John McEnroe is now boss of the underachieving U.S. Davis Cup team
As he walked across the grounds of the U.S. Tennis Center early last Saturday evening, John McEnroe cut his usual U.S. Open figure: head bowed, suit jacket flapping, a superstar striding fast toward Arthur Ashe Stadium. Men and women flitted about him, snapping photos, hoping for a word. He didn't slow. Everything about him looked the same, so how were the gawkers to know that not only were they looking at a new incarnation of McEnroe—SI had learned that he would soon be named U.S. Davis Cup captain—but that they were also about to witness the changing of the guard?
McEnroe skipped up a set of steps and headed toward the employee entrance. To his right, on a small swatch of grass, stood ousted Davis Cup captain Tom Gullikson, chatting on a cell phone. Gullikson, informed six hours earlier that McEnroe would be taking his job, turned and saw McEnroe coming. McEnroe's eyes stayed glued to the ground. He blew through the door, the U.S. Tennis Association's newest employee entering the USTA's showplace. "I haven't talked to him yet," Gullikson would say later. "He probably didn't even see me. Whatever."
Gullikson shrugged. He looked exhausted, said he felt hollow. He had spent much of Saturday afternoon wondering what had hit him. USTA president Judy Levering had told Gullikson at noon that after six years, his briefly triumphant, often disastrous tenure as captain was over. "I still don't understand the reason," Gullikson said. "No one explained why."
On the surface the reason is obvious: During an era of American supremacy in the men's game, the U.S. won only one Davis Cup under Gullikson, in 1995. Just seven weeks ago, in Boston, the Americans lost to Australia in a quarterfinal tie marked by U.S. roster machinations so clumsy that the Aussies and the media accused the Americans of trying to cheat That embarrassment was rivaled by the one last year in Milwaukee when the USTA-endorsed choice of a disastrously slow indoor playing surface helped doom the U.S. to a semifinal loss to Italy.
Still, if results were the lone criterion for selecting next year's captain, Gullikson would never have been in the running. Yet only he and McEnroe were serious candidates for the job which says plenty about the cap taincy's inherent weakness. For much of this decade, the cup hat been a middling priority for top players like Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and Michael Chang, reducing the captain to little more than a glad-handing recruiter of lesser talents.
In Boston, Sampras insisted on playing only doubles, a noble gesture to the stalwarts who had played the team into contention but one that left Gullikson hamstrung. If he strong-armed Sampras into playing singles from the start, Gullikson risked offending Sampras and losing his services for next year. Such no-win contortions will remain part of the job description.
McEnroe has been called a lot of names, but diplomat isn't one of them. "He's very well qualified, but I think a lot of [ USTA] people fear he's a loose cannon," said U.S. player Chris Woodruff last week. "Then again, he's a loose cannon who's won a lot."
Though McEnroe's credentials are unmatched—he played in and won more Davis Cup matches than any other American—it is his celebrity that matters most. At 40, McEnroe remains one of the most popular figures in the men's game, and when he is announced as captain, the choice will be rightly hailed as a public-relations coup for the USTA. McEnroe is magic on TV, a dynamic personality who will give the Davis Cup visibility it hasn't received in years. He refused to speak about the captaincy last week.
His ability to recruit won't be tested early. Agassi, who vowed never to play Davis Cup again after the USTA fired team doctor George Fareed last March, spearheaded the push for McEnroe, and when it became apparent that McEnroe's candidacy was gaining steam, Agassi said last Friday that he was "very interested in being back" next year.