The scene is becoming depressingly familiar. It is the end of an international tennis event—the U.S. vs. Australia or the U.S. vs. Mexico or the U.S. vs. Fredonia—and Captain Dennis Ralston, his lips set in a thin line to hide his bitter disappointment, is congratulating the victorious opponents. Perhaps it would not be so frustrating and recurring if Ralston could ever field all the best American players.
Last Sunday in Hartford's new Civic Center Coliseum the scene was played out again for the umpteenth time and once again America's best player, Jimmy Connors, was the big man who wasn't there. It was the last day of the Aetna World Cup, an annual battle between the U.S. and Australia, and Rod Laver had just defeated Arthur Ashe 6-2, 7-6 for his third victory of the week. The Australian team thus clinched the cup for the fifth time in its six-year history and the players split up $35,000 in prize money. The final score was Australia four matches, USA three.
Only weeks before, Connors had beaten Laver in a lucrative televised challenge match in Las Vegas on the same day that the U.S. was losing a Davis Cup match to underdog Mexico. If Connors had forgotten his dislike of Ralston and played for the World Cup, would he have made a difference?
"I think they would have had a better chance, yes," said Laver, "but it's a team effort and Jimmy's not a team man."
Although Connors stayed away and Sunday's nationally televised last act was less than thrilling, the people of Hartford flocked to the Center and saw three excellent sessions of tennis—and, not incidentally, the sudden emergence of a sporting event from a sideshow tent into the center ring.
Hartford is a medium-sized (population: 158,017) conservative New England city that heretofore has been major league in double-indemnity clauses (at least six big insurance companies call it home) but something less in restaurants, theater and sports. For years the local sports fans were limited pretty much to hearing Celtics and Red Sox broadcasts from Boston or trembling with excitement over a Trinity College-Amherst cross-country meet. Oh, there was the Sammy Davis Jr. Greater Hartford Open, and a team in the Southern New England Hockey League. But the National Football League's Hartford Blues departed in 1926 after one season, and there has not been a major league baseball franchise in town for close to 100 years.
This year the sporting atmosphere has changed and the reason is the Civic Center. The white-shirted legions from the state capital, The Travelers, Connecticut Mutual, The Hartford, etc., who used to hurry home along Asylum Avenue to comfortable homes in West Hartford, are now coming back downtown after dinner. The city is in such a euphoric state over the arena that the place probably would be filled on a blizzardy night for a lecture on how to have a meaningful relationship with your azaleas.
The Celtics have come in a few times to play basketball before large and appreciative crowds, but the main beneficiaries—a popular word in Hartford—of the enthusiasm have been the New England Whalers of the World Hockey Association and Aetna Life & Casualty, which owns a chunk of the Whalers, a chunk of the adjacent Sheraton-Hartford Hotel and a chunk of the Civic Center complex. And if those chunks were not enough for the company to savor, the tennis tournament was Aetna's project, too, moving into the 11,000-seat Center after three cramped years in Trinity's 2,200-seat Ferris Athletic Center. More than 40,000 tickets were sold before the first can of balls was opened, a good part of the proceeds going to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.
Unfortunately for drama's sake, the best match of the tournament came in the opener on Thursday night, the one session that was not sold out. Ralston picked Dick Stockton, just turned 24, to play No. 1 singles, mainly because Ashe, the leading money-winner on the WCT tour this year, had just arrived from Europe and needed jet-lag recovery time. Stockton had won the WCT tourney in San Antonio the previous week on the very same Supreme Court carpet Hartford was using.
Before the match the Aussie locker room was cacophonous, except for little Ken Rosewall sitting quietly in one corner in his neat brown suit. Comedian Bill Cosby, who had just played in the celebrity doubles, was telling jokes. Roy Emerson was drinking beer, leading mock cheers and screaming at Australia's No. 1 man, Laver, "Don't overrun the bloody ball!"