When the Davis Cup Came in From the Cold
Jerry Cooke/Sports Illustrated, via Getty Images
By MATT RICHTEL
Published: October 13, 2013
Rain pelting its windows, an Air France jet arrived in Bucharest, Romania, in early October 1972. Two dozen men waited below. They wore leather jackets and shouldered machine guns, and some had knives strapped to their ankles.
Jerry Cooke/Sports Illustrated, via Getty Images
The greeting party befitted a head of state or a political prisoner. In this case, the security detail was shepherding the United States Davis Cup team.
The 1972 Davis Cup finals were an epic drama. Tennis historians consider it one of the best Cup matches. But they evinced something grander, an event bathed in geopolitics, with hints of intrigue. It is a moment somewhat lost in history, its context (including an apparent cameo by President Richard M. Nixon) not fully illuminated.
Six weeks before the match, the world had watched on television as Palestinian terrorists murdered 11 members of the Israeli team at the Munich Olympics. The next big international sporting event was the Davis Cup in Romania, a country friendly to the Palestinians, and the Americans had two Jewish players.
Security precautions were extraordinary for tennis — SWAT teams on the hotel roof and motorcades that never stopped at red lights — and the fear of attack felt real enough that the United States coach, Dennis Ralston, sidelined Harold Solomon in part because he was Jewish. It was one more challenge heaped on the team facing a contest on red clay, a slow and less familiar surface to the Americans and their lone star, Stan Smith.
Even before the Munich attack, Ralston said he had been warned not to take the team to Romania by Neale Fraser, the coach of Australia’s Davis Cup team, which played in Bucharest in the summer of 1972. Fraser told Ralston that his match had been stolen by partisan line calls and cheating.
“You can’t win because they won’t let you,” Ralston recalled Fraser telling him. “You have no idea what you’re getting into.”
But much bigger forces were propelling the United States toward Bucharest. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Romania and the United States had a cautious alliance that was crucial during the cold war. The United States saw Romania, and its leader, Nicolae Ceausescu, as a wedge to split the Soviet bloc. Ceausescu had shown himself independent of the Soviet Union by refusing to join other Eastern bloc countries in severing diplomatic ties with Israel after the Six-Day War in 1967. A year later, he did not support the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. The United States and Western European countries gave Romania large loans and trading privileges, allowing it to join GATT in 1971 and the I.M.F. a year later, the first Eastern European country to do so.
Another benefit was that Ceausescu had relations with the Chinese government and was perceived as one conduit, along with Pakistan, for Nixon to quietly forge what would become the signature legacy of his foreign policy. One of Nixon’s early foreign policy trips was to Romania.
In keeping up relations with the United States, Ceausescu, known as the Conducator (leader), was trying to have it all. He wanted to be a good Stalinist while also getting the fruits of outside capital, and, when it suited him, culture. He saw sport as a way to safely build nationalism.
In one hint of political context, a New York Times article at the time reported that the United States Lawn Tennis Association had agreed to play in Bucharest in part with the advice of the State Department.
Another hint of the diplomatic stakes came from a series of phone calls, said Sigrid Draper, who then had close ties to the White House. Through her work in the Republican Party, she had become friends with Michelle Smith Chotiner, the wife of a close Nixon aide, Murray Chotiner.
After the attacks in Munich, Draper said, Bob Kelleher, an acquaintance and Nixon-appointed federal judge who had been captain of the 1963 United States Davis Cup team and the president of the tennis association from 1967 to 1968, called her to say the Davis Cup team was worried about its Jewish players. Draper, in turn, contacted Murray Chotiner.
“The next thing I knew,” Draper recalled, “Murray called me and said that Nixon called Ceausescu and said, ‘Send them over.’ ”
Whether Nixon actually placed the call is tough to verify. But several members of Nixon’s national security team at the time said that it was as likely as not. Denis Clift, who in 1971 joined the National Security Council staff, said he had no direct knowledge but he could see the logic behind such a move. “This is a positive move of a pawn on the chess table,” Clift said. “He’s calling Ceausescu saying: ‘We can have a win-win. I can have my people go over, and you can guarantee nothing can happen.’ ”
Two Fiery Romanians
The Davis Cup is a best-of-five contest with four singles matches, featuring each team’s two top singles players, and one doubles match. The Romanians used only two players: the graceful and mercurial Ilie Nastase, a 26-year-old playboy and the reigning United States Open champion, and the cunning brawler Ion Tiriac, a member of the country’s 1964 Olympic hockey team.
Nastase and Tiriac, national heroes and clay-court experts, each played two singles matches, and they teamed up for doubles. They had won the 1970 French Open doubles title on clay. “Tennis for us, at least for Nastase and I, was our life,” Tiriac said in an e-mail dictated to his personal assistant.
For the Americans, Smith, who had defeated Nastase three months earlier to win Wimbledon, was a lock to play singles and doubles. The choice for the other singles player, Ralston recalled, “was the toughest tennis decision I ever made.”
Ralston opted for Tom Gorman, who had reached the United States Open semifinals that year. But he was not built for clay and had lost eight straight matches to Nastase.
The obvious choice would have been Solomon, a much stronger player on clay than Gorman, who had won a crucial match on that surface in the Davis Cup semifinals in Spain. But Ralston said Solomon had seemed a bit out of shape and Ralston had other concerns.
“I didn’t think he’d be able to handle the threat of him being bombed or hit,” Ralston said. “I didn’t want him to go out there thinking someone might potshot him.”
The other Jewish American, Brian Gottfried, was not expected to play.
For his part, Solomon said he was not afraid and, besides, “I can tell you that Tiriac had no good thoughts of playing me.”
In doubles, Smith was teamed with Erik Van Dillen, who had not played well in the Davis Cup finals in 1971, when Tiriac and Nastase routed them in North Carolina.
On paper, the outlook was dubious for the Americans, even if Smith won his two singles matches. In the first match on the first day, Oct. 13, he beat Nastase in straight sets.
In the second match, Gorman was up by two sets to none when Tiriac started his antics, according to the participants and news reports at the time. He cajoled linesmen to side with him on questionable calls, and he sat in a chair in the middle of a game to break Gorman’s rhythm. When Gorman served, Tiriac stared at the ground to force him to pause. Gorman, fearing bad line calls, said he felt “the court got a lot smaller.”
During a changeover in the fourth set, Tiriac walked toward Ralston, who lifted one of Gorman’s rackets like a weapon, then caught himself.
Ralston said: “I honestly think the Lord was protecting me and that team because if I’d have gone after him, that would have been the end of us. We’d have been killed by all the Romanians.”
To the crowd’s chants of “Ti-ri-ac!” he won in five sets.
The referee was Enrique Morea of Argentina, an impartial official with the power to correct clear mistakes. Morea said that the cheating was the worst he had ever seen and that the linesmen “saw whatever Tiriac wanted.”
In the locker room at Club Sportiv Progresul after the match, Van Dillen argued that the team should go home. Then came a made-for-television moment starring Solomon. “Come on, guys,” Solomon recalled saying. “If we pack it in, and we let these guys have this thing, it’s like they’re going to win twice,” referring to playing in Romania, then forfeiting.
The Americans were not the only ones on edge.
“The Romanians had a mixture of pride, and apprehension, hope and despair, the whole mix of Balkan emotions,” Jonathan Rickert, the consul in the United States Embassy at the time, said in a recent interview.
In Tiriac, they might have seen themselves: survivors who had done whatever it took to maintain their Romanian core after being overrun by Hungarians, Russians, Germans, Greeks and Turks.
Toma Ovici, a member of the Romanian team before and after the 1972 finals, said the Davis Cup bewitched Bucharest. When Nastase lost to Smith, said Ovici, who watched from the stands, “people were looking for Nastase’s car to burn it.”
In the next day’s doubles match, the Americans took only 68 minutes to win in straight sets, with Van Dillen having what Smith and others said was the match of his life. And so the Americans led the Davis Cup, 2-1, heading into the final day’s singles matches: Smith vs. Tiriac and Nastase vs. Gorman.
News accounts credited Morea, the referee, with doing a yeoman’s job of keeping control, removing a partisan linesman at one point. Behind the scenes, Morea, who had a bodyguard sleeping outside his hotel room, was furious about the cheating.
Morea, 89, had a stroke six years ago but said on the telephone with assistance from his wife, Alicia, that he had told Ralston, “Please try not to hit any of the lines because it will make things easier.”
The stage was set for a tense day.
Polar opposites in style and temperament, Smith, a breezy surfer-boy Californian, and the combative Tiriac, black Brillo-pad hair on his wrecking-ball-size head, played a whopper. Tiriac won the first set, Smith the next two, then Tiriac won the fourth, using all his tricks. When Tiriac served long but Smith hit a winner, the linesman called Tiriac’s serve in and Smith’s return out. “I got two bad calls on the same point,” Smith said, acknowledging, “This is when I was finally going nuts.”
In the fifth set, Smith played breathless tennis, hitting indisputable winners and beating Tiriac, 6-0, to secure a fifth straight Davis Cup title for the United States. Nastase defeated Gorman in the meaningless final match.
In the moments after, the Americans said they felt too exhausted to celebrate. And, Ralston said, Romanian security officers told him they had found two Arab men nearby and “literally threw us into the cars.”
Tiriac, 74, who was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in July, did not respond to a question regarding the accusations of cheating. He said in the e-mail dictated to his assistant, “The Davis Cup in 1972 was unfortunately just another final that we lost.” In an interview with the Tennis Channel in May, he said he had no regrets about his behavior, and in 2002, Smith and Gorman accepted Tiriac’s invitation to return to Bucharest to re-enact the match with him and Nastase.
Rickert, the embassy consul, said the Romanians, and Tiriac, had put up an outsize fight, that mix of survival and fatalism.
“Tiriac had no business being on the court with Smith, tennis-wise,” Rickert said. “But, somehow, he played and psyched and performed in such a way that he made a match of it, and then he just ran out of steam. What he did was a tribute to something, I’m just not sure quite what.”