108 days. This is what separates the start of the men’s doubles final at the Rome tournament in 1976, played between the pairs formed by Newcombe and Masters on one side, and Ramirez and Gottfried on the other, and it’s ending. Or the longest match interruption in history. Knowing that if the match started on the roman clay, it finally ended in Houston, Texas…
John Newcombe and Geoff Masters have already been battling through four sets on the Roman clay. Which is already a small feat in itself, considering the pair they are facing : Raul Ramirez, the Mexican, and Brian Gottfriend, from Baltimore, have been considered for a long time as the n°1 couple on courts. Between Grand Slams and major tournaments, the duo is simply invincible. All the more on these roman grounds, where, during the spring 1976, they reach their third consecutive final in the mythical venue of Foro Italico. However, this time, Rome won’t crown its heroes. Or from a very long distance.
The scoreboard then reads 7-6, 5-7, 6-3, 3-6. Newcombe, who is already in his early thirties, and sought to be close to retirement, is still showing his skills alongside his fellow countryman. But the joyful Australian isn’t anybody in this tournament. Crowned 4 times with his usual partner, Tony Roche, Newcombe particularly enjoys the atmosphere of this arena. In his memoirs, he describes a match played against the local legend, Adrian Panatta : « Few tennis crowds overdo it like the Italians. In terms of noise, style, enjoyment and wildly partisan behavior they have few equals. I gave them a few moments longer, then, as absolute silence took over in the stadium, I threw down my racquet and glared up at the crowd. ‘Eh!’ I shouted, ‘what about me?’ I gave them an operatic Italian shrug. ‘What about me, then? Don’t I play pretty good?’ They loved it. There was an immediate roar of recognition from the massed ranks of drama-loving Romans. One opera singer was on his feet, competing with a new tribal chant : ‘New-combe! New-combe! »
« We’ve won the Italian Open in Texas »
Adopted by Rome, Newcombe however sees his odds darken on this May, 30th, 1976. As the night is falling, he knows that his chances of finishing the match are slimming down. Despite the discussions on wether they should carry on or not, it is finally decided that the final won’t crown its winners on that night. But the Italian organizers have other plans in mind. To not let theirs records empty, they come up with a solution : to hold the last set in Texas, between two US Professional Championship matches, which is held in September. Or 108 days after the first rally.
To actually do this, everything has to be rescheduled in order to find a suitable time for the four players, who are all engaged in the tournament. In other terms, it’s a real hassle. However, on September, 15th, a slot is found. And it is 25 kilometers in the north of Houston, on the indoors court of the Woodlands Inn, that the longest match interruption in History is finally ended. Looking to be in better shape, the Ramirez-Gottfried pair wins three games in a row, before seeing the Australian pair reply in the same way. The final blow will come on the eighth game. Newcombe loses his serve, and lets his opponents win the title with a score of 6-3. Exceptionally fair-play after this tarnished victory, Gottfried says : « We were surprised to start so well, and we managed to hold on to that. In any case, we couldn’t come up with a strategy as there was only one set to play, and that was it. Newcombe and Masters haven’t played a tournament since Italy, and that’s undoubtedly unfair. » Before adding, full of mischief : « Now, we’ve won the Italian Open in Texas, and the trophy is waiting for us in Rome. We’ll probably go back their before the start of the next edition ! »
Two titles in a week
Meanwhile, Ramirez and Gottfried remain active. A few days later, the duo wins the other - the real - Houston tournament, and will finally have to wait quite a while before claiming their trophy. It’s finally in May 77 that the triumphant winners of this unprecedented tournament are back in the Italian capital. To lift their trophy, but also defend their title. As a result, a fourth win in a row. Which, this time, won’t require to travel thousands of miles to be celebrated.