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Original Issue

This Ashe didn't crumble

After he lost the first set to Bjorn Borg, it looked as if Arthur Ashe would blow another big one, but he rallied to win the WCT final

The image of Arthur Ashe that many tennis fans have is the personable, articulate UCLA graduate and ex-Army officer with the dynamite serve, the cheetah quickness—and the incredible weakness of choking in a big match. Among the traditional sights in sport is Ashe putting an easy volley into the net on a crucial point. By his record in Lamar Hunt's World Championship of Tennis tournaments this year, Ashe should have been the favorite going into last week's WCT finals in Dallas. Instead, in a poll of 79 WCT pros, Ashe was picked to win on only three ballots.

So last Sunday in the final match at Moody Coliseum, there was Ashe up against Bjorn Borg, the 18-year-old Swede whose every top-spin forehand is as big news in Scandinavia as a change in the price of herring. A perfect time for masochistic Ashe rooters to see their hero fail them again. This time, though, it was the other guy who wilted. Ashe followed the same pattern he had established earlier in the week in matches with Mark Cox and John Alexander, losing the first set and fighting back to win. Against Borg the score was 3-6, 6-4, 6-4, 6-0, and Ashe left Texas with the $50,000 first prize.

After the match Ashe said he had been told by a Spanish-Swedish gypsy fortuneteller in Stockholm last month that he would soon come into a lot of money, that something would soon happen to make him cry a lot and that he was soon going to have a child.

Ashe had the money, all right, and he did shed a few tears when he stood at the podium.

"So far things have gone just as she said," said Ashe, "but I don't even have a steady girl friend!"

On top of the $50,000, the winner's jackpot included the use of a new car for a year, a ring featuring a diamond tennis court, a $1,200 Swiss wristwatch as thin as a coin (the seven other contestants received similar watches), a $1,000 wardrobe and for his mother or girl friend a bracelet to match the ring. The runner-up booty was a trifling $20,000.

In addition, early in the week Ashe received a unique trophy. This year Haggar slacks put up $33,333.33 for the WCT player who earned the most points in the tournaments leading to Dallas. Ashe was the winner, with 760, some 60 points more than Rod Laver amassed. However, instead of a routine check, Haggar and WCT commissioned a Dallas jeweler to make a solid-gold tennis ball that was worth precisely $33,333.33 on the day it was completed.

"I like it so much that I'm going to have it bronzed," said Ashe to Lamar Hunt.

Actually, he plans to put it in a vault, where it will remain regardless of how high the price of gold zooms. He may take it out occasionally to fondle, much as Scrooge McDuck joyfully wallows in his money bin. Ashe will have a cheap replica made for display.

All in all it was a fairly classy week, what with the players driving around in official tournament Cadillacs and the pretty Courtmates (almost all of them SMU coeds) ushering for the matches, then dancing the nights away in the hospitality room of the Ramada Inn Central. About the only rough moments were when Lew Hoad almost got in a fight with a British newspaperman at a party and when Harold Solomon had $1,000 worth of equipment stolen while he was practicing. All but his WCT warmup jacket was returned the next day with a note saying, "I am not a thief, just a souvenir hunter."

As often happens in tennis, the best match wasn't the final but Borg versus Laver in the Friday night semis. Laver, twice Borg's age at 36, was in the WCT "exceptional eight" for the fifth straight year and was a clear favorite. He had a 30-5 record in the Blue Group, set a WCT record by winning 23 matches in a row and won four straight events: La Costa, Sao Paolo, Caracas and Orlando. In the poll of pros, 57 picked Rocket Rod to win at Dallas. All but five picked him to reach the final.

Even more clearly he was everyone's sentimental choice. Laver has won just about everything worth winning, including two Grand Slams, en route to becoming the sport's first millionaire. But he has never won the WCT championship, although he came painfully close with a fifth-set tie breaker in the 1972 final.

"Sentimentally, I'm with Rod Laver," said Don Budge, who was at courtside. "If the Rocket's on his game, he will win."

The feeling among some of the press and public was that if Laver failed to win this time, there would be an embarrassingly empty space in his trophy case at home in Corona del Mar, Calif. and a permanent bruise on his ego. There was some speculation that a suicide leap from the top of the 50-story First National Bank Building was not entirely out of the question. Laver got a little tired of hearing about it and insisted that it was not that important, and that his life would not be shattered by a loss.

After Borg had beaten Mexico's Raul Ramirez in the quarters Wednesday night, Laver had a long struggle before beating Solomon, the movable backboard. He was plainly tired in the fifth set, but he had a full day of rest before the semis. As it turned out, rest, polls, sentiment and his steel-cable left wrist were not enough against the iceBorg, who in scientific tests has been proved to have the pulse rate of a corpse.

Borg-Laver lasted more than four hours, unusual in this tie-breaker era, and had enough drama to fill a Broadway season. Laver was leading two sets to one and, after falling behind 5-2 in the fourth set, broke Borg's serve twice in a row to tie it at 5-5. When he then blasted two straight aces on his own serve, Laver seemed to have the match locked up. Yet instead of submitting quietly, Borg fought back to win that game. Then Laver broke his serve a third straight time in a game that took 17 points to decide. But Borg won the tie breaker to even the score at two sets apiece. It wasn't a tennis match, it was a roller-coaster ride. Laver was too tired to keep up the terrific pace in the fifth set and Borg won his way into the final round 7-6, 3-6, 5-7, 7-6, 6-2.

The match, full of drop shots, lobs, impossibly angled volleys and hard ground strokes hit to within inches of the baselines, backed up Lamar Hunt's claim that WCT had "finally come up with an outstanding surface, the best ever in indoor tennis." The carpet, made by Supreme Court in Rome, Ga., has a rough surface that slows down even hard-hit balls and gives the player without a cannonball serve a fairly good chance.

In the interview room, Laver gave due credit to Borg's splendid passing shots, griped a bit about line calls and then bade an unmawkish, dry-eyed farewell to WCT.

"No, I don't think I'll try it again," he said. "Very doubtful. I've had five good shots at it and enjoyed it immensely. It's been a great challenge...I don't go out with any sadness. I've enjoyed playing it all."

It wasn't exactly Lou Gehrig's farewell speech at Yankee Stadium (for one thing, Laver is playing this week in Las Vegas), but the reporters and assorted hangers-on at the press conference felt they had been in on a semihistoric occasion, maybe like Big Bill Tilden's last appearance at Forest Hills or Jimmy Connors' first obscene gesture. It was nice to have been among the 9,208 people who were there when Bjorn Borg on the way up passed Rod Laver on the way down—but not easily, not unchallenged.

"For sure it's my finest win," said Borg, the youngest man ever to make Dallas (he lost to John Newcombe in the final last year) and the youngest man ever to win the Italian and French championships.

Unfortunately, his finest win also drained him emotionally and physically and left him unable to put up a good fight against Ashe as he all but conceded the final games.

Borg has escaped the Swedish tax bite by moving with his parents to Monte Carlo, but there is no way he can escape the nipping of the Swedish press. Ashe, who played in the Green Group with Borg, reported that after Borg had been upset by a lesser-known countryman, a headline in one Swedish newspaper said: IS THIS THE END OF BJORN BORG?

The truth of the matter, of course, is that the end is not in sight for this tennis phenomenon. And the truth about Arthur Ashe is that he can win the big ones—the U.S. Open in '68, the Australian in '70, three Davis Cups and now the rich WCT singles. Sometimes nice guys finish first.