Whither the glory that was the Davis Cup?
The United States plays Great Britain next weekend in Palm Springs, Calif., for possession of the trophy donated 78 years ago by Harvard undergraduate Dwight F. Davis, which symbolizes international team supremacy in tennis.
This is America's first final since 1973, Britain's first since 1937. Yet few seem to know or care that this once-grand series is taking place.
It hasn't always been that way.
When the U.S. played Romania in the 1972 final at Bucharest, thousands of people lined up in a chill rain and paid just to get a glimpse of the celebrated cup on display in a store window.
Several houses bordering the Progresul Sports Club were razed so that the capacity of the stands there could be tripled to 8,000. Thousands of soldiers tested the sturdiness of the construction by sitting in the new seats and stomping their combat boots, to approximate the ardor of raucous fans.
This was the third final in four years for tiny Romania, but the first final outside Australia or the United States since 1937.
Bucharest was awash in posters, banners and decals commemorating the event. Likenesses of the dashing Ilie Nastase and the hulking Ion Tiriac, Romania's only world class tennis players, adorned souvenir plaques, postcards, jewelry, candy bar wrappers, towels, and even layer cakes.
That memorable October week in the austerely handsome Romanian capital provided the most intense, emotional, exciting tennis spectacle I have witnessed in a decade of covering the sport.
This was only weeks after the massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. Stringent security precautions to protect the Jewish members of the U.S. team -- substitutes Harold Solomon and Brian Gottfried -- added a dramatic sense of urgency.
The American entourage was isolated on the 17th floor of a downtown hotel, protected by armed guards, instructed not to sit or stand near windows. They were transported to and from the courts in unmarked police cars using different routes each day. Identical vehicles were dispatched as decoys.
Police and rifle-toting soldiers patrolled the stadium and environs. Ticket-holders were searched, officials and press required to show credentials repeatedly at checkpoints.
A Romanian victory was expected. Nastase, recently crowned U.S. Open champ, and the lumbering but lionhearted Tiriac were considered unbeatable in Bucharest, where they could bank on the partisanship of boisterous crowds and larcenous linesmen.
Vociferous support and thievery they got, but not enough to compensate for Nastase's utter collapse in a jumble of nerves and a towering performance by Wimbledon champion Stan Smith, then America's premier player.
Smith never played more inspired tennis on slow clay courts than he did in hammering the highstrung and unraveling Nastase in the opening match, and in partnering young Erik van Dillen -- more brilliant this day than any before or since -- to a 6-2, 6-0, 6-3 humiliation of Nastase and Tiriac in the pivotal doubles.
Tiriac fought like fury, orchestrating the crowd and linesmen in an unparalleled display of hometown chicanery. He resurrected himself from two sets and a service break down to crack shaken Tom Gorman in the second singles match, and dragged the far more gifted Smith to a fifth set in the decisive fourth match.
Rhythmic clapping, foot-pounding and deafening chants of "Ti-ri-ac, Ti-ri-ac" rocked the stadium to its foundations, creating more of a din than the stomping soldiers had. Every time Tiriac needed a breather, he stirred the crowd to delay play, then sat down beside a linesman who would towel him off and massage his tiring legs.
Practically any shot within a foot of a line was called in Tiriac's favor. Some were overruled by the embattled neutral referee, Argentinian Enrique Morea, but by the impartial count of an Italian journalist there were 14 outrageous calls in the match, all against Smith.
Somehow, despite all this madness, Smith won the final set, 6-0, to clinch a U.S. victory for the fifth straight year.
The devastated crowd fell silent. A peasant woman in a drab blue work frock wept, and she was not alone. The mood at the Progresul Club was as gloomy as the cold, overcast day when hero-turned-goat Nastase tiptoed out embarrassedly to play Gorman in the now meaningless fifth match that made the final score 3-2.
But astonishingly, when Smith reentered the stadium in street clothes half an hour after breaking Romania's heart, its citizens greeted him with polite applause that swelled to a thunderous standing tribute to his skill and character. He was moved: "That was the most unexpected and thrilling experience I've ever had in tennis."
All this comes to mind as illustration of what the Davis Cup used to represent: enervating competition; the incomparable challenge of trying to win tennis matches on the opponents' booby-trapped home turf; passionate crowds; flag-waving; the honor of playing for one's country; and somehow, out of this riotous combination, occasional glorification of the sportsmanship and understanding among nations that Dwight Davis sought to promote back in 1900.
Until about a decade ago, the Davis Cup ranked with Wimbledon and Forest Hills as the most cherished events in tennis, renowned around the globe.
In all tennis-playing nations, from the most obscure to the most prominent, the greatest honor for a player was to be selected for the Davis Cup team.
The cup produced majestic rivalries such as France's "Four Musketeers" vs. Americans Big Bill Tilden and Little Bill Johnston in the 1920s, and Englishmen Fred Perry and Bunny Austin in the 30s.
In the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, successive generations of American players -- Jack Kramer, Vic Seixas, Tony Trabert, Peruvian-born Alex Olmedo, Chuck McKinley, Dennis Ralston, Arthur Ashe -- battled an Australian assembly line that produced John Bromwich and Adrian Quist, Frank Sedgman and Ken McGregor, Ken Rosewall and Lew Hoad, Neale Fraser and Ashley Cooper, Rod Laver and Mal Anderson, Roy Emerson and Fred Stolle, John Newcombe and Tony Roche.
Their clashes drew worldwide attention. People who took little notice of tennis the rest of the year watched attentively. The Davis Cup was a big deal.
It started to lose its lustre in 1968, when professionals were not admitted at the same time the tournament game went "open." By the time the Davis Cup was opened to all in 1973, it had lost its preeminent position; it was an amateurish if not strictly amateur anachronism tarnished by tennis's blind stampede to commercialism.
Cumbersome scheduling, woeful management, rifts between players and their national associations and old-fashioned greed combined to keep many top players from competing. As the U.S. and Australia, each winner of the cup 24 times, repeatedly lost early with makeshift teams, interest waned.
Political disruptions added to the erosion of once enormous prestige. South Africa won the cup by default in 1974 when India refused to play the final. Mexico upset the United States in 1975 and 1976, then defaulted to South Africa, as did many other countries. The Soviet Union refused to play Chile in the 1976 semifinals. Demonstrations and death threats marred matches between less-than-loving countries.
There were desultory attempts at schedule and rules reform, but still no infusion of prize money. The best players competed infrequently. Australian Newcombe, who long revered the Davis Cup, sadly declared that it had become "a farce."
In smaller countries, at least, it continued to excite the imagination. One remembers the vignettes vividly:
The joy of victorious Sweden in 1975, its hero Bjorn Borg being swept up by the madding crowd, tossed in the air horizontally, higher and higher as if on a human trampoline, in the celebratory rite Swedes call a "hissning."
The despair of Jaime Fillol, a prince among men, sighing disconsolately, "I ruined it for everybody" after he choked away the 1976 final in Chile, with seemingly his whole nation watching on television.
The exuberance of Nicki Pietrangeli, frustrated as a player in 1960-61 but the winning captain for Italy in that '76 final in Santiago, grabbing the cup off its massive pedestal and holding it aloft for a spontaneous "victory lap" around the stadium. And the disappointed Chilean crowd, so hopeful a day earlier, applauding him respectfully, much as the Romanians had saluted Stan Smith.
It is difficult to envision such poignant scenes enlivening the national PBS telecasts next weekend when Americans Smith, Bob Lutz, John McEnroe and Brian Gottfried square off against Britain's Buster Mottram, John and David Lloyd and Mark Cox at the ritzy Mission Hills Country Club in indifferent Palm Springs.
This is a ridiculous place to hold the finale, chosen only because of the political clout of its owner: Colgate-Palmolive, the biggest sponsor in tennis today.
Some reasonable polishing -- a scheduling and administrative overhaul, and addition of prize money -- could restore a good deal of the old sheen to the Davis Cup. Instead, the granddaddy of international team competitions is being treated as an aged, infirm, senile relic. And that is very sad indeed.