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Over bad grass, through sudden-death tiebreaks, for record amounts of devalued dollars came the U.S. Open, trying its best to present us with the elusive Mr. Tennis. What with all the best players in the world assembling for the first, last and only time in 1972, the West Side Tennis Club figured that Mr. Tennis surely must emerge from Forest Hills. Somebody who would win the tournament big, personally eliminating all the other elite, establishing himself as clearly dominant in the game. Somebody, say, like Mr. Golf, Jack Nicklaus, or Mr. Hockey, Valeri Kharlamov. That was what this Forest Hills was supposed to determine.
Instead, the 1972 Open went a long way toward proving just the opposite. It only seemed to offer more evidence that, along with the tennis "boom" everybody keeps raving about, there has developed a fascinating leveling process at the top of the game. Due to age, injury, changing surfaces, interchanging psyches, international politics, ecology, Vietnam and the layered look, there are—pick a number—maybe as many as a dozen men separated in ability only by a net cord. On any given day...? Perhaps not. But, as Forest Hills demonstrated, there is no Mr. Tennis.
What this gem of an Open did produce was the Australian Disappearing Trick, an overworked and straining Stan Smith, a couple of quarterfinalists named Frew and Roscoe and, finally, the championship of this strongest field in the universe fought out between a black man who represents the Doral Country Club and a Communist swinger from Bucharest. Tennis? Anyone.
For a long time, of course, the tournament looked like it belonged to Arthur Ashe, who had won the first Open in 1968 and not much since. Indeed, before all the upsets, he picked the winner as "either Laver, Smith or me." Bin if Forest Hills marked the resurrection of Ashe, even more did it signal the arrival of Ilie Nastase, the dark-eyed clown prince from Rumania whose magic at net and flair with a racket have usually bowed to the demons of his temperament. At Wimbledon in July he almost put it all together in a memorable final against Smith, however, and then last week he went all the way.
Seeming far out of it against Ashe, behind two sets to one and two games to four, he suddenly regained interest and composure and blew Ashe away, 3-6, 6-3, 6-7, 6-4, 6-3, to become the first Iron Curtain champion of America. "I am just winning my round and seeing what is happening," Nastase explained about his performance at the Open. Included in this repertoire, however, were scenes of the Rumanian hitting shots from behind his back, comically peering through the net, covering his eyes after impossible winners, drop-kicking tufts of grass and scrambling into the celebrities' seats for unnatural recoveries.
Most of the time Nastase was sheer joy to the eye, a laughing child, but in the third-set tiebreaker of the final match, he showed why he had earned the nickname of Nasty. Because he did not agree with a call, he threw a towel at linesman Jack Stahr. After losing the tiebreak 5-1, he served a winning game in the fourth set and then hit the ball at Stahr. Nastase was zealously booed when he changed sides.
Moments later, after Ashe had broken at love and served at love for a 3-1 lead and what looked like an easy victory, Nastase very quietly gave everybody the well-known international gesture that means all sorts of bad things. This done, his anger spent, the dashing new champion settled down and went to work.
From the beginning, Nastase had been outserving Ashe, firing his low "flat parabola," as Ashe called it, beating him at his own game. Then Ashe began volleying better and, in truth, he had only to hold service twice to run out the match. "When I have somebody 4-3 on grass," he was to say after the match, "I'm usually the winner."
But Nastase's talent and newfound zest for combat were too much for him. Leading 4-3 in the fourth, Ashe could only watch as Nastase slashed returns out of reach. Ashe saved three break points in that game only to lose it on the fourth when Nasty passed him at the net. Nastase held for 5-4, and then Ashe was broken again when he blew an easy overhead to lose the set.
Arthur quickly broke back in the first game of the fifth set, but lost his own serve for the third straight time, and it was tied. From deuce, on his own serve in the sixth game, Ashe missed two backhand volleys and fell behind 2-4 as Nastase, jumping up and down and pounding his gut with his fist, really sensed the victory. Ashe managed one break point in the final game but could not come through, and Nastase held at 6-3 for the championship.