Who could forget the Battle of Bucharest? Bucharest—the capital of Rumania and tennis mania, the country with Slavic politics and a Latin temperament. It was the final round of the 1972 Davis Cup war, set in the 7,000-seat Progresul Stadium, den of the infamous rogue Ilie Nastase. The ideal time and place for the little Iron Curtain nation to knock off giant America and giant Stan Smith. The stands were full of superpatriots on the verge of apoplexy, frantic to see their heroes drink from the cup that the hoggish U.S. already had won 23 times, the cup that Rumania had twice failed to capture in matches on U.S. courts. Well, as it turned out, it didn't happen on Rumanian courts either. Nastase folded under the pressure in his hometown, Smith helped account for the three points necessary to win and the U.S. squad felt fortunate to get back across the border alive.
Last weekend, as at Cleveland Heights in 1969, Charlotte, N.C. in '71 and Bucharest in '72, America and Rumania faced each other with drawn rackets, their Davis Cup ambition and national egos ready to be inflated or pricked, and Smith and Nastase in leading roles. Once again giant America won, making its 49th entry into the final round.
This time the battle took place a long way from Bucharest and the slow clay courts Nastase and other Europeans adore so much. Also a million miles from the linesmen who had peered at the court so intently and seen only the Rumanian flag. The site was the lovely Round Hill Country Club in Alamo, Calif., 20 miles northeast of Oakland, surrounded by dry golden hills dotted with oak trees. When the players changed ends, spectators in the temporary bleachers set up on all sides of the court could stand, stretch and gaze at the hot steep slopes and easily imagine Father Junipero Serra and his followers coming over a crest and descending into the little valley to found another mission.
The court was fast cement and the crowd distinctly pro-American, except for one little pocket of Rumanians—two of them students at Cal in nearby Berkeley—who on the first afternoon unfurled a small banner that said, ROMANIA VREM CUPA (we Rumanians want the cup). The referee was neither American nor Rumanian but Canadian, Fred Bolton of British Columbia. He was imported at the last minute because the visitors understandably did not want a Yank in the job. They probably would have preferred a U.N. observation team.
August 26, 1973
The Rumanians split two other preliminary decisions. One, they wanted white balls rather than yellow. They lost. Then they complained—rightly—that there was too little space between the sides of the doubles court and the box seats. Why, poor Nastase, in chasing Smith's sharply angled volleys, would be flying into the seats more often than a pro wrestler. The distances proved to meet the minimum requirements set forth in the rules, but promoter Barry MacKay did agree that for Sunday's doubles he would move the linesmen into first-row box seats and somehow squeeze in the displaced customers elsewhere.
The fans were not exactly thrilled the first day. The draw put Smith in against 24-year-old Toma Ovici (pronounced Oveech), whose best stroke all day was the one that killed a dragonfly that was pestering him as he tried to serve. To be fair to him, it was only the second match he had ever played on cement and, of course, he was up against the No. 1-ranked player in the world. Smith chewed him up 7-5, 6-1, 6-3. It would have been worse if Smith a) had been at all inspired or b) had ever seen Ovici play before.
The second match pitted Nastase against Marty Riessen, the 31-year-old pro who had not played a Davis Cup match since 1967 and had not met Nastase in seven years. U.S. Captain Dennis Ralston picked Riessen over Tom Gorman because Gorman lost two singles matches in Bucharest last year and had a 1-15 lifetime record against Nastase. The match also pitted Nastase against the crowd, which knew all about his antics in Bucharest (and everywhere else) and his hassle with a Cincinnati official at a tournament just the previous week.
"We don't have any chance to win," Nastase said earlier. "There is not extra pressure on me really...just when I play Stan or Riessen. Pressure to play well for myself. Certainly I will try my best, but I see no chance, so I may be able to play more relaxed."
Relaxed he was, except on a few close line calls that went Riessen's way and when the crowd heartily applauded Nastase's double faults (Referee Bolton took the microphone at one point and pleaded for fairness). In the third game at 40-15 Riessen had a nearly empty court to hit into and a fat, juicy yellow balloon hanging above the net waiting for his forehand—and he hit it out. Nastase went on to break him, was never broken himself in the match and won 6-2, 6-4, 6-2. He actually won more easily than Smith and looked as much at home on a hard surface as a souped-up highway patrol car.
The doubles on Sunday lacked the fire and flamboyance of Bucharest because Nastase was generally on his good behavior and Carpathian terror Ion Tiriac, who had represented Rumania in Cupa Davis competition for the past 13 years, was not among the Ions, Ilies and Cristeas in this delegation. Nastase's partner was Ionel Santeiu, and their record in earlier Davis Cup rounds—losses to The Netherlands and the Soviet Union and a victory over New Zealand—was hardly enough to frighten the U.S. combination of Smith and Erik van Dillen.
Smith, nicknamed Godzilla by Nastase and called The Leaning Tower of Pasadena by others, and van Dillen, extremely quick at the net, had an 8-1 Davis Cup record over three years, their most impressive victory coming against Nastase-Tiriac last year when they scored 15 straight points in one gutsy, lucky stretch. It was naturally to their advantage that they were playing in their home state and on cement, a familiar surface. Smith and van Dillen also had the comfort of a family rooting section. Stan's parents—who had moved from California to South Carolina and back again—had come north from their condominium in Newport Beach. Erik's parents had only an hour's drive from San Mateo, where his stepfather owns the San Mateo Times.
Still, they had been forced to battle for 122 games, five sets and six hours in Little Rock before beating Jaime Fillol and Patricio Cornejo of Chile, so maybe Ilie and Ionel did have a chance. Nope. The U.S. won easily, 6-2, 7-5, 6-2. Van Dillen was so acrobatic that someone could have been firing a pistol from across the net and he would have managed to get his racket on the bullets. In one rat-a-tat rally late in the third set he made three incredible volleys and half-volleys in a row, like an ice-hockey goalie under siege from the Canadiens' best line. Smith, as amazed a spectator as anybody else, bowed to him, and the crowd gave him a standing ovation. The San Mateo Times probably hauled out its biggest, blackest banner-headline type since Armstrong stepped on the moon.
Of course, it was a nice afternoon's work for Smith, too. He had won his Davis Cup match, and at just about the same time he and van Dillen were playing he could be seen beating Cliff Richey on a taped TV show.
Thus, the U.S. went into Monday afternoon's matches with a 2-1 lead, as expected, and Rumania had to take both singles in order to win. If Ovici could somehow beat Riessen, the whole thing would boil down to the last match. Perfect casting: Godzilla vs. Nasty, "the two best tennis players in the world" according to Ralston and just about everybody else.
To hell with high drama, said Riessen, who fell that a few key points had made "all the difference in the world" in his loss of the first match to Nastase. Taking full advantage of his experience, Riessen beat young Ovici, who played surprisingly well 6-1, 4-6, 6-1, 7-5, turning the big match between Smith and Nastase into a mere exhibition.
America's opponent in the next and final Davis Cup round will be decided by the Australia-Czechoslovakia matches to be held in Sydney in mid-November. The winner, most likely Australia, comes to Cleveland Nov. 30, Dec. 1, 2 to meet Smith & Co. in the first indoor final in the 73-year history of cup pursuit.