After a Davis Cup wipeout against Italy, it's time for Gullikson to go
If the Brewers of Milwaukee were to bottle a beer commemorating last weekend's Davis Cup tie, rest assured it would be a lite. With Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and Michael Chang all in absentia, the less-filling, less-thrilling U.S. team that converged on Milwaukee Arena consisted of Todd Martin, Jan-Michael Gambill and Justin Gimelstob. The trio—one graytempled veteran near the omega of his career and two Davis Cup neophytes ranked 50th and 100th, respectively—was something other than a murderers' row. "I guess you could call us the B team," said Martin, "but we're the guys who got the call, for better or for worse." Though their Italian counterparts were themselves no-names whom only the most fervent tennis fan could distinguish from the kitchen help in Big Night, it definitely was for worse.
In the opening match the 21-year-old Gambill, playing Andrea Gaudenzi, was afflicted with deer-in-the-headlights syndrome. His aggressive baseline game blunted by a mysteriously slow indoor hard court, Gambill played big points poorly, missed easy volleys and after staving off eight match points, fell in four sets. Martin then lost in straight sets to Davide Sanguinetti (whom Agassi had demolished 6-2, 6-3, 6-0 at the U.S. Open), and, faster than you could shotgun a can of Schlitz, the U.S. was a point from elimination. The upsetissimo was completed on Saturday when Martin and Gimelstob fell in five sets to Gaudenzi and Diego Nargiso, neither of whom ranks among the top 100 doubles players. Italy moved on to the finals to play Sweden, which defeated Spain in a tie that, by contrast, showcased four top 25 players.
You wouldn't have known it from the Italians' riotous celebrating, but their victory was diluted by the absence of the best U.S. players. Adamant about not overtaxing his creaky body, Sampras swore off the Davis Cup at the start of the year. Chang, who has never been big on the event, begged off to apply the defib paddles to his moribund career. As for Agassi, usually a loyal Cup participant, the tie coincided with a fund-raiser for his charity foundation in Las Vegas. Instead of explaining the conflict and going on his black-tie way, Agassi took the opportunity to rip the U.S. Davis Cup operation. "The USTA runs it the way they want to run it, but no one who wears a tie should be making the decisions," he said, adding that if he were a fan and no top American were playing, he wouldn't buy a ticket.
All but a few thousand Wisconsinites thought likewise. (How's this for a sign of the times: The Promise Keepers' convention, held simultaneously at the adjacent Bradley Center, packed the house.) Taken aback by such indifference to la Coppa Davis, Gaudenzi said, "I would rather the whole place was filled with fans who are against me than have it be like this. In Italy, Davis Cup is the biggest event in tennis."
To make it bigger here, the USTA, ATP Tour and ITF have discussed a range of options, from rewarding participants with tour ranking points to holding the event every other year, like the Ryder Cup. The first order of business, however, should be replacing Tom Gullikson, who has played out his hand after a solid if unspectacular five-year captaincy. Gullikson is well-liked and respected, but the perception that he's a good soldier (read puppet) for the USTA is fatal to his ability to recruit the stars. "We need someone who will represent the players," says Agassi. "Someone who can light a fire."
An obvious candidate is the cantankerous proprietor of a SoHo art gallery. As he did last time there was a vacancy, John McEnroe has made it known that he's available. Although volatile and less than willing to appease sponsors, McEnroe would stand the best chance of arming a team with top guns, and his presence on the sidelines would bolster the event's popularity. "He would be good as a player's coach," says outgoing USTA president Harry Marmion, "but you have to become part of management. He's too unpredictable. I wouldn't know where he stood on any issue until I read it in the paper."
Perhaps not. But Mac would add much needed carbonation to a U.S. Davis Cup team that's more than a little flat.
Up in Arms Down Under
The U.S. Open final, pitting Pat Rafter against Mark Philippoussis, was a banner occasion for Australian tennis. It was also a flash point for controversy. Angered that Tony Roche, Australia's Davis Cup coach, watched the match from Rafter's box, Philippoussis accused Roche of favoritism and Roche, in turn, suggested he might resign from the team. Rafter, the world's No. 2 player, responded, "If Rochey goes, I go. He doesn't deserve the abuse he's gotten." With Roche coaching and Rafter playing, Australia beat Uzbekistan 5-0 last weekend to clinch a spot in the World Group of the 1999 Cup. Philippoussis was AWOL.