Monday, February 25, 2008

Dixie International Tournament, 1963

Australian tennis star Roy Emerson had already cemented his status as one of the top players in the world when in February 1963 he arrived in Tampa with many of the world’s best players for the 36th Dixie International Tennis Championships. Ranked No. 2 in the world behind only the legendary Rod Laver, Emerson highlighted a field that tournament chairman E.C. Smith called “by far the greatest in the history of the tournament. None has been able to compare any others with this one.”

Defending tournament champion Manuel Santana of Spain, one of the top clay court players in the world and the 1961 French Open champion, figured to once again have a decided advantage on the Davis Islands clay. Bob Hewitt and Fred Stolle, both Australian and both future Hall of Famers, added even more depth to the field.

Darlene Hard, America’s best female player, and Brazilian Maria Bueno highlighted the women’s field, along with Leslie Turner of England and Helga Schultze of Germany. Adding some local flavor were Judy Alvarez, a former tournament finalist, and Sandy Warshaw, a former Dixie tournament winner, who under the name Sandra W. Freedman, would become Tampa’s first female mayor in 1987.

Rain and brisk gusts of wind on the first day of the tournament proved symbolic for what turned out to be a tumultuous and unpredictable week of tennis. Thomas Koch, a 17-year-old Brazilian, netted the tournament’s first upset by disposing of fourth-seeded Hewitt, 6-2, 1-6, 6-2, in the opening round. Just a few hours later, Koch defeated University of Miami star Rod Mandelstamm 6-3, 8-6 to reach the quarterfinals.

Armi Neely, Florida’s third-ranked junior player but only a sophomore at Plant High School, had the misfortune of drawing Santana in the first round and took a 6-2, 6-2 defeat.

The quarterfinals produced by far the most surprising upset of the entire tournament, when Fred Stolle earned his first career victory over fellow Aussie Roy Emerson, in a 7-9, 6-1, 7-5 decision. Using a devastating backhand passing shot, Stolle kept Emerson, a natural serve-and-volley player, off balance and unable to make himself comfortable at the net. In a back-and-forth third set, it looked as if Emerson might pull away when he took a 3-2 lead. Stolle quickly regained the upper hand, however, and never looked back on his way to the surprise victory.

Gracious in defeat, Emerson refused to blame the loss on a bout of the flu that plagued him coming into the tournament. “It was just a matter of one point here and there that made the difference,” he said. “Fred just played very well.”

Meanwhile, on the women’s side, Sandy Warshaw lost a professional match for the first time in more than two and a half years. Warshaw, who first won the Dixie Tournament as a 17-year-old, dropped her match in straight sets to Elizabeth Starkie of England, 6-2, 6-2.

Physical ailments had derailed Warshaw’s promising junior career in 1961. Following the Dixie match, she seemed resigned to the fact that she might never return to championship form. Warshaw laughed at the thought and said, "I'm a has-been and only going on 20."

Hardly a has-been, Darlene Hard obliterated Judy Alvarez 6-0, 6-0, to earn a berth in the finals. Alvarez, the 10th-ranked woman in the U.S., managed to win only 23 points throughout the short two-set match. In the meantime, a dream finals matchup between Hard and Maria Bueno never had a chance to materialize because of Australia's Lesley Turner. The fifth seed in the women's draw upset top-seeded Bueno, 6-2, 5-7, 8-6. Bueno failed to convert a match point at 6-5 in the third set, opening the door for Turner to pull off the upset. After the match, a visibly upset Bueno lamented, "I thought I played well, but (Turner) played better."

On the men's side, nobody was playing better than Spaniard Manuel Santana as he entered his semifinal against Thomas Koch of Brazil. Manuel captured the first set in just 15 minutes, 6-1, and seemed on his way to an easy victory. But the rest of the match turned into a nearly three-hour slugfest that delighted those in attendance. Koch rallied to win the second set 6-4, evening the match at one set apiece. The third set went back and forth, with Koch breaking Santana's serve to even it up at 3-3. Santana then took control and captured the set 6-4. The fourth and final set featured Santana rallying from a 3-0 deficit en route to a 10-8 victory. Santana admitted the easy first set gave him a false sense of security. "I thought it would be easy. I lost concentration, then he started playing very well. He's very much improved since I played him last year," he said.

Inclement weather forced the men's and women's finals indoors to the comforts of the University of Tampa gymnasium. This placed Santana, a clay court specialist, in a precarious position. To win the championship, he had to play the final match on a hardcourt surface. His opponent, Fred Stolle, clearly favored the indoor surface. Already full of momentum from knocking off Emerson and then the third-seeded Marty Mulligan, Stolle still had his hands full with Santana. On the strength of his serve, Santana won the first set, 6-3. The second set, however, turned into the longest in the history of the Dixie tournament. The two-hour-plus set concluded with Santana on top, 21-19, to win the title.

Darlene Hard used her power game to topple upstart Lesley Turner, 9-7, 1-6, 7-5, in the women's final. Turner's lack of hardcourt experience, coupled with Hard's service game, spelled doom for the Aussie.

Local tennis enthusiasts agreed at the tournament's conclusion that the quality of players made the 36th Dixie tournament one of the finest ever. Tournament chairman E.C. Smith said he "didn't know how it could have been any better. My only regret is that the rain forced us inside."

Even with that blemish, 45 years later the 1963 edition of the Dixie tournament -- which featured Grand Slam winners, Olympic medalists, Hall of Famers, and even a future mayor -- remains one of the most talent-laden and upset-filled tennis events ever held in the city of Tampa.

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