Riessen has always been a spoiler, an embarrassment no high-seeder wanted to draw in an early round. "Even when things were the worst for me," he says, "I always knew the others respected me. I knew the big names didn't want to have to play me." His career is a succession of mammoth upsets followed by thundering collapses. Even this year—after he beat Ashe at Wimbledon—Riessen promptly rolled over and played dead for one Oom Parun of New Zealand.
A few weeks after that Riessen beat Laver and Newcombe on successive days in Teheran and then won the tournament over the best young player (and the fastest server) on the tour, Australian John Alexander. This is his best sustained streak ever, and for all 1971 he holds six victories over Newcombe and Laver—three apiece—which accounts for 35% of their WCT defeats. Still, whenever Riessen wins a big one, everybody seems to assume that the opponent was off. Offering what amounts to the consensus, Ashe says, "Marty's so sound, he's always in shape, and he just works his tail off all the time. He can beat any player who isn't at his very best."
Riessen, the son of a teaching tennis pro, was a high school basketball scoring sensation and a skinny, 6'1" starting playmaker for three years at Northwestern. During that time—for seven years, 1961-67, altogether—he also was a perennial spare on the Davis Cup team.
While Riessen never got a chance, every captain wanted him around because he brought qualities of cooperation and team spirit that were seldom displayed by the individual heroes. For the same reasons Riessen has always been a valued doubles partner—first as a teen-ager with Chuck McKinley, then with Clark Graebner, now with his close friend, Tom Okker, the Dutch firefly. Okker and Riessen are now the top WCT doubles team.
Still, through most of the decade, Riessen could never advance his own personal cause and, with failing confidence, he drifted through the horse latitudes of the USLTA realm. At last, after he and Graebner blew a 6-0, 5-2 lead to lose the doubles to Ecuador in 1967, Riessen wanted out. He turned pro in 1968.
Riessen earned his master's degree at Northwestern by writing a thesis on what makes champions. He solicited the opinions of many coaches. "Maybe I was subconsciously looking for the answers to apply to myself," Riessen says. "You see, I think in typing me as the guy who never won the big match, people instilled that thought in me. And let's face it: I never did win the big match. When it got close near the end any good player would start to work on my forehand."
Improvements in his forehand and serve—which Riessen attributes to switching to a lighter racket—are part of the reason for his sudden success. But he also believes that he has found a new mental and physical maturity. Nevertheless, since his whole record is one of unpredictability, it is difficult to figure out how Riessen will fare in the Open. With Ashe far off form and Laver a late scratch, Newcombe becomes an even more solid choice. Especially if he is lucky enough to stay well clear of Riessen in the draw.