Monday, April 14, 2008

Dixie International Tennis Championship, 4/68

The 41st Dixie International Tennis Tournament open play 40 years ago this week under somber circumstances. On April 4, 1968, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, setting off several days of both rioting and mourning throughout the country. Here in Tampa, tournament organizers scheduled matches around the national day of observance for King.

The tournament also took on a different look in 1968 because this was the first Dixie International played in the so-called “Open Era” of tennis. The “Open Era” at last allowed professionals and amateurs to compete together in the same events. In prior years, only amateurs were permitted to play in the most prestigious events such as Wimbledon. As a result, some of the top players of all-time were not eligible to compete in Grand Slam events. For the first time in many years, standout amateurs turned professionals such as Roy Emerson and John Newcombe would not be on hand for the Dixie International, an amateur-only event.

As usual though, the Dixie featured an array of international stars mixed together with the best local talent. This included a 36-year-old Harry Lee Coe III, who had starred on the mound as a pitcher for the Tampa Tarpons before beginning his rise in the Hillsborough County legal community. The future-judge, who would earn the nickname “Hangin’ Harry,” hung a surprising first-round upset on Israel’s Joseph Stobblitz, 6-8, 6-3, 7-5.

Several other locals were not so fortunate in their first round match-ups.

Second seeded Istvan Gulyas, a 37-year-old from Hungary, dispatched of Tampa’s Bill Cantrell, 6-1-, 6-1. Cantrell, then just a 16-year-old high school student, today recalls the thrill of playing in the tournament.

“I remember being a ball boy for the tournament as a kid, so to play in the event was just a great experience,” Cantrell says. “I even got to play my match on Court One. The players like Guylas and Santana were such gentlemen, too.”

Australian Ray Ruffels likewise made quick work of Tampa city high school champion Mike Strickland, 6-2, 6-1.

In his second round match, Coe would feel the wrath of the Hungarian nicknamed the “Road Runner.” The defending Dixie International champion Gulyas simply outmatched Coe, dominating from start to finish in a 6-0, 6-2 rout.

Manuel “Manolo” Santana of Spain, who dominated the Dixie International by winning the title three times from 1962-64, arrived in Tampa at 11 a.m. on the day of his first match. The tournament’s top seed, Santana earned an automatic berth into the quarterfinals. By 2 p.m., Santana was on the court to face his doubles partner, Tampa’s own Andy Garcia. Despite playing his best tennis of the tournament, Garcia proved no match for one of the top amateurs in the world, going down in defeat 6-3, 6-2.

“I thought I played as well as I ever played,” Garcia said. “He even got points on some of the best returns I’ve ever made.”

A 6-4, 7-5 upset in the quarters by Mark Cox of England over Yugoslavian Zelko Franulovic set up a date in the semifinals with Guylas. The lefty from London took the defending champion to the brink, and nearly pulled off another upset.

After taking the first two sets by the shocking scores of 6-2, 6-0, Guylas humbled Cox in the third by posting a 6-0 score of his own. In the fourth set, Cox had a chance to finish off Guylas, leading 5-2 with a match point. Guylas would rally, however, taking the set 9-7, before closing out the fifth by a score of 6-2 to take the match in five grueling sets. Guylas overcame five match points by Cox en route to the victory.

Santana ran into a determined opponent in New Yorker Herb Fitzgibbon, whose booming serve helped keep the semifinal match close. Ultimately Santana’s experience and shot-making abilities helped him prevail 6-4, 8-6, 6-4, to set the stage for a clash of champions in the men’s final.

The 29-year-old Santana would find himself in a dogfight against the exceptionally conditioned Guylas, almost eight years his senior. Santana outlasted Guylas, however, 6-4, 7-5, 6-4 to capture his fourth Dixie title.

“Open Era” or not, Santana expressed at the time a lack of interest in turning professional.

“I’ve got a good position,” he said, “and I’ll just keep on playing amateur tennis and playing for my country.”

That summer Santana would go on to win a gold medal in men’s singles – a demonstration event -- during the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. One of the great champions in the history of the Dixie International, the Spaniard’s career would forever be immortalized in 1984 with his enshrinement into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

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