SI Vault
George Plimpton
September 18, 1967
Tennis history (well, maybe) was not made at Forest Hills this year but rather at Southampton and Newport, where wilted heroes played sets of 48-46 and 49-47 respectively
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September 18, 1967

What The Deuce Is Going On?

Tennis history (well, maybe) was not made at Forest Hills this year but rather at Southampton and Newport, where wilted heroes played sets of 48-46 and 49-47 respectively

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Blanchard asked what was going on; the players clustered around and told him, shaking their heads, confiding their difficulties to him as if blurting out symptoms to a sympathetic doctor.

Blanchard suggested that two more games be played; if there was no conclusive result he would schedule the match to be continued the next morning on another court. His appearance and the ultimatum proved such a break that before everyone could settle back in the steady routine of the match Mozur had won his serve and had gone on with his partner, Schloss, to break the opposition's.

At match point Schloss hit a great forcing backhand out of The Trench (the first good shot he could remember from that area) and the match was done—its finish so sudden that none of the participants could quite believe it. "We stood around blinking like we weren't used to the light," Seewagen said, "like lifting a hutch cover off a bunch of rabbits."

The notion that the poor condition of the court was solely responsible for the long scores—that the match was thus a fluke—lasted only about a week. Because at Newport in the Hall of Fame tournament, the next stop on the tour, another marathon doubles match was played, the record match most likely, all the more astonishing because it was played on the Newport Casino's fine center court, which hasn't a mar on its surface, under the eye of an umpire up in his chair with his full complement of linesmen and foot-fault watchers at hand, and in front of witnesses, some banked in the old green stands that flank one side of the court and others, old Newport names, sitting in the field boxes under the green-and-white awnings and the great beach parasols that turn and creak in the breeze. The match lasted for two days—called for darkness after four hours of play on the first day, and going on for more than two hours on the second—an official total of six hours and 10 minutes of playing time. The scores were 3-6, 49-47, 22-20, a total of 147 games—the equivalent of playing more than fourteen average 6-4 sets.

Who should one pair of the participants be but the team of Lenny Schloss and Tom Mozur once again (who had gone on from their Seewagen-Bovett match to lose the three-set final at Southampton 6-3, 6-4, 21-19). Their opponents in the Newport draw were Dick Dell, who is on the University of Michigan tennis team (the brother of Don Dell from Yale, a ranking player a few years ago), and Dick Leach, a young high-school teacher who is this year's captain and coach of the Junior Davis Cup team.

As the second set went on, an interested and increasingly scornful spectator under the field-box awnings was James Van Alen, the peppery president of the Newport Casino and the inventor of VASSS (the Van Alen Special Scoring System), which scores much like table tennis. The most commonly played variant of his system scores to a 31-point limit, which naturally does away with marathon tennis matches, so often the bane of tournament directors who must worry about scheduling. "Absolutely embarrassing and ridiculous," Mr. Van Alen was saying. "That's nonsense out there, just nonsense."

He took it almost as a personal affront when suddenly, about 7 o'clock in the evening, the foursome ran out of tennis balls. The umpire called, "New balls, please!" The ball boys looked around, and there weren't any to be had. The closet in the Casino where the tennis balls were kept turned out to be locked and the girl-in-charge had gone home with the key. " Van Alen," someone said, "what sort of a tournament are you running here where the players don't have tennis balls to play with?" Van Alen sputtered and hopped about. "Well, you tell me," he said, "what sort of a match it is where you have to use more than two dozen balls to find out who plays better tennis." Out on the court the umpire fidgeted on his perch and was about to call a 10-minute recess for procuring new balls (it was planned to break into a nearby sporting-goods store) when two new ones were discovered under his chair. The match was continued with these until eventually a new box of balls was turned up. At 7:30 in the evening, with the score 35-all, Mike Blanchard stepped wearily forward and announced over the public-address system that the match would be suspended because of darkness. He said that it would take up at the same point the next day. He started to say "at one o'clock," which is the starting time for the Casino morning matches, but he found himself saying "noon"—a most prescient change of mind, as it turned out.

The news of the long match went the rounds that evening. It was the talk of the Van Alen dinner for the tennis players, at which, as he does annually, the host recited a long poem that in part extolled the virtues of his VASSS scoring system. The four players in the marathon left immediately after the dinner (and before the poem) to get as much sleep as they could in their barrackslike quarters in the Casino.

A large crowd awaited them around the center court the next morning—many of them curiosity-seekers hoping that the match would somehow prove a stalemate. The latter did some hefty groaning in the first moments of play when in the third game Dell had his service broken and it seemed as if the match would be over after only four games of play on the second day. But in a not untypical example of seesawing before a match gets down to its rhythm, Leach and Dell broke right back, and the match was, to the delight of the spectators, back on even terms. It moved right along, service win after service win.

As the match continued, back in the stands under the awnings a group of Australian players fed $1 each into a pool—the winnings to go to the holder of the name of whichever player finally lost his service. On the rare occasions when the server would be down a point or two, the Australians would stir and voice loud chagrin or relief as the server would finally pull out the game.

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