They fashioned the Cupa Davis into papier-m�ch� in Bucharest. They created silver-foil models of it, put it on pennants and posters, on ashtrays and soda-pop stands, on baby dresses and T shirts. They made it into cookies and Davis cupcakes, guarded it with rifles, rubbed it, serenaded it, surrounded it with velvet ropes and stood long hours in the pouring rain just waiting to look at it. It must also be said that the Rumanians kicked some dirt on the cup last week and roughed it up a bit, too. But ultimately they did not take it away from the U.S. as they should have because of the contrasting performance traits of two well-known soldiers of tennis: the spirited relentlessness of Corporal Stan Smith, the puzzling collapse of Lieutenant Ilie Nastase.
After Smith crushed Nastase in the opening singles, after Nastase fell apart in the crucial doubles (somewhat dumb struck by the sight of young Erik van Dillen turning into a 155-pound version of Bob Lutz) and after Smith dispatched the flimflam of Transylvania's own Ion Tiriac for the conclusive third point on the final day, the differences were clear.
The U.S. team, in defense of the championship, having traveled from the Caribbean to Mexico to South America to Spain and finally to this mysterious site deep in the Balkan interior, had, to put it simply, competed. The Rumanians, lying in wait on their home grounds with a bunch of thieving linesmen they must have recruited from the donor list at the local eye bank, had not. The Rumanians came to play, all right. But the Americans came to play tennis. And it all got pretty hot.
"Chokers," "quitters," "cheaters" was what U.S. Captain Dennis Ralston called the Rumanian pair. Though Ralston is an emotional sort, there was reason to agree with him. Nastase and Tiriac, who had lost in the Challenge Round twice before on U.S. soil, tried every trick and swindle this time, but they only succeeded in stirring up trouble—for themselves. It was a bizarre aberration to present to their own Rumanian public, who, filled with anticipation, had flocked to the scenic greenery of the Progresul Sports Club and who deserved much better.
For weeks this populace had been guaranteed by the two players and anybody else considered expert in the game that the Americans would be easy victims on the faraway clay of Bucharest. "We should be 10-1 for favorite," was the way Nastase put it.
Tiriac was more descriptive. "The U.S. players not like the soft stuff," he said. "Wait till they see ours. Godzilla [Smith], he feel like he serving on the beach."
In truth, after heavy early-week rains flooded the Danube and left nearby villages wallowing knee deep, the sun came out and the clay was solid enough. Besides, Smith turned up as a much-improved player on the fudgy surface; he was able to serve and move and volley effectively throughout the competition.
Smith also managed to inject his own brand of connivery on Sunday, a chill, gray day that seemed made to order for the sorcery of Tiriac. In order to win the deciding point in a Davis Cup final for the fifth year in a row, Smith found he had to battle his own erratic game as much as the Rumanian. After losing the first set he took the initiative in conmanship. On game point in the opening game of the second set Smith bluffed the referee into overruling a linesman's out call on his service. With another chance, he aced Tiriac to win the game. Tiriac, who could only admire such robbery, applauded with his racket, and Smith laughed and waved him off.
The American won the second and third sets, the latter even after being stripped clean on four different points by those marvelous line judges. But now he was bereft of his Anglo-Saxon cool. He lost his temper, made errors, faked wild swings at Tiriac and made unkind gestures at both him and the referee.
It was only after Tiriac won the fourth set that Smith came back into his groove. Calmer, he destroyed Tiriac, taking the deciding set at love and permitting the brooding giant across the net only eight points. The roaring multitudes who had disrupted proceedings all weekend with shouted protests and rhythmic clapping were finally silenced.