From the same hardy New England folks who gave us maple syrup, granite and the empty Senate seat came a nifty little tennis tournament that should be painted in watercolor and preserved on a postcard.
Rod Laver called it "just a little country hit." Ken Rosewall commuted to it in a twin-engine airplane. And Jimmy Connors and Ilie Nastase shared a condominium cabin in the woods while growing mustaches and dazzling the neighborhood laundromat.
Called the Volvo International and played at the brand-new Mount Cranmore Tennis and Recreation Club, which is nestled in the breathtaking hills of New Hampshire, it is just another stop on the Commercial Union Grand Prix summer circuit. But last week, as one weaved through the scores of Swedish sponsor cars honking along the quaint streets of North Conway, it became obvious that the Volvo International was something very special.
The town is a bit of Gstaad and Kitzb√ºhel and H√§nsel and Gretel all rolled into one. The site was a just-completed 8,200-seat stadium bulldozed out of the south slope of Mount Cranmore, whose bleacher seats had no sooner been hammered in the day before the tournament than hang-gliders and turf skiers and freshly planted gardens and six ducks in a pond appeared over the horizon. The world's only sit-down tramway skimobile was a few yards away from court-side, and the players relaxed in the shade of a skiers' first-aid station.
The whole unique scene, in fact, threatened to overshadow what was happening on the slow European-style red clay courts. Until the weekend. Then the rain stopped, the sun came out and a dream of a draw produced a set of bloodcurdling rematches the likes of which network television honchos and multimillionaire Las Vegas entrepreneurs would have given their safari jackets for.
These turned out to be Connors vs. Laver in a summer rerun of that old TV game-show favorite Greed and Loathing at the Challenge Match, and Rosewall vs. Nastase in another installment of the April Battle of Tucson, in which the Rumanian pulled off perhaps his finest heist in a lifetime of unsportsmanlike artistry.
When Connors and Rosewall emerged from this state of affairs—Connors winning 6-4, 6-4, Rosewall surviving every form of trickery and weaponry from Nastase short of a machine gun to win 7-5, 1-6, 7-6—North Conway had itself a replay of the 1974 Wimbledon and Forest Hills finals.
The supposition was that the mucky pudding of a surface would enhance the sly chipping artistry of Rosewall and enable him to avenge those debacles in which he won but eight games in six sets against Connors. But on Sunday Connors proved he was a Red Dirt Cowboy on the slow stuff as well as Captain Fantastic on grass. He never let Rosewall up, and won 6-2, 6-2.
The first set was easy, and the second set even easier as Connors gave up only one point in four service games. That one came in the last game and saved Rosewall a match point, but on the next rally he flipped a backhand into the net and the slaughter was over.
Connors' youth still is a major factor in his confrontations with representatives of the Australian Antique Show. At 22 he is 18 years younger than Rosewall, and after his semifinal victory over an obviously off-form Laver, both men dwelt on the miseries of age.
"You may get old one day, and find out what it's like," said Laver, who had hoped to celebrate his 37th birthday that very afternoon with a victory party.
"I already have," said Connors. "The teen-agers keep coming after me."
Even with all the hoopla of the semis and finals, one could not overlook a youngster of whom Connors might have been speaking, 19-year-old Victor Pecci, the Big P from Paraguay. A 6'3" sloe-eyed unknown from Asunción, Pecci (say Petch-ee) knocked out all the se√±oritas in town and came this close to knocking out the glamour rematches before finally losing a 7-6, 2-6, 6-4 thriller to Connors in the quarterfinals. Serving from somewhere far above Mount Cranmore ("He's way up there, higher than anybody I've ever played," said Connors) and patiently cutting Jimbo up with sliced backhands and delicate drops, Pecci led Connors 5-2 in games, then 4-1 in the first-set tie break before losing it. After absolutely dominating Connors in the second set, Pecci got ahead a break in the third before finally realizing whom he was playing.
"He's in a different altitude than me," said Connors afterward. "I never should have won."
Pecci was elated despite the defeat. In his honor the huge multicolored hang-glider kites that kept dive-bombing the nearby hills were dubbed "Air Paraguay."
That is the type of tournament the Volvo International has become. It started in 1970 when Laver began his ultra-successful tennis camp at the old Mount Washington Hotel in Bretton Woods which, as they say, is up the road a piece. He staged a four-man event that year, and in 1972 Bretton Woods became famous for something other than a monetary conference when the WCT pros played there because they were banned from Wimbledon.
The next year, Volvo signed on as co-sponsor, the prize money jumped to $25,000 and everybody got terrific PR mileage when a then little-known Indian, Vijay Amritraj, withstood eight match points in three different matches (including victories over Laver and Connors) to take the title.
While Laver, currently regarded as New Hampshire's "home pro," won the Volvo last year, the Mount Washington Development Company, owners of the hotel, continued to lose money. Obviously a new site was needed to go along with the status of a now-$100,000 event, and several cities came begging, including Indianapolis, whose traditional National Clay Court title went head-to-head against the Volvo last week.
At the same time it don't rain in Indianapolis in the summertime, it don't snow in New Hampshire. The whole state moved in to save its little gem, and North Conway got it. More precisely, the Mount Washington Valley Chamber of Commerce in the person of David Ingemie got it.
While Governor Meldrim Thomson sent invitations to all the top pros Ingemie recruited volunteers to do everything from mixing the Volvo Volley (vodka, grapefruit juice and grenadine), to hanging geraniums attached to crossed tennis rackets from every telephone pole on Main Street. This charming touch was in keeping with a town whose enterprises include The Singing Scissors Sewing Center, Mr. Butcher and L'il Banana (a fruit stand).
Not to be outdone, Brothers II and Barnaby's, a pair of spirits establishments, brought in The Great Pretenders, masters of the ingenious craft of rock 'n' roll lip synching, and The Star Spangled Washboard Band, who wore clown masks and juggled tangerines.
"I just love this tournament," said Erik van Dillen one night at a lawn party outside the rambling white frame Eastern Slope Inn, which has an elevator with an iron gate. "It's so different from our every-week place."
And the town loved the players. Laver is a local boy now, having moved his tennis camp to nearby Waterville Valley. Rosewall kept flying in from his camp in Sugarbush, Vt. And finally Connors and Nastase, who seldom have been internationally ranked in punctuality, arrived in the middle of the week to set up the possibility of their long-awaited Vulgarity Final.
By that time the tournament was filling up those 8,200 seats every day until Saturday and Sunday, when overflow throngs watched from the straw-covered dirt hills surrounding the court.
"I hope there's no landslide," said Connors.
As it turned out, the only disaster was of Jimbo's own making. When it was over, Connors had wiped out yet another tournament field and was now champion of Forest Hills, Caesars Palace and North Conway, N.H.
Connors polished off the Australian Antique Show, Laver and Rosewall, en route to the title.
Scratched into the base of Mount Cranmore, the stadium gave 8,200 fans a place in the sun.