Stepanek likely to prove a substantial thorn in Spain's side
TIPPING POINT:The 100th Davis Cup final begins on Friday in Prague where the Czech Republic has chosen to play Spain on a hard-court and not cow-dung. The latter might have been an advantage to the clay-court loving Spanish, and the big advantage of being the home team is you get to choose the surface.
John McEnroe’s lengthy CV of pithy one-liners includes a beauty from his days as America’s Davis Cup captain and the prospect of facing Zimbabwe in Harare. Pressed on the question of the likely surface, Mac reasonably pointed out the home team would pick whatever gave them the greatest chance of beating the US, and then characteristically lowered the tone by declaring that would probably be cow-dung.
Cue diplomatic incident with Mugabe Co taking a break from starving their people to complain about Super Brat. But he wasn’t being entirely facetious.
In India especially there are still courts officially described as “clay” but which are topped by cow-shit. There are plenty who say it is the best surface of all, encouraging serve-and-volley while also being slow enough to give baseliners a shout.
And it doesn’t smell either, something that can hardly be said for some of the stuff that has gone down in the Davis Cup over the years when it comes to home-town decisions that have gone a long way beyond a choice of surface.
It is 40 years now since Romania played the US in a Davis Cup decider they were determined to win. After a couple of previous final defeats to the Americans, the 1972 final was played in Bucharest on a clay surface so slow Tortoises could have got speeding tickets. This was in order to play to the strengths of the Romanian hero Ilie Nastase.
The ‘Bucharest Buffoon’ was a Grand Slam-winning World No.1 but Nastase’s real strength was the sort of gurning attention-seeking that made it no surprise to anyone when hometown pressure got to him and he ‘tanked’ against Stan Smith. This encouraged his compatriots to try and help out.
The final effectively came down to a showdown between Smith and the local hardman Ion Tiriac, a former hockey star, whose party pieces included eating glass and working a mob into a frenzy.
Smith got foot-faulted so repeatedly he took to almost serving from the car-park. Line calls favoured Tiriac so outrageously the American played every ball, even if it landed in the umpire’s lap, and aimed his own shots for the middle of the court so even shamelessly cheating linesmen couldn’t call them out. Arthur Ashe later recalled the cheating by local officials reached an “abysmal low”.
At one stage a supposedly non-partisan linesman massaged a cramp in Tiriac’s leg and exhorted him to hammer the Yankee capitalist bastard on the other side of the net. And yet somehow Smith emerged on top, winning 6-0 in the fifth.