"Are You Ready, Mr. Ashe?"

Wednesday, October 20, 2010 /by

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.

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