The last time I saw some of the Australian players was at Forest Hills. It was near the end, and they were left in men's doubles or mixed. They seemed to be having a marvelous time. They had their beers, and there were lots of pretty girls about. I can't say I blame them. Every kid likes to have a good time. The boys who played for me liked to have their good times, too...but...they preferred to be champions.
The hurrahs were spent some time ago, and in Hartford last week Australian tennis sounded its last murmur. The U.S., led by a relentless Jimmy Connors, won the Aetna World Cup, beating Australia in all seven matches, the first shutout in the event's eight-year history. And there is no reasonable evidence to suggest that the Aussies are going to offer more substantial competition in the years immediately ahead.
Thus, while once again the Hartford Civic Center was sold out four days running, this was mostly a fond testament to the memories of greatness gone. The Aussies won five of the first six World Cups, as they had once won just about everything else. Because of their presence, the World Cup became a premier event, as competitive and gratifying as any modern addition to the game's calendar. But next year's Cup will have to feature a new melody, not just an oldie-but-goodie. Maybe Europe vs. the U.S. or the Davis Cup champion vs. the U.S. Maybe the World vs. the U.S.—for a true World Cup. Whatever, almost certainly the opponent can no longer be Australia. The world it once ruled now belongs to others.
A few days before Captain Dennis Ralston fired fusillades of Yanks into the thin, green Aussie line, crafty old Harry Hopman, who captained the Australian Davis Cup team from 1950 to 1969, relaxed in his apartment in Largo, Fla., a suburb of Tampa. The apartment overlooks the courts of the Bardmoor Country Club, where he now teaches. Young players from all over the world come to Bardmoor to learn from him and there must be more potential in Largo than there was across the net from the Americans at Hartford.
Hopman was in his tennis whites, the tiny green Lacoste crocodile alone sullying that absolute whiteness that speaks so eloquently of a bygone time. Tennis once was Hopman and white; today it is 10-percenters and technicolor. Hopman is 70, but as fit and prickly as ever, beet red from another full day on the courts. His weight? Rather than venture a wild guess and be off so much as a pound, he scurried directly to the bathroom scale. When Hopman captained the Aussies he was never, professionally, a coach; he was a newspaper columnist, which made his constant battles with the press all the more sharp (it takes one to know one). Report: 131 pounds, four under his old playing weight. "I wasn't a good newspaperman," he declared archly, never letting this business go. "You see, I relied on honesty."
But then he smiled. Those little knothole eyes that had stared down prying journalists the world over suddenly sparkled. "I was so fortunate," he said. "I had a better time than all the kids because I could appreciate it so much better than they. But what a wonderful lot of boys they were! All of them: Sedgman, McGregor, Hoadie, Muscles. I never had to pick a fellow who could possibly bring a bad name to Australia. Mmmm, mmmm. Rod—say hello to Rocket for me—Fred, Newk..." Crafty old Harry Hopman was actually lost in reverie for a moment, and it was better to listen there to tales of the living legends than to watch the pale incumbents struggle in Hartford.
The president of the Lawn Tennis Association of Australia, Wayne Reid, groused recently, "I wish the Americans wouldn't tell us that our standards have declined. We got a damn sight further in the Davis Cup than they did last year." Which is true; but also a false measure. These days, even Mexico usually gets a damn sight further than the U.S. in the Davis Cup. More to the point is that the top-ranked Aussie, No. 12 in the world, is Ken Rosewall, now a spot player, age 42 and too old to journey to Hartford. Next is Tony Roche, 31, always so engaging a competitor, but never the same potential world champion after he hurt his arm a decade ago. Then John Alexander, 25, marked by occasional brilliant moments that lapse into stale patches (although probably too much was expected of him just because he was ordained as the Next Great Aussie). Mark Edmondson, a balding 22-year-old, has been touted as the future star, but his name always seems to invoke the same anxiousness heard on behalf of soon-to-be-forgotten white heavyweight hopes. Edmondson has slid back to 52nd in the world.
Arrayed against this faltering Australian contingent in the Aetna was a U.S. squad so deep that Roscoe Tanner, No. 7 in the world, couldn't win a spot in singles. Ralston used Connors and Dick Stockton for two matches each and Brian Gottfried in the other singles match. All acquitted themselves well, but Connors was positively a dreadnought, whipping a befuddled Alexander and a tiring Roche without losing a set. "He seems capable of handling anything," Alexander said, his tone mixing respect with resignation.
In both his matches, Connors won the first set handily, then fell behind in the second. Alexander took a 3-1 lead, a predicament that Connors sorted out by the expedient—original even for him—of running off 15 straight points and the match. The affair with the more experienced Roche was slightly stickier, reaching 2-5, 15-40 (double set point) before Connors arrived at the conclusion that he needed five straight games. This set was the best tennis of the Cup and appropriately so, because it made the score 4-0, clinching the U.S. triumph.
In their two matches of these four that counted, both Stockton (against Roche) and Gottfried (against Ross Case) lost the first set before making decisive comebacks. It might be argued, then, that the Cup was closer than the score indicated. Indeed, some did argue that. But, in fact, the final score of 7-0 represented the hard truth: the U.S. has a number of fellows somewhat better than any of the Australians, and one fellow considerably better.