Everyone in tennis knows that Great Britain can no longer count on Fred Perry's forehand, that the British only own Wimbledon, they certainly don't win it anymore. But there the British were last week, at home on the No. 1 court at Wimbledon with only Rumania to beat to advance to the Challenge Round for the first time since 1937. Rumania? Rumania—that neat little place Richard Nixon visits to draw crowds? Britain might no longer be a competitive tennis power, but Rumania—the same as every other Communist country—had never before even reached the Interzone finals, much less the Challenge Round, much less Cleveland, Ohio, 44101.
When the United States defends the Davis Cup in Cleveland next month, though, it will be Rumania and not Great Britain across the net. Of course, in a way that is in keeping with what has been perhaps the most bewildering Davis Cup in years, one shaped by strange, bitter, even sad, circumstances.
The tennis politicians, for instance, effectively eliminated several countries from the outset by continuing the ban on all contract pros. Mexico knocked Australia out of the running, then lost all chance itself when its beloved Rafael Osuna was killed in a plane crash. An injury to Manuel Santana ruined Spain's hopes and the favorite-South Africa—was certainly helped to defeat by a series of flour bombings by British demonstrators while the Africans were trying to contend with the British players at Bristol.
The British were not really expected to get even to that point in what was supposed to have been a transitional year. Mark Cox, 26, was starting only his second full season of Davis Cup play, and Graham Stilwell and Peter Curtis, both 23, their first. But after easily moving past Switzerland and Ireland as expected, Great Britain won three tension-filled 3-2 ties in the space of six weeks, upsetting West Germany, South Africa and then Brazil as Stilwell conquered the favored Thomas Koch in straight sets.
Cox is the left-handed Cambridge graduate who burst upon the scene last year, when he became the first amateur to beat the pros in an open tournament. Stilwell, a more relaxed and natural player than his teammate, is a former bad boy of British tennis. More has been done for him financially by the Lawn Tennis Association than for any player in its history. For four years, though, the LTA has received little back in return. Now his reformation has brought Stilwell sweet vindication and a reputation as the most improved player in the world.
Together with Curtis, Cox and Stilwell also captured the imagination of the British public and in the Interzone final they would be playing again at home on the surface they like best—grass—against a Rumanian pair who were basically hard-court exponents. The British were heavily favored. 'To be quite objective about it, it's bloody ludicrous for us to be playing our fifth straight tie at home on grass," said Owen Davidson, the former Australian Davis Cupper who, in his second year as coach of the British team, is credited with much of its recent success. "But you know," he smiled, "we'll take it."
The Rumanian team of Ion Tiriac and Ilie Nastase, the one an international ice hockey player and karate expert (Tirry Baby), the other a romanticist and rock music fan (Nasty), had come through a much easier draw to Wimbledon, having beaten Egypt, Israel. Spain (without Santana), Russia and India. As a doubles team, the two had accumulated wide experience in international competition, but their lack of practice on grass figured to hurt them in the singles. Moreover, Rumanian Captain George Cobzuc left himself open for some second-guessing when he had his team play in the German Open on Hamburg clay courts the week before the final tie, instead of practicing on grass.
"So," countered Tiriac, a swarthy curly-haired veteran of 30 who glowers a lot and whose facial contortions are not unlike those of Actor Gabe Dell when he impersonates Count Dracula. "It is better to play against the best players in the world than to sit around looking at the grass."
Nastase, a lieutenant in the Rumanian army, broke in. "This grass, it is very good...for football," he laughed. "Ahhh, but we are strong." The flamboyant 23-year-old Nastase is a perfect foil to his serious, brooding teammate. Last year he ended Tiriac's eight-year reign as Rumanian champion before making a tour of the Caribbean circuit and playing in five tournaments in the United States. In London, Nasty pranced around in trim corduroy pants and buckle shoes, playing his portable tapes of Jimi Hendrix and The Bee Gees and denying that he ever was, as the British press insisted upon calling him, "a former shepherd boy."
"I am not ever a shepherd, just my father has sheep. I not even like sheep," he said. "I like Bee Gees. I like college girls."