According to a recent survey conducted by M. T. (Rip) Off, the well-known former garage mechanic turned sports pollster, 25% of the human race approve of World Heavyweight Championship Tennis Challenge Matches staged in Quonset huts in front of droopy-eyed celebrities wondering who made them wake up so early; 23% do not; 15% are undecided; 30% "couldn't care less"; 5% favor reruns of The Montefuscos; and the remaining 2% prefer Milton Shapp.
Be that as it may, and through circumstances nobody seems able to control, there was another one in Las Vegas last Saturday. This time it was brought to us in living boredom by CBS-TV, Caesars Palace, the one and only Bill Riordan and all the other usual suspects. If it had been a prizefight, they would have stopped it; a play, they would have closed it. Somebody—anybody—should have been ashamed.
After the left-handed American Jimmy Connors got through whipping the left-handed Spaniard Manuel Orantes in about 10 minutes, everyone agreed the actual challenge was to stay awake during the 6-2, 6-1, 6-0 affair.
"I played today the way I'd like to play forever," said Connors.
March 8, 1976
"Sure, it embarrass me to not put on good job, but this thing sometime happen," said Orantes.
As it was, both men cleared well over the $250,000 advertised as the winner's share. Somebody figured Connors' total haul—including TV moneys, motion picture rights, book advances, radio re-broadcasts and bubble-gum-card royalties—must work out to more than $20,000 a game. (And they say pro basketball players are overpaid.)
This supposedly classic matchup between slugger and stick-and-jab artist materialized after Orantes upset Connors at Forest Hills last September by employing tricks, wits and guile, not to mention a few delicate rainbow lobs and the softest underspin junk this side of the public parks.
In his U.S. Open victory, Orantes managed to lull Connors into lazy rallies, waiting until his impatient opponent made a move on a short ball before either passing him with lethal backhands or wearing him down with top-spin lobs. But in Las Vegas the Spaniard did not have any soft clay on which to run and slide nor soft skies in which to lift his balloonlike floaters.
Surrounded by the charming airplane-hangar ambience and stumbling around on the faster Supreme Court surface, Orantes appeared to be a man on a long mescaline voyage. A couple of times early in the match, Manolo was so tight he barely got the racket around on Connors' high-kicking serves.
On the other side of the net the defending champion came out smoking, not joking, determined to establish a fast pace and attain length on his shots, especially from the backhand. Though Connors has yet to prove he can play well when he gets behind, on the lead he is as tough as anybody has ever been.
After Orantes made seven errors in the first two games, Connors bore in. He would mix serves from one side to the other, then rush the net to put away Orantes' feeble returns. He would trap the Spaniard along the base line with heavy ground strokes, then be up early for easy volley winners. Even when Connors' approaches came short, Orantes never was able to groove his shots well enough to pass his opponent, or lob him effectively or fool him in any other way.
In the fourth game of the first set Orantes had a break point against Connors, but Jimbo served-and-volleyed a winner. In the fifth game of the second set the Spaniard had only to slug an easy overhead to hold serve and reach a 2-3 deficit in games. But, standing no more than five feet from the net, he blasted the ball into it and staggered on to win just three points in the next five games.
Behind 0-3 in the third set, Orantes did get off one lob winner. Then he threw his hands in the air feigning ecstasy. Olé? Schmolé. By that time, the glittering crowd had started for the nickel slots and some legitimate competition.
"Manolo wants a quick rematch," said promoter Riordan with a laugh immediately after the slaughter.
"Give him Coopman," said a fight fan.
Much of the time preceding this latest of tennis spectaculars was occupied by deep thinking about the concept, meaning and future of challenge matches. Are they good? Bad? Who cares?
The bottom line is that the TV-watching public happened to go bananas over what was originally a Riordan idea—first Connors against Rod Laver, then Connors against John Newcombe, then Connors with Chris Evert against Marty Riessen and Billie Jean King in that match made in heaven, "the Love Doubles"—and that alone makes it all worthwhile.
Riordan, who has broken with his protégé but retains the copyright and promotional duties for the challenge matches no matter who plays them, calls his invention nothing less than "the American way, settling our differences in the marketplace." At the same time, he bows to his many critics in recognizing the need for a more sensible method of selecting opponents.
"Connors is no Muhammad Ali," says Donald Dell, Riordan's longtime rival in player management. "Bill can't just say, 'Here's my boy Jimmy; who wants him?' anymore. Arthur Ashe [a Dell client] is the recognized No. 1 player in the world. But what does Ashe have to gain by playing one of these things except money?"
"What does Connors gain but money?" says Riordan. "The public wants Connors against Ashe. But Arthur just doesn't have the guts for it. Anyway, what is Dell doing here at this decadent, ridiculous event?"
In Las Vegas, Riordan and Connors continued their recent show of tearing each other apart in separate pre-match interviews.
Connors: "He used me like a football in his cause. We have no future together now."
Riordan: "My credibility was damaged when he got out of shape and started skipping tournaments. He took a cavalier attitude toward me. It's a mother problem."
But they were perfectly friendly at practice sessions when Connors kidded Riordan about his wearing Connors-endorsed shirts.
"The problem is this phony nice-guy image," said Riordan. "Jimmy's uneasy with it because it isn't him. It's as Jimmy's favorite poet, Sadakichi, once said: 'We are what we are ere dust has been rubbed from infant eyes.' He also said, 'For every greeting, there must be a farewell.' "
As in old times, Connors agreed with the assessment. "I have to go back to normal," he said. "I've been a pussy on court. I got to come out mean and be screaming so I can kill guys. When I hold energy inside, my hands start shaking. Really. I need a release."
Connors was asked if he looked upon his confrontation with Orantes as a grudge match. "Ask my bleeping Spanish friend if he held a grudge the other eight times," he snapped. (Connors was 6-2, career, against Orantes.) Old blue mouth was back.
While Connors was undergoing his weekly psychological change of life, Orantes spent most of his time acknowledging his flimsy chances for victory. "Nobody give me a chance all my life," he would point out in his lilting way, "but here I am."
As he usually does, the quiet Manolo also went around charming everybody with his manners and curious appearance—all overdeveloped muscles and teeth, an amalgam of O.J. Simpson and Jimmy Carter—and he never stopped smiling. Nevertheless, however admirable the accomplishment at Forest Hills that got him to Las Vegas, once there Orantes seemed totally out of his element.
The only realistic opportunity he had to top Connors occurred at Friday's weigh-in—yes, fans, a tennis weigh-in—and he did, 170 pounds to 165. But even then he was upstaged.
When Cap Scatena, the gnarled chief inspector of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, who looked as though he had seen one too many tank jobs, called the combatants forth, Connors said, "Can I take my pants off?"
And Pancho Gonzales called out, "Weigh Connors' head; it's 16 ounces."
And Scatena said, "What am I doing here? Well, I can't sanction the match, but I can sanction the weigh-in." As it turned out, Scatena picked the closer contest to sanction.
Ultimately, whither challenge matches? Connors used this one for a revenge trip. "Remember, Manolo beat me in my own Nationals," he said. "I wanted my ears and tail back."
A lot of people just wanted their money back.