Barry Lorge, who covers tennis for The Washington Post, has been on vacation since the U.S. Open, but hardly away from the game. In October he traveled to the People's Republic of China for the first professional tournament there since the Communist takeover in 1948. This month he was at courtside in Prague as Czechoslovakia defeated Italy, 4-1, in the 1980 Davis Cup finals. Below are some observations from his far-flung busman's holiday.
Most of the billion people of China had never heard of Wimbledon or Jimmy Connors, had never seen tennis played and knew relatively little about it, before the $50,000 Canton Grand Prix Tennis Classic settled in at the Guangdong Sheng People's Stadium.
Tennis is a minor sport in the People's Republic, not in the same league of mass popularity with football (soccer, that is; American football is blissfully unknown behind the Bamboo Curtain), basketball, volleyball, gymnastics and China's favorite, table tennis.
There are only a few hundred courts in the country, and the game is too expensive for the average Chinese citizen, who earns $600 a year. A wood Aeroplane racket -- the only brand sold in China, manufactured in Shanghai -- costs about $12. A can of three Aeroplane balls sells for about $5.40. By comparison, a box of six Ping-Pong balls costs 8 cents.
And yet, in October, 29 adventuresome foreign tennis pros joined three amateur Chinese players, who were game and athletic but not very good, in a full-fledged Grand Prix tournament in Canton (now called Guangzhou), the capital of Guangdong Province.
The tournament was played on a synthetic court laid down over cement in a 6,000-seat outdoor basketball stadium. Connors beat fellow American Eliot Teltscher in the singles final.
This first sponsored tournament in modern China provided Chinese sports officials, who get little government subsidy for their programs, with a source of funds: payments from foreign firms that want to get their brand names known, anticipating the day when they will be able to market consumer goods to the vast Chinese public.
The sponsors were presumably happy with their exposure. The Chinese tennis programs got a nice piece of bourgeois, imperialist change. And Mark McCormack's International Management Group, which put the whole package together and sold the TV rights, for a fee, looked to many happy returns.
Attendance was sparse until Sunday, the only day the masses do not work, but the finals were sold out; 5,000 Chinese paid 15 cents apiece for tickets, and 1,000 foreigners in town for Canton's huge October Trade Fair shelled out $12 each. The natives didn't know much about tennis, beyond what they had been told in the outpouring of primer-like stories in the local press the week of the tournament, but appeared to enjoy it.
The Chinese are very reserved, undemonstrative spectators. For the most part they watched in silence, and responded most enthusiastically to the bizarre and the unexpected: muffed easy shots, net cord winners and players falling down. Connors' frequent attempts at visual humor left them unmoved, but a back-to-the-net, between-the-legs shot by Kentuckian Mel Purcell drew a chorus of appreciative cackles.
Visiting Westerners found the week fascinating. By the plush standards of the pro tour, accommodations were spartan, meals mysterious, sanitary conditions less than optimum. Breakfast dishes were washed in a corner of the Baiyun Hotel dining room, for example. The "washing" consisted of holding the dishes over a pail and rinsing them with hot water poured from a vacuum bottle. Then they were ready for use again.
Still, everywhere there were reminders that China's teeming population is moving into the modern era surely but slowly.
Westerners who looked in on the renovation of the cavernous soccer stadium next door to the tennis were startled to see a small army of laborers working with nary a piece of mechanized equipment. Men and women moved the good earth with picks and shovels, wheelbarrows and baskets.
Other vignettes reminiscent of a Pearl S. Buck novel were common, often interspersed with decidedly modern scenes. A peasant's rickety, ox-drawn cart might pass in front of a billboard advertising the latest model of an electronic Japanese camera. A boy might shoo a flock of ducks across the road with a stick, delaying a truck and an overloaded bicycle. A bearded old Confucius look-alike might shuffle into the stark cement stadium and watch Jimmy Connors play tennis for more money than he made in 15 years at hard labor.
Some strictly personal notes on a tennis week in China . . .
Most exotic foods: snake soup with wild cat (a Cantonese specialty served at all three of the official banquets held in conjunction with the tournament) and braised scaly anteater in brown sauce.
Favorite character: the provincial sports official, a dragon-like woman who delighted in drawing sketches of various animals as the many courses of the banquets were served, just to let apprehensive guests know what they were eating. Her piece de resistance was an impersonation of a snake slithering as it was readied for the soup kettle. She also gave a vivid demonstration of how to bite the head off a roasted rice bird.
Most stirring scene: rush hour in Canton, when narrow back streets and wide boulevards alike become clogged with pedestrians, bell-ringing bicyclists and a few cars whose drivers ride the horn enough to make a commotion worthy of a traffic jam in midtown Manhattan.
Best drink for ceremonial toasts: maotai, a clear fluid made from sorghum. Smells and tastes like shellac, but makes the imbiber tingle.
One could scarcely imagine a greater contrast in the same sport than that between China's maiden tournament and the final of the Davis Cup, symbol of international team supremacy in men's tennis since 1900, in Prague two months later.
The Canton tournament was played in broiling 90-degree heat, before small and largely indifferent audiences.Czechoslovakia battled Italy before packed and passionate capacity crowds of 12,000 at Prague's Sportovni Hala, which ordinarily serves as an ice hocket arena. Outside it was snowy, but inside cup fever was running high, leading to raucous and near-riotous goings-on.
Two thousand Italians in the stands snag and chanted and clapped support for their team. They jeered the Czechoslovakians and created bedlam in protest of what they thought were hometown calls by the umpires and linesmen. No nation has more voluble or impassioned fans than Italy, but the 10,000 homestanding Czechoslovakians did their best to drown out the Italian cacophony. Together they made the dingy old arena shake, rattle and roll through two excruciating five-set matches that decided the best-of-five-match series.
The Italian team came to Prague, an architecturally and historically magnificent city, expecting the worst. They had practically conceded two of the four singles matches to Ivan Lendl, the tall, strong and cocky 20-year-old Czech who had enjoyed a spectacular season, rising to No. 6 in the computerized world singles ratings.
Even though Lendl never had played his best tennis at home -- and, in fact, he was far below his pinnacle this time -- the Italians figured him to beat both their singles players, the dashing Adriano Panatta and the dour Corrado Barrazzutti. They reckoned their best chance to win was for both Panatta and Barazzutti to beat Czechoslovakia's No. 2 singles player, Tomas Smid, and for Panatta and stubby Paolo (the Pasta Kid) Bertolucci to beat Lendl and Smid in the doubles.
Prague was excited about the showdown. Davis Cup posters adorned the window of at least every other shop in the neighborhood of the sports hall, and many downtown. More than 120,000 people, including 7,000 Italians, wanted to buy three-day series tickets. Several thousand Czechoslovakians paid to watch practice on the afternoons leading up to the final. Youngsters waited in lines, bundled up against the swirling snow, to buy posters, pennants and other souvenirs.
Italy got the draw it wanted. If Panatta, an experienced and sometimes inspired Davis Cup player, could beat the debuting Smid in the opener, assuring at least a 1-1 split on the first day, Czechoslovakia's inexperienced doubles team would be sure to feel pressure in the pivotal third match. Italy's dynamic doubles duo was clearly better, and if they could provide a 2-1 lead going into the final day, anything could happen.
For the first hour, the scenario was as the Italians wanted it. Penatta, serving powerfully and playing superbly, dominated the first two sets of the opening singles. Smid looked like a nervous wreck. He had been up all the previous night with stomach cramps his teammates attributed to nerves.
But Panatta, who should know better, got careless in the third set and let Smid back into the match. Once into it, the inelegant but lion-hearted young Czech fought furiously, and got a little help on a few critical points from his countrymen calling the lines. By the fifth set, the match was a brawl and the crowd was in a frenzy.
When Smid got to a shot that Panatta was certain had bounced twice, and hit a winner that was called good and upheld by the neutral British referee, the Italians went berserk. As Panatta and nonplaying captain Vittorio Crotta argued furiously, their partisans whistled and howled their displeasure and chanted at the Czechoslovakian officials, "ladri," Italian for "thieves."
Just when play finally appeared ready to resume, a commotion broke out in one of the Italian sections of the stands. Spectators were up in arms, screaming to Panatta, "Don't play.They have grabbed two of us." Police had seized and ejected two Italians, allegedly roughing them up. A cameraman who photographed the fracas had his film confiscated. The president of the Italian tennis federation insisted that his team would not continue until the two "hostages" were released.
The referee quickly declared an unprecedented suspension of play until order could be restored. Diplomatic negotiations ensued and the detained Italians were released. One, ironically, was the brother of a leading Italian communist. The other reportedly was an expatriate Slovak who had angered the police by taunting the home players in their own language. "He was shouting anti-Socialist slogans," said a cop. i
After 45 minutes, the tense and exciting match resumed, but Panatta's spirit was broken. "It was all too much -- the line calls, the disruption, everything," he said later, sighing. Smid prevailed, getting a "gift" call on match point.
After that, the Italians were finished. Lendl started shakily, but creamed Barazzutti for a 2-0 lead. Panatta and Bertolucci put all their heart and guts into a scintillating doubles match, but Lendl and Smid won it in a nerve-wracking fifth set to clinch the cup with an unbeatable 3-0 lead.
The Italians complained bitterly about the officiating and Panatta, Barazzutti and Bertolucci gracelessly boycotted the closing ceremonies. Neutrals found this gesture ironically hilarious, since Italians polished hometown officiating and crowd intimidation into art forms.
Some strictly personal notes from a tennis week in Czechoslovakia. . .
Favorite character: Czech umpire Antonin Bubenik, balding and rotund, who infuriated Italian players and fans alike with his partisanship and his irritating way of screeching, "Silenzio!" at them. He was identified by Frenchmen as the man who went to the French Open in Paris this year accredited as a journalist, but was thrown out after being intercepted one day leaving the press room with two large bags full of beer from its cooler. This prompted one indignant Italian to editorialize, "This shameless man steals not only points, but beer as well."
Most stirring scene: The Czechoslovakians' display of jubilation at the cup-clinching moment. Smid and Lendl raised their arms triumphantly and grasped each other in a wide-eyed bear hug as their nonplaying teammates tossed into the air, ballboys rejoiced and spectators sprang to their feet in a deafening tribute.
Favorite quote: Jan Kodes, 34, the feisty former French Open and Wimbledon champion who led Czechoslovakia to the Davis Cup final in 1975, but was a nonplaying team member this time, said of the Italians, "They are crying too much. They didn't have it so bad. Our big mistake was letting them have 2,000 tickets, because that insured there would be trouble. If we played in Italy, we'd get 25 tickets, period, and that is what we should have given them."