A Davis Cup Challenge Round without Australia would seem as improbable as a Jacqueline Susann novel about cooking, yet when the U.S. defends the cup in September, the Australians will not be there. Captain Harry Hopman's team, which had participated in every Davis Cup final since 1937 and which had won the cup 16 times during that stretch, was "beaten a fortnight ago in the first round by Mexico—that is, by Rafael Osuna with a little help. That left the U.S. trying to guess who's coming to Cleveland for the 1969 Challenge Round.
A record 51 nations entered this year's play to determine a challenger for the Americans. Even South Vietnam was in there, beating South Korea before losing to Japan. Now there are only 11 teams remaining—Mexico, Spain, Russia, Chile, Brazil, Great Britain, West Germany, Rumania, Italy, India and South Africa.
Of these, the most interesting team is Russia, and it is the Russians that U.S. Cup Captain Donald Dell would most like to see make it. "A U.S.- Russia final would be marvelous for tennis," says Dell. "It would focus worldwide attention on the sport."
Russia, feeling confident enough in its tennis to try the international swirl in 1962, has improved steadily since a 5-0 first round bumping by The Netherlands that year. Alex Metreveli, Tomas Lejus and Sergei Likhachev have carried the U.S.S.R. into the semifinals of European Zone B against the declining Italians, to whom they lost 3-2 at the same stage last year. Metreveli, a strong, aggressive 24-year-old, gained his first substantial mention in 1968 by bumping off an old czar named Pancho Gonzalez at Wimbledon. Gonzalez had never heard of Metreveli, but the elated Russian had heard of Pancho. "In Russia, Gonzalez is the one tennis name everybody knows," he said.
The Russians, in the European style, prefer slow clay, but Metreveli showed at Wimbledon that he could adapt to a faster surface—grass. Lejus, a 27-year-old blond who holds the Russian singles title, is perhaps the first Soviet athlete to be permitted to travel abroad unescorted. He toured Australia last winter to refine his fast-court game on grass. By the conclusion of the circuit he was playing very well, beating Aussie Cupper Ray Ruffels and losing at 7-5 in the fifth set to the king, Rod Laver, in the New Zealand Open. Likhachev serves as doubles partner to Metreveli.
Politics has done more to win matches for South Africa than its strong team of Australian transplant Bob Hewitt and Frew McMillan and Bob Maud. Both Poland and Czechoslovakia, protesting apartheid, refused to meet the South Africans. Resulting defaults elevated South Africa to the final of European Zone A, to oppose either Britain or West Germany.
Now American tennis officials are beginning to worry. "It could be a big problem if the South Africans got through to the final," concedes W. Harcourt Woods, chairman of the U.S. Davis Cup committee. Woods and others can envision picketing—and worse—in Cleveland, with its large black population and a black mayor, Carl Stokes. Stokes would hardly throw out the first ball, as he did last year for the Interzone match between the U.S. and Spain. There might be pressure on Arthur Ashe to withdraw. He nearly did at the start of the 1968 campaign, as a form of personal protest against South Africa's inclusion in the tournament.
However, Spain, with its M boys—Manolo Santana and Manolo Orantes—is expected to take the U.S. off that hook. The 31-year-old Santana, entitled to be addressed as Ilustrisimo after being decorated by Generalissimo Franco, continues as an illustrious force in the short-series cup format. At his proudest and most potent when playing for the homeland, Santana is in his 12th season and twice—1965-67—carried Spain to the final, beating Roy Emerson and John Newcombe in the 4-1 defeats by Australia. A 20-year-old lefthander on the rise, Orantes is a sharp accomplice.
Despite its victory over Australia, Mexico does not look quite strong enough to make it to the final. One cannot, of course, ever rule out the talents of the 30-year-old Osuna, a captivating blend of cheetah and gazelle. Osuna's golden years were 1962-63. He and Antonio Palafox beat the U.S. in 1962 and took Mexico to Australia for its only cup final. The next year Rafe won the national singles at Forest Hills. Five times since then Osuna has announced his retirement, but this year he could not resist the call of country. "If we were ever going to beat Australia, this was it," said Rafe. "I had to play again."
Now Mexico, to win the American Zone, must get past the winner of this weekend's Chile- Brazil encounter—most likely Brazil, whose Tom Koch and Edison Mandarino sabotaged the U.S. in 1966. The Mexico- Brazil match should be close, but Brazil is given a slight edge, since the matches probably will be played there.