Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Colin Dowdeswell

  A SCRUFFY YOUNG MAN with hangdog hair and a nonchalant air captured the hearts and imaginations of the Wimbledon crowds in 1975.

 He was Colin Dowdeswell, then only nineteen and a triple holder of Rhodesian tennis titles. With the help of his partner in the men's doubles, Tasmanian, Allan Stone, Dowdeswell became the first Rhodesian to win through to a Wimbledon final.

 Strangely enough, he made his first appearance at the hallowed home of tennis nineteen years before when he was born there. He came to Rhodesia to live in 1956 and his boyhood was dedicated to tennis under the guidance of his mother, tennis coach, Shelagh Evans, herself a player of no mean ability.

 Dowdeswell and Stone eliminated two seeded pairings on their way to the 1975 final and provided the British Press with a lot of colourful copy.

 The young Rhodesian was due to have played in the doubles with his older brother Roger who was a professional coach in America, but Roger decided to return to America a week before Wimbledon, leaving Colin without a partner.

 However, opportunity knocked once and Colin eagerly grabbed his chance when Ray Ruffles, who was to have partnered Stone in the doubles, was injured.

 In typical fashion, the quietly spoken, well-mannered Dowdeswell approached Stone in the players' restaurant at Wimbledon and introduced himself: "I'm Colin Dowdeswell. Would you mind if I played with you in the doubles?"

 Thus was born an unusual but highly effective partnership which had the staid Wimbledon crowds talking animatedly over their strawberries and cream.

 The mature, neat Stone was much older than his young partner and the pair were a complete contrast on the court. The cool, experienced Stone and the exuberant Dowdeswell, shirt-tails invariably hanging out, made a dynamic combination.

 Stone's steadiness from the baseline and Dowdeswell's excellence in volleying and net play took them steadily to the final against the Americans. Vitas Gerulaitis and Sandy Mayer.

 The seeded pairing of Tom Okker and Marty Riessen were the first to fall to the Rhodesian-Australian combination. Dowdeswell and Stone eliminated them 3-6, 9-7. 6-3, 6-2 and caused quite a stir on the terraces.

 They next came up against the time-proven pair of South Africans, Bob Hewitt and Frew McMillan and general opinion was that they would meet their Waterloo.

 The critics were again wrong and the third-seeded South Africans were brushed aside 6-3, 6-4, 8-9. 9-8 to allow Dowdeswell and Stone through to a semifinal against Australian Dick Crealey and Yugoslavian Nikki Pilic.

 This was a tighter match for them but with Dowdeswell serving very strongly and his net play again outstanding, they eventually triumphed 9-8,3-6,4-6.9-8,6-3 to make the final.

 It was a big occasion for the young Dowdeswell and the enormity of it all seemed to affect his game. He was brilliant at times but also showed bad lapses in concentration at crucial moments and Gerulaitis and Mayer took the title in straight sets 7-5, 8-6, 6-4, ending a fairy-tale challenge the likes of which make Wimbledon the truly great tournament that it is.

 Dowdeswell showed above-average ability in tennis from an early age. His natural inclination for the game was carefully nurtured by his mother and he soon outstripped players of his own age. He won his first title at the age of six — in an under-10 tournament — and progressed ever upwards.

 Another milestone in his career was his triple crown in the Rhodesian Open in the same year as his Wimbledon doubles final. This feat had not been accomplished since 1950 when C. V. Irvine won three titles.

 As a junior he was undoubtedly a match for the world's best. In 1974 he lost the final of the under-18 singles at Wimbledon to American Billy Martin and he also made the final of the American Forest Hills junior championships.

 He won numerous Rhodesian and Mashonaland junior and senior titles and scored regularly on the South African Sugar Circuit.

 Dowdeswell's form continued in 1976, which all round was a very good year for him. He led the Rhodesian Davis Cup team in their first-round tie against Switzerland at Berne, recording Rhodesia's only wins when he beat both Heinz Guenthardt and Max Huerlimann in singles. Switzerland won the tie 3-2.

 Later that year he reached the last eight of the U.S. Forest Hills championships (ranked alongside Wimbledon in importance), beating the eighth seed, Mexican champion, Raul Ramirez, in straight sets 6-4, 6-4.

 He then beat Bob Lutz 7-6, 6-2 and the American later said of Dowdeswell: "He's a real surprise packet. Now I know how he beat Ramirez." Dowdeswell's challenge ended when American, Eddie Dibbs, beat him 6-2, 6-4.

 Not content with that, Dowdeswell teamed up with Australian Chris Rachel to make the quarter-finals of the doubles at Forest Hills.

 In the quarter-finals they beat the second-seeded pair of Fred McNair and Sherwood Stewart 2-6, 7-5, 7-6. Earlier they had beaten Argentinean Guillermo Vilas and Rumanian Ion Tiriac 6-2, 6-3.

 At Wimbledon that year he was beaten in the first round of the singles, but reached the quarter-finals of the mixed doubles with American, Betty Nagelson, as a partner.

 His efforts in world tennis in 1975 and 1976 deservedly led to his being one of the five finalists for the Rhodesian Sportsman of the Year Trophy.

 After a relatively quiet period in 1977 in which he beat British number five, John Feaver, to gain the second round of the singles at Wimbledon, Dowdeswell came to the fore in 1978.

 The top player in 1977 was the Argentinean bombshell, Guillermo Vilas. Dowdeswell beat him in a semifinal of the South African Open to record his finest singles triumph.

 It was a great match and a great victory for the young Rhodesian who had been unseeded and forced to qualify for the 32-man event Playing controlled, error-free tennis, Dowdeswell endeared himself to an 8 000 crowd at Ellis Park and earned the nickname 'Cool Hand Luke' as he demolished top seed, Vilas, in a thrilling 6-1, 6-7, 6-4 encounter.

 When Dowdeswell put away his seventh match point to win the third set 6-4, the crowd, who had been rooting for him throughout, erupted in a deafening tribute. They shared the agony and the ecstasy of three excruciating sets and every one of those match points Dowdeswell had held and lost to Vilas in the crucial second set

 That was another of Dowdeswell's finest hours but again he could not sustain the momentum and lost the final to American, Cliff Richey, 6-2, 6-4. The strain of too many matches and a badly blistered right foot did not help the young Rhodesian.

 One wonders how far Dowdeswell could have gone in world tennis had he concentrated the whole of his time on the game.

 But his quiet, reserved manner, dream-like air and slow smile all mask resolute determination and a sharp intellect. He knows that there are other ways to make a living and to this end he has a Bachelor of Commerce degree from Wits University and has been studying languages. He is also taking a banking and finance course in Switzerland where he has a tennis contract with a club.

 His studies have often forced tennis to take a back seat and his achievements on the court are made all the more remarkable. Family life also looms — on a quick visit to his family in Salisbury in 1979, Dowdeswell brought with him Parisian Marie-Christine le Goasguen, whom he plans to marry in 1980.



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