What is it like to play Davis Cup in South America?
Former U.S. standout Cliff Richey can give you a clue.
As the U.S. Davis Cup team recently concluded its first Davis Cup match in South America in 13 years with a 3-1 win against Colombia in Bogota, it has drawn another South American away tie in the first round of the 2011 against Chile.
In his new book ACING DEPRESSION: A TENNIS CHAMPION’S TOUGHEST MATCH ($19.95, New Chapter Press, www.CliffRicheyBook.com), Richey discusses an infamous Davis Cup match in Ecuador in 1967, exclusively excerpted here below. A video of the match can also be seen here:
Probably my most memorable Davis Cup match was in Ecuador, two years later. (George) MacCall was still captain. Like in Europe, all the courts in South America were clay courts—not the most conducive surface for Americans. I was named to play singles against their top two guys in matches that were the best three-of-five sets.
Davis Cup consisted of three days of matches: two singles on the first day, one doubles on the second day, and then two singles again on the final day. Arthur Ashe was also on the U.S. team and I certainly considered myself a better clay court player than him. In fact, we were worried about Arthur on clay. Clay was a good surface for me and we weren’t concerned about the doubles since Marty Riessen and Clark Graebner were the No. 2-ranked doubles team in the world at that time. We figured, “We can’t lose the doubles.” The Ecuadorian players were not favored to win; but then again, they were playing on their home turf.
That week we stayed in a nice hotel in Guayaquil, the coastal Ecuadorian city where the matches were played, arriving a week before the matches to prepare for the conditions. We were being hosted by the Ecuadorians, so they assigned the practice courts at the tennis club. The only problem was, they gave us the very back courts. In fact, we routinely got a court which was situated next to a house with a pet mynah bird in the back yard. That darn bird laughed at us all week! We thought it was on purpose that they assigned us to that court.
Most of our practice sessions involved drills with some match play. Back then, the tennis balls came in boxes, not cans. The boxes were not pressurized so the balls went dead much faster. But at least all the pro shops would have stacks of empty boxes we could use for drills. We would take the empty boxes and put them in the corner of the court. The idea was to try and knock over the boxes. No one on the team liked to do drills except me. To convince Graebner to do drills, MacCall would give him 50 cents for each box he hit.
When the first match day came, the Ecuadorian crowd was very excitable—they sure liked their beer. The Guayaquil Lawn Tennis Club had thrown up temporary stands made of wooden planks able to hold 2,000 fans. I was the first to take the court and played my first singles match against Pancho Guzmán, the No. 2 player from Ecuador. I beat him in four sets to give us an early 1-0 lead. Arthur then followed to play Ecuador’s most veteran player, Miguel Olvera, who was not as feared as Guzmán, a guy already in his 30s, but still a decent player. Surprisingly, Olvera took out Arthur, winning three straight sets after Arthur won the first set. So after the first day, it was tied 1-1. The crowd was rowdy, but under control and not too bad. The next day, Graebner and Riessen played Olvera and Guzmán in doubles. Our team was favored to win big time, but crazy stuff can sometimes happen in Davis Cup and we lost 8-6 in the fifth set. Now our butt was really in a crack. We were down 2-1 to little ole Ecuador.
The first match of the final day was Guzmán against Ashe, followed by me against Olvera. Arthur had to beat Guzmán in the first match to keep us alive. Then my match with Olvera would be the decider. As Arthur was playing, I had the radio on at the hotel, listening to his match. Guzmán’s main weapon was a real good forehand. So as I was listening to this match in Spanish, I kept hearing “bueno forehand.” I was hearing “bueno forehand” much too much for my liking. I could tell what was happening: Guzmán was beating him. At one set all, I hailed a cab and went to the stadium. Just as I got there, the crowd went into a roar. I walked to the locker room and asked what had happened. Arthur had just lost the third set, so he was two-sets-to-one down. Everyone was in the locker room during the 15-minute break held between the third and fourth sets. I saw Arthur sitting in front of his locker, dazed.
MacCall stormed in, punched his hand through a metal locker and said, “If we lose this goddamn match, I’m going to eat that fxxxxx clay!!” Arthur was almost comatose. I knelt in front of Arthur and got his attention: “Art, he’s clocking forehands down your ass and you’re losing.” He agreed. I coached him not to come to the net; instead, he should try and out-rally him at the baseline. When play resumed in the fourth set, Arthur took my advice and didn’t come to the net one time—and won the fourth set 6-0! He did exactly what I told him to. He played a defensive game. At two sets all, as they went into the fifth set, I was on the side of the court, watching. I was anticipating that I would have to play the decisive match with Arthur holding the momentum. But Arthur went back to his old-style game and proceeded to lose 6-3 in the fifth. I asked him in the locker room later what happened. He said he didn’t think he could finish him off with such a defensive game. Guzmán won the match by the curious score line of 0-6, 6-4, 6-2, 0-6, 6-3. Ecuador had beaten the United States in one of the biggest upsets in the history of the event.
After the last point, the crowd went into pandemonium. The Ecuadorian captain tried to jump the net to hug Guzmán. He didn’t get enough air and his foot caught in the net. He fell and broke his leg. He came back to coach during my match wearing a cast. So we had an American coach with a busted hand and an Ecuadorian coach with a broken leg!
Despite the result of the match already being determined, I had to play the fifth, meaningless match. With no tickets left for the matches, Ecuadorian students, who wanted to be part of the scene
and celebration of the upset win over the Americans, were trying to break into the stadium. The students proceeded to throw rocks onto the court as I was playing. Rocks began raining down from everywhere.
The crowd nearly rioted on changeovers. It then became apparent that Olvera started “tanking” the match to me (throwing it away). I sat down on the bench during the break and said to our captain: “George, he’s not trying. I don’t understand—why?” MacCall said evasively, “I’ll tell you when the match is over.” I demanded, “No, I want to know now.” My captain admitted ruefully, “He’s afraid if he beats you, there will be a riot. He just wants to get out of here. When the match is over, don’t come back over here. Run straight to the locker room and I’ll bring your stuff.” I beat Olvera 5-7, 6-4, 7-5, 4-6, 6-0! He was tanking. No telling what could have happened if that match had lasted very much longer.
That United States vs. Ecuador Davis Cup match was as messy a competition as you would ever want to get involved in. Rocks flying, mynah birds calling, captains with broken body parts—this wasn’t the glamorous world tour I thought I had signed on for! Meanwhile, my anxieties were mounting. I said in a letter I wrote to the folks back at home: “I had one of my anxiety weeks last week (sort of nervous all week) . . . that old inspiration wasn’t there. I’m trying to relax & talk myself out of my anxiety. I guess the only difference between me and a bum is: I have money and can hit a tennis ball.” Not exactly the shining self-image you’d expect for an up-and-coming, world-class athlete!
That was 1967, the year just before open tennis. Both mentally and career-wise, that was right before my floodgates burst apart. . .