In the rotunda of Cleveland's City Hall one day last week the Australian Davis Cup team—John Newcombe, Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, Mai Anderson and nonplaying Captain Neale Fraser—was an impressive sight. The five men were decked out in yellow sports jackets, each decorated on the breast pocket with their country's coat of arms, which from the back row of the audience seemed to be a kangaroo and an emu rampant on a tennis court. Here they were, in all their splendor, back in the States determined to take possession of what every Aussie from Brisbane to Blackbutt, from the scroungiest outback shack to the Sydney Opera House, considers to be his birthright, the Davis Cup.
The American men had jackets and crests, too, and they were not at all in agreement with the Aussies as to where the cup belonged. This was pretty much the same group, led by Stan Smith, ranked No. 1 in the world, that had withstood the horrors of Bucharest in 1972 and kept Rumania from taking the cup that has been in U.S. clutches since 1968. However, Cleveland was to have horrors of a different sort. As Smith pointed out, "The only condition against us here is pure talent."
On closer inspection the Aussie coat of arms turned out to feature a kangaroo and an emu all right, but they were merely posing against a colorful shield. The rampant-on-a-tennis-court part came later, on Friday and Saturday. Newcombe beat Smith in a marvelous five-setter, Laver beat Tom Gorman in another five sets and the new doubles team of Newcombe-Laver annihilated Smith and Erik van Dillen in three straight sets. Ken Rosewall, at 39 still one of the finest players in the world, had not lifted a racket in anger, yet the Aussies had an unbeatable 3-0 lead and the Davis Cup was as good as locked up tight in the vault of the Bank of New South Wales in Melbourne.
The Aussies celebrated Saturday night with a bathtubful of Foster's Lager sent them by the Australian ambassador. Then on Sunday afternoon Newcombe drubbed Gorman in straight sets 6-2, 6-1, 6-3 and Laver completed the carnage by beating Smith 6-3, 6-4, 3-6, 6-2. Final score: Australia 5, U.S. 0.
December 10, 1973
The rout was appreciated almost instantly Down Under, too, because it was sent live to more than 50 TV stations there via satellite, in black and white because Australia does not have color yet. When the matches started each day at 2 p.m. Cleveland time, it was 5 a.m. the following day in Australia, summer rather than winter, and it is a safe presumption that thousands and perhaps even hundreds of thousands of sleepy-eyed Aussies were tuned in for the first serve each session.
The results for the U.S. were abysmal, and the attendance was nearly as bad. Cleveland Public Hall seats 5,984 people, but only about 3,000 showed up for the first singles matches Friday afternoon and between 4,000 and 5,000 on Saturday for the doubles. Yet it was in this same metropolis that lawyer Bob Malaga earned his reputation as America's hotshot tennis promoter, the magician who somehow got more than 20,000 people to turn out in three days in 1970 to see the U.S. play a challenge round against West Germany's Wilhelm Bungert and Christian Kuhnke. Or was it Wilhelm Kuhnke and Christian Bungert? Wightman Cup matches (U.S. women vs. British women) averaged 6,000 a day in Cleveland just two years ago.
The excuses given last week were many and varied. Malaga's last nine productions were held outdoors in Clark Stadium and the fans just did not want to watch tennis indoors. It was the holiday season and Clevelanders do not like to leave their firesides except to go to Browns games or do some Christmas shopping at Higbee's. The matches were held during the day instead of at night (Malaga said he had wanted them at night but was overruled). Some people on the east side of town were able to get around the local blackout and get the U.S. telecast via cable (Malaga said he had not wanted TV at all). And, of course, there were other possible excuses: the lack of publicity in Ohio, the fuel shortage and the high price of yak butter in Tibet.
Whatever the reasons, there were too few people in the seats and those who were there must have thought they were at a high tea waiting politely for the scones to be served. This was especially true Saturday, with the U.S. down 2-0 and hanging from the edge of a cliff by its fingernails. Only one team, Australia in 1939 (Adrian Quist and John Bromwich), had ever been behind 2-0 in a final round and fought back to win—it happened to be against the U.S., led by Bobby Riggs and Frank Parker.
But one fan—a friend of U.S. captain Dennis Ralston—decided to get some enthusiasm going. He organized a group of high school kids and led cheers and chants through the doubles match: "Go U.S., beat the Aussies," or, because Van Dillen and Smith are both out of USC, "Go, Trojans, go." Occasionally a few other customers would join in, but their jaws hung most of the time as Newcombe and Laver left them precious little to cheer about.
There were no real surprises at the draw in City Hall preceding the matches. Ralston picked Gorman over Marty Riessen for the singles because he felt Gorman, although not as steady, could raise the level of his game higher at times of pressure. Fraser announced he was keeping his doubles team a deep secret until the legal deadline, one hour before match time, and he put up Newcombe and Laver in the singles.
"We've come to take the cup back to Australia," Fraser said. "I don't think the U.S. will play as well as our fellows. When you see a man like Ken Rosewall on the bench in singles, you know what kind of team we've got."
The Smith-Newcombe match turned out to be three hours and one minute of the finest tennis anyone had seen since Newcombe defeated Jan Kodes of Czechoslovakia this year in the Forest Hills final. The fast Sportface surface, the very same one used in the Billie Jean King-Bobby Riggs carnival in the Astrodome, suited both players.
Smith got off to his typical slow start and lost the first set 6-1. Newcombe, well known for his powerful forehand, was playing as if he had had a backhand transplant from Rosewall, continually surprising Smith with zippy backhand cross-court shots. Newk's serve was deadly, too; Smith earned just four points off it in that first set. Then Smith came back to win the second set but dropped the third and went off to the locker room at intermission down 2-1.
In the fourth game of the fourth set there came the kind of break that can turn a match or even a whole Davis Cup meeting around. At break point on Newk's serve, Smith hit a backhand return of serve off the wood. The ball popped up over the oncharging Newcombe's head and landed in the far right corner of the court. Smith looked over at Ralston on the sideline and could barely suppress a smile under his blond mustache. He went on to win the set and seemed a good bet to take the fifth.
But Newk, who was upset a few weeks earlier in a match against the Czechs, hung on. He was broken in the third game but broke back in the sixth. Both men were playing superbly. Smith fought off four break points in the eighth game and then, trailing 5-4 and having a second match point against him, double-faulted. It was like seeing two milers run their guts out, approach the tape in a dead heat, and one of them trips.
"I gambled with the second serve and as it turned out it was a bad gamble," said Smith. "That same serve worked earlier. John was over in the alley and I thought I could get it in. It missed by a few inches but that was enough." The final score was 6-1, 3-6, 6-3, 3-6, 6-4.
"Newk played awfully strong, solid tennis, the best I've seen him play, I think," said Smith, "and yet I came within an inch of winning."
For a while it appeared that Gorman might even the count against Laver, winning the first set 10-8 and leaving at the intermission with a 2-1 advantage. But in the last two sets Laver, eight years older—and many years wiser—took more time with his serve, at Fraser's suggestion, and made the Irishman look tired and helpless, a droplet of sweat glistening and dripping at the end of his nose each time he paused and even the leaves of the shamrock stenciled on his racket strings seeming to droop. Laver won 8-10, 8-6, 6-8, 6-3, 6-1.
Fraser's dark secret was revealed the next day. Everybody, including Ralston, had assumed the Aussies would play Rosewall in the doubles, especially since Laver had played that tiring five-setter the evening before. No, Fraser named Laver and Newcombe, who had played together only twice. If Rosewall was seething over having been stuck on the bench in his yellow jacket, he kept it to himself.
The surprise element probably meant little, but Fraser's picks certainly made him look good. Van Dillen made him look even better. The slender 22-year-old Davis Cup veteran, who had punched dozens of brilliant, lightning-quick volleys against the Rumanians in Bucharest and who had helped Smith fight back from two sets down against the Chileans in Little Rock, was out-and-out lousy this day. His ground strokes were poor and he only occasionally showed his superb volleying. Was his sore shoulder of the previous day a factor?
"It made no difference at all," he said. "I think if I had had eight arms we might not have won." And later: "You get out there and find it's tough that your best shots are coming back at you better than they left."
The Aussies romped 6-1, 6-2, 6-4, and as the dejected Smith walked off the court to shake hands with his captain, he said, "Well, it looks like we go to Australia next year."