NORTH LITTLE ROCK — One of the top tennis players in the world in August 1973, Stan Smith wondered to the media why the 3,000 or so packing the temporary stands at the Burns Park Tennis Center were subdued for the U.S. vs. Chile.
The next day, the hair on the back of Smith’s neck stood up when he and doubles partner Erik van Dillen were engulfed by raucous renditions of “Wooo Pig Sooiee.” Smith’s memory of the atmosphere was discovered after retired ad exec Ron Robinson called to ask if I recalled that the first weekend in August will mark the 40th anniversary of a historic event that occurred in Arkansas.
His mention of Smith was a heads-up that he was talking tennis. Before I could recall details, he rattled off Davis Cup play in North Little Rock and a 39-37 set that is still a record.
Despite staffing for The AP at the time, I had to look up details of the American Inter-Zonal final. Tennis fans, don’t feel slighted. Research also would be necessary to recite facts from any of the staffed football games in Arkansas’ 5-5-1 season in 1973.
All I could remember about the tennis was complaining about somebody in the media trailer who wanted to talk about the history we had witnessed while AP in New York wanted to know what was taking so long to deliver the copy. Mumbled to another reporter, hot weather was blamed for the outburst.
The players were on the outdoor court 5 1-2 hours before taking a 10-minute break at the conclusion of the third set. Dutifully, media members witnessed every volley and every ace.
Earlier this year, a Czech team recorded a five-set victory, including 24-22 in the final set, over Switzerland, breaking some long-standing Davis Cup records. However, the 39-37 victory by Chile over the U.S. in the second set at Burns Park remains the record for most games in a set and part of the record of 122 games. The set lasted three hours and 45 minutes before Patricio Cornejo and Jaime Filoll prevailed over Smith and van Dillen for a 2-0 lead in the doubles competition.
Bob Malaga, a special adviser to the Davis Cup Committee at the time, called the second set the “finest set I have seen in watching 20 years of Davis Cup competition.”
The U.S. won the third set and held a 5-1 lead in the fourth when the competition was suspended because of darkness. These days, the center has 17 lighted courts.
The next day, the U.S. completed the victory in the doubles 6-1, 6-3. The U.S. had won the first two singles matches and both sides agreed to pass on the final singles match.
Twenty-six years later, Smith brought up Arkansas when he and others were asked about their most memorable moments in Davis Cup competition. Smith started with playing behind the Iron Curtain for the first time against Romania and followed with the match in ‘73.
The U.S.-Chile match wound up in Arkansas after Michael Burns, then executive secretary of the U.S. Tennis Association, failed to find sponsors in Florida willing to pay the necessary $25,000. Impressed by the hospitality at a previous mixed doubles event in Little Rock, Burns contacted his Arkansas connections who responded with enthusiasm and the fee.
For local tennis, the competition was a shot in the arm. For example, inspired by what he saw, insurance mogul Raymond Rebsamen gave $100,000 to the Arkansas Tennis Patrons Foundation and donated 80 acres to Little Rock for a tennis facility.
Inside the Burns Park Tennis Center is a sign commemorating the competition with round-by-round results and a note about 39-37, a record that will not be broken.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau.