A long, rather bland and colorless day at the $125,000 Volvo tennis tournament came blazing to life last night as Arthur Ashe outstroked his good friend and spirited rival, Bob Lutz, 6-4, 0-6, 7-5, in a rousing finale to the first round.
Until Ashe, 35, and Lutz, 31, went on court at 7:40 p.m., only Roscoe Tanner's explosive serve -- sparkling like a fireworks display as he rocketed 11 aces past Deon Jonbert in a 6-2, 6-3 rout -- had pierced the boredom. Seven previous matches, starting at 10 a.m., all had been perfunctory, straight-set affairs.
But the last of the 16 first-round singles matches, played over three days, proved to be the best. Ashe and Lutz attacked each other for nearly 90 minutes, to the delight of a small but enthralled audience.
The medium-fast synthetic court laid down over the basketball floor at George Washington University's Smith Center is ideally suited to the aggressive, net-rushing style of the Ashe-Lutz-Stan Smith-Marty Riessen generation of players. Ashe and Lutz played it artfully, with elan and a zest for the bold volley/and gambling passing shot.
This was "damn the torpedoes" tennis, a free-swinging duel from first big serve to last blazing return. Both players served and volleyed well, and seasoned the match with a remarkable "get" here, an impossibly-angled volley there, a knowing glance that said, "You one-upped me there, buddy."
One point will stand as a symbol of the good-natured but tough competitiveness of this match:
With Ashe serving at 2-2, 40-15 in the first set, he angled what appeared to be a sure winner. Lutz chased it post, flicked a backhand cross-court dink that cleared the net by an inch and landed no more than two feet in Ashe's territory, an inch from the opposite sideline.
Lutz's momentum took him around the post to Ashe's service line. The gallery erupted in applause. Ashe shook a mock-menacing fist at Lutz, then smiled and clapped too.
"I might do that on an extraordinary point, just to sit back and admire something for what it is, regardless of whether I was playing a good friend or not," Ashe said later of his little gesture, a rare variation from his usually impassive demeanor on court. "But Bob is a very close friend, so something like that has more intimacy."
A few moments later, he added: "You hate to lose to your close friends because you won't hear the end of it until you play again. You hear it on the golf course, in the locker room, everywhere -- in a friendly sort of way...
"Lutz said to me after the presentations at the World Cup (last weeked in Hartford), 'You know what Tuesday is going to be called in Washington? Ashe Tuesday.' So we've been ribbing each other since Friday about it, ever since we found out we played in the first round. This gives me bragging rights until the next time we play, that's all."
Ashe currently is No. 9 in the computerized world rankings of the Association of Tennis Professionals, seeded No. 3 in the 32-man field here. Lutz is ranked No. 31. But the difference between them last night was a hairline, nothing more.
Lutz was still stiff from back spasms he suffered on Saturday -- he received treatment before and after the match from touring trainer Todd Fullerton -- but he served better than he has in some time. He also ran after everything, several times all but diving into the front row of seats, and challenged Ashe with fullblooded returns of serve.
"Yeh, I was striking it pretty well," shrugged Lutz from Fullerton's rubbing table afterward, knowing that it is difficult to play much better in the first round and still lose.
"I wanted to play. I've been hitting the ball well and felt that I could beat him. I had nothing to lose, and was eager to just come out swinging."
That he did. The first set was tense, the exchanges of consistently high caliber. Lutz held from 0-40 in the fourth game, the only break points until a backhand volley long and a hurried backhand down the line off a deep approach put him in a hole at 4-5, 15-40.
Lutz got his first serve in and drilled a backhand volley, but Ashe knocked a soft forehand passing shot down the line for the set.
But instead of getting dispirited, Lutz picked himself up by the sneaker straps and reeled off seven straight games for the second set and a service break in the first game of the third.
But Ashe halted the seven-game slide by breaking back in the second game of the final set.
Before the final game, a couple of spectators shouted "C'mon, Arthur," and they were answered by a chorus of "C'mon. Bob,"
Lutz had a game point at 40-30, but hit a backhand long. He canceled one match point with a good serve and a solid forehand down the line off a return barely over the net. But he missed his last two first serves, and Ashe banged away on the second serves. He forced a forehand error to get to match point again, and seized it with a backhand cross-court pass.