By Randy Walker
The United States Davis Cup team faces what seems like an near impossible task of beating Spain in Spain on a clay court in the Davis Cup semifinals this weekend.
In five previous meetings against Spain in Davis Cup matches played in Spain, the United States has a 1-4 record. That one victory occurred 40 years ago in 1972 and had a strangely similar circumstance to the current U.S. Davis Cup team’s task.
While the 2012 Spanish Davis Cup team is without the services of its top player, seven-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal, the 1972 Spanish team was without its top player, Manuel Orantes, ironically inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame this summer. The 1972 match in Barcelona was in the semifinals, the same round in which Captain Jim Courier, John Isner, Sam Querrey and Bryan brothers face the David Ferrer led Spanish team in Gijon, Spain.
Forty years ago, on the morning of the draw ceremony to determine the line-ups and the order of play at the Barcelona Real Tennis Club, Orantes suffered a back injury that he first brushed off. “I thought it was nothing,” he later said. However, it turned out that he had torn muscle fibers in his back, knocking him out of play for the weekend. The Spanish captain Jaime Bartroli had decided to bench the reigning French Open champion Andres Gimeno for the tie in favor of Juan Gisbert, but with the Orantes injury, he reinserted Gimeno into singles and doubles play against the Americans.
As it turned out, the opening rubber of the series featured the reigning Wimbledon, U.S. and French Open champions as the U.S. No. 1 Stan Smith, the defending US Open champion and the reigning Wimbledon champ, took on Gimeno, who won the French title two months earlier. Gimeno defeated Smith in the quarterfinals in Paris and, in a three-hour clash in Barcelona, handed another defeat to the American 6-8, 7-5, 6-3, 6-4. Wrote Michael Katz in The New York Times, “Smith never looks good on clay and Gimeno makes him look worse.” Gimeno was able to keep Smith away from the net with his strong baseline play and when Smith was able to negotiate himself to the forecourt, Gimeno was effective with the passing shot. Ten double faults also did not help Smith’s cause.
Down 0-1, U.S. chances rested on the shoulders of a teenager from Maryland, first-year U.S. Davis Cupper and 5 foot 5 inch tall Harold Solomon. The New York Times described Solomon as “a 19-year-old baseline player who looks more like a ballboy out of uniform.” His baseline play was best suited for clay, a forehand that could dictate play and a double-fisted backhand that he often hit as a high-flying virtual lob back into his opponent’s court.
Gisbert took a 5-3 lead on Solomon and served for the first set, but was unhinged and committed four errors in five points to lose his advantage. Solomon remained steady and broke to take an 8-7 lead and served out the first set in the next game.
The second set unfolded almost as a near duplicate of the first as Gisbert again served for the set at 5-3, but again committed four errors in five points as Solomon broke back. Gisbert became visably frustrated with the tenaciousness and consistency of Solomon. As Katz wrote in The New York Times, “he kept getting the ball back, so that at times, Gisbert almost seemed happy to lose the point, just to get it over with.”
After Solomon drew even at 5-5 with a service hold, he broke Gisbert in the next game, cementing the break with a stinging forehand cross-court winner from the baseline. He took a two-sets-to-love lead serving out the set the next game.
With the mid-summer August Spanish sun beginning to hide under the horizon, fortunes in the match turned rapidly. Solomon began to struggle with his hand as cramps overtook him. At times, Solomon struggled to even hold the racquet. In the fleeting moments of playable daylight, Gisbert finished off the third set 6-0, Solomon only managing to win three points the entire set. The match was postponed until the next day.
Gisbert came out on Saturday determined to stage a comeback and confidently and easily secured the fourth set 6-1, making only three errors. The match was tied at two sets apiece.
In the decisive fifth set, Solomon was so nervous – but full of adrenaline – that he did not sit down on changeovers. Playing in front of his hometown crowd at his home club and with the opportunity to be a national hero in placing his country into the Davis Cup final, Gisbert also showed his nerves. The last five games of the set remarkably went against serve, but it was Solomon who survived, winning the match 9-7, 7-5, 0-6, 1-6, 6-4 to draw the series even at 1-1.
Since the resumption of play lasted more than 15 games, Spanish captain Bartroli, by Davis Cup rules, was able to request rest for Gisbert for the doubles match, postponing the crucial match until Sunday.
In the doubles, Smith paired with Erik van Dillen and faced Gisbert and Gimeno. Smith and van Dillen were an established team having been the runner-up at U.S. Open previous year and at Wimbledon in July. Gisbert normally played doubles with Orantes, with whom he was undefeated in 12 previous Davis Cup matches.
Smith and van Dillen’s experience as a team showed in the first set, taking it 6-3 on Smith’s strong service and dominance at the net.
“Van Dillen was almost a chess piece on Smith’s hands,” wrote Michael Katz in The New York Times. “Especially when serving, he was instructed by his steady partner on where, when and what to do.”
It was van Dillen who was virtually check-mated in the second set as he lost his serve twice, both on double-faults, as the Spaniards drew even at one set all delivering a 6-0 set to the Americans.
“Eight thousand people, 1-1 in the Davis Cup semifinals, maybe four years without sleep, outside of that, I can’t think of any reason for double-faults,” van Dillen said later of his second-set woes.
As the crowd at the Royal Tennis Club of Barcelona became more loud and vocal, the frustrations of the Americans became evident. Smith, normally calm and cool, actually gently hit a ball into the crowd, “of course, aiming for one particular voice,” wrote Katz.
The match turned at 2-2 in the third set, when Smith fought off three break points in a 14-point game to hold serve and quell the Spanish momentum. The Americans then rolled through the next three games to close out the set 6-2 and hung on to win the fourth 6-3 to give the United States the important 2-1 lead. The doubles win placed the U.S. in a good position to advance into the Davis Cup final, having two chances to clinch victory on Monday – first Solomon against Gimeno and then Smith against Gisbert.
Smith felt it necessary to sleep in the next day and stayed at the hotel and watched the first two sets of Solomon’s match with Gimeno, the French Open champion. Gimeno easily won those sets 6-3, 6-1 and it became clear that Smith and Gisbert’s fifth match would become the decisive match.
“I was not very confident,” Smith confided later of his pending match with Gisbert. “I gave myself only a 50-50 chance. I was hoping my match wouldn’t count.”
Solomon did rally to win the third set 6-2, but succumbed 6-2 in the fourth, setting the stage for the Smith and Gisbert to determine the outcome.
Unlike his match with Gimeno, Smith was able to connect on his powerful first serves and get to the net with frequency. He broke Gisbert’s serve twice early in the first set, but was not able to consolidate. The two remained on serve from 4-4 in the first set until the eighteenth game, when Smith broke serve to lead 9-8.
With Smith serving for the first set, the crowd became more involved, hoping to inspire their hometown hero or rattle the American champion. “Gis-bert…Gis-bert” chanted the crowd of approximately 8,000 as the surge in crowd participation seemed to affect the Californian, who double-faulted to lose the game and his advantage. It was 9-9. Smith, however, became more determined. He immediately broke Gisbert back to take a 10-9 lead, leaning into a backhand return of serve on break point to pass his Spanish opponent, silencing the crowd. One game later, Smith was able to serve out the set. After 75 minutes of play, Smith lead one set to love.
The two combatants each held serve through the first ten games of the second set, Smith executing his serve and volley game at some of his highest capacity on a clay court. He was able to break Gisbert in the 11th game and served for a two-set lead at 6-5. Like when he served for the first set for the first time, the crowd again become more vocal, this time as Smith was given two serves after second-serve was called out, overruled by the chair umpire. Thinking that Gisbert was cheated, the Spanish crowd became louder and Smith again became disheveled and lost his serve. Smith, like he did in the first set, was able to immediately break Gisbert in the next game to gain a second chance to serve out the set. However, he again became unnerved when the crowd once again became more vociferous when they thought Gisbert received another poor line call. The second set was knotted at 7-7.
In the seventeenth game of the set, Smith again was able to negotiate a service break, which he then converted and the second set was over in 80 minutes, 10-8. Smith led two sets to love. With full momentum in hand, Smith streaked to a 5-0 lead in the third set. The match was all but over.
However, playing at home, Gisbert continued to press on and despite trailing double-match point with Smith serving at 5-0, 40-15 and facing another match point later, Gisbert broke Smith’s serve. He then held serve for 5-2 and then, incredibly, prevented Smith from serving out the match for a second time. Gisbert then held for 5-4 and Smith tried to serve out the match for a third time. With the crowd roaring with approval and urging their countryman to continue his amazing comeback attempt, Gisbert reached 15-40 on the Smith serve. He had two break points to erase his 0-5 deficit and tie the third set at 5-5. Smith, however, was not to be denied and showed the resolve that lead him to win the U.S. Open and Wimbledon within the last 12 months. He calmly won four points in a row to seal the 11-9, 10-8, 6-4 victory in three hours, 25 minutes. Smith called the win a “milestone” being one of his most courageous Davis Cup singles wins of his career.
Smith again would be put to the test on a Davis Cup court two months later as he played a crucial role in the USA’s victory over Romania in the Davis Cup final in Bucharest. Smith would defeat Ilie Nastase and Ion Tiriac in difficult conditions, in front of a heavily partisan crowd, alleged partisan officials on a slow red clay court.
To read more about the 1972 Davis Cup, and other stories, anecdotes and tales from tennis, pick up a copy of THE BUD COLLINS HISTORY OF TENNIS, available here: http://www.amazon.com/Bud-Collins-History-Tennis-Authoritative/dp/0942257707/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1347553156&sr=1-1&keywords=The+Bud+Collins+history+of+tennis