October 10, 1971: Stan Smith and the United States won the last Davis Cup “Challenge Round”

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On this day, on October 9, 1989, Stan Smith beated Ion Tiriac in straight sets and the United States won the last Davis Cup "Challenge Round" of tennis history.

What happened?

On this day, October 10, 1971, Stan Smith easily defeated Ion Tiriac (8-6, 6-3, 6-0), sealing the victory of the United States over Romania in the last Challenge Round in the history of the Davis Cup. Heavy rains had fallen on Saturday night, and the officials had spared no effort to dry the courts : they went as far as using a helicopter and setting gasoline on fire.

 

The guys involved

Stan Smith was born in 1946 in South California. As a kid, he went to get a job as a ball boy for the Davis Cup, but was turned down because the organizers thought he was too clumsy. Yet, Smith later played collegiate tennis at the University of South Carolina, and in 1968, he started playing on the tour. By September 1971, he had already claimed 11 single titles, including the 1970 Stockholm Open, where he defeated Arthur Ashe (5-7, 6-4, 6-4), the 1970 Tokyo Masters, where he beat Rod Laver (4-6, 6-3, 6-4) and the 1971 Queen’s Club Championship, where he dominated John Newcombe (8-6, 6-3).

Three weeks after his triumph at the Queen’s Club, Newcombe took his revenge against Smith in a close Wimbledon final (6-3, 5-7, 2-6, 6-4, 6-4). A few weeks later, Smith claimed his first Grand Slam title at Forest Hills, after he beat Jan Kodes in the final (3-6, 6-3, 6-2, 7-6). It was the first time that a US Open final ended with a tie-break, which had been established only in 1970.

Ion Tiriac was born in 1939. Because he was born in Transylvania, Romania, he was nicknamed “the Brasov Bulldozer” or “Count Dracula”. Gifted in various sports, he was at first a table tennis prodigy, before being a part of the Romanian hockey team at the Winter Olympics in 1964 in Innsbruck.

When he focused on tennis, he became strong enough to reach the quarterfinals at Roland-Garros in 1968, which was the first Grand Slam of the Open Era. There, he was close to beating world No 1, the great Rod Laver, but, despite a two-set lead, Tiriac was eventually defeated (4-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-3, 6-0). He was more successful in doubles, usually partnering fellow Romanian Ilie Nastase, with whom they reached the Roland-Garros semi-finals twice (1968, 1969) before eventually triumphing in 1970, after they beat Arthur Ashe and Charlie Pasarell in the final (6-4, 6-3, 6-2).

 

The place

In 1989, the Fed Cup was still held under its original format, with 40 teams competing during one week in one location. This year, the competition took place in Tokyo, at the Ariake Tennis Park, where the main court, the Coliseum, had a capacity of 10,000 spectators.

 

The facts

In 1971, the United States, as the defending champion of the Davis Cup, hosted the final in Charlotte, North Carolina. The challenger, Romania, had beaten no less than six other countries to get into the Challenge Round. First, Ion Tiriac and Ilie Nastase had to win the Europe Zone B tournament (defeating Netherlands, Israel, Yugoslavia and West Germany) and then, they had to win the Inter-Zonal tournament, beating India and Brazil. 

After the wrong Romanian national anthem had been played, things kept going from bad to worse for the challenger team on the first day. Stan Smith easily beat Nastase (7-5, 6-3, 6-1), and Tiriac blew a two-set lead, losing to Frank Froehling (3-6, 1-6, 6-3, 6-1, 8-6). 

Now, the Romanians were used to playing doubles together. They were an experienced team, having claimed many titles, including Roland-Garros in 1970.  “Count Dracula” and “The Bucharest Buffoon”, despite their funny nicknames, left no chance to Smith and Erik van Dillen, dismissing them in three sets (7-5, 6-4, 8-6). 

On Saturday night, heavy rain fell on Charlotte. The officials were determined to dry the courts and avoid any delay, and they were also conscious that humid clay courts would slow down the game, which would work in the favor of Romania. Sparing no effort (and no expense!), they rented a helicopter to hover in the stadium. This spectacular effort still proved inefficient, so it was decided to douse petrol on the tennis court, and set it on fire. This time, the court was actually dry, to the point where it didn’t exactly feel like clay anymore, but more like asphalt.

This was great news for Smith, who, coming from California, had learned to play on cement. The 24-year old American was only playing his fourth Davis Cup match, against the experienced Tiriac, who had played more than fifty, but on such a fast surface, his serve-and-volley game was too puzzling for the Romanian. Smith prevailed in straight sets, 8-6, 6-3, 6-0, sealing the American victory in the last Challenge Round in tennis history.

What’s next

The two players would face each other a year later in the 1972 Davis Cup final, this time held in Bucharest. After a controversial match, during which he would claim being cheated by the linesmen, Stan Smith would prevail in five sets, 4-6, 6-2, 6-4, 2-6, 6-0.

Smith, who was already considered as a great player, would start a two-year period where he would be one of the dominant players in the world. Smith would claim a second Grand Slam title, in 1972, at Wimbledon, defeating Ilie Nastase in the final (4-6, 6-3, 6-3, 4-6, 7-5). That year, winning no less than nine tournaments, he would be considered as the world No 1, although the ATP ranking didn’t exist at the time. In total, Smith would win 37 titles in his entires career, and he would also claim five major titles in doubles, partnering Robert Lutz. Stan Smith would remain famous decades after his retirement because of the popular sneakers made by Adidas and  named after him.

SMITH WIMBLEDON 1972

Once his career as a player would be finished, Ion Tiriac would become a famous sports manager (in the 1980’s, he would discover and drive a young German player named Boris Becker) and overall businessman. His investements would prove successful, as Tiriac would become a billionaire, the richest man in Romania.

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