Forest Hills. Say it again. Forest Hills. The very name conjures up bluebirds and lush green groves. But during the past fortnight the sylvan image was blurred, lost in the dust of Har-Tru. There's nothing wrong with Har-Tru, mind you, if you enjoy long rallies, but the slow surface is not suited to the American men's serve-and-volley style. Har-Tru, a claylike surface, is, however, adored by baseline ralliers from Europe and South America.
Digging up the grass and replacing it with grayish-green crushed rock (Catoctin metabasalt to all you geology freaks) was a move akin to a baseball team loaded with sluggers deciding to move its fences out 30 yards. There were American pessimists who thought it likely that not a single Yank would reach the quarterfinals. And it was Bad Days at Green Rock for most U.S. players.
Out of 46 in the original draw, only four made it to the fourth round, but one of those was Jimmy Connors, who turned 23 on the tournament's seventh day, and Connors claims he can play on any surface, including dried yak dung. The other three Americans—Arthur Ashe, Eddie Dibbs and Harold Solomon—were gone by the semis. Connors, the No. 1 seed, fought his way into the final, where he met Spain's Manuel Orantes, 26, winner of seven tournaments in 1975, the best year of his career.
Although Orantes was the third seed and an acknowledged artist on clay, almost nobody gave him a prayer against Connors. Not only had the Spaniard played a physically and mentally exhausting five-set four-hour semifinal against Guillermo Vilas of Argentina the night before, but he did not get back to his hotel until 2 a.m. and had to call a plumber to fix a flooding bathtub. Connors was the defending champion. Orantes had never won a major championship. Only one European had won Forest Hills since World War II, Spaniard Manuel Santana in 1965.
None of this seemed to trouble Orantes, who walked onto the stadium court as cool as a bowl of gazpacho and seemingly as fresh as if he had enjoyed a restful night in his own bed in Barcelona. Just as Ashe had done at Wimbledon, Orantes refused to try matching Connors' power. Instead he lofted uncanny lobs, hit soft passing shots and tempted his opponent with short balls that the overanxious Connors clubbed time after time into the net. Orantes won in straight sets 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. The $25,000 first prize lifted his 1975 tournament earnings to $130,650.
The iron-man routine was not his first of the year. At Hamburg he beat Ilie Nastase 7-5 in the fifth set in the semis and the next day had to play two doubles matches plus a five-setter against Jan Kodes, which he won.
"He played unbelievable," said Connors. "I didn't believe that it would be possible for him to hit passing shots and play like he did all the way through. But unfortunately for me, he did." And unfortunately for Connors, the match was played on Orantes' best-loved surface. The crushed rock not only altered the probable order of finish, it also altered the atmosphere of Forest Hills.
It used to be that in the early rounds a fan could leave the concrete stadium and wander from court to court over most of West Side's 10.5 acres, watching, perhaps, a young Yugoslav play a crafty old Dane for a game or two, and then move on. After a long afternoon of such meandering, he could, if he were a member or guest, stroll to the clubhouse, buy a drink and sit on the terrace watching a match on the clubhouse court, the panorama of grass courts before him.
Those days are probably gone forever. The for-members-only courts nearest the clubhouse are still grass. The crushed-rock courts are mostly crammed in down by the stadium and, with 107,061 in attendance during the first eight day sessions, it was difficult to get through aisles, much less find a seat or a place at a fence. In addition, Forest Hills staged its first night matches, under four light towers that burned 72,000 watts.
Orantes, a smiling, modest fellow who was born in Granada and at age 10 was a ball boy at a club called La Salud de Barcelona, outshone those 72,000 watts in the best match of the tournament, perhaps the match of the year or the decade. It came in the Saturday semifinals, Orantes vs. Vilas of Mar del Plata. Vilas, 23, is a chunky ex-law student whose dark hair flows over his shoulders. He writes poetry and hopes to have a book of 41 of his poems published in his native country. Its title is 125, which he won't explain, saying, "When you write a book and it is published, it doesn't belong to you anymore. I want to keep something for myself." There was speculation among his opponents at Forest Hills that it stood for the revolutions-per-second of his topspin backhand.
A fine clay-court player and seeded No. 2, Vilas raced through his early-round opponents. In the first three matches he defeated two fellow South Americans, Hans Gildemeister of Chile and Alvaro Betancur of Colombia, and a good American, Dick Stockton, while losing just 11 games in six sets. In the fourth round he annihilated Kodes 6-2, 6-0, 6-0. In the quarterfinals, Jaime Fillol of Chile managed to win five games.
Spectators in the stadium had already been through a long day of long Har-Tru rallies when Vilas and Orantes took the court early Saturday evening. Vilas seemed determined to get everybody home in time for a late supper, winning the first two sets easily. Orantes made a bit of a comeback to win the third set 6-2, but when he fell behind 5-0 in the fourth and had match point against him on his own serve, he not only had his back against the wall, but the firing squad had already squeezed the triggers.
It was then that the Spaniard started one of the most dramatic comebacks in tennis history, the sort of heroics for which El Mundo Deportivo in Barcelona had been saving its biggest headline type. Orantes survived three match points on his serve, but when Vilas, now leading 5-1, got to 40-15 on his serve, Orantes had to be dead. Two more match points was like giving the firing squad another round of ammunition. But a backhand down the line and a backhand volley, and Orantes was somehow still alive, in fact not even grazed. Orantes broke Vilas easily the next time and kept rolling until he had won seven games in a row and evened the sets at two apiece.
At that moment, thoughts of Paris must have been running through both players' minds, thoughts of the red-clay courts in Stade Roland Garros in 1974. In the third round of that tournament Vilas had led Orantes two sets to love and had had match point in the third—and lost. In the final Orantes had led Bjorn Borg two sets to love—and lost.
In this fifth set Vilas continued to play too cautiously and Orantes continued to place lobs two inches from the baseline whenever Vilas dared approach the net. Avoiding a complete collapse, Vilas broke to even the set at 4-4, but Orantes, again using his lob, broke to lead 5-4 and held serve to win 4-6, 1-6, 6-2, 7-5, 6-4. It had been three hours and 44 minutes since the match had started and all the 75¢ hot dogs had long since been sold and devoured by the almost 3,000 hardcore fans who had hung on.
In the locker room afterward reporters were kept away from Vilas by a coterie of his friends. Ex-Rumanian Davis Cup player Ion Tiriac, Vilas' unofficial mentor and doubles partner, said that Vilas had aggravated a groin injury at the end of the third set.
Connors' path to the final was not nearly so theatrical. An international cast of supporting players—Geoff Masters of Australia, Great Britain's Roger Taylor, France's Georges Goven, Rhodesia's Andrew Pattison—fell in straight sets, as did Sweden's Bjorn Borg in the semis. The one set Connors lost was to fellow American Harold Solomon, of Silver Spring, Md. and Rice University, a man with a two-handed backhand and a greater love for clay than any sculptor.
"Bring your sunglasses, moonglasses, beer," Connors had warned. "We're going to be out there a long time."
The match really did not take long and few thought Connors was in any great danger when he lost the third set 7-5. Borg figured to be a stiffer test and, as usual for an important Borg match, a direct play-by-play account was broadcast over one of the three national radio stations in Sweden. (Close to a million Swedes stayed up from one to six in the morning last year to hear Borg play in the Commercial Union Masters in Australia. "They scream if we don't schedule Borg's major matches," said a Swedish radio official. "Borg's the biggest drain on our special-events budget.") Connors won by the symmetrical score of 7-5, 7-5, 7-5 and he might have been even more convincing had he not hit innumerable forehand approach shots into the net.
Connors' coach, Pancho Segura, was on hand to give pointers to his friend. "Jeemy's got to be more patient on this clay than he was on grass last year," he said. "And the clay takes away more from his return of serve. That's what put pressure on the other guy's serve. But one thing about this boy, he raises up for a championship. He's a Sunday player."
Orantes, too, has proved himself to be a Sunday player, at least this year. He used to have a reputation as a loser of big matches, even though he was an outstanding junior player (Wimbledon junior champion, the first unseeded player in 17 years to win the Orange Bowl tournament, a member of Spain's Davis Cup team at 18) and won the Italian and West German Opens in 1972. To the tennis public outside of clay-bound Europe, he was just another good clay-courter √† la Jauffret of France or Panatta of Italy. Orantes himself admits that his label as a big-match loser was somewhat justified.
One thing holding him back, apart from the annoying grass blades at Wimbledon and Forest Hills, was a perpetually sore back. Last winter he took time off from the international tennis circuit and went home to Barcelona. The trainer for one of the soccer clubs there worked on his back and gave him a set of exercises which he still does every day. He has had no back problems since, and as his aches diminished, his bank account swelled.
Before beating Ilie Nastase in the Forest Hills quarters, Orantes had used his stylish strokes and superb composure to defeat Bernie Mitton of South Africa, Sashi Menon of India, Hans Pohmann of West Germany and Francois Jauffret of France. Almost always he was smiling, even as he saluted opponents for good shots.
When the grand finale started, it looked as if Orantes was in over his head. Connors broke him at love and held easily for a 2-0 lead, but from then on the Spaniard was at least his equal and often his master. Perhaps spurred on by a Latin rooting section (most of them Mexicans who had come to Forest Hills to back Ramirez), Orantes broke back in the fourth game to even the set and broke again in the 10th to win 6-4. In the second and third sets Connors never got a break ahead. He was always chasing down lobs and struggling to stay even.
At the second match point in the third set, Connors serving, Orantes hit a forehand winner down the line. He sank to his knees on the Har-Tru and threw up both arms. After shaking hands with Connors he hurried to a courtside box to kiss his wife Virginia, and they were mobbed by photographers.
"Manuelito," the "little Manuel" of Spanish tennis, had his first major title at last. Jimmy Connors, like the 14 Forest Hills champions before him, had failed to defend.