Before we get to the backhands and forehands, lobs and volleys, ads in and out and all that other tennis folderol, let us make our political report to the alphabet fans. WCT and WTT have joined forces in a limited partnership. The ATP has given reluctant approval to its players to sign with WTT, but WCT has severed relations with the USLTA while keeping its deal with the ILTF, which has decided not to ban players from WTT pending an investigation by the FBI, a possible loan from the FHA and a pint refill of STP. Most of this thrilling news was generated last week in Philadelphia, where, when time could be found between press conferences, a few tennis matches were played—some of them quite good ones.
The occasion was the $100,000 U.S. Pro Indoor Tennis Championships at the Spectrum, second event on Lamar Hunt's 1974 World Championship Tennis (WCT) tour and the only one with all three colorful troupes, Red, Blue and Green, playing in the same place. In the end it was two Greenies, Arthur Ashe and Rod Laver, who met in the Sunday final, an occasion more important for Ashe than for the stubby Australian, and not just because there was an $8,000 prize differential between first and second places.
Ashe has finished second so often lately he should look for an endorsement for bridesmaids' dresses. He is an excellent tennis player, one of the world's best, and a highly respected leader of the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), but to him championships are glittering mirages that turn into desert sand when he gets too close. Runner-up to Stan Smith at the WCT final last May. Runner-up to Jimmy Connors at the South African Open last November. Runner-up to Ilie Nastase at Forest Hills in '72. In three previous WCT seasons he has reached tournament finals 10 times and won only twice. And Ashe was also bucking a second jinx on Sunday. In 17 matches against Laver he had never won.
So now make it 18. The 35-year-old Laver, who some pros thought was all washed up six months ago, beat Ashe 6-1, 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 and took home the winner's check for $15,000. The match seemed decided in the very first game. Ashe won the spin of the racket and elected to receive. So Rocket Rod bombed him with three aces.
Laver's victory was just the latest in a long series. He won a tournament in Hong Kong and another in Australia and then went undefeated in a couple of Davis Cup meetings, including two singles wins in the finals against the U.S. He lost in the first round of the CBS Classic, then raced through seven opponents in Philly. That is 21 wins in 22 matches against top opposition. Even though Ashe took the third set—he has won only six of 43 sets from Laver since 1968—the issue seemed never in doubt.
Laver's impressive victory was the first step in his campaign to reach the WCT final in Dallas May 12 and win the only major championship that has eluded him, not to mention its $50,000 first prize. The route will be arduous, however, as Ashe pointed out in sizing up the three groups which, by the time May 12 rolls around, will have performed in 28 cities and 12 countries. To know how to order a racket restrung in both Portuguese and Japanese is not easy.
"Our Green group is the yo-yos," said Ashe. "We go to Bologna, to London, to S√£o Paolo, to Tokyo, to Denver. We get the worst trips. The Red group is the nut squad. They've got Nastase and all the basket cases. The Blue group has Stan Smith and John Newcombe—'The Stan and John Show.' They're head and shoulders above everyone else in their group. If they get their sleep and eat three meals a day, they should make the finals by the time they have finished three-fourths of their tournaments."
The two top men in each group will qualify for Dallas and will be joined by two others, from any group, with the next highest total of points. Barring injury, it should be Laver and Ashe from Green, Smith and Newcombe from Blue (which never strays out of the U.S.) and Ilie Nastase and Tom Okker from Red. The wild cards? Perhaps Jan Kodes of Green or Tom Gorman, Cliff Drysdale or Marty Riessen of Red. (You will be surprised to learn that Alex Metreveli of the Soviet Union is a Blue, not a Red.)
Anyway, all 84, from Alexander to Zugarelli, were supposed to be in Philly last week, but injuries cannot be barred. No. 1 seed Nastase, tabbed by a computer as the likely winner, had to withdraw because he had hurt his right arm in a filmed-for-television tournament held at Lakeway, Texas the week before. Newcombe pulled a tendon in his heel at the Australian Open and so the second seed was lost. No. 5 Manuel Orantes rested in Spain nursing a sore back; he may not play much this year. But even with all the dropouts, there will be few events in 1974 that will present a more powerful field. Or a stranger week.
Cliff Richey was relaxing in a Philly bar one night when an elderly man—perhaps a linesman he had abused in years gone by—walked up and kicked him in the rear end. World Team Tennis (WTT), which will start its season even before WCT ends, was busy churning out press releases. Lamar Hunt announced a "declaration of independence" from the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association, on which his WCT was never very dependent anyway. The ATP and the International Lawn Tennis Federation both gave reluctant approval to WTT. Meanwhile, the tennis fans of the Delaware Valley largely ignored that whole matter, but bought themselves a total of 71,834 tickets for the seven days of competition. The press managed to avoid being smothered in handouts from ABC and XYZ and still have the energy to dig out the story of Tony Roche and the Filipino faith healer who saved his career.
Roche is a left-handed Australian who a few years ago was considered by many to be Laver's heir apparent as rackets boss of the universe, or at least New South Wales. But Roche encountered one of the nastiest cases of tennis elbow on record, one that acupuncture and two operations in the U.S. could not cure. He was desperate, so he was a willing listener when two London friends, one a radiologist and the other a dentist, recommended he see a faith healer named Placido who lives outside Manila.
Roche and his wife Sue made the pilgrimage to the Philippines. There Placido X-rayed Roche's arm by merely placing a "bit of paper" on it. Next he gave Roche an injection by throwing his hands at the aching joint in the style of Mandrake the Magician. Roche does not smile when recounting this, his wife backs him up and friends insist he is sincere. Then, while Placido pushed on Roche's head, an assistant opened an incision by lightly touching the arm, removed three blood clots and closed the arm up again. Just ask Sue. The scar disappeared within days and here is Tony Roche out on tour again. Whatever happened, Tony believes. And all for a $20 donation.
Roche reached the semis in the Spectrum before losing to Ashe, and along the way he beat Mark Cox, who claims that another faith healer, an Englishwoman, helped cure his sore shoulder. Roche won 6-4, 6-4, not necessarily a setback for British faith healing.
Laver, who has had some struggles with a bad back, uses more conventional remedies—stretching exercises before a match and rubdowns afterward. Last October, after he had lost to a young Englishman, Buster Mottram, on slippery clay in chilly Madrid, Laver had considered going home to Newport Beach, Calif., and throwing his racket in the bay. Instead he plunged into a Davis Cup conditioning regimen that is still paying big dividends.
In the bottom half of the draw in Philly he beat Jeff Borowiak, Cliff Drysdale, Ross Case, who is a rapidly improving young Aussie, and Okker to reach the semis. Against Okker, one of the world's 10 best, Laver was devastating—catquick on volleys, sharp on serve and whacking ground strokes every way but out. He blew Okker off the court 6-4, 6-2, making a mockery of his earlier comment, "I'm not No. 1 seed, am I? I'm just one of the boys."
Laver was the sixth seed, but that computer had better wise up. Rocket Rod had a little more trouble with Czechoslovakia's Jan Kodes in the semis, but still won impressively enough 6-4, 1-6, 6-4, 6-0. Kodes does not lose many sets at love.
Ashe was helped in the upper half of the draw when Stan Smith, who is suffering through a long slump, was knocked out early on. Ashe beat Jean Chanfreu, Patrick Proisy, Brian Gottfried, Alex Metreveli and Adriano Panatta before meeting Roche. The "5,000 serves" he had hit in practice in Miami clearly had sharpened his game.
But he was not sharp enough. No match for Laver's sizzling passing shots, he also made numerous volley errors and served fewer aces. At the ceremonies afterward, Ashe told the Spectrum crowd, "We no longer play just for trophies, but for little pieces of paper with zeros on them. It seems like every time I come up against Rod Laver, his check has one more zero than mine."
Ashe did his bridesmaid thing once more.
Laver, a subject of has-been whisperings mere months ago, had the pleased crowd shouting.