Forest Hills. Say it again. Forest Hills. The very name conjures up bluebirds and lush green groves. But during the past fortnight the sylvan image was blurred, lost in the dust of Har-Tru. There's nothing wrong with Har-Tru, mind you, if you enjoy long rallies, but the slow surface is not suited to the American men's serve-and-volley style. Har-Tru, a claylike surface, is, however, adored by baseline ralliers from Europe and South America.
Digging up the grass and replacing it with grayish-green crushed rock (Catoctin metabasalt to all you geology freaks) was a move akin to a baseball team loaded with sluggers deciding to move its fences out 30 yards. There were American pessimists who thought it likely that not a single Yank would reach the quarterfinals. And it was Bad Days at Green Rock for most U.S. players.
Out of 46 in the original draw, only four made it to the fourth round, but one of those was Jimmy Connors, who turned 23 on the tournament's seventh day, and Connors claims he can play on any surface, including dried yak dung. The other three Americans—Arthur Ashe, Eddie Dibbs and Harold Solomon—were gone by the semis. Connors, the No. 1 seed, fought his way into the final, where he met Spain's Manuel Orantes, 26, winner of seven tournaments in 1975, the best year of his career.
Although Orantes was the third seed and an acknowledged artist on clay, almost nobody gave him a prayer against Connors. Not only had the Spaniard played a physically and mentally exhausting five-set four-hour semifinal against Guillermo Vilas of Argentina the night before, but he did not get back to his hotel until 2 a.m. and had to call a plumber to fix a flooding bathtub. Connors was the defending champion. Orantes had never won a major championship. Only one European had won Forest Hills since World War II, Spaniard Manuel Santana in 1965.
None of this seemed to trouble Orantes, who walked onto the stadium court as cool as a bowl of gazpacho and seemingly as fresh as if he had enjoyed a restful night in his own bed in Barcelona. Just as Ashe had done at Wimbledon, Orantes refused to try matching Connors' power. Instead he lofted uncanny lobs, hit soft passing shots and tempted his opponent with short balls that the overanxious Connors clubbed time after time into the net. Orantes won in straight sets 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. The $25,000 first prize lifted his 1975 tournament earnings to $130,650.
The iron-man routine was not his first of the year. At Hamburg he beat Ilie Nastase 7-5 in the fifth set in the semis and the next day had to play two doubles matches plus a five-setter against Jan Kodes, which he won.
"He played unbelievable," said Connors. "I didn't believe that it would be possible for him to hit passing shots and play like he did all the way through. But unfortunately for me, he did." And unfortunately for Connors, the match was played on Orantes' best-loved surface. The crushed rock not only altered the probable order of finish, it also altered the atmosphere of Forest Hills.
It used to be that in the early rounds a fan could leave the concrete stadium and wander from court to court over most of West Side's 10.5 acres, watching, perhaps, a young Yugoslav play a crafty old Dane for a game or two, and then move on. After a long afternoon of such meandering, he could, if he were a member or guest, stroll to the clubhouse, buy a drink and sit on the terrace watching a match on the clubhouse court, the panorama of grass courts before him.
Those days are probably gone forever. The for-members-only courts nearest the clubhouse are still grass. The crushed-rock courts are mostly crammed in down by the stadium and, with 107,061 in attendance during the first eight day sessions, it was difficult to get through aisles, much less find a seat or a place at a fence. In addition, Forest Hills staged its first night matches, under four light towers that burned 72,000 watts.
Orantes, a smiling, modest fellow who was born in Granada and at age 10 was a ball boy at a club called La Salud de Barcelona, outshone those 72,000 watts in the best match of the tournament, perhaps the match of the year or the decade. It came in the Saturday semifinals, Orantes vs. Vilas of Mar del Plata. Vilas, 23, is a chunky ex-law student whose dark hair flows over his shoulders. He writes poetry and hopes to have a book of 41 of his poems published in his native country. Its title is 125, which he won't explain, saying, "When you write a book and it is published, it doesn't belong to you anymore. I want to keep something for myself." There was speculation among his opponents at Forest Hills that it stood for the revolutions-per-second of his topspin backhand.