The old quip that "there's no one with endurance like the man who sells insurance" held true—and then some—at the Aetna World Cup last week in Hartford, Conn. In the insurance capital of the nation, Aetna officials had to endure an inhospitable display on the part of protesting Hartford police, firemen and teachers who brought their demands for a pay raise into the streets by stalling their cars and staging a monstrous traffic jam around the sold-out Civic Center Friday night, delaying the start of play half an hour. In one bit of flummery, half a dozen police in uniform jokingly tried to push away a car with the hand brake set.
The U.S., which had beaten Australia only once—in 1971—in six previous World Cups, was favored to win by taking four of the seven matches, mainly because Arthur Ashe and Jimmy Connors, the world's No. 1 and 2 players, were slated to play four of the five singles. Australian Captain Fred Stolle, who said his main job was to keep the beer cold (Foster's Lager, 14 cases of the stuff), was banking on Australia taking the two doubles and a pair of singles. Dennis Ralston, the U.S. captain, disagreed. "The object is to win four matches—any four," he said. And the Americans did exactly that by Saturday afternoon, turning the Sunday matches into exhibitions, but good ones. Just for the record, the U.S. made it 6-1 on Sunday when Connors beat Tony Roche 6-3, 7-5 and the doubles team of Ralston and Ashe beat Phil Dent and John Alexander 7-6, 6-3.
The U.S. got off to a 1-0 lead Thursday evening with Bob Lutz, anxious to shake off his reputation as Stan Smith's doubles partner, stopping Alexander 5-7, 6-3, 6-2. The victory was not exactly expected. Lutz had not won in five past World Cups, and last year Alexander beat him two of the three times they met. "My plan was to lob him and keep him back," said Lutz, who also sent some superb backhand winners straight down the lines. Alexander could not recall when his serve had been so well returned.
The Americans made it two-zip on Friday night when Ashe, winner of 21 of his last 22 World Championship Tennis matches, did in John Newcombe 6-3, 6-4. "The big difference," Newcombe said later, "was that Ashe got 80% of his first serves in. I don't think Captain Stolle and I were overly impressed with my serve. The last game, I missed five out of five first serves."
March 15, 1976
Stolle, 25-ounce can of beer in hand: "What percentage is that?"
Ashe admitted he had been confident of beating Newcombe. "I'm not really surprised," he said. "He hasn't been playing tournaments day in and day out. And he didn't serve as well as he usually does." Compared to regular tournament stakes, the World Cup money does not add up to all that much—$45,000 for the winning team to divvy up, $25,000 for the losers—but Ashe was excited to be playing in Hartford. "I'm thrilled to see Jimmy on the team," he said of his former lawsuit antagonist. "It's a team effort, and we're probably more determined than ever. We really want to win this thing."
Standing amid the largesse of lager in the Aussie locker room, Roche exhorted his countrymen to get on the board. He was half talking to himself; he and Newcombe, the best doubles team in the world, were to face Smith and Lutz the next night. In Ashe's opinion, Lutz was on Cloud Nine after his singles defeat of Alexander. Smith, troubled by his chronic tennis elbow, was the question mark. The Australians won a thriller, 6-3, 3-6, 7-5, and Smith was the chief victim. Said Stolle, "When our guys were trying to get into a point, the barrage was at Stan." But that was the high point for Australia.
On Saturday afternoon, before another sellout crowd, Ashe and Connors won their singles, giving the U.S. the cup. Ashe, who does not like to play lefthanders, started off in ragged fashion against Roche, who had carried him to five sets in the semifinals at Wimbledon last year.
The Aussie took a 3-0 lead in the first set, two games by serving to Ashe's backhand and one by breaking his service. Roche won the set easily, 6-3, but Ashe still was confident because, as he said later, he thought Roche, like Newcombe, was not "match tough."
The turning point came in the second set, the games at one-all and Ashe down 15-40. Ashe's first serve, which had been spotty, began to hit with consistency. With Ashe leading 4-2, Roche was upset by an ace call which he thought was wide. Ashe won the game and then took the set, 6-2, after Roche blew a 40-15 lead with the help of the two double faults, the last one on a call he disputed.
During the break for the third set, Ralston suggested to Ashe that he retreat an extra yard back from the base line so that Roche's twisting serve, which had been giving the U.S. players fits, would lose its spin. "I'll try anything," Ashe said. The change worked, and Ashe took the set, 6-3, and the match.
Then, to the delight of the crowd, Connors came on to face Newcombe, who was playing his third match in less than 24 hours. Connors started strong. He was all over the court as he jumped to a 3-0 lead. He and Newcombe slugged it out like two cruisers bombarding one another at point-blank range. Even when Connors lost a point, he looked magnificent, chasing balls down into corners and going for winners after seemingly Impossible retrieves. For Connors, Newcombe's side of the net had no middle, just sidelines and base line, and he won the first set handily, 6-2.
In the second set Connors again jumped off to a 3-0 lead, but Newcombe rallied to make it three-all. But that was it for Newcombe. Connors ripped off four straight points, and then as he changed sides said to Ralston, "Just give me one break point." He got it and broke Newcombe's service to go ahead 5-3. With the score 30-all, a voice in the crowd screamed at the serving Connors, "Two more!" Connors obliged, putting the set, match and cup away with an overhand smash of a Newcombe lob.
"I just went out and played tennis today," said Connors. "I played one of my best tennis matches in a long time." He also exuded good feeling toward his teammates. At one point during the match he looked to the sidelines and felt cheered to see Ashe, Smith, Lutz and Stockton watching him. Earlier in the day, Connors had practiced against Ashe and cracked jokes in the locker room. "He even told the best joke of the day," Ashe said. What was it, he was asked. "It's a little too lewd," said Ashe, begging off. For his own part, Connors said, "I hope everything that's happened in the past is beyond and forgotten."