Monday, March 2, 2009

Roy Emerson Defies Australia, 3/1/64

When tennis star Roy Emerson arrived in Tampa 45 years ago this week to compete in the Dixie International Tennis Tournament, officials in his native country of Australia were not pleased. The world’s top-ranked man, Emerson came to Tampa in defiance of the Lawn Tennis Association of Australia.

The LTAA, upset about Australia’s loss to the United States in Davis Cup competition, ordered players such as Emerson, Fred Stolle, Ken Fletcher, and Bob Hewitt cease their international travels and return home. Officially, the LTAA claimed these players must return to Australia and compete in local tournaments only until March 31, 1964.

The players had to cease playing in any overseas tournaments by Feb. 28. Furthermore, the players were forbidden to accept expense money for playing international tournaments until that after that date. By appearing at the Dixie International in Tampa, Emerson risked a one-year ban from representing Australia in international competitions like the Davis Cup.

While Stolle and Hewitt ultimately decided to skip the tournament, Emerson and Fletcher defied the order by the LTAA. Emerson appealed to the organization by claiming he was traveling at his own expense and thus not violating any rules. Tournament officials rewarded him with a top seed, ahead of two-time defending Dixie International champion Manuel Santana, who beat Stolle in the finals of the 1963 Dixie tournament.

While Fletcher made an early exit in the second round of the Dixie, falling to unseeded Ecuadorian Eduardo Zuleta in three sets, Emerson rolled over the competition on his way to the semifinals. Prior to his match against Jose Arilla of Spain, Emerson found out the LTAA had denied his request to continue playing in America. Fortunately for Emerson, an amateur, he received a $50,000 offer a few days earlier from the International Professional Tennis Players Association to turn pro.

“If (Fletcher and I) are suspended, this makes the offer more tempting,” Emerson said. “I would certainly hate to sit out a year.”

Emerson took down Arilla in four hard-fought sets to earn a berth in the finals against the defending champion Santana. Officials in Australia were not impressed.

The LTAA announced Emerson and Fletcher would be banned from Davis Cup competitions for a year. The announcement mentioned nothing, however, of suspensions from other tournaments. Fletcher, predictably, reacted to the news with disbelief.

“Most players play tennis so you can represent your country in the Davis Cup,” he said. “When you don’t have that, well, it just becomes a way of living, doesn’t it? You sort of lose interest.”

Fletcher’s ban became official when he paired with Emerson in a Dixie doubles semifinal match, a victory over Yugoslavians Nicola Pilic and Boro Jovanovic. Emerson earned his ban by playing against Arilla in the Dixie singles semifinal.

As if to prove the LTAA made a mistake in barring him from representing Australia, Emerson made the most of his showdown in the Dixie finals against Santana on March 1. In front of a capacity crowd of 1,000 at the Davis Islands Tennis Center, Emerson put on an impressive display of power and precision.

Using a punishing serve-and-volley attack, Emerson kept the defending champion off-balance. The two played a thrilling first set, as each took turns matching each other volley for volley, return for return and winner for winner. Emerson ultimately prevailed, 9-7, to capture the 50-minute set and the momentum for the rest of the match.

Emerson raced to a 5-1 lead in the second set by dictating play from the net. Santana went out meekly without a point in the final game of the set, which ended 6-2 in favor of Emerson. The Aussie then cruised to a 5-0 advantage in the third, but had to withstand a furious comeback by the proud Spaniard, who won four straight games to make things interesting. On serve with a chance to even up the set, Santana could produce just one more hold and thus relinquished his title to Emerson.

It would by no means be Emerson’s final title of the year. He went on to have one of the finest years of his career, winning three Grand Slams – including his first Wimbledon title – and at one point won 55 consecutive matches while losing only six times in 115 tries.

And in spite of all the hubbub, the LTAA relented and Emerson competed for Australia in the Davis Cup. It paid off for the Aussies, as Emerson won the deciding match of the Cup finals over Chuck McKinley of the United States.

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