A grim grip on the cup

Tracy Austin (above) was a star in a resolute battle against the British as the U.S. team regained the Wightman Cup
November 12, 1979

It says something about how much the American women wanted to win the Wightman Cup matches against Great Britain last week that Chris Evert Lloyd put her antibiotics aside and climbed out of a sickbed to play. After all, the most she could win was a, for her, trifling $4,285. And player-coach Rosie Casals acted as if she were coaching football at Ohio State. Grim and determined, she closed practice sessions to the public, scheduled chalk talks and for days kept everybody guessing about her starting lineup. The U.S. women let it be known they were playing for keeps as well as for their country.

The meaning of the Wightman Cup varies with the side of the Atlantic on which you are ordering your fish and chips. The Americans fear losing more than they relish winning. The British, on the other hand, relish winning very much indeed. Last year, when they upset the U.S. in London, the whistling, foot-stamping and flag-waving natives behaved as if they had just crowned a new monarch.

When the two teams met last week at the Palm Beach Polo and Country Club for the 51st Cup matches, Casals unsmilingly said, "We're shooting for 7-0." Said one of her teammates, "Rosie thinks she's a little Napoleon."

The Wightman Cup was inaugurated in 1923, and in the early going it seemed a splendid idea. Through the first eight meetings the competition was dead even at four wins apiece. Then the U.S. won 21 straight matches, and it seemed like an idea whose time was past.

But the British dauntlessly played on. And their perseverance has paid off with three victories in the past five years.

Thinking about the possibility of losing again—and at home—didn't help the Americans' composure early last week, nor did the news that Lloyd might not play because tonsillitis had put her in bed for three days. Everyone on the U.S. team seemed relieved when she arrived on Tuesday, saying that while she felt weak, she was ready to practice. "The Wightman Cup means a lot to me," she said. "If there were a $200,000 tournament somewhere this week, I'd play here."

With Lloyd and familiar turf on its side, the U.S. team, which included Casals, Tracy Austin, Kathy Jordan and Ann Kiyomura, had reason to feel confident instead of wary. In 14 previous Wightman Cup singles matches, Lloyd hadn't lost; in fact, she had dropped only two sets. Even in last year's 4-3 debacle she held up her end by allowing the top British pair, Sue Barker and Virginia Wade, to win a total of only four games.

Just as significantly, this year's Wightman was being played on clay, which the Americans favor. Over the years the British have only beaten the U.S. twice over here, and their players grimace at the mention of clay courts. "It's their option to name the surface and they'd be foolish to pick anything else," said Wade.

The format was to be five singles and two doubles matches spread over Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Casals posted men with walkie-talkies to shoo off onlookers from secret practice sessions at which she was trying to find the best doubles combinations.

But while Wightman tennis is always serious, off the court the week can be one big pajama party. On Wednesday night the U.S. players decided to celebrate Halloween. They put on masks and, accompanied by Midnight, Casals' dog, which wore a scarf and a blinking disco collar, they roamed through the community of Wellington outside the club grounds. Said team trainer Connie Spooner, "Everybody went disguised as something, except for Midnight. He went disguised as a dog." The players selected trick-or-treat targets according to the splendor of the cars in the driveways, and discovered that even among the Rolls-Royces, times seem to be hard. "Gee," said Lloyd, looking down into her bag of goodies. "When I was a little kid they gave you candy bars. Now you get a piece of bubble gum—and it's sugarless."

On Friday, Lloyd opened the competition with a match against Barker, who never has had much luck against Chris. Still, she broke off to 4-2 and 5-3 leads and was serving for the opening set as everyone peered intently at Lloyd for signs of exhaustion. Instead, they saw the same old Chris, who went on a tear that produced seven straight winning games. Keeping the ball on Barker's tremulous backhand and mixing in a few judicious drop shots, she won the first set and took a 3-0 lead in the second.

During this stretch, play was interrupted by rain with Lloyd serving at 6-5. Barker raced into the locker room and was in the shower when someone called that the match was resuming. By the time she returned to the court, her concentration was frazzled. "I was all messed up," she said. Lloyd thereupon recorded her 15th straight Wightman singles victory, 7-5, 6-2.

In the other singles match on Friday, the two No. 3 players, Kathy Jordan of the U.S. and Anne Hobbs of Great Britain, met in what could have been a pivotal encounter. The British felt that if Hobbs, a virtual unknown who rarely gets past the first round of tournaments, could beat Jordan and even the the score at 1-1, it might put additional pressure on Austin when she faced Wade Saturday.

The strategy was to be patient against Jordan, an aggressive, hard-hitting 19-year-old who had Tracy against the wall at the U.S. Open this year before losing to her in the fourth round. Last week was Jordan's first taste of Cup play, and if she didn't feel the pressure it wasn't for lack of British psych warfare. Throughout the week the British kept bringing up Jordan's inexperience, figuring she would get the message.

The trouble was that Hobbs was apparently getting the same message. She opened nervously against Jordan, dropping the first set 6-4 after squandering a couple of early service breaks, and falling behind 3-1 in the second. But she battled back to 4-4 before the rain started falling again, this time in a torrent, and play was adjourned for the day.

Saturday was a long, dark time for the British, beginning at morning practice and not ending until almost 10 p.m. The Hobbs-Jordan match was scheduled to resume at 1 p.m., at which time more rain fell. Play finally got under way at 4 and started well enough for the British when Hobbs won the second set in a tiebreaker. If ever Jordan was going to yield to her reputed impulsiveness and the pressure, it was now. Instead, she settled down and took away Hobbs' slow-ball game in the third set by hitting out on ground strokes and charging the net, racing through the slop for a 6-2 win and the match.

In England it was getting on toward midnight as the 16-year-old Austin took the court against Wade, the 34-year-old veteran. The British were watching on television and what they saw was familiar—Wade coming out aggressively, driving herself, attacking the ball and all but defying Austin to handle the furious pace. But Tracy, beaten in three sets by Wade last year, when she was 15, would not be cowed. She was just as aggressive as Wade and immeasurably better, and eased through the first set 6-1.

In the second set, Wade made a fight of it and had a chance to go up a break after taking a love-40 lead in the eighth game. But that was her last hurrah. She then made six straight errors. In the next game Wade double-faulted at a critical point and was broken, and Austin served out the match, winning the last set 6-4.

It was the end, and the British knew it. They were down 3-0 and Lloyd was waiting on Sunday, and when England's Jo Durie and Debbie Jevans took the court against Austin and Kiyomura for the doubles, they were mere shells. Austin slashed service returns past them, and Kiyomura, 15th in the world this season, played steadily as the U.S. carved out a 6-3, 6-1 victory. That gave the home side the fourth and deciding point of the series. Just before the end, an American couple sitting alone in the stands popped a bottle of champagne.

But the Americans weren't done yet. They wanted to finish without losing a match; Lloyd said they talked about it "every night." (She also was a bit miffed because she felt people were spending more time commiserating with the British than commending the brilliant play of the U.S. and she kidded that her teammates were expecting a congratulatory call from President Carter.)

Sunday was windy and dark, with occasional droplets of rain, a perfect day for the American design. The pallbearers picked up the British casket as Austin beat Barker 6-4, 6-2 in the opening singles, carried it slowly to the grave when Lloyd destroyed Wade 6-1, 6-1 and dropped it in after Lloyd and Casals humbled Wade and Barker 6-0, 6-1 in the doubles finale. "Everything went according to schedule," said Casals smugly. She now had a 19-2 coaching record in Wightman Cup matches and no longer felt the need for secrecy.

PHOTOJordan won a three-set, two-day match, putting the U.S. up 2-0. PHOTO

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)