Concrete Elbow by Steve Tignor - "Are You Ready, Mr. Ashe?"
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"Are You Ready, Mr. Ashe?" 10/20/2010 - 1:50 PM

Bb Certain tournaments appear to be ghosts of their former selves. Watching the current L.A. Open, which is played in July in front of not-exactly-jammed bleachers on the UCLA campus, it’s hard to believe that that city once hosted the glamorous Pacific Southwest Championships, the second-most-prestigious event in the country after the U.S. Open. Ditto for the now-defunct Indianapolis tournament, which was once the U.S. Clay Courts, but has now had to start from scratch again in Atlanta. And we all know about Hamburg. Once the highly dignified German Open, it has been reduced to trying to sue the ATP in the U.S. Supreme Court over its downgraded status.

The current edition of the Stockholm Open—brought to you by If, a Swedish insurance company—is a fine event, made finer this year by the presence of Roger Federer. The dark-blue court looks good, and there have been crowds for the early rounds so far. But it’s also a little ghostly. The tournament, like the Pacific Southwest, was once a signature late-season event. There was a reason for this, of course, a reason that no longer exists: Bjorn Borg played it. That meant Swedish people, including Swedish royalty, came to watch it.

Borg experienced a few milestones at his home tournament. In 1973, as a 17-year-old, he turned tennis in that country on its ear with a string of upsets, the last of which was a semifinal win over 21-year-old Jimmy Connors in their first meeting. Five years later, however, the tables were turned on Borg when he faced another left-handed American for the first time. John McEnroe, 19, stunned the then-22-year-old Borg in the semifinals, 6-3, 6-4, in front of the King of Sweden. It was the first time Borg had lost to a younger player. (That upset has always reminded me of Rafael Nadal’s first win over Roger Federer in Key Biscayne, by similar 6-3, 6-3 scores, in 2004. Both were ambushes to a degree, and each set a tone: The younger players, Nadal and McEnroe, were immediately able to believe that they could hold their own with the living legends.)

Two years later, Borg and McEnroe met again in Stockholm, in a much-anticipated final; they’d split classic five-setters at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open earlier that year. But this one wasn’t as memorable, for anyone other than Borg. He won in straights. More interesting was what happened after the match. For the first time during that tournament, Borg spoke to the press. He’d racked up $2,000 in fines by skipping his press conferences until then. Borg and McEnroe had recently been offered an exorbitant sum to play an exhibition in apartheid South Africa. McEnroe, after talking to his Davis Cup captain, Arthur Ashe, had declined, passing up $800,000. Borg, the money machine, had initially decided to accept. The Swedish media, of whom Borg had never been fond, wanted to grill him.

Just as Borg’s fate varied in Stockholm, so did McEnroe’s. Four years later, he put on one of the most notorious displays of his notorious career while playing Anders Jarryd there. McEnroe hit a ball into the stands, lost 15 points in a row, smashed a drink tray, and shouted his second-most-famous four-word outburst: “Answer the question, jerk!” The jerk in question, the chair umpire, hit him with a game penalty, but it appears in this video of the event that McEnroe thought he should have been defaulted. Instead he came back and won in three. 1984 was McEnroe's finest year, but it’s hard to see it in Stockholm. He looks miserable and exhausted. Something about Mac and being the undisputed world No. 1 didn’t mix.

But the best of all Stockholm stories belongs to, as you may have guessed, Ilie Nastase. The Masters (now the WTF) was held there at the end of 1975. Nastase was playing Ashe in a round-robin match and was down 1-4, 15-40 in the third set. A fan began to heckle him, so Nastase began to heckle back. Finally he served, but Ashe caught the ball; he’d seen another ball rolling on Nasty’s side of the court. Nastase later said, “for some reason, I thought I would slow up play.” He bounced the ball and said, teasingly, “Are you ready, Mr. Ashe?” He bounced the ball and asked the question again. And again. And again. “I don’t know how many times I did it, but it must have been quite a few.” Finally, Ashe, a picture of calm rationality on all other occasions, snapped. He walked toward the net screaming, “That’s it. I’ve had enough!” He kept walking, right off the court, and defaulted the match. He kept ranting, too, in the locker room, as tournament officials tried to decide what to do. The umpire claimed that he’d been on the verge of defaulting Nastase anyway. In a round-robin format, a default wouldn’t have meant the end of the tournament for either player. The first solution was to disqualify both of them, but when Ashe heard that idea, he went nuts again. So they decided just to default Nastase, who was always the bad guy anyway. He was OK with it.

The next day Nastase went to a florist in Stockholm. He bought a large bouquet of red, white, and yellow roses. He took them to the dining room of the player hotel and, according to him, “crept nervously up to the man they were intended for, trying to hide behind the huge bouquet. When I got to his table, he turned around, saw the flowers, saw me, smiled, and then laughed. I was forgiven.” He handed the flowers to Ashe.

Nastase went on to play some of the finest tennis of his career over the next few says. Despite the default, he reached the final, and there humbled the hometown boy, Borg, 6-2, 6-2, 6-1.

Nasty and nice, horrible and fabulous, Stockholm was all Nastase’s in ’75. Whatever happens at the tournament this week, I’m guessing it won’t be quite like that.


Posted by AB 10/20/2010 at 02:19 PM

Steve: thank you very much for these stories tied to the current tournament. I appreciate the way you add texture and color to some of the less-hyped events.

Posted by crazycaro21 10/20/2010 at 02:29 PM

So interesting to learn about the Stockholm tournament's history Steve! Thanks a lot for the story.

Posted by juan 10/20/2010 at 02:47 PM

Excellent post Steve.I remember I got my first tennis weekly in 80 when Borg beat Mac.Mac complained the court was so slow but according to Swedish press he played some great points from the baseline.

WCT Dallas, Philly,Memphis Indianapolis where Jimbo played so well.They were far bigger than the Aussie open back then.

Posted by Lynne (Rafalite) 10/20/2010 at 02:56 PM

Really enjoyable post, Steve. The first time I ever saw Nastase was when he played Stan Smith at Wimbledon in 1972, I think. That was a great match which Stan won. I was really taken with "Nasty" although little did I know that he would turn out to be so disruptive and quite impossible at times !

Posted by SwissMaestro 10/20/2010 at 03:05 PM

Stevo! How are you guessing is going to win it? I for one would love to see a Federer vs Soderling final, hope they can make it.

Posted by vv_varaiya 10/20/2010 at 03:10 PM

When is your first book coming out? You are steeped in the "recent" history and have the affection and warmth for the game to write a full-length piece. I enjoy your historical interludes. Are any Russian tennis writers translated regularly into English that you recommend? The ascent of Russian tennis from Communism to modern day capitalism must have a fascinating set of stories. The Spanish Armada from Bruguera's time (Orantes is too far back for me) must have good stories as well.

Posted by David 10/20/2010 at 03:25 PM

I don't know what's better...U-Tube of Mac or your article...either way, thank U very much.
Now it's time to watch the $200 million dollar payroll Yankees get KOed!

Posted by Steve 10/20/2010 at 03:33 PM

actually, like a lot of famous quotes, it's not quite what he says. he says, "answer my question" and then "the question, jerk."

sort of like the famous gerulaitis quote: he actually said "nobody beats ME 17 times in a row." not "nobody beats vitas gerulaitis 17 times in a row." at least that's how it was originally reported. i've never seen a clip of it.

supposed to be a book of mine out next year. i'm hopeful

Posted by Michele 10/20/2010 at 03:54 PM

It's not often I want to be older these days but reading about tennis in the 70s makes me wish I were 16 and not 6 in 1975.

Great read.

Posted by Mr. T. 10/20/2010 at 04:03 PM

Steve - Great stories. The last time I saw Nasty play was an exhibition with Cliff Richey at Hershey, Pa. He was in a particularly devilish mood and would not move his hand one inch when the ball boys bounced him the ball to serve. This prolonged the match but it did entertain the crowd. I can not remember who won.

Posted by What Would McEnroe Do? 10/20/2010 at 04:35 PM


In his autobiography, McEnroe talks about wanting to be defaulted and/or suspended, practically begging for it. This video confirms that feeling, doesn't it?

Posted by Steve 10/20/2010 at 04:48 PM

yes, definitely, wwmd. looks like he was hoping for it. he was clearly at the end of some sort of rope that day

Posted by Heidi 10/20/2010 at 05:22 PM

Hey Steve! Great stories. I love the sense of history at tournaments, and you're right, it is sad to watch some of them fade. Never heard the Nastase-Ashe story before, to tell the truth. Looking forward to the book!

Posted by gerco 10/20/2010 at 06:00 PM

isn´t that will ferrel in the photo??

Posted by SimonSays 10/20/2010 at 06:01 PM

Another great article.. i dont get how you do it but you're great Steve. seriously good work

Posted by Carol 10/20/2010 at 06:47 PM

Steve, I love your articles and vids. I remember two yers ego you showed a couple of vids, one above the other one which ones we could see Borg and Nadal playing in RG, it was great

Posted by goku24 10/20/2010 at 07:10 PM

Great story, thanks for the opportunity to learn more about the game and the players for someone bornt after the date of the event.(1975)

Posted by skip1515 10/20/2010 at 08:20 PM

I've never thought of it this way before, but I wonder how much the spectator fatigue during the seemingly 2nd tier fall season is due to....too much tennis on television.

Amidst all the hoo-ing and hah-ing over how poorly tennis is served by the cool medium (see: Wertheim today), virtually all of which I agree with, it's worth noting that before Tennis Channel, ESPN and online streams tennis fans rarely got to watch tennis live and could barely keep up with players' wins and losses. For most of the tennis world, most of the time, getting tennis news was a matter of scouring the box scores in a newspaper. Even that wasn't consistent; there were times we'd be able to follow the first few rounds of a tourney and then not know anything until it was over!

I wonder if, as a consequence of that, tournaments like the Stockholm Open weren't better attended. After all, it was the only opportunity for Stockholmians to see live professional tennis. Today they might not only be able to watch their hometown tournament on Swedish television, but they've been able to watch tennis all year long to a degree that far outstrips what was available when Mac beat Borg.

Is too much of a good thing is killing the fall season?

Posted by courtney 10/20/2010 at 11:19 PM

Check this out Steve.

Posted by Aussiemarg,Madame President.Yes Indeed I am A One Woman Show 10/21/2010 at 12:04 AM

Steve Many thanks for the tennis trip down memeory lane.

Who would have thought that Nastase would ever buy Red,Yellow and White Roses?

Thanks for the this post.

Posted by lea 10/21/2010 at 12:23 AM

love these history posts.

Posted by Charles 10/21/2010 at 01:40 AM

Really well done, Steve. Greatly enjoyed it!

skip1515 - great observations. your argument sounds reasonable to me. I remember how hard it was to get tennis scores before the internet. My first chance to see anything resembling pro tennis was an exhibition in Winnipeg featuring Boris Becker and Kevin Curren in the late 80's. I was totally starved then... now we have an embarrassment of riches. Which is great!

The world was different in the late 70's. A tournament could be 'made' if a high profile player showed up. And you never knew where or when that would be. There were just no restrictions on what tournaments the players could play. It meant the top players played each other less often, but it spread the wealth to different tournaments. Tournaments became big because of the players they attracted and the money they offered. Now it's all very managed. It's good now, too, better in some ways, but the romance or the unexpected factor is lessened - also less bankruptcies by tournaments I'd wager...

Posted by Fern 10/21/2010 at 06:29 AM

"It's good now, too, better in some ways, but the romance or the unexpected factor is lessened"...

@Charles and Skip. So true ... I grew up in the era of Borg, McEnroe and co and I think there was more a spontaneous, unpredictable feel around tennis back then. Perhaps the relatively easy access (via 24/7 internet/tv) simply erodes the 'glamour event' appeal that 70s tennis tourneys used to have.

Nastase was my first tennis hero so always enjoy reading about him - a brilliant and entertaining player and a volatile personality. Not sure how he and say, Connors, would fare with their court antics in today's tournaments and the 24/7 media coverage that goes with it.

Posted by jewell 10/21/2010 at 09:03 AM

That Nastase-Ashe story makes me smile. :))) Loved the whole piece though.

Oh, Mac...

Posted by Jim 10/21/2010 at 02:42 PM

I recall Ashe's commenting that Nastase would spend an entire match trying to get under his skin, then immediately afterwards say "So--where are we going out for dinner, negroni?"

Posted by Steve 10/21/2010 at 03:04 PM

nastase did the same thing after he played connors for the first time and had acted like a crazy man during the match.

he pointed at connors in the locker room: "you, me, dinner." connors was a rookie on tour

and he did after the famous 79 meltdown at the open with mcenroe. nasty had dinner with mac and roy emerson afterward. mac couldn't believe it

Posted by SRao 10/21/2010 at 03:23 PM

Steve,you are simply a superb STORY-TELLER. You remind me of the great RUSKIN BOND,whom I adore.

I'm just the 26/27/28th person commenting.Everytime you post something so beautiful,so inshightful,so informative...there are so few comments.For which I'm only thankful.Because all of them are intelligent replies.Be happy.

Tell me this-have you been reading about Tennis all your life? Do you spend all your "free time" too reading tennis?Your knowledge about tennis and your great stories on them are a real treat for any serious fan.Thanks.

"The current edition of the Stockholm Open—brought to you by If, a Swedish insurance company—is a fine event, made finer this year by the presence of Roger Federer"
This is so true.Roger just seems to light up any place he goes to.I cannot and don't want to imagine that-day,when he retires.

Posted by AAA 10/21/2010 at 05:52 PM

PBS carried many of such now gone tournaments during the 70's -- Stratton Mountain, the summer clay circuit, the Philadelphia indoors. Borg was "Teen Angel" and Stan Smith was still a top player. Nastase was a force. Some of the then top players fell off a cliff, with the onset of Connors and the Europeans, and the shift to clay. Love these stories, you evoke the players beautifully.

Posted by karin1492 10/21/2010 at 06:29 PM

Could you imagine the uproar today if someone tried to pull what Nastase and McEnroe did? Maybe one of the reasons why tennis isn't as popular today as it was back in the 1970s and 80s is that there aren't as many larger-than-life personalities playing on the tour as there were then. Or maybe tennis is far less like a circus event today as it seems like it was back then. People may have watched it for the trainwrecks and fireworks on the court by the players and not necessarily for the tennis.

Posted by manuelsantanafan 10/21/2010 at 07:29 PM

si.vault has comprehensive archives pertaining to when Sports Illustrated often carried lengthy articles on tennis.

For example, S.I.'s 1975 take on that 1975 tournament:

Posted by tina (ajde, Novak: handsome and talented Balkans #1, world #3, Davis Cup hero, AO 2008 titleist, reigning USO finalist, cutest butt in tennis, rapper, the face of Belgrade t-shirts, Novak water and Restaurant - don't u wish your polyglot was hott like me) 10/21/2010 at 08:34 PM

Now it's time to watch the $200 million dollar payroll Yankees get KOed!

LOLOLOLMFAO! oops, didn't happen, the Yankees live on, to beat Texas in Texas!

Posted by tina (ajde, Novak: handsome and talented Balkans #1, world #3, Davis Cup hero, AO 2008 titleist, reigning USO finalist, cutest butt in tennis, rapper, the face of Belgrade t-shirts, Novak water and Restaurant - don't u wish your polyglot was hott like me) 10/21/2010 at 08:44 PM

I remember lots of this stuff from the mid-70s. 1968-1972 are vague but from 1974 on, I was watching all the tennis available on TV, going up to Brookline, MA and out to the US Open with kids' groups - as well as reading all the stuff now in SI's vault (good call msf). We didn't have the internet back then, but seeing live tennis was a lot less complicated and didn't cost a bloody fortune. I still have a Coke can Johnny Mac threw into a bin in the summer of 1978. (I also have balls signed by Ashe and Orantes.)

Posted by Fay 10/24/2010 at 04:46 AM

Great relook at the old classics, Mcenroe was somethin else wasn't he!

Posted by Marianne 10/24/2010 at 07:25 PM

I can only agree with the other posters here. Such an enjoyable piece.

Unlike some of them, I am old enough to remember watching Nastase, Ashe, Borg and McEnroe on the only televised tennis in the UK on the BBC ie Wimbledon and few other bits and pieces if we were lucky! So thank heavens for the advent of YouTube to finally get an insight into other tournaments around the world of which I was oblivious as a young girl.

And thank you for writing the story about Stockholm and reminding me why I loved watching Nastase play. I had a crush simply because he was such a 'bad boy', and charismatic with it. And I loved Ashe for being the polar opposite!

I actually saw Nastase, live, for the first time at Flushing last year, playing the veterans team event. He's worn rather less well than the other guys on the seniors circuit but was *still* full of mischief, still the centre of attention without even trying!

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