As the time for Forest Hills nears, there is a growing feeling that the best hope for a U.S. victory rests not with Arthur Ashe (who was the last U.S. player to win, in 1968), or Stan Smith or Cliff Richcy or Clark Graebner, but with a bowlegged, 29-year-old ex-basketball player named Marty Riessen.
While Riessen is not really what one could call an unknown, he docs have some remarkably hazy credentials. For example, he was never ranked better than fifth as an amateur and he was never once trusted with an important Davis Cup assignment. He has spent most of his career as nothing more than what he calls "a good quarterfinalist." Still, if any American seems to have a chance of beating John Newcombe, it would by Marty Riessen.
If it is too much for one to accept that Riessen is tops on the U.S. list, one surely will shudder further to learn that Forest Hills—which begins Sept. 1—is no longer the premier event in the nation. There were as many top players at Fort Worth last week, in just a routine World Championship of Tennis tournament, as there will be for the U.S. Open. And what happened at Fort Worth? Well, a guy named Rod Laver, who had not won a tournament in three months, upset Marty Riessen in the finals 2-6, 6-4, 3-6, 7-5, 6-3.
For the competitors the genuine championship in this country will not be decided on the playing fields of Forest Hills but rather on the temporary courts of Madison Square Garden, where the WCT playoff finals are scheduled Nov. 26.
Part of the reason for the Open's devaluation is the fact that many of the best WCT players are skipping Forest Hills. There is nothing political in their actions. It is simply that the Open means playing two weeks on bad grass for a relatively small amount of prize money that must be split with women players and New York cabdrivers. Besides, since Forest Hills falls between open dates on the WCT schedule, a player who passes up the Open can put together a full month of vacation and come back well-rested for the tour's final six point tournaments and the playoffs.
"The whole thing is the points," Riessen says. "They have saved it for me and changed everything. You don't even hear guys talking money anymore. Everybody talks points."
The WCT system is simple enough: for each of its 20 tournaments, the champion earns 10 points, the runner-up seven, on down to one point for winning a first-round match. At the end of the year the top eight pointmen qualify for the $100,000 playoffs, and throughout the year seedings are based strictly on points. Reputation, gate appeal or the size of a guarantee don't count here. Rod Laver was seeded fourth in WCT because Rod Laver was fourth in points.
Riessen is now seventh in the standings and almost guaranteed a playoff spot. "If it weren't for the points, I would never be seeded," he says. "A guy is not supposed to get better at 29 or 30, so people like Emerson and Gimeno with their old reputations would still be ahead of me."
Before Lamar Hunt put his mobile Babel on the road, tennis was a world that honored certain special spheres of influence. Only occasionally would the best players from various sections of the globe have to face off against each other. The talent was spread thin, which was fine for the players at the top, who never faced a tough opponent until the quarterfinals, and the money also was spread thin—and under the table—which was dandy for the promoters. As late as 1967 a player like Riessen had to scuffle for $300 a week. So far in 1971 he has made $50,000 and he has a good chance to reach $75,000.
Riessen is seeded sixth, third among Americans, at Forest Hills. Arthur Ashe is just ahead of him in WCT points, but since Riessen knocked him out of Wimbledon, Ashe has failed to last past the quarterfinals in six straight tournaments. Riessen's other U.S. competitor is the Wimbledon runner-up, Private Stan Smith. The two have not met this year, but Marty took him the last time they faced each other last fall.