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The setting was genteel, but for a while last week at Mexico City's brick-red Chapultepec Sports Club the 4,000 feverish partisans crowding the awning-covered stands had heady visions of reliving the revolutionary days of a quarter of a century ago when Mexico threw off the Yanqui yoke.
It had been predicted, with some real justification, that the Mexican Davis Cup team would win for the first time over its neighbors from the U.S. After young Rafael Osuna, the remarkable University of Southern California sophomore who burst upon the world with his doubles victory at Wimbledon, upset the enigmatic Barry MacKay in the opening singles, it seemed likely that the moment of deliverance was at hand.
But such was not to be. The pride of St. Louis, Earl Buchholz, who at 19 is fast developing into the finest amateur tennis player in the U.S., blunted the uprising in the second singles, beating Mario Llamas in four sets. Then, on Sunday, Buchholz and Chuck McKinley, his teen-age fellow St. Louisian, forced a retreat as they took the doubles. On Monday, in a wonderfully exciting match that had the crowd shouting "Mario, Mario, Mario!" in great thunderous waves reminiscent of a bull fight, MacKay regained the touch that had deserted him two days earlier and crushed the revolt, outlasting a gritty and determined Llamas 6-2, 6-4, 1-6, 12-10.
The American victory was far closer than its 3-1 edge would indicate. At the end Llamas was still fresh and determined. MacKay, on the other hand, was white with exhaustion, caused partly by Mexico City's high altitude. It seemed almost certain to those watching that if the match had been carried to a fifth set, Llamas would have won. This would have left the fate of the matches up to Osuna and Buchholz, and there too the U.S. was in very bad shape. In the doubles the day before, Buchholz had fallen hard. That night doctors discovered he had burst a blood vessel in his leg. Captain Dave Freed was determined to play Buchholz anyway, but nobody at Chapultepec was more pleased than he that Buchholz was not forced to test the leg against the speedy Osuna.
Buchholz plays what has come to be known, for lack of a better description, as the big game, and it was upon his style of play rather than his condition that Freed was depending. Before the matches began on Saturday, he told reporters, "We're going to have to depend on the big game to beat these fellows. That's the only thing they don't have—and we do. That's why we've decided to use Buchholz in the second and fifth matches, instead of Tut Bartzen, even though Tut is our clay champion. We'll have Barry's big game against Osuna, and Butch's against Llamas."
On a very fast surface, such as boards, grass or Mexico's clay, a good big game is hard to overcome. The Mexican team, if not their followers, were more or less resigned to seeing MacKay's mighty service whistle past young Osuna, but they were hopeful that Llamas, a leading Mexican player for 11 years, would prove to Freed that while Buchholz's game was big it was not yet big enough.
The first set of the MacKay-Osuna match did little to upset their expectations. MacKay, towering a good six inches over his opponent, looked fit and confident. Osuna was cautious, his large brown eyes—so large they seem crowded by his Aztec cheekbones and hawk nose—watchful but wary. In the seventh game, however, there was a shadow of things to come. MacKay opened it with an ace, his third, but then double-faulted, his second. Suddenly the doe-eyed hawk took wing. He twice returned the unreturnable service for placement points, he lobbed, chopped, dropped delicate little half volleys just over the net, and ultimately he carried MacKay to deuce five times before the American prevailed.
It was a flurry, but not a fluke. Even though MacKay ran out the set, 6-3, a surprised excitement began to ripple through the crowd. Before long the excitement became frenzy. Osuna took the first game of the second set at love, acing MacKay for the fourth point. In the fourth game he broke MacKay's service. He slumped briefly but recovered, and then he began to break Mac-Kay's heart by hitting back the big first serve—not with desperate little plops designed only to keep the ball in play but with incisively angled shots that sometimes passed MacKay, sometimes caught him halfway to the net, sometimes literally tangled him in his feet.
Osuna's own service, ineffective in the first set, became sharper and flatter, spitting off the clay like butter off a griddle. In the 10th game of the fourth set he found himself at match point, MacKay serving, game score 30-40, the U.S. trailing 4-5. MacKay never hit a better first service. It caught the far corner of the court on Osuna's backhand. Osuna laced it back cross-court for a placement ace.
To anyone who saw Osuna in the Saturday match alone, it seemed certain that an international tennis player of the first rank had moved on stage. His service, while no cannon-ball, was fast, flat and controlled. Unlike many players who have grown up with the big game, he displayed a full repertoire of shots—half volleys of a delicacy reminiscent of Vincent Richards.