It has been 42 years, but the memory of the match won’t leave me. The year was 1975. The site was Forest Hills, Queens. On those clay courts, I watched the tennis comeback of the century.
No, I will go further. It was the tennis comeback that had never happened before and will never, ever happen again.
The hero was not flashy or glamorous. He was left-handed and his backhand was pretty to watch and so smooth. He didn’t hit the ball with great force, but he placed his shots with sly skill. Most of all, he just wouldn’t give up. That’s what I want to express in every way.
The player was Manuel Orantes from Spain. It was the semifinals of the U.S. Open. Orantes’s opponent was the charismatic left-hander from Argentina, Guillermo Vilas.
The year 1975 was a very rough one for me. My beautiful, wonderful mother was very ill and could not leave her bed. I would spend most of the day with her, talking and reading to her. I just wanted to be near her and show her my love and appreciation for all she had done for me in my young life. She was my biggest fan, and I wanted to let her know how much that meant to me.
Every morning, I would go to the tennis court and play with someone on those green Har-Tru courts in the University of Chicago courtyard. I had played for my college team. Hitting a clean, sharp, crosscourt forehand still gave me enormous satisfaction and joy. Before I left to play, my mother, whose voice was not strong, always said the same thing, “Have a good game.” She meant it.
We watched that 1975 semifinal match together. Orantes was being outplayed by Vilas. It looked like a total mismatch. The die seemed to be cast. In the early sets, Orantes lacked passion and fire. Vilas was in total command. Vilas won the first set 6-4 and then trounced him in the second set 6-1.
At that point, I thought it was surely over. I remember viewing the third and decisive set as almost a courtesy set. (Orantes did rebound to a 6-2 victory.) It was then my belief that Vilas would finish Orantes off with quick dispatch. That surely looked like the case. Vilas jumped out to an immediate 5-Love lead. In the sixth game, it was actually double match point, 40-15, with Vilas all but declared the victor.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Orantes came alive. At the darkest hour, without any room for error or mistake, Orantes played brilliantly and stormed back, winning seven straight games. He won the set 7-5. I thought at the time, how did he have the discipline and sheer will to come back at double match point, rescue himself and stay in the match? What was going through his mind? Or were the gods with him? Did some extraordinary power infuse him with superhuman qualities that would not permit him to go down to defeat?
As the deciding fifth set began, I remember thinking that Vilas would now forge all his talents and not allow Orantes to continue. But once again, Orantes focused his game on one goal: winning. And that’s what he did. He won 6-4 in the final and deciding set.
My mother and I watched this marathon struggle together. I remember thinking that life was not supposed to turn out like this. Miracles didn’t happen. That was stuff for the movies. But we had both watched a miracle, and it wasn’t a movie. My most clear memory of this event 42 years ago was thinking that maybe my mother’s condition would miraculously improve and she, too, would make a comeback, as Orantes had just done — that life can surprise you and that there are happy endings. Miracles don’t just happen on the tennis court. They can happen anywhere and at any time.
Orantes went on to win the U.S. Open the next day, beating Jimmy Connors in straight sets. It was bashert (“meant to be” in Yiddish). I was overjoyed and thought as Orantes raised the cup over his head that my mom could win a big victory, too. It was not to be. She passed away two days later on Sept. 9. But for a few hours, Manuel Orantes, by his play, gave me hope. For that I will be forever grateful and always treasure that match of September 1975.