Open Reflection | Ashe’s Jarring 1972 U.S. Open

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Four years after capturing the first U.S. Open, Arthur Ashe played some of the finest tennis of his career as he made it back to the final. He beat his good friend Stan Smith—- the Wimbledon champion— in the quarterfinals, stopped the ever tenacious Texan Cliff Richey in the semifinals, and built a commanding lead in the final against the tempestuous Ilie Nastase of Romania. Arthur was on the verge of taking that title. He was ahead two sets to one, and then led 4-2 in the fourth set. His game was flowing, his serve was magnificent, and he was as confident as he possibly could be.

But Nastase distracted Ashe with some of his well known shenanigans, and turned the match around with some masterful play from the back of the court. After Arthur had come agonizingly close to a second U.S. Open title, he was eventually halted in five sets by his maddeningly irreverent rival. I was working as a statistician for Bud Collins and Jack Kramer on the CBS telecast of the match, and as a young reporter in training, it was my duty to leave the television booth soon after the contest and join Collins in the press room downstairs to help him with his newspaper column for the next day. But I had seen Ashe sitting at the far end of the stadium at Forest Hills right after the match, and just before the presentation ceremony. He held his head in his hands, fighting in vain to prevent himself from crying. I wandered back to the clubhouse and broke into tears myself, saddened and stunned that victory had somehow eluded Ashe on that memorable afternoon in New York.

Few people understood how deeply that loss hurt Ashe. I observed him taking the long walk back to the clubhouse, saw Ashe climb the stairs leading to the locker room, watched him disappear from view. I was choked up and distraught, but realized I needed to return to the press room, which I did. Collins asked me where I had been, and when I explained that I had been emotionally out of sync, he fully understood. I was still only 20, and witnessing the harsh defeat of a man I revered more than anyone else in tennis was more than I could take. Four months later, I interviewed Arthur for the first time at an indoor tournament in London. I asked him how he felt about his jarring loss to Nastase at the U.S. Open, and his response surprised me. I thought he would say he had left that disappointment in the past, and figured he would tell me the loss had not lingered. But that was not the case. He said, “Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about that match. All I needed to do was hold my serve two more times in the fourth set and I would have had a second U.S. Open title. That was a very painful experience.”

–Steve Flink, Senior Columnist www.TennisChannel.com.


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