Skip to main content
Original Issue

Reaching for the Davis Cup

By beating India this week, the U.S. has qualified to play Australia, which may use youngsters John Alexander (above) and Phillip Dent

Sitting beside a tennis court during a Davis Cup match, Donald Dell invokes about as much humor as a death-watch. As captain of the U.S. team, he is equal parts coach, cheerleader, psychologist and baby-sitter. For example, consider that before last week's interzone final in San Juan, P. R., the last step toward the Challenge Round, illness and injury threatened to knock out nearly the entire team. Arthur Ashe had just recovered from a severely pinched nerve in his neck which had curtailed his tennis drastically in the weeks before the India tie. Bob Lutz, one-half of the best doubles team in the country, was thought to have picked up mononucleosis and, in fact, had complained of dizzy spells just two days before the first day's matches (it turned out to be the flu). And finally, Clark Graebner was just getting over the effects of a strep throat which had kept him quiet for a couple of weeks.

Two days before the Interzone final began Dell also became something of a villain when he told Charlie Pasarell, who is technically the No. 1-ranked player in the country and is a hero in his native San Juan, that he wasn't going to play before the home-town folks. Besides alienating every Puerto Rican who knew a tennis ball from a bolero, Dell kept about $10,000 out of the weekend's gate receipts. He also made himself unpopular at a meeting with the Indian captain a day before the tie began. A proposal was made that should a player get cramps, a real possibility in the stifling heat, he be allowed five minutes to untangle his muscles. Dell said no. "The rules say 'play shall be continuous,' and tennis is supposed to be a game of endurance," he argued. "I don't have my players running laps every day to improve their morale. If somebody gets cramps, default."

All of this helped keep nearly everybody in a high state of agitation, which is just the state Dell always is in, but the end result was a 4-1 victory over the Indians, complicated only by Ramanathan Krishnan's four-set upset of Clark Graebner in the tie's second match.

The victory put the United States into the Challenge Round, where it will meet the current Davis Cup holder, Australia, in Adelaide for three afternoons beginning the day after Christmas. Not only will the U.S. be in the finals of perhaps the best-known amateur international competition, but it will actually be favored—heavily favored—to bring the cup back home for the first time since 1963. This is either a) surprising, considering the result of the last three years when the U.S. was summarily dismissed by Spain, Brazil and Ecuador in preliminary ties, or b) not surprising, considering that the U.S. team has, in Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner, two of the three best amateur players in the world (the third is Tom Okker, a Dutchman). It is, in fact, a little of both, but the main reason the U.S. is favored is because the three fellows who defended for Australia last year—Roy Emerson, John Newcombe and Tony Roche—are now professionals, and for the first time, really, since World War II, the limitless supply of Aussie players seems depleted.

What Australia does have, however, is Harry Hopman, the man who has captained 15 winning cup efforts since the war. And what Hopman has is a pair of untried, and practically unknown, teen-agers who may turn out to be another combination like Ken Rosewall and Lew Hoad, who were brought out of similar obscurity 15 years ago and worked out pretty well. The new Australian wonders are John Alexander, 17, and Phillip Dent, 18.

Hopman's hand was forced because the only other players he has available are Bill Bowery and Ray Ruffels, who have undistinguished records in international competition, and Dick Crealy and Alan Stone, who have no records at all. None of them evoke memories of Ken McGregor and Frank Sedgman, or Hoad and Rosewall, or Rod Laver and Emerson or Newcombe and Roche, and Hopman is the first to admit it.

"Our chances don't look good," Hopman said recently. "Ashe is the best amateur player in the world. Graebner is not far behind him, and Pasarell is probably better than Graebner. Moreover, America has some fine doubles combinations. When you look into it, our chances seem pretty bad. But we've faced defeat before and it hasn't always turned out that way. There are still a couple of months to go, and with young people who show promise and who have ability you can do a lot. In fact, I think it's premature to concede defeat or claim victory at this stage."

Hopman's young people are, of course, Alexander and Dent. Alexander, rather thin at 6'2" and 161 pounds, was born and raised in Sydney. Dent grew up in a western Sydney suburb. Both have strong records, but only in junior competition: Alexander won the Junior Wimbledon title last summer, while Dent, earlier in the year, won the French Juniors. They are close friends. Publicly at least, Hopman has made no firm indication as to which members of his team he will select for the Challenge Round. In fact, the team is not officially his. He has not been named captain for this year's defense, but that is expected to be a mere formality. Last week Alexander and Dent jumped in a car and drove the 600 miles south to Melbourne for two weeks of intensive training with Hopman at nearby Kooyong Stadium. What sort of work? Hopman was evasive. "I want them to do some different work," he said. "They are both potential world champions."

Whether the entire Alexander-Dent project is a huge psychological plot to goad the more established players like Bowrey and Ruffels is worth speculation. Dell, for one, does not believe both youngsters will be used. Alexander, maybe, he says, but not Dent too. Hop-man, though, is good at two things—getting his players into shape and getting the effort out of them. Winning down there will be tough.

Meanwhile Dell must face one problem on Dec. 16, the day when the four-man squad for the Challenge Round must be announced. Which four players should he use? Ashe, of Course, is certain to play the singles. After two lackluster years, he has finally become one of the two or three best players in the world, amateur or pro. He reached the semifinals at Wimbledon, and then in late summer concluded an amazing string of triumphs by winning both the U.S. amateur and the first U.S. Open singles championships in the space of two weeks.

Likewise, the doubles team of Lutz and Stan Smith is finally set after a slight bit of hesitation on Dell's part earlier in the year. The two Southern California students this year won the National Intercollegiate, the National Clay Court, the U.S. amateur and the U.S. Open doubles titles and are challenged for world supremacy only by the professional pair of Newcombe and Roche. They easily defeated the India doubles team of Krishnan and Jaidip Mukerjea, 6-2, 6-3, 6-2.

That leaves the No. 2 singles slot—the fourth place on the squad—available to either Graebner or Pasarell. Earlier in the year there was little doubt that Graebner was the superior player. In fact, at Wimbledon, where Graebner—like Ashe—was a semifinalist, a few people thought Graebner was better even than Ashe. But Graebner depends entirely too much on his first service. If it is working well, he is almost unbeatable, but if he has to temper it in the least, nearly anybody's return of service can give him trouble. He lost a key first-day match to Manuel Santana in the tie with Spain and was completely befuddled by the junk-balling tactics of Krishnan last week, losing decisively.

Pasarell was superb early in the year but has fallen off considerably in the past two months. Dell will probably choose Graebner, but could be wrong whichever way he ultimately decides to go. That problem is still a month off. Meanwhile the U.S. team will tour—in England for two tournaments, in France for a week-long series of exhibitions, in Chicago for a two-day benefit, in California for another tournament and in Australia for the New South Wales Championships in Sydney—before finally showing up in Adelaide on Dec. 16 for its final days of preparation before the Challenge Round.

In recent years the regular monotony of Australian victory in the Challenge Round has bored the Australian public and caused a severe drop in ticket sales. But not this year. "A challenge round against the U.S. never fails to attract interest," Hopman said. "This time, because we will be the underdogs, it will have much more interest than usual. Somebody is going to have a whopping New Year's Eve party about three days early."