The last time I saw some of the Australian players was at Forest Hills. It was near the end, and they were left in men's doubles or mixed. They seemed to be having a marvelous time. They had their beers, and there were lots of pretty girls about. I can't say I blame them. Every kid likes to have a good time. The boys who played for me liked to have their good times, too...but...they preferred to be champions.
The hurrahs were spent some time ago, and in Hartford last week Australian tennis sounded its last murmur. The U.S., led by a relentless Jimmy Connors, won the Aetna World Cup, beating Australia in all seven matches, the first shutout in the event's eight-year history. And there is no reasonable evidence to suggest that the Aussies are going to offer more substantial competition in the years immediately ahead.
Thus, while once again the Hartford Civic Center was sold out four days running, this was mostly a fond testament to the memories of greatness gone. The Aussies won five of the first six World Cups, as they had once won just about everything else. Because of their presence, the World Cup became a premier event, as competitive and gratifying as any modern addition to the game's calendar. But next year's Cup will have to feature a new melody, not just an oldie-but-goodie. Maybe Europe vs. the U.S. or the Davis Cup champion vs. the U.S. Maybe the World vs. the U.S.—for a true World Cup. Whatever, almost certainly the opponent can no longer be Australia. The world it once ruled now belongs to others.
A few days before Captain Dennis Ralston fired fusillades of Yanks into the thin, green Aussie line, crafty old Harry Hopman, who captained the Australian Davis Cup team from 1950 to 1969, relaxed in his apartment in Largo, Fla., a suburb of Tampa. The apartment overlooks the courts of the Bardmoor Country Club, where he now teaches. Young players from all over the world come to Bardmoor to learn from him and there must be more potential in Largo than there was across the net from the Americans at Hartford.
March 21, 1977
Hopman was in his tennis whites, the tiny green Lacoste crocodile alone sullying that absolute whiteness that speaks so eloquently of a bygone time. Tennis once was Hopman and white; today it is 10-percenters and technicolor. Hopman is 70, but as fit and prickly as ever, beet red from another full day on the courts. His weight? Rather than venture a wild guess and be off so much as a pound, he scurried directly to the bathroom scale. When Hopman captained the Aussies he was never, professionally, a coach; he was a newspaper columnist, which made his constant battles with the press all the more sharp (it takes one to know one). Report: 131 pounds, four under his old playing weight. "I wasn't a good newspaperman," he declared archly, never letting this business go. "You see, I relied on honesty."
But then he smiled. Those little knothole eyes that had stared down prying journalists the world over suddenly sparkled. "I was so fortunate," he said. "I had a better time than all the kids because I could appreciate it so much better than they. But what a wonderful lot of boys they were! All of them: Sedgman, McGregor, Hoadie, Muscles. I never had to pick a fellow who could possibly bring a bad name to Australia. Mmmm, mmmm. Rod—say hello to Rocket for me—Fred, Newk..." Crafty old Harry Hopman was actually lost in reverie for a moment, and it was better to listen there to tales of the living legends than to watch the pale incumbents struggle in Hartford.
The president of the Lawn Tennis Association of Australia, Wayne Reid, groused recently, "I wish the Americans wouldn't tell us that our standards have declined. We got a damn sight further in the Davis Cup than they did last year." Which is true; but also a false measure. These days, even Mexico usually gets a damn sight further than the U.S. in the Davis Cup. More to the point is that the top-ranked Aussie, No. 12 in the world, is Ken Rosewall, now a spot player, age 42 and too old to journey to Hartford. Next is Tony Roche, 31, always so engaging a competitor, but never the same potential world champion after he hurt his arm a decade ago. Then John Alexander, 25, marked by occasional brilliant moments that lapse into stale patches (although probably too much was expected of him just because he was ordained as the Next Great Aussie). Mark Edmondson, a balding 22-year-old, has been touted as the future star, but his name always seems to invoke the same anxiousness heard on behalf of soon-to-be-forgotten white heavyweight hopes. Edmondson has slid back to 52nd in the world.
Arrayed against this faltering Australian contingent in the Aetna was a U.S. squad so deep that Roscoe Tanner, No. 7 in the world, couldn't win a spot in singles. Ralston used Connors and Dick Stockton for two matches each and Brian Gottfried in the other singles match. All acquitted themselves well, but Connors was positively a dreadnought, whipping a befuddled Alexander and a tiring Roche without losing a set. "He seems capable of handling anything," Alexander said, his tone mixing respect with resignation.
In both his matches, Connors won the first set handily, then fell behind in the second. Alexander took a 3-1 lead, a predicament that Connors sorted out by the expedient—original even for him—of running off 15 straight points and the match. The affair with the more experienced Roche was slightly stickier, reaching 2-5, 15-40 (double set point) before Connors arrived at the conclusion that he needed five straight games. This set was the best tennis of the Cup and appropriately so, because it made the score 4-0, clinching the U.S. triumph.
In their two matches of these four that counted, both Stockton (against Roche) and Gottfried (against Ross Case) lost the first set before making decisive comebacks. It might be argued, then, that the Cup was closer than the score indicated. Indeed, some did argue that. But, in fact, the final score of 7-0 represented the hard truth: the U.S. has a number of fellows somewhat better than any of the Australians, and one fellow considerably better.
The reasons for the collapse of the Aussie juggernaut are many and varied, not the least of which may be the law of averages. After all, Australia is a very sparsely populated land, with 13.5 million inhabitants, which is about as many as live in Greater New York. Except possibly for cricket, there has been a general decline in Australian athletic proficiency: the country did not win a single gold medal at Montreal.
In the past, Australians have always thought of themselves as rugged specimens in a precocious land. The U.S. is a graybeard by comparison. Australia was not settled until 1788 when the first British convicts were "transported" there. A Fellowship of First Fleeters, descendants of these hearty jailbirds, still meets regularly, as proud as our own DAR. And no wonder—the voyages from England were infinitely longer and nearly as cruel as Kunta Kinte's. It was this century (in 1901) before Australia was even accepted into the Commonwealth as a full-fledged nation, but by 1907 (combined with New Zealand as Australasia) it had won the Davis Cup, and it generally was preeminent in the tennis world through World War I, by which time two stalwarts, Norman Brookes and Gerald Patterson, were at last over the hill and the noble Tony Wilding lay beneath Flanders Field.
There followed a fallow period that lasted until the '30s when Jack Crawford surfaced. An asthmatic, Crawford would have been the first Grand Slam winner in 1933 but for the spirits (brandy or bourbon—accounts vary) he took for his disability, and the extreme heat that left him unsteady toward the end of the finals at Forest Hills (up 2-1 in sets, Crawford staggered to a 0-6, 1-6 finish against England's Fred Perry).
Thereafter, the Aussies tended to come in pairs, conveniently stamped out that way for the Davis Cup: Adrian Quist and ambidextrous John Bromwich; Frank Sedgman and Ken McGregor; the wonder teens, Rosewall and Hoad; then Mai Anderson and Ashley Cooper; Neale Fraser and Rod Laver; Roy Emerson and Fred Stolle; and at last, John Newcombe and Roche. The line ran out there, abruptly, as tennis went open (over Hopman's strident objections), and contract pros were barred from the Davis Cup.
The Aussie system was nearly feudal, and perfect for those times when tennis was either run out of a hat (pro) or under the table (amateur). The best young players would be brought into the cities by the sporting goods companies, which would pay them a subsistence stipend—¬£1,000 or so—and give them time to practice. The best of the best would then be tapped for the national team. Here was the beauty of it. The kids would travel all over the world, February to October, with no nearby home to escape to when things got tough. The survivors were forged by the system. Conditioning, esprit, technique were assimilated almost by osmosis. "A boy often didn't know he had been taught something," Hopman says, "but all of a sudden, on the court, at a time when it counted, under pressure, he realized he could do it."
Newcombe, the last great Aussie, and among the brightest of the lot, recalls, "Your key years for learning are 18 to 22. It made me—traveling and living with the best. The small things you could pick up. Any bloody fool could see that Rocket hit with topspin, but I could see the little things. And I watched. This was bred into me. Even when I turned pro, I would study Laver every chance. I would sit with him and pick his brains when someone else was playing. Nowadays, you never see the kids watching the older players. No one even asks questions anymore."
The young Aussies were spared any ambiguity about who was boss. Authority was a three-letter word: Hop. The players he didn't care for left the game or left the country. The ones he selected affirmed his judgment, winning 15 Davis Cups in 18 years, even as they chafed at his discipline and snickered at his simple, invariable midmatch advice: "Relax and hit for the lines."
"The point was to go for it—not just get it back, but make the bloke stretch for it," says Fred Stolle, who crossed swords often with Hopman, but now hands out the same coaching advice (he has been captain of all eight Aussie World Cup teams). "Even in drills, Hop made us hit everything down the line or cross-court." Today, most tennis, as that at Hartford, is played on medium-slow stylized artificial courts where computerized stroke production counts most. In the Aussie era, the courts were of slip-and-slide clay or slick grass, where match play, conditioning and force of personality counted more.
"Hop was nothing much technically, no coaching genius," Newcombe says. "His importance was the system he created, the team. None of us liked it much, but we all did it his way because we could see the method in his madness. It was a brilliant system for Davis Cup, with the lesser players sacrificing themselves completely to the stars. When I first joined the team Emmo was king. He was the only one allowed to drink beer. He was even the only one allowed to tell dirty jokes. By the time of the match, he was up to here. His ego was sky high."
Stolle's first year on the team he did nothing on the court but serve to Neale Fraser's backhand, four hours every day. Doubtless such sacrifice could never be obtained today. It is difficult enough for Davis Cup coaches in most countries to get their top players even to deign to play a round or two, much less to contribute themselves to some selfless patriotic scheme. The only time the Aussies have won the Davis Cup since amateur tennis was overruled by filthy lucre was in 1973, when Newcombe and Captain Fraser enlisted Rosewall and Laver.
Among other things, that '73 triumph produced a $100,000 payday for the Australian Association—and it desperately needed money. The ineptitude of amateur sports officials is not confined to the U.S.; amateur artlessness is no respecter of race, color, creed or nationality. In 1969, when the capable Wayne Reid took over the LTAA, after the Aussies had reigned for a generation, the association was broke. The ruling clique ruled absurdly. Small-town LTAA functionaries would be brought into the cities to enjoy championships on expense accounts, but players were so taken for granted that once, in 1965, at the height of his powers, Emerson, undisputed No. 1 in the world, was refused expenses of ¬£6 a day to play in the Victorian championships.
Given the quality of leadership, the Aussies were not prepared when open tennis came. As recently as 1972, the Australian Open, first leg of the Grand Slam, offered a pot of $13,500. With no annual Challenge Round to attract stars and world interest, spectators Down Under disappeared overnight. Even now, Hopman says that so much energy must be devoted merely to romancing players to journey to Australian tournaments that there is not enough money or effort left to lavish on producing prospects. There is likewise a failure of identity, for among those world-class players least interested in playing in Australia are many Australians. Like Hopman, most of the big stars now reside in the States. Moreover, because college tennis is only an intramural activity in Australia, there is a drain at the other end, too: 200 or more of the best young Aussie kids are on tennis scholarships at U.S. colleges (and likely to stay here as teaching pros when they graduate).
But the important thing, the sad, selfish thing, is not that Australia has suffered a loss, but that tennis has. In a very real sense, the Aussies set the tone of the game. If America is the bankroll, Britain the mother, Australia is the conscience of tennis. The words Allison Danzig wrote many years ago still ring true: "I was impressed, too, by the dignity and unfailing composure with which the Australians carried themselves on the court—the carriage of thoroughbreds." The greatest tribute to the Aussies in Hartford is that everyone connected with the World Cup seems more interested in keeping the Aussies than in selling out the Civic Center. The charming Captain Stolle has so endeared himself to the Insurance City that he is held in the esteem usually reserved only for paid-up octogenarian policyholders.
This time in defeat, as always in victory, the Aussies played hard and fair, with never an alibi. "It sounds old fuddy-duddy," says Newcombe, who didn't play on account of a broken ankle, "but it happens to be true: we have no fear of losing. That's why we've always been such good match players. We were brought up to play the game, just to go out there and play our best." All players of all nations felt an unconscious pressure to live up to that graceful standard. It is impossible to conceive that the tasteless hijinks of a Nastase would be tolerated today were the Australians still in the saddle.
Tennis has never been more international. By almost unanimous accord, the top seven players of '76 came from seven different countries on three continents. Yet this spectacular diffusion of talent comes at a high price. There are no nationalities left in tennis, just freebooters roaming the tournament seas. Connors, Borg and Nastase could not be bothered to play for the world championship in the Grand Prix finals at Houston in December. None of these three glamour players (or Adriano Panatta, the handsome Italian star) played more than 15 tournaments last year. Because none of the rich young heroes appear to have any interest in the game much beyond where their booking agents direct them, Newcombe, who is all but retired as a serious competitor, felt obliged to take over the presidency of the players' union, the Association of Tennis Professionals.
So, at least in this one symbolic way, the Aussies still lead—even if that scepter must be passed on soon enough, too. And some other team will play in the World Cup. There are always hot box-office opponents to be found. Hartford will not miss the Australians for being worthy rivals nearly so much as the game will struggle without those thoroughbreds to support its burdens.