More than 8,600 feet up in the Andes is the handsome city of Bogotà, Colombia, where the air is thin and the prices are low. Bogotanos are justly proud of their many book shops, delicious beer and museum crammed with gold art objects. But there are hazards to be found in Bogotà. Expert pickpockets are almost a source of civic pride. The national firewater, a guardiente, can make one believe he is capable of flying like a condor. The intestinal bug common to other Latin American cities is there, too. It is called the Chibcha Revenge after a local Indian tribe. And last weekend the U.S. Davis Cup team found hazards of other sorts at a lovely suburban retreat called Club Los Lagartos—"The Lizards Club." Reptiles were not the problem, however. Plagued by cramps and facing fairly tough opposition without the help of its top players, the U.S. lost to Colombia 4-1 and found itself eliminated from the 1974 Davis Cup competition in the very first month. Adios, gringos.
The U.S. team, headed by nonplaying Captain Dennis Ralston, consisted of Charlie Pasarell, 29, who came in handy for more than just his knowledge of Spanish; Erik van Dillen, almost 23 and a veteran of Davis Cup doubles; Harold Solomon, 21; and backup men Roscoe Tanner and Eddie Dibbs. No Stan Smith. No Arthur Ashe. No Tom Gorman. No Jimmy Connors. Prior commitments and ailing backs kept them home. In Connors' case, said Ralston bitterly, "He refused us again."
It might have been presumed that the U.S. could have flown south with nothing but a couple of good teaching pros and briskly dispatched the Colombians, but Ralston knew better. For one thing, seven years ago the U.S. was knocked off in Ecuador, and the altitude of Bogotà was certain to be a problem. For another, the Colombian No. 1, Ivan Molina, was no club player. He had beaten Ashe and Rod Laver in the Canadian Open last year and taken a set from Ilie Nastase at Wimbledon. Finally, Colombia already had eliminated Venezuela and Mexico in the 1974 Davis Cup races. So what happened was not an ambush, just a drubbing.
Ralston and most other tennis experts had expected that Mexico, with a fine young player in Raul Ramirez and a fairly strong Davis Cup tradition, would beat Colombia. If that had happened, the Mexico-U.S. match would have been held in Palm Springs, right in Ralston's backyard, and perhaps America's best players would have found it more convenient to compete. Instead, Colombia trounced Mexico 4-1 and because of Davis Cup scheduling policies that try to balance the home and away matches for each country, the Americans had to give up their thoughts of desert tennis and climb the mountains.
January 20, 1974
The U.S. team was not exactly alone on the Andean slopes. The Embassy staff in Bogotà, apparently tennis fanatics, adopted the players. The wives sent hero sandwiches over to the Bogotà Hilton. Bob Chatten, a U.S. Information Service official, named himself the Embassy's yell attaché. The Embassy families formed a rooting section at the matches and tried to outshout nearly 2,000 Colombians. One original contribution was Chatten's yell for Solomon: "Golly, Solly, what a volley." The peak of their support probably came when the wife of a USIS man took pity on van Dillen between the singles and doubles on Saturday and sent peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches to the locker room.
Ralston and his crew arrived Jan. 2 and, on advice of the team physician, took it easy the first few days. Their luggage was temporarily misplaced in Rio or Lima or some such place and they had to practice the first day with equipment borrowed from the Embassy. The workouts got progressively harder until they were playing five-set matches against each other without puffing as if they just had sprinted up the steps to the top of the Washington Monument. For singles Ralston picked van Dillen and Solomon. The doubles team was van Dillen and Pasarell, who plays in the same hard-serving style as van Dillen's usual Davis Cup partner, Stan Smith. Colombia chose Molina, 27, and Jairo Velasco, a 26-year-old Bogotano, for all five matches.
Solomon, who comes from Maryland and played college tennis for Rice, is an aggravating counterpuncher. Hit hard balls at him and he sends back marsh-mallows, cream puffs and Hostess Twinkies. Finally the opponent hits a little short and Solomon runs around to take it on his forehand and either passes the slugger or forces a volley error. He has a two-handed backhand that is in vogue with the phenoms these days.
It is the dry season in usually rainy Bogotà, and Solomon and Velasco had perfect weather for their opening match. It turned out that the unknown Velasco was a steady but far from brilliant player whose strokes were hardly crackling. Perhaps because of nervousness, Solomon lost the first set 6-1, but then settled down and won the next two. Leading 4-3 and serving in that third set, Solomon had to stop and take a five-minute break because of a very bad calambre—a cramp. Even at sea level tennis players cramp up quite often, but it is far more likely at 8,000 feet because the blood is not getting enough oxygen to the muscles and not carrying enough waste products away. Solomon played the rest of the match hampered by cramps, and Velasco won 6-1, 3-6, 4-6, 6-3, 7-5, even though he, too, suffered cramps and had to take a five-minute break (a time period the two captains had previously agreed upon). At the end they looked like two men trying to play tennis on wooden legs. In thelocker room afterward Solomon was wound up tighter than a ball of twine, with cramps in his right leg, cramps in his left leg, cramps in his abdomen and cramps in his cramps. And the U.S. suddenly had a cramp in its cup hopes.
With shadows lengthening on the red clay court, Molina played near the top of his form, serving accurately and stroking hard against van Dillen. When play was halted because of darkness Molina had won two sets, was ahead 3-1 in the third, obviously in command.
Could the U.S. come back after such a disastrous start? "Yes," said Ralston. "We haven't played up to our ability yet." But Molina came out Saturday morning and finished his job on van Dillen 6-4, 7-5, 6-2, and was mobbed by the joyous fans, to whom Solomon and van Dillen were the Colossi of the North. They did not know or care about Smith, Ashe or Connors.
After a long break, with dark clouds dropping occasional raindrops, the U.S. took charge of the doubles. Pasarell played well, as did van Dillen, and the U.S. won the first two sets 6-3, 13-11. But near the end of the long second set calambre struck again and Pasarell began to limp. Still, the U.S. won the third set 6-4, and the match.
"After I became a cripple," said Pasarell, "Erik played the best tennis he has all week. He knew he had to cover the whole court."
The U.S. was still on the brink but held fast to a filament of hope. It was thought van Dillen could beat Velasco in the first singles Sunday and tie the series at two-all. What seemed doubtful was that Solomon, even without another calambre catastrophe, could beat Molina. But the U.S. team, perhaps remembering Solomon's victory over Juan Gisbert in Barcelona in 1972, could confess to no such doubts. "If we can get to the fifth match I think Solly can do it," said Ralston. "Molina's a hot and cold player." "His best shot is his passing shot," said Pasarell of Solomon. "He makes a guy commit himself, come in to the net and then makes him miss a volley or passes him. I think he's going to be effective."
Which was all academic. On an alternately rainy and sunny Sunday—even the dry season is wet in Bogotà—it turned out not to matter what Solomon did (he lost 2-6, 1-6, 0-6) because the surprising Velasco defeated van Dillen in four sets 6-0, 7-5, 4-6, 6-4. There was a delay after the first three sets, made longer by showers, which only prolonged the U.S. agony. Velasco came out and was his usual steady self in the fourth and van Dillen did not help his own cause by double faulting 10 times.
Colombia, which had never played the U.S. in Davis Cup competition before, thoroughly savored one of its greatest victories. The fans spilled onto the court, hoisted Velasco to their shoulders and paraded him around like a victorious matador who had just been awarded Uncle Sam's ears and tail. It was a fine time to be bullish on America—South America.