"This is a great player," Ashe told the crowd afterward. "And when he brushes up on his court manners, he'll be even better." Nastase had an answer even for that. First he looked puzzled, then he waved his $25,000 winner's check at the beaten American, and then he stuck it on his forehead.
Long before Nastase and Ashe came to grips with one another, there were nearly as many Australian bodies scattered around the borough of Queens as there were cans of Foster's Export Lager beer stocked inside the locker room especially to accommodate the Aussies. Ken Rosewall, John Newcombe and Rod Laver, who among them had been to Forest Hills finals nine times and won five championships, all were eliminated prior to the quarterfinals. With the exception of Ashe and Cliff Richey, so were all other members of Lamar Hunt's World Championship of Tennis outfit who were seeded at Forest Hills.
It wasn't that people they hadn't seen for a while and weren't used to playing were beating the WCT stars. It was their own lesser-known tour brethren who were knocking them off. Only Tiny Tom Okker of the WCT seeds was beaten by an outsider—young Roscoe Tanner of Stanford, who served 21 aces past the Dutchman. But the WCT favorites were happy to cop any other plea that came along. For instance: the grass was as awful as ever at Forest Hills, resulting in terribly funny bounces that never occur on the immaculate indoor carpets on tour. The best three-of-five set matches were a punishing adjustment from the two of three to which they are accustomed. And, whoa, boy, what about this grotesque nine-point, sudden-death tiebreaker, when what they are all used to is a sedate best-of-12, win-by-two pansy of a tiebreak?
"All of us are under the most pressure, coming in here and being expected to win," said Ashe, speaking for WCT. "But we aren't used to the five-setters, most of our guys aren't physically in shape and we haven't been on grass in a year. The grass here actually looks funny to me."
"What these guys forget," Tom Gorman, an independent pro, said in rebuttal, "is that except for Wimbledon, we haven't seen grass either. They could have prepared the week before at Merion or Orange."
Criticism of the grounds, however, paled before the oral onslaught unleashed by the players upon the tiebreak system. In the players' defense, it is painful for anyone's fate to be determined by a bad bounce in sudden death, especially when a $160,000 purse is at stake. Still, as Tournament Director Billy Talbert pointed out, the system puts a "finish line" on a match, and it is the most exciting breakthrough for spectators since Joan Kennedy took up the game.
Rosewall, Newcombe and Laver all lost two sudden-death tiebreakers to hasten their exit. Laver's upset to Richey may have contained the most surprise, if only because it meant that since the Rocket won his second Grand Slam in 1969 he has not only failed to win eiter Forest Hills or Wimbledon but has been eliminated in the quarters or earlier in both tournaments (four losses, two no-shows). This time Laver won the first set against Richey, but at age 34 and with his aching back (supported by a brace) proving too much of a handicap, he then dropped the next three straight.
A lesser man would have defaulted, for Laver could hardly walk that night. "I tried to stretch out a few times," he said, "but I kept getting spasms."
Laver and Richey actually had been playing for the right to meet Frew McMillan, a South African who wears a Ben Hogan cap and hits everything with two hands. But that's the kind of Open it was. By this time practically everybody who was anybody had departed the lower half of the draw, and attention was focused on the meeting between Smith and Ashe.
Burdened with Davis Cup responsibilities, Smith, the defending champion, had not played a tournament since his victory at Wimbledon, and he looked ragged in the early rounds. Against his good friend Ashe, whose game is nearly a mirror of his own, he simply was not ready. For all purposes, it was over early when, after saving one set point to reach 6-6, Ashe went to serve in the tiebreak, behind 2-4. Here was Smith, one of the few players who likes sudden death, with three set points going for him and in wonderful position. Yet on all three of Ashe's serves to his backhand, the tall Army corporal failed to put the ball in play. He lost the tiebreak 4-5, the set 6-7 and his title 6-7, 4-6, 5-7, double-faulting on match point.