Riding the crest of a winning wave

With his victory in the World Championship Tennis finals in Dallas last week, formerly the private fishing grounds of Messrs. Rosewall and Laver, Stan Smith proved he has left his competition high and dry
May 20, 1973

Those who feel that retirement is for bank, presidents, not sports heroes, would do well to reflect on a flabby Joe Louis falling under the blows of Rocky Marciano, Jim Ryun sprawled awkwardly on the track in Munich and Arnold Palmer, bespectacled, sinking slowly in the wake of Jack Nicklaus. Now add two names from the 1973 World Championship Tennis finals held last week in Dallas. Stan Smith defeated Arthur Ashe for the title, but perhaps just as significantly the tournament showed the decline of those two semi-elderly Aussies, Ken Rosewall, 38, and Rod Laver, 34.

This championship, which brings together the eight top-ranking players from Lamar Hunt's lucrative three-month-long worldwide WCT tour, had twice in a row ended with Ken and Rod meeting in the final bracket that last week was usurped by Stan and Arthur. Each time Rosewall grabbed off the championship trophy. He beat Laver in four sets in 1971 and again last year in a five-set thriller. This year the tour was split into Group A and Group B, and so the selection format was altered slightly, with the four top players from each group qualifying for the grand finale in Dallas. Nevertheless, Rosewall, emerging from the Group B half of the draw, and Laver, representing Group A, squared off across the net for the third straight time.

But their reunion had taken a dismal sort of twist, for they played not for the $50,000 first prize on Sunday, but in the loser's bracket. While Ashe and Smith relaxed at their motel, gearing up for their appearance on center stage the next day, the two Australians spent a lazy Saturday lunch hour at Moody Coliseum on the Southern Methodist campus, doggedly swinging away at each other for third place. They were the other half of a droll twin bill that included an exhibition doubles match between veterans Pancho Segura and Don Budge teamed with Actors Charlton Heston and James Franciscus. It was a field day for celebrity chasers, yesterday freaks and mourners who like to attend wakes. Trivia experts will record that Rosewall beat Laver in straight sets, 6-3, 6-2.

There is nothing trivial about Stan Smith, the tall Californian with the wet-look blond hair, the wide mustache, the stiff honor-guard posture and the almost pious competitive temperament. Over the last few months Smith has had a lot to do with the fact that old soldiers Laver and Rosewall seem to be fading away. A victory at Forest Hills in 1971, a Wimbledon championship last summer and emphatic and crucial triumphs at the Davis Cup Final Round in Bucharest against the Rumanians are impressive credentials. Mustered out of the Army last November, Smith joined Hunt's WCT tour and this winter overshadowed Laver in Group A, not merely because he stands 6'4" to Laver's 5'8", but because he won six of the 11 tournaments (to the Rocket's three) and defeated him in their three final round matchups. To show he is also a good team man, Smith joined Bob Lutz to win the WCT's doubles championship—worth $20,000 each—two weeks ago in Montreal.

Smith's winning touch was still evident in the first round at Dallas when he crushed John Alexander, 6-4, 6-2, 6-1. He displayed such a devastating assortment of overhead smashes and volleys, mixed with deftly flicked cross-court backhand winners that positively hummed with overspin, that the powerful and promising young Australian entreated Smith with mock cries for mercy. After yet another brilliant Smith sortie, Alexander leaped into a courtside box seat and sat with chin in hand comically contemplating his imminent doom. Then he sprang back on the court as the crowd howled and someone called to his opponent, "Why don't you cut out the miracles and start playing tennis."

Later, Alexander described one reason why he had been able to beat Smith in two of their first three matches early in the winter but, like everyone else in the group, has lately found Smith all but unbeatable. It is not just miracles. The big hitter has acquired a surgeon's touch. "He's more solid all around," says Alexander, "but the most significant development is that little angled backhand of his. He always used to come down the line with his backhand and you could be there and beat him. Now you can't."

"It's just something I picked up from watching Rodney," says Smith, "and I've been working on it."

Something else that Smith has picked up in recent months is surprising speed and agility for a man so tall and large-footed—his sneakers are size 13. This he credits to a variety of stretching and yoga exercises he has been doing for a year and a half. In addition to his power, Smith now can retrieve like a terrier and get quickly to the net, where he makes an imposing obstacle.

It was this formidable weaponry that Laver, after winning in an uneven performance in the first round against Roy Emerson, had to face in the semis. Recent years for Laver have been rich in the stuff you put in a bank, but lean on trophies. Not since his Grand Slam of 1969 has the once untrackable Rocket won a major title. His two chances to win the WCT championship were thwarted by Rosewall. A bad back now pains him frequently, hampers his swing and saps his confidence. This year, it was rumored, he had decided that a victory at Dallas in May coupled with another at Wimbledon in July would be the perfect way to retire.

For a while it seemed he might have a chance. With the sets even at one-all, Laver had two opportunities to break the American's serve in the 10th game of the third set and go ahead 2-1. But he could not do it, and ultimately lost a 7-6 tie breaker. "Stan's a different player when he's down and that was my chance," Laver said later.

Off the hook, Smith's competitive juices started flowing. Laver could never get the upper hand again, and Smith won the fourth set 7-5 to move into the finals.

It would have been poetic justice if the man he met there had been Rosewall instead of Ashe. Rosewall was the leading winner and most acerbic spokesman for players who all season long declared that being branded with the letter "B" cast them in a role as second-class citizens. Could the aging leader from downtrodden Group B take on the big blond youth from privileged Group A, muffle his power and thus hurl shame and confusion into the ranks of those who would dare discriminate?

Nope. As it turned out that job would have to be left to Ashe, no slouch as a spokesman himself. Exhausted from a tough five-set victory over England's Roger Taylor that had dragged on until 12:50 a.m. that same morning, Rosewall could not overcome the comparative youth and strong serve of the 29-year-old Ashe. Shuffling from sideline to sideline like a man in ski boots, Rosewall dropped the first two sets, 4-6 and 2-6, revived to win the next two 7-5, 6-1 when Arthur grew careless, but finally ran out of adrenalin and lost by a decisive 6-2 in the fifth set. So off went Rosewall to that third-place playoff.

Ashe is not quite ready to rank the World Championship tournament with Wimbledon or Forest Hills, but he considers it close. "It's a big thing, a pressure tournament, a big occasion," he said before taking on Smith. "But the difference here is that you only have to win three straight matches to be the champion. At the others you've got to win seven straight. Still, if you don't believe there is a lot of pressure here just look at the guys who lost in the first round. Except for Emerson, none of them had ever won a major championship. The rest of us have. We've been there before and can handle it. At the least this shows who is champion of the first four-and-a-half months. Maybe not for Smith, who has been winning a lot lately, but for someone like me this could set up the whole year."

When Smith beat Laver in the semifinals, Ashe decided he knew what that meant, too. "It stamps Stan as the undisputed No. 1 in the world," he said. "Maybe even if I beat him."

Arthur's credentials were pretty solid. He was the runner-up at Forest Hills last September, losing to Ilie Nastase in five sets. Later in the fall he won the $25,000 first prize at the WCT's championship playoff following its 12-event autumn series. In that one he beat a strong field that included John Newcombe, Tom Okker and Marty Riessen. In addition, he had been building momentum on the WCT winter tour, reaching the finals at the last two events. The question at Dallas was, would he be the runner-up again?

"When Stan and I get together the match can go any which way," he said. "We're like two double barreled shotguns firing from 78 feet. He could bludgeon me or I could bludgeon him."

As it turned out, it was Ashe who got gunned down. Smith won the first two sets 6-3, 6-3, dropped the third 4-6, but was never in any real danger. He won the fourth set 6-4 to pick up the $50,000. It was not the best tennis Smith has ever played, especially in the third and fourth sets, but he has reached the stage where he can be slightly off his top form and still beat practically anyone in the world.

"I've always claimed Laver was the best," Smith said after the match. "Today is the first time I feel comfortable in saying that maybe I am."

PHOTOUNTIL RECENTLY IT WAS ROD LAVER, BUT AS OF NOW BIG STAN IS THE MAN TO BEAT

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)