Manuel Orantes’ title of master worthy of a Hollywood script

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“Looks like the final is over.”

“Fibak has a 4-1 lead on his serve in the fourth set.”

“Do you think it’s all over?”

“Oh yeah, it’s done and dusted.”

“No, no, wait a minute! Last year, in the US Open semifinals, he made a comeback in a game against Vilas.

This conversation took place a few meters behind the seat on which the Spaniard Manuel Orantes sat. A reporter interviewing guests at the Summit (Houston) during the 1976 Masters final approached actor Kirk Douglas to ask him what he thought of the game 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 mic was removed, his wife Anne Buydens joined the conversation. She reminded everyone of the Spaniard’s big comeback a year earlier at the US Open to Guillermo Vilas, as he lost 4-6, 1-6, 6-2, 0-5 and 15- 40. Faced with such a feat to reach a final, how can we not believe that this time it would be possible to repeat it to become the Masters champion?

“I heard her and expressed her approval. I thanked her from afar. These words really energized me, ”Orantes told ATPTour.com.

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This was his motivation to hear such self-confidence that he not only beat Fibak, 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). This victory made Orantes the first Spaniard to win the end-of-season championship. “I never thought that against the best in the world and on a hard indoor court, I could win. I was convinced that I could do it in any clay court tournament, but winning the Masters was extremely satisfying.

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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 not progressed beyond the stage of groups. In 1976 however, he followed his victory over Roscoe Tanner (7-6, 6-3) with another over Eddie Dibbs (6-4, 6-2). His only defeat came at the hands of Fibak (5-7, 6-7).

He produced a strong performance in the semifinals to beat Harold Solomon (6-4, 6-3, 6-4). It was just a step away from winning the title, against the very man who had beaten him in the round robin and also beaten him in the final at Bournemouth six months earlier.

“Games always start from zero,” Orantes said as Houston’s final approached. “Mentally you think about what you can do, what you can change. In tennis you sometimes play in a way that you don’t 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 him as hard. I was trying to see how he was handling things. This is what I have tried from the start and it has worked well.

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The surface on which the Masters is played was particularly foreign to the Spaniard, who has 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 four players to win the tournament in singles and doubles, along with Stan Smith, John McEnroe and Stefan Edberg.

“To do that kind of thing in big tournaments is very important,” said the Granada native. “For me, the Masters is one of the most difficult tournaments, you have to play five games against the best in the world. You have to play well every day or you lose. It’s not like a Grand Slam where you can evolve and find your game. ”

A revealing conversation with Aussie John Newcombe during hard court training helped him understand the magnitude of his feat:

“John, if only I could play as well as you at net.” It would be amazing to have a volley like yours. “

“Do you know why you don’t have this fly?”

“Why?”

“The same reason I don’t have your basic photos.”

“You are right.”

“You play eight hours at the back of the court and I spend eight hours serving and playing volleyball. This is the difference. “

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Despite the success, qualifying in 1976 was far from easy for him because he suffered from the dreaded “tennis elbow”. A change of racquet turned out to be the best remedy for his woes. “I was playing with a wooden Slazenger and the brand sent me an aluminum racquet. They told me to try to see what I was thinking. I started training in my club with it and realized that it was really good for my arm. With this racket, I played in Tehran, Madrid and Barcelona, ​​and won all three tournaments on clay. Indoors, I reached the finals in London and Stockholm. That’s how I got to the Masters.

Orantes enjoyed the respect of his opponents, but no one had picked him as a favorite to lift the trophy in Houston. Apart from Anne Buydens, that is to say who had no doubts that he would win in the final. Two years later, during 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 lunch. We played tennis because they had a court and we talked about what they liked about the sport. Kirk Douglas told me he would have liked to be a tennis player and I told him that I would have liked to be an actor too. They were big fans and they were very nice to me. It was truly amazing.

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