Last weekend at Forest Hills the man who was primarily responsible for America's dramatic capture of the Davis Cup in 1958 all but lobbed it right back. It was frustrating. If he had been at the top of his form, the challenge round would not have been close. In the U.S. tennis fans sighed as they realized what had happened: Alex Olmedo was simply behaving like Alex Olmedo. It had happened before. It would happen again.
There is nothing else quite like Olmedo in the formful world of tennis. He is the world's best amateur tennis player one day. And he is plain run-of-the-mill the next.
It is New Year's Eve, 1958, in the steeply banked Milton tennis stadium at Brisbane, Australia, and the capacity crowd falls sickly silent. The Davis Cup is hanging in the balance. Nervous and haggard, the Australian Ashley Cooper, behind two sets to one in the match, 7-6 in the set and 40-love in the game, waits for the match-point serve. Across the net the poker-faced Peruvian with the black-spike hair flashes his racket like a machete in the air and the ball hurtles in. Desperate, Cooper leaps at it, slashes, hits the ball out of court, and the Davis Cup goes over to the U.S. Cooper's opponent dances a brief war dance, flings his racket in the air and bursts into tears. It is Alex Olmedo's finest hour.
Now it is May 1959, brief months later, in the cool breezes of San Francisco. Alex Olmedo, the one-man Davis Cup team, is playing a California second-rater named Clif Mayne in the semifinals of the state tournament. Onlookers cannot believe their eyes. Olmedo leaves the base line only six times in three sets as Mayne, who would have to pay to see a Davis Cup match, eliminates him 6-3, 6-1, 6-0. Hisses fill the clubhouse. "Olmedo fouled out!" a sportswriter exclaims incredulously.
Now it is July 1959, at Wimbledon. Olmedo is crushing the Aussie, Rod Laver, in the finals of the world's foremost tournament. The scores are devastating, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4. Laver looks dazed as he walks off the court. Alex Olmedo is presented Wimbledon's Challenge Cup by the Duchess of Kent. Once again he is the toast of tennis.
Now it is two weeks later. Olmedo is playing not before royalty but before shirtsleeved fans at the National Clay Court championship at River Forest near Chicago. His opponent is not a high-ranking Australian but a nondescript South African, Abe Segal. Olmedo shows less interest in the match than in the birds flying overhead; in fact, he spends a good part of the time watching a pair of pretty girls playing a match one court away. He loses 6-2, 6-1, 6-0 in a torrent of boos. Even Opponent Segal grows exasperated, shouts at him, "Start playing tennis." Olmedo's eyes merely glitter as he insolently double-faults, refuses to play reachable shots and turns his back on his opponent's pleas. He is promptly disqualified from even playing out the doubles in the tourney, and a Chicago paper the next day congratulates the officials for "the prompt manner in which they tossed Alex Olmedo out on his ego." The paper also requests that the officials "cut off his expense account," and a columnist adds that "while on the subject...I've been wondering along with some millions of others just why it was necessary to go to a foreign country to pick a player to represent the U.S. in Davis Cup competition."
WHO IS ALEX?
The question, of course, is begged: Which is the real Alex Olmedo? The dissident, resentful, balky young Incan who would spitefully lose to a public-parks player? Or the savage slasher of Brisbane and Wimbledon who can put away the world's best in straight sets?
It is probable that neither and both is the real Alex Olmedo. For the young Peruvian who, in the words of one cynic, has become "the U.S.'s most embarrassing foreign entanglement since Tito," is, in the words of a kinder critic, "a guy who wouldn't swat a fly but who would tackle a tiger with his bare hands."
To be sure, as his good friend Myron MacNamara puts it, "He needs an element of self-preservation in the match for him to do his best. Alex will not beat anybody as a favor to the tournament committee."