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Walter Bingham
September 21, 1970
There was a lot of talk about a lethal new tie-breaker rule at the U.S. Open tennis championships, but the real killer was Ken Rosewall, who beat fellow Australian Tony Roche in the finals
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September 21, 1970

Sudden Death At Forest Hills

There was a lot of talk about a lethal new tie-breaker rule at the U.S. Open tennis championships, but the real killer was Ken Rosewall, who beat fellow Australian Tony Roche in the finals

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Newcombe reached a commanding position at 3-3 with three serves coming up, but Arthur hit the first of them for a winner and was at set point. Then Ashe did what he does all too often, the thing that prevents him from being the best player in the world. Newcombe served, and Ashe hit the ball in the net. Newcombe served again, and again Ashe hit the ball into the net. Simple. Newcombe never had to hit a volley with match point against him, for Ashe never put the ball into play. Ashe hits as many great shots as anyone in the world, but he doesn't hit enough good ones. He won the third set, but Newcombe won another tie breaker in the fourth to close out the match.

So there it was. Three Aussies in the quarter-finals, three in the semis. Four Americans in the quarter-finals, one in the semis.

The destruction of the U.S. forces was completed two days later in the semifinals when Roche humiliated Richey in three sets, the last one 6-1. The other match was a gem, Rosewall gaining revenge for his loss in the Wimbledon final by giving Newcombe a lesson in the return of serve, as well as assorted other strokes.

In the finals Rosewall completed a remarkable tournament by beating Roche in four sets, again showing a younger, harder-hitting countryman that tennis can be an art and that sheer power can be stopped by a delicate touch. Rosewall had one desperate moment. At one set apiece he served at 5-6 in the third and three times allowed Roche to reach set point. Each time he saved himself. Winning the game to make it 6-6, he then crushed Roche in sudden death. Essentially, that was it. Rosewall broke Roche's first serve in the fourth set and quickly won 6-3. In seven matches he lost only two sets. When he won 14 years ago he lost four, which obviously proves he is twice as good as he was then.

Long after it is forgotten exactly which Australian did win at Forest Hills in 1970, it will be remembered that this was the first year of sudden death and sets with odd-looking scores of 7-6. What a success it turned out to be! As Ashe said following his second tie breaker with Newcombe: "When I went to serve at 2-4, you could have heard a pin drop. The silence was spooky."

What the nine-point tie break was designed to do was put an abrupt end to a set that might have continued—who knows how long? A score of 16-14 may look exciting in agate type, but any two clods with big serves and no strokes can produce a set like that. Sudden death cleared them off the court. Better yet, it provided the most exciting moments of the tournament. On center court, whenever a set reached 6-6, a large red flag was unfurled inside the stadium signaling a tie break was about to begin. Smaller red flags were used on the outside courts, so that wandering fans could hustle along the pathways to watch the crucial points.

The format was simple: Ashe, say, would serve two points, then Newcombe two. The players would change sides, Ashe would serve twice more, and finally Newcombe three. Ah, you might argue, an advantage for Newcombe, serving five times, but in practice the sudden-death sets seemed to split about even between those who served first and those who received. In one memorable example, when Nicki Pilic beat Pancho Gonzales, Pilic won two serves, Gonzales two, Pilic two more. Now Pancho had his three serves coming up, which looks good on paper, but on the court it was 2-4, triple set point against him. Under that pressure, Gonzales dumped his first volley in the net for the set, whereupon he hit the ball he would have used for his second serve out of the stadium.

There were other exciting sudden deaths. In an early ladies' match, Virginia Wade and Sharon Walsh, a promising California teen-ager, reached four points apiece. Since Miss Walsh had lost the first set, it was match point against her, set point against Miss Wade. A nervous rally developed, both girls afraid to go for a winner. Finally Miss Wade took the net, forcing Miss Walsh to try a passing shot. The result was a long, loopy shot which Miss Wade confidently let go, only to watch it fall like a dying duck on the baseline. Set to Miss Walsh.

The players, as a group, were leery of the new rule. Gonzales, an old dog, found it difficult to learn the new trick. "I use up more energy in a tie break than I do in a whole set," he said. "I may have a heart attack out there." Laver said he would prefer to play the 12-point sudden death in which a player must win by two points, reasoning that under the current system you can win every point you serve in an entire set and still lose.

In one form or another, sudden death is almost certain to be a part of tournament tennis from now on. It should be pointed out right here that the tie break is the creation of James Van Alen, the 68-year-old Newport millionaire, who for 12 years has been urging—no, badgering—tennis to modernize its scoring system. Surely you have heard of VASSS, the Van Alen Simplified Scoring System—one, two, three, as in table tennis. It is true that Jimmy can come on awfully strong when he starts in on the subject of updating the tennis scoring system to accommodate such things as television, but tennis needs to be hit over the head with a sledgehammer before it will change anything. Last year Van Alen finally got the USLTA to incorporate sudden death into its official rules, and this year, with the help of Bill Talbert, the tournament director, he convinced the USLTA to try sudden death at Forest Hills. As it became an instant success, there were signs last week that the USLTA would have you believe it thought up the system. For the record, it did not. Old Jimmy Van Alen did. Now if he's any good at all, he'll figure out a way for U.S. tennis players to beat the Aussies.

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