The oldtimers never dignify the cursed surface by such a genteel name as "clay." To them it is what it is: dirt. It is a common enough surface, found in Florida and Texas, as well as in Rome and Paris, but somehow the dirt of Latin America casts a special spell upon U.S. Davis Cup teams. The last generation of our players have all been buried in the dirt of P‚Äö√†√∂¬¨•rto Alegre, Guayaquil, Bogotà, Mexico City and Buenos Aires. And because we have never been particularly selective about the site of our defeats south of the border, it seemed likely that our heroes would expire this particular year in Santiago, where the U.S. and Chile met last week in the American Zone final.
But, incredibly, as the very earth itself seemed to shudder in surprise, the United States of America, pop. 217,000,000, was able to fend off Chile, pop. 10,660,000, and move into the semifinals of the '78 Davis Cup. More's the wonder, it was a rout. Brian Gottfried and Harold Solomon swept the opening day's singles, and Gottfried and John McEnroe took the next day's doubles to clinch the Zone at love, before it was played out to 3-2 with Sunday's two dead matches.
It is barely spring in Santiago, with the feel of early April days of the northern temperate zone. The rivers are rushing, filled with the melting Andes snow and heavy rains, but the trees are still bare; only the wistaria is in bloom.
The first singles matched Gottfried and Jaime Fillol, two lean, curly-haired six-footers with natural attacking games more effective on faster surfaces. The second match presented Solomon and Hans Gildemeister, baseline dirt specialists who rely on patience and bounces.
September 24, 1978
Fillol, a handsome man with a matching disposition, is the president of the Association of Tennis Professionals, the first non-English-speaking player to hold the post. As a competitor, Fillol is a charger, taking the ball on the rise, dictating the game's tempo. But, curiously, he is never sure of his ability; he is a timid server under stress, and his game never ascends to great heights. Opponents are aware they must press him.
Gottfried, sixth-ranked in the world, is known primarily for his reliability. He is unflappable. The morning of the Davis Cup opener, Gottfried slept through an earthquake that moved small furniture in the rooms of the Sheraton Hotel, where both teams were staying. One of Gottfried's quirks is that he is often a slow starter and, sure enough, Fillol broke him right away: 2-0 Chile. "What more could we ask for?" said Luis Ayala, the Chilean captain, afterward. "A lead right off, on your own court before your own people?"
But Gottfried pressed Fillol. The Chilean's serve betrayed him, and he rushed precipitately to the net, where the American lobbed over him. Quickly, Fillol lost two service games, and the set went to Gottfried 6-4. In many ways, that told the tale. Gottfried began to exert command, coming to the net on Fillol's second serves, cutting off the Chilean's backhands down the line, and exposing his erratic forehand. It took a while for the break and a 7-5 second set, but by now Gottfried ruled at the net as surely as if the surface were fast grass, and in the third set Fillol pleaded nolo contendere: 6-2.
The lovely little tennis stadium, set by the huge national soccer grounds at one end of Calle de Desportes—Street of Sports—had grown subdued, at last nearly silent. While Gottfried and Fillol played—both expressionless, contained—one's sense of place all but vanished. Raucous Latin crowds? Bandito gamesmanship? Hardly. The greatest stir came when Fillol, the consummate sportsman, argued a couple of line calls, turning them against himself. The linesmen were fair, the crowd generous to both sides—and, quickly enough, resigned to the worst. "We're a shy, defensive people," Fillol had said. "Chileans never think they can possibly succeed. We're only sure of two things: that we have good wine and that we're nice people."
Ah, but when Solomon and Gildemeister strode onto the court to play their good old-fashioned grubby dirt game, the stands came to life again. A trumpet blared, a Chilean flag waved, the chants came up. But Solomon had been here before. He won both his matches in 1972 in Santiago when he was only 19. Short, dark and handsome, a prospective bridegroom, he is used to being the guy who has to carry the U.S. flag the dirt world over. "I guess I just love the challenge," he says. He has never once had the luxury of playing a Davis Cup match at home, because at home we move to fast surfaces and bring in the glamourpusses with clean shoes and big serves.
So once more Solomon had to deal with another local Latin hero. Gildemeister had upset Guillermo Vilas in the previous round, to carry Chile past Argentina, and he had beaten Solomon in the French Open. He is only 22, ranked 31st in the world (just above Fillol), one of those rare birds who hit two-handed ground strokes off both sides. The Chilean is a powerful baseliner, too, albeit a streaky one, but he is absolutely out of his element anywhere near the net.
As Tony Trabert had told Gottfried to stay on top of Fillol, he told Solomon to keep Gildemeister moving. The U.S. Davis Cup captain didn't think Herr Two-Hands was in as good condition as his intrepid little Solly. So Solomon continually tried to pull Gildemeister wide, because a two-handed player must go a bit further, expend a bit more energy to reach each shot. "Make him work for everything," Trabert told Solomon during an early crossover. "It's like a boxer body-punching. You may not see the damage for a while." For his part, Gildemeister kept looping high top-spin bounces to Solomon's backhand, his two-handed side, making him stretch up.
The first three games took 25 minutes, a service break apiece included. Then Gildemeister broke again, and at 5-4 prepared to serve out the set. Suddenly, brazenly, on the first point, Solomon barged to the net and knocked off a volley winner. Flabbergasted at this foray, Gildemeister promptly made three errors and lost his serve at love. Just as promptly, he went up love-40 on Solomon's serve—and then the American won five points in a row to win the game. In a daze now, Gildemeister lost his serve again at love, and the set with it, 7-5.
The body punches, it seemed, had landed effectively—and upon the heart. "The way he was playing, Hans would have beaten anyone else in the world," Ayala said in sad review. "But with Solomon, all the balls come back. Do you know what that does to a player?" In fact, Gildemeister regrouped to win the second set 6-3, but in the third Solomon began to force the action. Now he hit with power, now Gildemeister was too tired, and Solomon went on to take the match 7-5, 3-6, 6-3, 6-1.
The winning third point came with the doubles Saturday, a gloomy, raw afternoon that had the fans attired in wool shawls and sarapes. McEnroe, whose Katzenjammer countenance makes him look even younger than his 19 years, came to the courts in a colorful ski cap. This was his Davis Cup debut, and, as well, his first pairing with Gottfried. Once again the Americans got off to a rocky start; both lost their first service games on the way to losing the set, 6-3, but they came on to whip Fillol and Belus Prajoux 6-3, 8-6, 6-3.
Gottfried and McEnroe scurried off to the portable heaters of the locker room, there to be greeted by Solomon, who said, profoundly, "Awright, after five blanking years we have finally got out of this blanking Zone."
The U.S. team now travels to Sweden the first week in October, with the winner to play the final against either England or Australia. Despite the overpowering presence of Bjorn Borg, the U.S., with its depth, should be the favorite to bring the Cup home for the first time since 1972, and apparently the effort will be handled without assistance from Jimmy Connors. Both Trabert and USTA Davis Cup Chairman Joe Carrico have become exasperated by Connors' behavior, and the last communication with him was a hand-delivered letter from Carrico, which politely informed him that it's you call us from here on.
Gottfried, Vitas Gerulaitis, Stan Smith and Arthur Ashe will probably head up the contingent to Sweden. The players make $2,000 and first-cabin expenses. The USTA has tried to increase the kitty by peddling team sponsorship for a piddling $30,000 a round, but not a single American company has kicked in. By contrast, in Chile, as in most countries, Cup matches are on national TV and are a hot ticket, with commercial sponsorship. The Davis Cup remains a minor attraction in its native land.
This is Trabert's third year as captain. A loss and he's out for sure, and even if he wins, he may decide to end the aggravation (Ashe would then loom as the likeliest successor). Trabert says, "Sometimes I think the U.S. should sit out for a year and see if anybody cares—see if the players care, see if anybody in America even knows we're not playing."
But for now, there is jubilation: we are off-the blanking Latin dirt, and Solly can relax until next spring, when he will be called upon again to enter the lists for 1979 upon the brick-red ground of Mexico City.