In Sweden last week, the Prime Minister quit and the government collapsed. But on Friday night, in gray old G‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√áteborg's Scandinavium, the largest indoor arena in the Nordic countries, 10,200 Swedes forgot politics for the moment and bayed instead for the blood of Vitas Gerulaitis.
He had begun to irritate them early in the match, from the fourth game of the first set when he had successfully appealed a line call. And he had irritated them still further with a deep, courtly and insulting bow to his opponent, Kjell Johansson, when the Swede patted an inept lob away over the baseline. All this might be reasonably regarded as part of the give-and-take of top-level tennis. And, as a rule, Swedish sports crowds are notably good-natured.
But the scoreboard did not read "Johansson" and "Gerulaitis." Instead, it was "Sverige" and "USA." No man-to-man tournament this but the second singles match of a semifinal of the 1978 Davis Cup. And however diminished in prestige that trophy might have become since the glorious days of the '50s—when they had to put extra seating in the stands at Sydney, when 25,000 Aussies a day came to watch—few tennis events have the power to turn politely clapping spectators into raucous, chauvinistic fans. Or, come to that, to inspire a Studio 54-haunting young cosmopolite like Gerulaitis to confess to national pride as he did, however obliquely. "I'm not playing for Lithuania, man," he said. "There are a lot of people in the United States."
After the heat of Friday died down, nostalgic Swedes were recalling that Bjorn Borg was not even born the last time the two countries met in the Davis Cup. That was in 1954 when the U.S., represented by Vic Seixas, Ham Richardson and Tony Trabert, breezed home 5-0. And now, almost a quarter of a century later, Trabert was back in Sweden as non-playing captain, a stocky man in whose features one could still see the crew-cut boy who won at Paris, Wimbledon and Forest Hills in 1955.
October 15, 1978
Before the five-match encounter in G‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√áteborg, his analysis was frank. "If we beat Borg that will just be icing on the cake," he said. "Anybody we have is automatically the underdog against him. Our obvious task is to beat Johansson twice and win the doubles."
That 3-2 projection left little margin for error. Conceding the two singles matches Borg would play meant that both Arthur Ashe and Gerulaitis would have to beat Johansson, who had overcome the Hungarian, Balazs Taroczy, and the Spaniard, Josè Higueras, to help put Sweden in the Cup semis. "Borg did not beat Hungary and Spain all by himself," Trabert pointed out.
But at least for the doubles match, Trabert was not the worried man he had been the previous Sunday evening in his room at G‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√áteborg's Park Avenue Hotel. His original choice for the doubles had been Stan Smith and Bob Lutz, in his opinion the best qualified, most experienced team in the U.S. These days, though, our players do not clamber over each other to represent their country in the Davis Cup, as witness Jimmy Connors. Smith was willing, Lutz was not.
"We worked hard to get him to play," said Trabert, "but he, or his agent, was adamant that he would not." So Dick Stockton was recruited in his place. Then on Sunday evening, five days before the matches, Stockton, as Trabert delicately put it, "was nice enough to call." Stockton, who was in San Francisco, said his back was bothering him. That was at 8 p.m., Swedish time. Davis Cup rules state that while a substitution is allowed, it must be made at least five days before a match. So the deadline was midnight on Sunday. Otherwise the U.S. would have to go with a three-man team.
As a forlorn hope, Trabert asked Stockton to scout around in San Francisco, where the Transamerica tournament was going on, to try to find somebody within the next four hours. At 11:45 p.m., resigned to events, Trabert was reading in bed. Then the phone rang. It was Lutz from San Francisco. "Looks like I'm needed," he said, and he was told that he surely was.
It wasn't that easy. Formal notification had to be made to the Davis Cup Committee. It was, in fact, 11:57 p.m. when a telegram, duly notarized with the time on it, was dispatched, after no local official could be raised in G‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√áteborg. That wire was enough, though. Last Wednesday, Smith and Lutz arrived in Sweden. They were jet-lagged but at least they would not have to play until Saturday. However, 24 hours before the doubles the first of the singles matches was scheduled—Ashe against Borg. Ashe's tactics were easy to forecast. There could be no question of a baseline slug-out. "Knowing Arthur," Trabert said, "he'll try to hit some underspin forehands where normally he would hit over the ball. He'll attack some, throw in some floaters, sneak in behind a few, hit some balls short and low, make Borg come in."
However, Trabert admitted that strategy, not tactics, dictated that by no means would Ashe be permitted to burn himself out against Borg. "I want him strong for that first match on Sunday against Johansson," Trabert said. "If Arthur gets close to Borg he'll go after him. He won't make a travesty of any match. But if he doesn't win we won't feel that we are in trouble."
The Borg-Ashe match was in no way a travesty, although in the early games Ashe was not running full out for every shot. In the first set they both broke early on, but Borg, fighting hard, broke again to make it 5-4 and went on to win 6-4.
The second set was even tougher. The first game took eight minutes, went to deuce seven times. Five times the Swede held the advantage until Ashe took it. Playing with economy of effort through his full repertoire, he broke Borg's serve and he was ahead 3-1. But the resistance movement could not hold out against the heavy artillery. The second set went 7-5 to Borg and the third saw Arthur gracefully bowing out 6-3. A gentlemanly match, no disputes, no emotions and it was 1-0, Sweden, as expected.
But there was edge in the Gerulaitis-Johansson match even before the first ball was served, each player childishly refusing to be first to quit warming up after the regulation five minutes. "Please play," the umpire called anxiously. "Play please. We start now, yes?" When the match did start, the jeering and the heavy whistling came quickly. By the fifth game the crowd was applauding every first-serve fault that Gerulaitis made.
But Gerulaitis, in the first two sets, was never in trouble. Johansson had a good forehand and a good first serve when it came off, but his backhand was eminently attackable and his second serve sloppy. Swiftly it was 6-2, 6-1 and, by the time it was 5-1 in the third, the fans were streaming out of the stadium.
Then, unaccountably, Gerulaitis' serve went to pieces. He lost three successive games. When he fell, trying to get to a Johansson volley, what was left of the crowd roared as if it were at a football game. Amazingly, it seemed as if Johansson might wriggle off the hook. Indeed the 10th game went to deuce before Gerulaitis won the set 6-4, and the match.
Gerulaitis had done his job. The only thing he would have to concern himself with now was a possible Ashe failure against Johansson, which, given a U.S. doubles win, would mean that Gerulaitis' match with Borg would be decisive.
"If that happens I'll be taking tranquilizers," Vitas said.
The doubles match against Borg and Ove Bengston on Saturday was not given. It had to be taken. From the very beginning of the first set, U.S. confidence sagged perceptibly. Both Swedes served aggressively, and when Smith's serve was broken in the third game, the set became a 6-2 rout.
The Americans picked up in the second set, taking it 6-3, but no one was confident that it was a significant recovery. In the third set, the 6'5" Bengston hit his peak, dominating the net and serving powerfully. The set ended 6-3, Sweden, with the crowd chanting "Sverige! Sverige!" and the stamping feet and rhythmic clapping becoming more triumphant. The cheering reached a crescendo in the fourth set with Sweden leading 4-2 and seemingly certain of victory. "I was sure we had it won," Borg said later. And at that point, Lutz might have been regretting that late-night phone call from San Francisco.
But it also was then, at almost the last possible moment, that the Americans broke Bengston's service. Though the Swedes pushed to four heart-stopping set points, Smith and Lutz took it 7-5. In the fifth set, the Americans, composed and unassailable, won going away, 6-3.
"The pros, under pressure, produced," said Trabert alliteratively.
Gerulaitis didn't pop a pill all Sunday afternoon. He did, however, douse Ashe with champagne as he came into the locker room after his match with Johansson. In champagne terms, there had been just one hiccup in that encounter, as far as U.S. hopes were concerned. In the first two sets, which Ashe won 6-2, 6-0, Johansson wilted against Ashe's play, which was aggressive and cerebral at the same time. In the second set, he broke Johansson's serve in the first game, and it stayed broken. In the third set, Ashe was up 3-1, and the afternoon seemed to hold little beyond what would now be an exhibition between Borg and Gerulaitis—and due celebration of the fact that after five years the U.S. again had made the Cup final and would host the British in December. But then, in the sixth game, the Ashe machine started to sputter. The crowd, whose chanting had been subdued, came back to life. From 2-3 down, Johansson was suddenly 4-3 up and Ashe was struggling. In the end though, it did prove to be a hiccup. The American came back and wrapped it up at 7-5.
So all that was left to come was Gerulaitis' moment on stage. There was something left for him personally, if not for his already victorious country. His record against Borg was 0-8 and, with Borg having given so much already and being, in all probability, a little down-spirited, this might have been his chance to make it 1-8. Remorselessly, Borg put him down 6-3, 6-1 in a shortened match 0-9.