On the red-clay tennis courts of the Bois de Boulogne in Paris two weeks ago a young Russian from the University of Georgia named Alexander Metreveli upset the top-ranked tennis player of the U.S., Dennis Ralston, in the French international championships. Metreveli has a soft southern drawl, but it's a Soviet southern drawl. He hails from Tbilisi (formerly Tiflis)—not Atlanta—and he's a third-year journalism major at the University of Georgia, Soviet branch.
When 21-year-old Metreveli took the center court against the supremely confident Ralston, it was another combat between David and Goliath. David was the second-best tennis player in the Soviet Union, a country where only 60,000 persons play the game. Goliath was the distilled product of 8,500,000 American tennis players. Naturally the crowd was for Metreveli. (Who wants to root for Goliath?) Besides, Metreveli has a pleasing personality and a handsome appearance. He is 5 feet 10, weighs 165 pounds, has close-cropped brown hair, brown eyes and a clear complexion. He also speaks good English. On the court in Paris, he never lost his sang-froid, something that could not have been said about the young Russian when he first began playing in tournaments.
Metreveli hit his first tennis ball at 11 in the Tiflis Dynamo Club and reached the junior finals at Wimbledon six years later. He came to Paris an "illustrious unknown," as the French say, but smart boys stopped referring to him as Metreveli Goldwyn Mayer when he easily won his first three matches. Among his victims were the sometime British Davis Cupper Roger Taylor and Marty Mulligan of Australia, one of the top clay-court players in the world. When Metreveli had beaten Mulligan 3-6, 6-1, 6-3, 6-3, the South African player, Abe Segal, remarked: 'That's a fantastic upset. If anyone had told me five years ago that the Russians would be this good in 1966, I never would have believed it."
Ralston didn't believe it either and predicted that his match against the Georgian would be a simple straight set affair. It nearly was, but Dennis-the-ex-Menace managed to win one set. Metreveli trounced Ralston 8-6, 2-6, 6-1, 6-3. After the match point the self-restrained Metreveli let himself go and whooped for joy. The 5,000 spectators stood up and cheered.
The London Times correspondent, Geoffrey Green, was ecstatic: "This day Metreveli made more friends than even he would ever have thought of. Relaxed, well-mannered, he produced something out of context for many other players—a rolled backhand passing shot. Apart from Roy Emerson, none of the present right-hand crop can produce this stroke. It was a fine match. Ralston and Metreveli—West and East—met each other purely. The Russian produced two strokes worthy of winning any title. A feathery backhand drop shot took him to match point, then a sizzling backhand cross-court drive gave him victory. Here was not only talent but character. The Russian tennis players are on their way."
Russian tennis on its way? A decade ago tennis was about as well known and popular in the Soviet Union as bicycle racing is in the U.S. today. But when the Russians undertake something in space or in sports, they do it methodically and scientifically. At every tournament—Forest Hills, Wimbledon or Roland Garros Stadium in Paris—Soviet cameramen filmed the best American and Australian players in action. For years Soviet youth conscientiously studied Western players' styles. In 1958 the U.S.S.R. cautiously entered players in the Wimbledon junior competition, and the following year they competed in the men's singles. Every year since then the Russians have been participating with growing regularity in the major and the minor international tennis championships, picking up a lot of experience, if very few trophies. Metreveli's victory over Ralston is Russia's biggest tennis triumph to date.
"There are 2,500 tennis courts in the Soviet Union today," said Viktor Kollegorski, secretary-general of the Soviet tennis federation, "and we are building them at the rate of 300 a year. Most of them are clay courts, but we plan to construct some wooden indoor ones. We have 400 tennis teachers, some of them former players, others graduates of our physical educational institutes. If we are making good progress, and we think we are, it is because of our three-point national tennis program. First, we start with boys and girls of 10 or 11. Secondly, we insist that they practice other sports and keep in superb physical condition. Thirdly, we emphasize offensive play, a fast, strong attack. We don't allow defensive players who play pit-pat tennis in our national championship."
Watching Metreveli play, one would think that the Soviets have adopted English tennis terms. "Out," he warns his doubles partner, Sergei Likachev. But that is just the influence of the Western surroundings. "At home," says Kollegorski, "we cry 'za.' Fifteen years ago very few Russians played tennis, and they used foreign words like game and set. Not anymore."
So far as veteran tennis reporters could remember, no Soviet player has ever before played in the quarter-finals of a major Western tournament, as' Metreveli did in Paris. Unhappily for Soviet hopes, Metreveli then bumped into the powerful Australian, Tony Roche. It was their first encounter this year. "I beat Metreveli the first time in Italy 6-1, 6-2," Roche recalled. "The second time, also in Italy, he was tougher. The score was 6-0, 6-1, 7-5. Metreveli must be improving, because at Roland Garros he won the first set 7-5 before I took him 6-3, 6-1, 7-5." Roche might have added that Metreveli, after trailing love-3 in the fourth set, made it 5-4 and 40-30 in his own favor and then lost the set point which would have tied the match. Metreveli gave Roche a good scare.
Honorably defeated in the singles quarter-finals, Metreveli teamed up in the doubles with the third-ranking Soviet player, Sergei Likachev. Logically, they should not have even gotten to the quarter-finals, because in their way were last year's doubles champions, Emerson and Fred Stolle. But in an upset quite as astounding as his four-set crushing of Ralston, Metreveli and Likachev soundly defeated Emerson and Stolle in four sets. They had no trouble reaching the semifinals, thrashing the British team of Bobby Wilson and Mike Sangster in straight sets, but then were defeated in five sets by the somewhat surprising Rumanian team of Ion Tiriac and Ilie Nastase.
If Ralston couldn't see the Russians as a serious threat—"No, not even in five years"—Tony Roche was a lot less sure. "Those Russians are in tip-top condition. They don't horse around, and they're improving all the time. Their big handicap is that they don't yet play in enough international tournaments. If they do start playing the whole circuit, then they could very well become a real threat."
Playing the whole circuit is a problem, however. Last year, for example, Metreveli and Tomas Lejus were scheduled to play in the U.S. Nationals at Forest Hills and then go on to the Australian grass circuit during the winter to gain valuable international experience. But, due to the situation in Vietnam, both were withdrawn from the competition at the last moment.
However, politics will not indefinitely keep Metreveli and the other Russians from becoming a threat to Australian and U.S. tennis supremacy. Asserts George MacCall, the captain of the U.S. Davis Cup team, "I have watched the Russians play tennis now for three years, and they are unquestionably making progress."
Even Dennis Ralston should be willing to concede them that much.
METREVELI HAS AN ATTACKING BACKHAND