“Looks like the final is over.”
“Fibak is 4-1 up on his serve in the fourth set.”
“You think it’s all over?”
“Oh yeah, done and dusted.”
“No, no, wait a minute! Last year in the US Open semi-finals he made a comeback in a match against Vilas.”
This conversation took place just a few metres behind the seat on which Spain’s Manuel Orantes was sitting. A journalist interviewing guests at The Summit (Houston) during the final of the 1976 Masters approached actor Kirk Douglas to ask him what he thought of the match when the scoreboard read 5-7, 6-2, 0-6, 1-4 to Wojtek Fibak. The Hollywood star was quick to name the Pole as the winner.
Before the microphone was taken away, his wife Anne Buydens joined the conversation. She reminded everyone of the Spaniard’s great comeback a year earlier at the US Open against Guillermo Vilas, when he was losing 4-6, 1-6, 6-2, 0-5 and 15-40. Given such a feat to reach a final, how could you not believe that this time it would be possible to repeat it to become the champion of the Masters?
“I heard her and gave a thumbs up of approval. I thanked her from a distance. Those words really spurred me on,” Orantes revealed to ATPTour.com.[WATCH LIVE 3]
Such was his motivation at hearing such confidence in him that he not only broke Fibak back, he also won the fourth-set in a tie-break and then took the fifth (5-7, 6-2, 0-6, 7-6, 6-1). The win made Orantes the first Spaniard to win the season-ending championship. “I never thought that against the best in the world and on an indoor hard court, I could win. I was confident that I could do it at any tournament on clay, but winning the Masters was hugely satisfying.”
He was right to be surprised. He was undoubtedly talented enough to be among the best at the end of each season and Houston was the fifth time he had played the Masters, but until then he had yet to progress past the group stage. In 1976 though he followed his win over Roscoe Tanner (7-6, 6-3) with another against Eddie Dibbs (6-4, 6-2). His only defeat came at the hands of Fibak (5-7, 6-7).
He produced a solid performance in the semi-final to defeat Harold Solomon (6-4, 6-3, 6-4). There was now only one step left to claim the title, against the very man who had beaten him in the round robin and had also defeated him in the final in Bournemouth six months earlier.
“Matches always start at zero,” Orantes explained his approach to the Houston final. “Mentally you think what you can do, what you can change. In tennis you sometimes play in a way that doesn’t allow you to win, and you have the advantage of being able to try something new. I tried to take the initiative and play on his backhand, where he didn’t hit it as hard. I was trying to see how he handled things. That’s what I tried from the start and it worked well.”
The surface on which the Masters is played was particularly alien to the Spaniard, who claimed most of his results on clay. In fact, he never played on hard courts until he was 17. However, a year earlier he was crowned doubles champion alongside his compatriot Juan Gisbert. He is still one of just four players to have won the tournament both in singles and doubles, along with Stan Smith, John McEnroe and Stefan Edberg.
“Achieving this kind of thing at big tournaments is very significant,” said the Granada native. “To me the Masters is one of the toughest tournaments, you have to play five matches against the best in the world. You have to play great every day or you lose. It’s not like a Grand Slam where you can grow into it and find your game.”
A revealing conversation with Australia’s John Newcombe during training on hard court helped him understand the magnitude of his feat:
“John, if only I could play as well as you at the net. It would be incredible to have a volley like yours.”
“Do you know why you don’t have this volley?”
“The same reason I don’t have your baseline shots.”
“You play for eight hours at the back of the court and I spend eight hours serving and volleying. That’s the difference.”[DATA DIVE]
Despite the success, qualifying in 1976 was far from easy for him as he suffered from the dreaded ‘tennis elbow’. A change of racquet proved to be the best remedy to his woes. “I was playing with a wooden Slazenger and the brand sent me an aluminium racquet. They told me to try it to see what I thought. I started to train at my club with it and I realised that it was really good for my arm. With that racquet I played in Tehran, Madrid and Barcelona, and I won all three tournaments that were on clay. On indoor I reached the finals in London and Stockholm. That’s how I got to the Masters.”
Orantes enjoyed the respect of his opponents, but nobody had him as favourite to lift the trophy in Houston. Apart from Anne Buydens, that is, who had no doubt he would win during the final. Two years later, at the tournament in Palm Springs (California), he had the chance to thank her personally.
“When I played in Palm Springs in 1978, they had a house there and they invited me to breakfast. We played tennis because they had a court and we talked about what they liked about this sport. Kirk Douglas told me he would have loved to be a tennis player and I told him I would have loved to be an actor too. They were big fans and they were very nice to me. It was really amazing.”