Texas oilman Lamar Hunt is recognized as the wealthy patron who took professional tennis in when it was a wandering waif, dressed it up and gave it legitimacy, to say nothing of the proceeds from several oil wells. Last Sunday in Dallas the compatibility of the relationship was illustrated when Eddie Dibbs and Vitas Gerulaitis, two former public-parks players, battled for the $100,000 first-place check in the World Championship of Tennis finals.
That Dibbs and Gerulaitis should have been in the finals was a surprise, not so much because only a few years ago both of them were playing before audiences consisting mainly of barking dogs, but because for the past two years Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors had dominated this event and, with Guillermo Vilas sitting out most of the indoor season, figured to do so again. Borg, however, defaulted in the semifinals to Gerulaitis because of an infected blister on his right thumb that prevented him from shaking hands, much less hitting a top spin, and when the tournament opened, Connors was in a Los Angeles hospital with mononucleosis.
Thus the final was between two players who once competed with holes in their sneakers. Of Lebanese ancestry and the son of an auctioneer, Dibbs learned the game in Miami Beach's Flamingo Park while Gerulaitis, the offspring of Lithuanian immigrants, was practicing the rudiments of tennis in New York's Central Park when Hunt inaugurated the WCT circuit in 1968.
In the Sunday showdown, the 23-year-old Gerulaitis won 6-3, 6-2, 6-1 by controlling the net and frustrating Dibbs with a patient, rock-steady attack from the base line. The victory raised Gerulaitis' season earnings, midway through the fifth month of the year, to $296,832—and he is second on the money list behind Borg.
May 21, 1978
In their four previous meetings, Dibbs had beaten Gerulaitis each time. But in Dallas Gerulaitis found and exploited a weakness in Dibbs' normally steady game—erratic net play. "He won't come to the net," Vitas told his father and coach, Vitas Sr., during a practice session Saturday. "If he does he's in trouble, because his forehand volley is worse than his backhand volley." The estimate was uncannily accurate as Dibbs' net play broke down in the later stages of each set and he made only one forehand winner all day. All told, Dibbs lost 23 of the 43 points in which he came to the net, and he broke Gerulaitis' serve only once, in the very first game of the afternoon.
In the third set, when he sensed the match was safe, Gerulaitis turned to his father sitting at courtside, gave him a wink and shook his fist in the air. It was his father who gave Vitas his first racket, and when the match ended the elder Gerulaitis, taking a page from his son's book, turned to the two female fans on his left and kissed their hands.
Both Dibbs and Gerulaitis have been at the edge of the spotlight for the last year or so. Fast Eddie has been overshadowed by Connors' brilliance and his own meager showings in major championships, but many rank him as the second-best player in the U.S. and, considering his listed height of 5'7", one of the finest in history for his size. For his part, Gerulaitis won both the Italian and Australian Opens last year, played Davis Cup against South Africa, led the WCT point standings, made every gossip column from here to Monte Carlo and grew tired of his playboy image. "That's all they ever want to write about," he groused early in the week, meanwhile revealing that he had a new Ferrari on order to go with his two Rolls-Royces, the Mercedes and the Porsche.
Of the two finalists, Dibbs' early-round play was the more spectacular. First he destroyed a listless and disheartened Ilie Nastase 6-3, 6-3, 6-0 on Thursday, winning 22 of the first 25 points as the 31-year-old Romanian flailed away with a racket equipped with special stringing to impart more top spin. Then in the semifinals Friday evening Dibbs wore down a game Corrado Barazzutti, Italy's top player, 6-2, 7-6, 6-4.
Against Nastase, Dibbs needed only 84 minutes. Against Barazzutti, the resolute and indefatigable son of a truck driver, who can look weary just walking through a hotel lobby, Dibbs needed 78 minutes in the second set alone. But trying to wear out Dibbs is not much more rewarding than trying to wear out a backboard. The ball just keeps coming back.
Barazzutti was in the tournament on a pass, added to the eight-player field when Sandy Mayer joined Connors on the sidelines because of a commitment to World Team Tennis. Barazzutti performs as if the court is a stage just for him, hopping about comically and beseeching the tennis gods after missed shots, spreading his arms in supplication after a linesman's call he doesn't like and, when things are going badly, acting like a man on the last few yards of a death march. The spectacle is enhanced by the fact that, at 5'9", the Italian weighs only 141 pounds and goes about with his head down, as though he were continually studying his stomach. "Look at you," Nastase told him early in the week as Barazzutti slouched on the sidelines at practice, "you're only 25 and you look 35."
But he can play tennis. Barazzutti, who reached the semifinals at Forest Hills last summer, has replaced Adriano Panatta as Italy's top player. His game revolves around extraordinary patience and resilience. At times he looks like the worst player in the world and seems ready to throw in the towel—and that is when he is dangerous. In his first-round match against second-seeded Brian Gottfried on Thursday evening, Barazzutti eked out a 6-4 win in the first set, then won only three games in the next two sets and appeared ready for elimination, frequently bouncing his racket on the court in disgust and lowering his head several more degrees.
Deceived by this display, Gottfried kept coming to the net, hitting what looked like good approach shots, only to have Barazzutti bazooka them back from awkward positions for winners. The evening ended with the Italian taking the final two sets 6-1, 6-3 and Gottfried sitting at the press conference with puzzled, narrowed eyes, wondering what went wrong. Asked to explain his turnaround, Barazzutti told the writers, "I talk with myself."
The following night Dibbs had him talking and swinging. Hitting his ground strokes better than at any time in his career, he made Barazzutti take three steps for every one of his. Dibbs' pressure was so relentless that only three times did Barazzutti win the opening point when Dibbs was serving. He spent most of the evening acting like a man trying to dodge machine-gun fire as Dibbs blasted away at the sidelines. Later Dibbs was asked if his game is still improving. "Well," he said. "I'm making more money each year." Added his mother Florence, who often joins her son at tournaments and long ago dismissed fears that he would someday be a tennis bum, "This is a wonderful Mother's Day present."
Mrs. Dibbs' reservations were understandable when you consider that Eddie barely can see over the net and only a ferocious appetite for practice and a fiercely combative personality have lifted him to the upper regions of his sport. Gerulaitis, on the other hand, is blessed with an abundance of talent, a bachelor's penchant for the good life—$4,500 wrist-watches, disco dancing with Cheryl Tiegs, designer clothing and customized stereo equipment. Lately, however, he has turned off his telephone and concentrated on his game. He came to Dallas primed to win, though he never had beaten Borg in eight previous matches, including five this year. "We're not worried about Borg," said Richard Weisman, Gerulaitis' friend and financial adviser. "The match that concerns me is the one against Raul Ramirez."
Ramirez was Gerulaitis' opening opponent and after losing the first three points, and double-faulting twice, Gerulaitis reached in his pocket, pulled out his hotel room key and flung it to the sidelines. "I was trying for three girls in the first row but I was a little short," he joked later. That was his first and last antic of the night, however. He came back to win the opening game, and although he double-faulted 14 times, he won 6-1, 2-6, 6-2, 6-1, picking off Ramirez' passing shots at the net and flicking them away for winners as easily as he handles flirtations.
Borg's talent, however, is such that he can turn a close match into a rout, as he did in the tournament's opening round when he destroyed Dick Stockton 4-6, 6-2, 6-1, 6-0. "I never knew where the ball was going," sighed Stockton. "If the match had lasted much longer I would have needed my catcher's equipment. He was hitting so hard that I was being pushed back into the fence."
The display enhanced Borg's role as the tournament favorite, but on Thursday, practicing with Barazzutti, his right thumb began to throb so much that he could not grip his racket and hurried off to the doctor for treatment. By Friday the thumb was still painful and Borg withdrew, necessitating a quick phone call by Weisman. Despite an outward display of confidence, Gerulaitis, his father and Weisman had failed to bring tuxedos with them for Lamar Hunt's tournament ball on Saturday night.
Only a few years ago, pro tennis and tuxedos mixed about as well as oil and water. Then Lamar Hunt came along to make everybody a millionaire.