When night finally settled last Saturday on the 12th and final day of the first open Wimbledon tennis championships, three significant conclusions could be drawn. First, Rodney George Laver, 29, of Newport Beach, Calif. via Rockhampton, Australia, and Billie Jean Moffit King, 24, of Berkeley, Calif. via Long Beach, are two of the finest players in the history of the game. Second, a lot of folks who thought the tournament was going to be a cakewalk for the professionals wound up hiding under the stands. Finally, if the U.S. doesn't win the Davis Cup this year it never will.
In brief, Wimbledon '68 was a wonderful, revolutionary tennis tournament. There were touches of pathos and touches of humor, and there was just the right amount of nostalgia. Six former men's champions were entered: Lew Hoad (1956, '57), Alex Olmedo ('59), Laver ('61, '62), Roy Emerson ('64, '65), Manuel Santana ('66) and John Newcombe ('67). There would have been a seventh if Frank Sedgman ('52) hadn't picked up a classic tennis elbow trying to work himself into shape for the event. Three former women's champions also were on hand: Margaret Smith Court (1963, '65), Maria Bueno ('59, '60, '64) and Mrs. King ('66, '67).
Even the weather, which was horrible, could not destroy the Wimbledon magic. The first five days were played in a constant, cold, blustery downpour. The resulting delays jammed up the second week with extra matches, and cost Wimbledon 23,000 fans. The first round of men's singles took four days to play instead of the allotted one. Then, on the second Monday, red Sahara sand that had been sucked into the atmosphere by a freak wind got deposited on England by a freak wind. Finally, a heat wave (93� in London, 104� on center court) took over for a day before the weather leveled off and allowed things to get finished on time.
Taking the three conclusions in reverse order, the U.S. Davis Cup chances look better than good, mainly because Clark Graebner and Arthur Ashe are playing the best tennis of their lives. Ashe and Graebner, who never before had made it past the fourth round, both turned in a pair of stunning upsets, at least by recent U.S. standards, and made it to the semifinals. "The fourth round this year was supposed to be the promised land," Graebner said. "This has got to mean something." Graebner defeated Santana and Fred Stolle in straight sets, while Ashe put out the defending champion, Newcombe, and Tom Okker of the Netherlands, who was named before the tournament as the most likely to succeed among the amateurs. And if Graebner and Ashe were not enough Charlie Pasarell, who is, after all, the top-ranking player in the country, also looked impressive in losing to Ken Rosewall in five sets.
For the first time since 1950 Wimbledon seeded 16 men, which was a tribute both to the depth and strength of the field and to the confusion brought on by the fact that there are now essentially three groups of tennis players who rarely compete against each other: the amateurs and two sets of pros, the George MacCall group and the so-called "handsome eight." As Pasarell said, "There were at least 30 players who could have been seeded." Of the 16 who were, only Ashe, Santana and Okker were amateurs. But as the tournament slowly moved ahead, it became evident that the pros did not deserve such lofty consideration. For example, Niki Pilic of Yugoslavia, seeded 16th, was defeated by Herb FitzGibbon of Garden City, N.Y. in the first round. In the third round, in quick succession, Hoad (No. 7) lost to Bob Hewitt, an Australian living in South Africa; Pancho Gonzalez (No. 8) lost to Alex Metreveli, a 23-year-old Russian; Andres Gimeno (No. 3) lost to Ray Moore, a bearded, longhaired South African; and Cliff Drysdale (No. 14) lost to Tom Edlefsen, an American who is unranked because he fought total paralysis from a hospital bed for five months last year.
The fourth round was even worse for the pros. Okker defeated Roy Emerson (No. 5), Ashe defeated Newcombe (No. 4) and Graebner defeated Stolle (No. 11). Of course, Wimbledon loves its upsets, and the crowds took to all of this with great glee. The happiest fellow around was Harry Hopman, the crusty former Aussie Davis Cup captain who has developed at least 20 world-class players only to see them desert the amateur ranks and play for—ugh—money. Said Hopman, "Maybe now the people will come out and see the bloody amateurs play again."
There were many excuses offered on behalf of, and by, the faltering pros. Some were valid, some a bit ragged on logic. On the pro tour, play is nearly always indoors, best-of-three sets, a series of one-night stands in which the overall record is more important than winning or losing a particular match. Wimbledon, of course, is best-of-five, and the amateurs who play the world circuit are tournament-tough and know what it's like to play key matches in important championships week after week. As Gonzalez said, after last month's French Open, " Paris renewed my respect for tournament tennis. I've got to get conditioned to it again."
Wimbledon nerves affected nearly all the professionals. The pros usually said, "It's great to be back but I'll be glad when it's over," and the amateurs who beat pros usually said, "I had everything to gain and nothing to lose." Perhaps, but the biggest reason for the upsets was that they weren't really upsets. Of the full-time touring professionals who were seeded, only four—Laver, Rosewall, Gimeno and Butch Buchholz—were not amateurs two years ago. Some, like Stolle and Emerson, never were superplayers, and others, like Drysdale and Pilic, turned pro long before their peak. The amateurs who beat them are good and are looking for a piece of the action. In fact, it could be argued that there was really only one major upset in the entire two weeks: Ray Moore's five-set victory over Andres Gimeno, and all Moore got for that was a letter from a South African tennis official suggesting strongly that he get his hair cut if he wished to play Davis Cup.
And so, after all the tumult and shouting of the first four rounds, the quarterfinals paired Laver against Ralston, Ashe against Okker, Graebner against Moore and Buchholz against Tony Roche, who had put out Ken Rosewall in straight sets. Four Americans in the round of eight, four amateurs in the round of eight. Ralston, as it turned out, gave Laver his toughest match of the tournament, extending him to five sets. Ashe and Graebner won without too much difficulty, and Roche defeated Buchholz, who played with a pulled groin muscle he had suffered the week before Wimbledon.
The semifinals put Laver against Ashe and Roche against Graebner—two right-handed American amateurs with booming services and very little touch to back them up against two left-handed Australian pros with good services and nearly everything else to support them.