The wisdom of holding free elections was in dispute at the Aetna World Cup tennis tournament as the U.S. utterly destroyed Australia in New Haven, Conn. last week. A year ago sentimental cup fans had voted to continue with the graying overmatched Aussies as opponents rather than matching the U.S. against the rest of the world. The Australians also displayed a lack of judgment. They should have demanded a recount.
Coming upon the wreckage of this once great team from Down Under, an outsider might have taken a look at the remains and shuddered, "They never had a chance." And very few break points. The annihilation was so complete that the Yanks did not lose a set until the first doubles match on Saturday, by which time they already had celebrated with champagne, having an insurmountable 4-0 lead in the best-of-seven series. The U.S. team went on to win for the third year in a row, this time 6-1.
Broadway once routinely used New Haven as a theatrical proving ground, testing new vehicles to determine if they could play Times Square. Last week John Newcombe came to the New Haven Veterans Memorial Coliseum eager to learn if his 1978 comeback had any fan appeal. The last in a long line of Australian stars, Newcombe at 33 is trying to return after a layoff for a year because of various injuries, including a broken ankle, but the World Cup did nothing but damage his pride. The bellwether of the Australian squad lost two singles matches, one to his longtime nemesis Jimmy Connors, the other to Brian Gottfried, by the identical scores of 6-4, 6-4, and afterward groused that they might not have him to kick around anymore. "If you don't see a tougher John Newcombe by Wimbledon," he said, "you may not see him again. I'm not going to go on like this."
The question for the Australians is: Where have all the young men gone? Back in the days before graphite, and before Guillermo Vilas' poetry was published, Australia ruled the tennis courts, winning 15 of 18 Davis Cups in a stretch and taking five of the first six World Cups. But the sun even set on the British Empire, and the team Australia brought to New Haven for the ninth edition of the tournament was doddering by tennis standards, the average age of the five players being just under 30 years. Asked if there were any Aussie equivalents of John McEnroe on the horizon, Newcombe replied, "There might be some 15-year-olds."
March 20, 1978
The plight of the Australians was well illustrated in a match between Roscoe Tanner and Tony Roche on Friday evening. Gottfried had dispatched John Alexander 7-5, 6-4 in the tournament's opening match the night before, and Connors had just beaten a soft-balling Newcombe. Even so, the Aussies were banking on a victory against Tanner, felt they were stronger in the upcoming doubles and, despite trailing 2-0, still were full of fight and had fans yelling encouragement. Then Tanner demolished a red-faced and paunchy Roche, blasting eight aces past his 32-year-old opponent, who was on wobbly legs at the finish. Tanner never faced a break point in a demoralizing 6-4, 6-2 victory. When someone mentioned to Australian Coach Fred Stolle that disaster seemed imminent, he concurred: "I'd say it's just around the corner."
Consider how far the U.S. has come in tennis in the past few years. First, forget for a moment its recent failures in Davis Cup play. Then look at the latest rankings, which put five U.S. players among the world's top 10—and their average age is 25 years. Thus, when the second-oldest of the five, Dick Stockton, 27—Eddie Dibbs is all of two weeks older—had to withdraw from the World Cup team because of a back injury, Captain Dennis Ralston was hardly concerned even though two of America's best, Vitas Gerulaitis and Dibbs, were practicing for the upcoming Davis Cup match with South Africa. Ralston simply called on Tanner, certainly the best No. 6 man for any country, ever.
Ralston deserves a large measure of credit for the World Cup victory. For the last five months he has worked extensively with both Tanner and Gottfried, serving as their coach, trainer and guru. Ralston has given Tanner a backhand and, some say, Gottfried a personality. During a television interview last week a loquacious Gottfried said he was so happy that he could talk forever, thereby endangering his self-assessment as "the designated runner-up," meaning the best player in America after Jimmy Connors but still almost unknown outside his immediate family. For Ralston, the irony of this is that he was replaced in 1976 as Davis Cup coach, a position he still covets, partly because of a series of embarrassing losses that since have become routine, and partly because Connors refused to play Davis Cup with Ralston as the coach. "That mostly was a dispute between our agents, not between Jimmy and myself," says Ralston now.
Indeed, he nodded serenely on the sidelines as Connors picked apart Newcombe, whose strategy was to try to win on guile and experience, hitting only about three shots that did not look as if they belonged at a country club. "I just snicker to myself over that stuff now," said Connors of the slow-ball routine. "I've become a patient little guy." But still feisty. When Newcombe did a jig in appreciation of a good shot early in the match, Connors warned in a booming voice, "We've got a long way to go." By the end of the match Newcombe's mood was less expansive. Irritated by Connors' renowned stalling tactics, he took to alternately glowering at his opponent and holding his head in his hands. "It's the most frustrating thing I've ever experienced," he said the next day.
Newcombe's mood was darkened further by the knowledge that in his two tournaments before the World Cup, he had lost in the first round, once to Bob Lutz, once to Tim Gullikson. "I'll tell you one thing," said Connors of Newk's situation, "I won't be around when I'm his age. Maybe I'll take up golf and get my PGA card."
Throughout the week the Americans acted like a big, happy family, agreeing that it was great to be playing for their country, rooting for each other and slapping palms, doing what Gottfried called "our basketball routine." They also noted the Aussies' traditional resoluteness, despite cracked, dry lips and no water holes in sight. "They never give up," cautioned Tanner. However, the denouement occurred on Saturday when Gottfried whipped Newcombe, despite the fact that Newk played his serve-and-volley game to perfection. That made Bob Lutz and Stan Smith's ensuing 6-2, 4-6, 6-4 victory in the doubles over Phil Dent and Alexander noteworthy only because the Yanks lost a set.
On Sunday, after Connors dismissed Alexander in the last singles match 6-2, 6-4, Newcombe and Roche teamed in the doubles against Tanner and Gottfried. The Aussies were desperate, edgy enough to complain when a spectator began munching a sandwich, and played as if it were for the cup instead of for the dregs, running down balls on used-up, tired legs. They needed two tie breakers to do it, but won 7-6, 7-6, throwing their arms skyward after match point. Even so, a moral victory seemed a bit sad because next time they'll be a year older and there's no help at home.