SI Vault
Frank Deford
August 30, 1965
The Spaniards were magnificent, the crowds understandably noisy and Dennis Ralston a nervous wreck. When he lost the U.S. team crashed with him at the colorful Davis Cup matches in Barcelona
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August 30, 1965

The Rain In Spain Was Cushions

The Spaniards were magnificent, the crowds understandably noisy and Dennis Ralston a nervous wreck. When he lost the U.S. team crashed with him at the colorful Davis Cup matches in Barcelona

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The face of Spain, as seen in the textbooks and on postcards, is often embodied in the stark view of the glistening basilica that sits atop Mt. Tibidabo. Both church and mountain are clearly visible from the Real Club de Tenis Barcelona and it was in this majestic and surpassingly Spanish setting last week that the U.S. Davis Cup hopes for this year died. The death rattle was accompanied by a waving of handkerchiefs, a raising of ol�s and a hurling of seat cushions—all phenomena you would not expect at Forest Hills but which are understandable in a land that loves bullfights and soccer and has fewer tennis players than there are courts in the U.S.

Spain was playing in its first Davis Cup Interzone Tie and, further, it had two remarkable heroes. First it was young Juan Gisbert, who rose to the occasion when Dennis Ralston suffered another of his fits of Davis Cup fright. And then there was Manolo Santana, in both singles and doubles, who settled the issue. Cavorting on a surface that was approximately the color and texture of jellied madrilene, Santana showed again that he is the best clay-court player in the world and that he possesses all the prime qualities of the complete athlete—ability, courage, competitiveness and sportsmanship. He exhibited them in abundance during the 4-1 rout of the Americans in Barcelona.

Please, no anguished clarion calls for a reexamination of U.S. tennis. The result was as fair as it was decisive. The Davis Cup is no longer the province of three or four nations. "It is a much bigger thing now," says Pancho Gonzalez, the U.S. coach. "For the first time many of these small countries have a chance, and they work hard at it." Below Australia, which stands alone as a tennis power and is certain to retain the cup, there is another level of competence where six or seven countries are closely bunched in Davis Cup talent. Which of these countries can beat the others depends mostly on whose courts and before whose crowds the matches are played. So the Americans better get used to the effusive crowds of the Emerging Tennis Nations, because they are going to see plenty of them.

The Spanish crowd tried, it really did, but its charming conscientiousness added to the din rather than detracted from it. Those spectators who had seen a match before or who had been so good as to read the "forma correcta" instructions that were slipped into the program felt impelled to devote considerable time to policing the less restrained element. This they did with "shs" so loud they could be heard above the improper cheers. "Shs" embellished with a Spanish lisp are every bit as menacing as boos, hisses or any of the other historically approved methods of noisy disapprobation.

But if the crowds seemed noisy at first, it became obvious later on that they had been behaving with considerable restraint. The scene that transpired when the verdict was clinched with a victory in the doubles for a 3-0 lead was something straight out of your neighborhood bullring. Santana and his partner. Lis Arilla, were hoisted on willing shoulders and carried about like matadors. Cushions, flung high and long, glided to rest on the court in a gay litter. Ball boys scooped them together and rolled on them, tumbling in an aimless ecstasy. Then Jimmy Bartroli, the Spanish captain, got out the ball bags and started flinging tennis balls to the happy spectators. There may have been past receptions in Barcelona equal to this one—Columbus came back there after discovering America—but it is difficult to conceive of one surpassing it.

The people of Barcelona are a stubborn lot, still clinging to their Catalonian heritage. Madrid is a suspect place, where taxes go, never to return. But when it came time for Copa Davis, for what was probably the first direct encounter between the U.S. and Spain since San Juan Hill, all such provincial concerns disappeared. The papers were full of hardly anything else. Bigger-than-life posters of the players tilled Plaza de Catalu�a. Temporary stands had been erected to bring the capacity to 5,000, and all the tickets were sold early.

The preliminary excitement ended in despair, however, when at the draw, made under Franco's stern likeness, Ralston and Gisbert were selected for the first match. Bartroli had decided to use Gisbert only a few hours before, and his countrymen were nothing short of contemptuous of his chances. "Dennis will kill him," Santana said, dismissing the subject. One sports daily could hardly contain its sorrow. "Expectation and silence," read the account. "It was the innocent hand of the President of the Diputaci�n that drew the papers. The first name. Juan Gisbert! A murmur. The second. Dennis Ralston! A cry of sadness: 'Oh!' "

Ralston began against Gisbert the next day as if determined to confirm the worst of the local fears. He dashed through the first set 6-3 and gamboled off to a 4-1 lead in the second. And then, as if this lead had already decided the whole match, Ralston stopped applying pressure. "I feel the difference in him," Gisbert said later. "He stops coming to the net, and so I do. I fight him more, and I start winning and I see him thinking, 'Hey, how can I lose to thees guy?' " Startlingly, Gisbert broke Ralston's serve seven straight times and eight out of nine to win the second set 8-6, the third 6-1 and the last 6-3. The U.S. was finished before it had begun.

To win, the Americans knew they had to take the first point, the sure one. Then there were hopes of two more points with a victory in the doubles and in Gisbert's second match, against Frank Froehling. Going for the U.S. team was its superb physical condition. There was also hope that, should it go down to the fifth match, Ralston could beat a tired Santana, who was also known to have an injured hand. As it was, Santana, who had breezed past Froehling 6-1, 6-4, 6-4 on the first day, played so strenuous a game in the magnificent doubles of the next day—he twice pushed his partner, Arilla, out of the way to take a shot on Arilla's side—that he aggravated his hand injury and it is doubtful he could have played his usual game against Ralston.

But the point was moot. The Spaniards had won the doubles and the cup series, and on the final day Gisbert beat Froehling. Both the doubles and Gisbert's second win were achieved in five sets. Had Ralston taken his opener, the results might have been reversed by a more inspired American squad. When Santana asked to be excused from the last match, American Captain George MacCall agreed, convinced that Santana's injury was painful and legitimate.

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