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Davis Cup is Mac's show now
Posted: Wednesday September 08, 1999 06:02 PM
By Jon Wertheim, Sports Illustrated
Before the blood, sweat and tears Todd Martin left on Arthur Ashe Stadium's court had time to dry, we were treated to a bombshell announcement Thursday morning. After years of insistently lobbying for the job, John McEnroe was introduced by USTA president Judy Levering as the next Davis Cup captain. "He has the respect of the players and it all added up," she said. "The time is right."
Love him or hate him -- and few folks fall in the middle -- McEnroe's commitment to Davis Cup has always been beyond reproach. The execrable tantrums that were his hallmark were always leavened by his steadfast commitment to playing for his country. He first played for the U.S. as a 19-year-old. As he recalls, "I promised my mom I would do it." By the time he played his last tie in 1992, he had set the benchmark for American players, winning 41 Davis Cup singles matches and serving as a mainstay on five winning teams. "Even now," he said at today's filibuster of a press conference, "the Davis Cup matches are some of the ones I remember best."
Notwithstanding his impressive track record as a player, McEnroe was by no stretch a no-brainer for the job. The Davis Cup is as much a political appointment as a coaching opportunity, and while McEnroe might be a superb tactician, diplomacy has never been his strong suit. Put the guy on the sidelines and no one questions his competence. But is John ("You cannot be serious") McEnroe, fraught with industrial-strength opinions and an impossibly-low threshold for moral outrage, the man you want schmoozing at those interminable sponsors dinners or moonlighting as a junior development coach? "He might be popular with the players," former USTA president Harry Marmion told me last year, "but John's still too irresponsible [to be captain]. I would never know how to get in touch with him."
To her credit, Levering, the USTA's first female president, was willing to make what could be a Faustian bargain. But she first tried to gain assurances that McEnroe would be presiding over Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi rather than Jan-Michael Gambill and Justin Gimelstob. "I consulted four players," said Levering, referring to Sampras, Agassi, Martin and Jim Courier. "They all said they would like to play for John McEnroe."
The Davis Cup is still of paramount importance for virtually every other country in the world. Consider: Pat Rafter tore his rotator cuff -- the death knell of countless other athletes -- and is still, hope against hope, making himself available for Australia's semifinal tie later this month. In the U.S., however, its prestige ranks somewhere close to Win Ben Stein's Money. Three of the world's top seven players -- Sampras, Agassi and Martin -- are American, yet it's been years since they've formed a united front. "Getting those guys is essential," says McEnroe. "But I'm also looking for the next generation."
McEnroe's appointment brings an end to the embattled tenure of Tom Gullikson, whose fate was sealed after the last two ties. Playing with a diluted lineup last fall against Italy, Gullikson inexplicably selected a molasses-slow surface that played to the visitors' strengths. In July, his disingenuous waffling over whether to insert Sampras into the singles lineup threatened to make a charade of the centennial tie against Australia. Gullikson, in short, was the anti-McEnroe. Unstintingly loyal to both his team and the USTA, he shied from controversy but demonstrated little passion. McEnroe is attracted to contretemps like a divining rod and shoots off his mouth as reflexively as you and I recoil from fire. But his energy and unmistakable presence will singlehandedly imbue the next tie with some much-needed energy.
Looking out at a crowd that included the mother who admonished him to avail himself to the Davis Cup team as a teenager, McEnroe called Thursday's announcement, "The proudest day of my life." But the truth is, it was time for a change and McEnroe was the best man the job. Particularly if he can do what Gullikson could not and field America's best team.
Back to Martin. His performance Wednesday night was right up there with Sampras' barf-o-rama against Alex Corretja as the most heroic U.S. Open match in recent memory. It ought to go a long way in making up for his profound disappointment at the Davis Cup tie in Boston. ... Between last night and his match with Rafter in Longwood, that makes twice in less than two months that Martin has looked like he's had a near-death experience on a tennis court. ... Before we lavish too much praise on Big Head Todd, there's little excuse for Greg Rusedski, endowed with that kind of a serve, not to have closed the door at 5-3 in the third and 4-1 in the fifth. Someone call the cardiologist. ... I wrote it yesterday and I'll repeat it again today: See Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes if you get the chance. They're simply playing an entirely different game than their opponents. ... Through her first four matches, Lindsay Davenport's longest stint on the court lasted 57 minutes. Including the rain delay, her three-set victory over Mary Pierce today spanned about three hours.
Jon Wertheim is a Sports Illustrated staff writer.
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