The scene is becoming depressingly familiar. It is the end of an international tennis event—the U.S. vs. Australia or the U.S. vs. Mexico or the U.S. vs. Fredonia—and Captain Dennis Ralston, his lips set in a thin line to hide his bitter disappointment, is congratulating the victorious opponents. Perhaps it would not be so frustrating and recurring if Ralston could ever field all the best American players.
Last Sunday in Hartford's new Civic Center Coliseum the scene was played out again for the umpteenth time and once again America's best player, Jimmy Connors, was the big man who wasn't there. It was the last day of the Aetna World Cup, an annual battle between the U.S. and Australia, and Rod Laver had just defeated Arthur Ashe 6-2, 7-6 for his third victory of the week. The Australian team thus clinched the cup for the fifth time in its six-year history and the players split up $35,000 in prize money. The final score was Australia four matches, USA three.
Only weeks before, Connors had beaten Laver in a lucrative televised challenge match in Las Vegas on the same day that the U.S. was losing a Davis Cup match to underdog Mexico. If Connors had forgotten his dislike of Ralston and played for the World Cup, would he have made a difference?
"I think they would have had a better chance, yes," said Laver, "but it's a team effort and Jimmy's not a team man."
Although Connors stayed away and Sunday's nationally televised last act was less than thrilling, the people of Hartford flocked to the Center and saw three excellent sessions of tennis—and, not incidentally, the sudden emergence of a sporting event from a sideshow tent into the center ring.
Hartford is a medium-sized (population: 158,017) conservative New England city that heretofore has been major league in double-indemnity clauses (at least six big insurance companies call it home) but something less in restaurants, theater and sports. For years the local sports fans were limited pretty much to hearing Celtics and Red Sox broadcasts from Boston or trembling with excitement over a Trinity College-Amherst cross-country meet. Oh, there was the Sammy Davis Jr. Greater Hartford Open, and a team in the Southern New England Hockey League. But the National Football League's Hartford Blues departed in 1926 after one season, and there has not been a major league baseball franchise in town for close to 100 years.
This year the sporting atmosphere has changed and the reason is the Civic Center. The white-shirted legions from the state capital, The Travelers, Connecticut Mutual, The Hartford, etc., who used to hurry home along Asylum Avenue to comfortable homes in West Hartford, are now coming back downtown after dinner. The city is in such a euphoric state over the arena that the place probably would be filled on a blizzardy night for a lecture on how to have a meaningful relationship with your azaleas.
The Celtics have come in a few times to play basketball before large and appreciative crowds, but the main beneficiaries—a popular word in Hartford—of the enthusiasm have been the New England Whalers of the World Hockey Association and Aetna Life & Casualty, which owns a chunk of the Whalers, a chunk of the adjacent Sheraton-Hartford Hotel and a chunk of the Civic Center complex. And if those chunks were not enough for the company to savor, the tennis tournament was Aetna's project, too, moving into the 11,000-seat Center after three cramped years in Trinity's 2,200-seat Ferris Athletic Center. More than 40,000 tickets were sold before the first can of balls was opened, a good part of the proceeds going to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.
Unfortunately for drama's sake, the best match of the tournament came in the opener on Thursday night, the one session that was not sold out. Ralston picked Dick Stockton, just turned 24, to play No. 1 singles, mainly because Ashe, the leading money-winner on the WCT tour this year, had just arrived from Europe and needed jet-lag recovery time. Stockton had won the WCT tourney in San Antonio the previous week on the very same Supreme Court carpet Hartford was using.
Before the match the Aussie locker room was cacophonous, except for little Ken Rosewall sitting quietly in one corner in his neat brown suit. Comedian Bill Cosby, who had just played in the celebrity doubles, was telling jokes. Roy Emerson was drinking beer, leading mock cheers and screaming at Australia's No. 1 man, Laver, "Don't overrun the bloody ball!"
On the U.S. side the scene was calmer, more intense. Because of the U.S. Davis Cup team upset by Mexico, there seemed a good chance that Ralston, respected by almost all of America's top players except Connors, would lose his job as Davis Cup captain.
"For us, this is the Davis Cup," said Stockton.
Stockton played a gutty first set, breaking Laver when he had to and tying the score 5-5, then breaking a second straight time to win. He fell behind again in the second set and could not fight back. Laver was smashing his usual screamers down the line and cross-court, and serving well when he needed to. The whole opening match thus went down to a third-set 13-point tie breaker—first man to get seven points wins.
Stockton seemed to have it in the bag when he fought to a 6-5 lead and had two serves coming. Win either one of them and the U.S. would be off to a fine start and he would have his first win ever over the fabled Rocket.
A Laver ground stroke, blazing as usual, forced Stockton to volley into the net. It was 6-6 and people in the crowd with sweaty palms were wondering how the players could hold on to their rackets. On the next point Laver hit a lob deep to Stockton's backhand corner and Stockton raced back to return it nicely, but he was hopelessly out of position. Laver had five acres of open court and chose to nudge the ball back over the net. Stockton left the court in tears.
In Friday night's first singles, America once again started well by taking the first set and once again faltered, John Newcombe beating Ashe 6-7, 6-4, 6-2 and keeping the Aussies in a lighthearted mood. Captain Fred Stolle was not exempted from the needling, even though he had the key to the beer locker.
"When Arthur was ahead 4-3 in the second set," said Newcombe, "Fred said, 'You better break him.' I said, 'You're right, Fred. I am running out of time, aren't I?' Fred says important things like that."
If Rosewall had won Friday's second singles, the U.S. would have been behind 3-0 and in the near-hopeless position of having to win four straight matches to regain the cup, "a long road back," as Ralston said. But Stan Smith, in the unaccustomed role of playing third singles for his country, got off to a fast start, held on and beat Rosewall 6-2, 7-6. Up to then, Smith, many times a Davis Cup hero, had a 1-8 record in World Cup.
On Saturday afternoon Stockton had another difficult task: playing Newcombe, the man with the best forehand in tennis and perhaps the best all-round game. "Dickie," as the oldtimers in tennis call Stockton, had not slept well since his loss to Laver. He started in the sport so young that he is the only player in history to suffer from tennis elbow and diaper rash at the same time. He won 20 national junior titles, reached the semis at Wimbledon last year and was a teammate of Newcombe's in team tennis, so it was unlikely that he would be in awe of his opponent. Yet during the first set he couldn't get his first serve in and lost 6-4.
In the second set he came to life. Ralston told him to quit sagging visibly after missing a shot because Newcombe was getting a mental lift from it. Stockton kept the ball to Newk's backhand on the big points, got his serve under control and beat his elder for the first time ever, 4-6, 6-4, 6-2.
"I'd have to say it's the biggest win I've ever had," said Stockton. "Playing for your country and against a player like John Newcombe, it's just the greatest thrill I've ever had."
He could not say enough nice things about everybody and everything.
On the World Cup: "I think it's the best tennis event I've ever seen."
On Captain Ralston: "He does more for my game than anybody ever has."
Newcombe got a shower, a rubdown and a fresh set of clothes and returned to help Laver put Australia into the lead again, beating Smith and Bob Lutz 6-3, 2-6, 6-3. America went into the final two matches Sunday having to win both.
The burden was almost entirely on Ashe, who had to play singles against Laver and then go back out with Stockton to play Rosewall and John Alexander. Ashe was at least outwardly confident.
"We're going to win tomorrow, I guarantee it," said Ashe.
Ashe is a man of his word but a lousy forecaster. He made more than his usual complement of unforced volley errors and didn't give Laver much of a battle. If Stockton had been able to get just one more point in his first-night tie breaker, the final doubles match would have been an exciting decider. But he hadn't, and the doubles was just an exhibition, Ashe and Stockton beating Rosewall and John Alexander 3-6, 6-3, 7-6.
In the press-interview room, Captain Stolle was offered a bottle of champagne.
"No, thanks," he said with a smile as he held up his can of beer. "This is our champagne." And tennis is still their game.