralston the captain, and Rosewall, Newcombe, Emerson and John Alexander for Australia, the team captained by Stolle, that master of Down Under psychology.
"Hold this serve," he would say to Emerson during the rest periods, "there's a nice cold beer waiting for you."
Certificates of bravery should be awarded to Lutz and Alexander, each of whom interrupted his honeymoon to be on hand. Five major life-insurance companies are headquartered in Hartford and there are few things an insurance salesman loves more than a newlywed. One could envision Alexander sitting down at courtside for a breather after having had his service broken and getting an earful of sales pitch from a Travelers agent sneaking in on Aetna's territory. But it never happened. The earfuls came from captains Stolle and Ralston, who did more than just wipe off racket handles.
Ralston, whose two bad knees have forced him into being a part-time, fill-in player on the pro circuit, coaches a college team in his hometown of Bakersfield, Calif. Last year, as captain of the U.S. Davis Cup team (a job he also holds this year), he worked well with Smith, battling in Bucharest against the antics and tirades of Nastase and Ion Tiriac, and Ralston was not about to let the press believe what he considered to be Australian propaganda, such as the word going around that Rosewall was playing poorly and that Newcombe had not played in two months.
"They may say that Ken Rosewall is not up to his usual form," said Ralston, "but I saw him in Chicago last week. He played good tennis even though he lost. In one situation he won 15 of 16 points. You'd have to call that good tennis."
And had Newcombe really been in hibernation in the Outback?
"I can't believe John hasn't held a racket in his hand for two months," said Ralston. "When you're a tennis player you just don't do those things."
After a celebrity tournament that featured comedian Bill Cosby as the world's funniest and least competent net judge, the serious competition began on the slow Supreme-Court surface. Smith met Newcombe, three-time Wimbledon champion and the only World Cupper not supplied by the World Championship of Tennis troupes. Newcombe, as Ralston had noted, claimed he had been resting at home in Sydney, keeping a safe distance from his racket. Smith had five WCT tournaments behind him and ranked second to Rod Laver in Group A. He was just back from risking his valuable limbs on the ski slopes of Utah. Smith and Newcombe had a close, tough match, the first service break not coming until the 29th game and the first two sets going to tie breakers. Smith won 7-6, 6-7, 7-5, and the U.S. was assured of at least matching last year's score.
"The adrenaline wasn't coming," complained Newcombe. "There wasn't enough killer there."
Smith and Ralston had gone over their strategy carefully and decided to make Newcombe volley with his backhand as much as possible. Not that his backhand volley is weak, but at least an opponent has a chance to get to it, whereas the forehand volley resembles a howitzer shot.
On the second night Ashe met Emerson, who had not beaten him in seven years, and the U.S. seemed to have a second point in the bag. But no, old Emmo won 6-4, 4-6, 6-3. Said Ashe: "When Emmo puts on the Australian jock or shirt or whatever it was he wore tonight, he does well." Then Riessen, who had beaten Rosewall four out of the last five times they had met, was beaten by the little star from Sydney 6-2, 7-6. It was probably Rosewall's best match of the year (he ranks five notches below leader Riessen in WCT's Group B).
Saturday night Riessen, using the same tactics that had worked for Smith, beat Newcombe 6-3, 5-7, 6-4, and showed off his improved first serve and his running forehand down the line. The two countries were tied 2-2 and it seemed certain that America's best doubles team, Smith and Lutz, would beat Rosewall-Alexander, who had played together just twice before (Rosewall is a mere 17 years older than the bridegroom). The Aussies had three match points against them in the 10th game of the third set but fought back to win in a tie breaker 3-6, 6-1, 7-6. Rosewall and Alexander concentrated on spinning serves close into Smith's body on his backhand side so that he didn't have room to swing out.
That set up Rosewall's cup-winning singles match against Smith, after which Ken skipped a TV interview with Bud Collins and jumped into the whirlpool. Collins apologized to his audience, saying Rosewall had to take care of his old bones.
"My legs have probably run more miles than Bud Collins' tongue has waggled," said Rosewall in retaliation, "and that's saying something."
A short while later captain Stolle walked into the training room and found Smith stretched out naked on a table getling a rubdown and sipping a cold soft drink.
"Fred, what's wrong with that old guy?" asked Stan. "Doesn't he get tired at all? Won't he ever give up?"