Before we get to the backhands and forehands, lobs and volleys, ads in and out and all that other tennis folderol, let us make our political report to the alphabet fans. WCT and WTT have joined forces in a limited partnership. The ATP has given reluctant approval to its players to sign with WTT, but WCT has severed relations with the USLTA while keeping its deal with the ILTF, which has decided not to ban players from WTT pending an investigation by the FBI, a possible loan from the FHA and a pint refill of STP. Most of this thrilling news was generated last week in Philadelphia, where, when time could be found between press conferences, a few tennis matches were played—some of them quite good ones.
The occasion was the $100,000 U.S. Pro Indoor Tennis Championships at the Spectrum, second event on Lamar Hunt's 1974 World Championship Tennis (WCT) tour and the only one with all three colorful troupes, Red, Blue and Green, playing in the same place. In the end it was two Greenies, Arthur Ashe and Rod Laver, who met in the Sunday final, an occasion more important for Ashe than for the stubby Australian, and not just because there was an $8,000 prize differential between first and second places.
Ashe has finished second so often lately he should look for an endorsement for bridesmaids' dresses. He is an excellent tennis player, one of the world's best, and a highly respected leader of the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), but to him championships are glittering mirages that turn into desert sand when he gets too close. Runner-up to Stan Smith at the WCT final last May. Runner-up to Jimmy Connors at the South African Open last November. Runner-up to Ilie Nastase at Forest Hills in '72. In three previous WCT seasons he has reached tournament finals 10 times and won only twice. And Ashe was also bucking a second jinx on Sunday. In 17 matches against Laver he had never won.
So now make it 18. The 35-year-old Laver, who some pros thought was all washed up six months ago, beat Ashe 6-1, 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 and took home the winner's check for $15,000. The match seemed decided in the very first game. Ashe won the spin of the racket and elected to receive. So Rocket Rod bombed him with three aces.
Laver's victory was just the latest in a long series. He won a tournament in Hong Kong and another in Australia and then went undefeated in a couple of Davis Cup meetings, including two singles wins in the finals against the U.S. He lost in the first round of the CBS Classic, then raced through seven opponents in Philly. That is 21 wins in 22 matches against top opposition. Even though Ashe took the third set—he has won only six of 43 sets from Laver since 1968—the issue seemed never in doubt.
Laver's impressive victory was the first step in his campaign to reach the WCT final in Dallas May 12 and win the only major championship that has eluded him, not to mention its $50,000 first prize. The route will be arduous, however, as Ashe pointed out in sizing up the three groups which, by the time May 12 rolls around, will have performed in 28 cities and 12 countries. To know how to order a racket restrung in both Portuguese and Japanese is not easy.
"Our Green group is the yo-yos," said Ashe. "We go to Bologna, to London, to S�o Paolo, to Tokyo, to Denver. We get the worst trips. The Red group is the nut squad. They've got Nastase and all the basket cases. The Blue group has Stan Smith and John Newcombe—'The Stan and John Show.' They're head and shoulders above everyone else in their group. If they get their sleep and eat three meals a day, they should make the finals by the time they have finished three-fourths of their tournaments."
The two top men in each group will qualify for Dallas and will be joined by two others, from any group, with the next highest total of points. Barring injury, it should be Laver and Ashe from Green, Smith and Newcombe from Blue (which never strays out of the U.S.) and Ilie Nastase and Tom Okker from Red. The wild cards? Perhaps Jan Kodes of Green or Tom Gorman, Cliff Drysdale or Marty Riessen of Red. (You will be surprised to learn that Alex Metreveli of the Soviet Union is a Blue, not a Red.)
Anyway, all 84, from Alexander to Zugarelli, were supposed to be in Philly last week, but injuries cannot be barred. No. 1 seed Nastase, tabbed by a computer as the likely winner, had to withdraw because he had hurt his right arm in a filmed-for-television tournament held at Lakeway, Texas the week before. Newcombe pulled a tendon in his heel at the Australian Open and so the second seed was lost. No. 5 Manuel Orantes rested in Spain nursing a sore back; he may not play much this year. But even with all the dropouts, there will be few events in 1974 that will present a more powerful field. Or a stranger week.
Cliff Richey was relaxing in a Philly bar one night when an elderly man—perhaps a linesman he had abused in years gone by—walked up and kicked him in the rear end. World Team Tennis (WTT), which will start its season even before WCT ends, was busy churning out press releases. Lamar Hunt announced a "declaration of independence" from the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association, on which his WCT was never very dependent anyway. The ATP and the International Lawn Tennis Federation both gave reluctant approval to WTT. Meanwhile, the tennis fans of the Delaware Valley largely ignored that whole matter, but bought themselves a total of 71,834 tickets for the seven days of competition. The press managed to avoid being smothered in handouts from ABC and XYZ and still have the energy to dig out the story of Tony Roche and the Filipino faith healer who saved his career.