Davis Cup protests, 1977

From Tennis strangest matches by Peter Seddon:

Newport Beach, California, just south of Los Angeles, is a long way from the english lawns upon which tennis was first played. Perhaps that’s appropriate, as if ever there was an occasion when the vicarage garden party image of the game was irrevocably laid to rest it was at this West Coast resort on Sunday 17 April 1977.

This is the tale of the minister of the Church, the oil slick, the racket attack and the mass demonstration. it doesn’t sound like an everyday story of ordinary tennis folk but then it’s not everyday that the United States plays South Africa in the Davis Cup at the height of the apartheid debate.the tension had been mounting for over a decade.

The serious side to this strange affair had been a major problem for years. Official United Nations policy was to strongly discourage all sporting contact with ‘racist South African sports bodies’, but many nations purpotedly ‘put sport above politics’ and played on. Anti-apartheid activists said that such blind-eye attitudes simply condoned racism and there had been trouble almost everywhere South African representatives played, not simply directed against them but their hosts as well.

In 1968 the Sweden vs Rhodesia tie in Bastad had to be moved to Bandol in the South of France as a 1,500-strong rioting mob, some armed with iron bars, lumps of concrete and bottles, made play impossible.

A year later, but rather gentler, it was Great Britain‘s turn as bags of flour hurtled over the stands to bomb the court at the Redlands Club in Bristol. other nations, meanwhile, did refuse to play, none more nobly than India who passed up the chance of glory by declining to face South Africa in the 1974 final.
‘Dwight Davis must have turned in his grave,’ said Lawn Tennis magazine of the man who founded the competition back in 1900 in the spirit of friendly national rivalry. Hence the enhanced significance when South Africa travelled to ‘white supremacist’ United States in 1977.

Trouble they expected and trouble they got. Seven hundred demonstrators constantly chanted ‘South Africa go home’ outside the court arena but both sides refused to be deterred from simply playing tennis. Police ejected early court invaders and amongst the real fans a spirit of ‘the match must go on’ began to build.

It was after America had built a 2 rubbers to 0 lead that a church minister decided on more direct action. Home pairing Stan Smith and Bob Lutz were already 2 sets to 0 ahead against Frew McMillan and Byron Bertram when 29-year-old black activist Reverend Roland Dortsch rushed wildly on to the United States end of the court and emptied a plastic bottle of motor oil over the green surface. His colleague Deacon Alexander had his on bottle snatched before he could add to the spreading slick.

But as the American party saw red, the Reverend got more than he bargained for. Team captain Tony Trabert, heroic veteran of many Davis Cup matches during the much calmer 1950s, flailed at him with a racket backed by the cheering 6,000 crowd.
It took 41 minutes to clean the court and just a little longer for America to clinch the tie with a 7-5 6-1 3-6 6-3 victory. ‘UNITED STATES CLEAN UP’, said the Times.

Scenes very foreign to the game of lawn tennis they certainly were but Trabert was unrepentant:

“I brought a good old graphite racket along as a weapon and just hit them a couple of times,” he explained later.

The South African captain backed him all the way:

“I was very happy with the genuine crowd and the police have been wonderful,” he told reporters. “What Trabert did to the court invaders really makes you feel good.”

Strange demonstrations, strange retaliations and strange reactions. Who could blame Dwight Davis if he’s still turning today?

1978 US Open

1978 was the first year the US Open was played at the National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows after having been organized at the West Side Tennis Club venue in Forest Hill since 1915. It was also the first time the tournament was played on hard courts: it was originally played on grass until Forest Hills switched to Har-Tru clay courts in 1975. Jimmy Connors is the only player to have won the US Open on all three surfaces.

Extract from Inside tennis – a season on the pro tour by Peter Bodo and June Harrison:

By late August, summer weighs heavily on the city of New York; each day seems like one long tepid breath drawn until dusk, then exhaled slowly through the night. The US Open is about to begin.

The USTA National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadow, Queens, has been completed just in time to host the tournament that will henceforth call it home. A boardwalk leads from the subway to the new facility, which is adjacent to Shea Stadium, the sprawling home of the New York Mets and Jets. This boardwalk crosses over a subway yard, where hundreds of cars sit idle, covered with graffiti. The walk is lined with flags: American flags. Over seventy of them, counting those on top of the new Louis Armstrong Stadium. There isn’t a foreign standard in sight, because the USTA is bullish on the American role in international tennis.

The Americans leaped on the treadmill of professionalism faster than their international counterparts. As part of its massive attempt to popularize the sport, the USTA abandoned the West Side Tennis Club in nearby Forest Hills, a site redolent of tradition and all the genteel qualities associated with tennis. Although the stadium at Forest Hills held 13,500, the USTA deemed it to small. The hordes that descended on the 10.5 acres of the West Side Tennis Club created impossibly crowded conditions. Besides, parking facilities were inadequate, and this meant a great deal to some people. When the club rejected expansion proposals in 1977, USTA president Slew Hester decided to move the tournament to a newer, bigger home.

Louis Armstrong Stadium, the centerpiece of the National Tennis Center, is a bowl of epic proportions; its sheer sides give over 20,000 spectators a dizzying view of the main court. But the finest court at the site is in the grandstand, which nestles against one side of the stadium in much the same way that the Number One Court nestles against the Centre Court at Wimbledon. Sunken about ten feet below ground level, the court is surrounded on three sides by seats for about 6,000 spectators, who lean in over the players like aficionados around a bullring.
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Arthur Ashe, Wimbledon 1975

From Love Thirty, three decades of champions by Rex Bellamy

The achievements of Arthur Robert Ashe – known as ‘Bones’ when he was a skinny boy and as ‘The Shadow’ when he became a skinny celebrity – are remarkable not least because of the social and racial context in which he achieved them. His blood lines were mixed but essentially he was a black who came close to dominating a white world. In that complicated and controversial area Ashe was a pioneer of enduring influence: as he was in the organization of professionals as a corporate force, as a central figure in the game’s administrative evolution, and as a driving force behind revisions of the rules of play. In addition to all that he found time for a diversity of business ventures and social and charitable work. Like a stone cast into a pond, Ashe made a splash that sent ripples – often, waves – in every direction. Consequently his historic status was more important than his playing record suggests, distinguished though that was.

Descended from West African slaves, Ashe was brought up in a legally segregated community (a parallel of sorts with the South African politics into which he later dipped his toes) and learned to live with the racial distinctions. His mothe was frail and died when he was six years old. So Ashe and his brother Johnny were mainly brought up by his father, who policed and othewise tended a ‘black’ public park in which Ashe played his first tennis. The local tennis clubs and tournalents were no-go areas for anyone of Ashe’s pigmentation. His development had two main causes, other than his ability and character. One was the proximity of a black physician and tennis coach, Dr Walter Johnson, from Lynchburg. Ashe first went there when he was 10. Johnson had much to do with the grooming of the first black American to achieve international renown in tennis: Althea Gibson, who won the Wimbledon, United States and French championships in the 1950s.
Now, he did the same for Ashe, though Johnson’s son Bobby undertook most of the actual coaching. Dr Johnson and Ashe’s father also taught the teenager to ride the punches of racial prejudice and injustice and acquire the disciplined composure, the outward serenity, the dignity, with which he conducted himself. It must have helped, too, that the Ashe brothers joined their father on fishing and deer-hunting expeditions that taught them to wait patiently, with brains in gear, and endure frustration. The other main cause for Ashe’s advance was his liking and aptitude for study. He went to high school at St Louis and moved on to the University of California in Los Angeles, where he was plunged into the seaching fires of collegiate coaching and competition.

In those days tennis had yet to gain acceptance as a full-time competitive sport and the more talented Americans tended to complete their college commitments before joining the world tour and finding out just how good they were. Ashe was 22 years old, and already an established Davis Cup player with some heartening results behind him, when he went to Australia for the 1965-66 season and consolidated a growing reputation: first in the state tournaments and then in the Australian championships. He was runner-up to Roy Emerson that year and the next, but the wreckage his awesome serving left in its wake included Tony Roche, Fred Stolle and John Newcombe. Ashe had arrived. He was ready to play a starring role. It turned out to be both historic and bizarre.

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