Wasn't it Freud who said we spend our lives trying to fulfill our first three or four wishes? And hasn't John McEnroe craved the U.S. Davis Cup captaincy ever since he emerged screaming from the womb? Well, McEnroe doesn't need Freud to tell him he should have been careful what he wished for. Two rounds into his captaincy he seems ready to check himself into a Viennese clinic.
"I've got a headache, Eve lost a little of my voice, and there's a tension in my body that just won't leave," McEnroe said Friday after unheralded Jiri Novak opened a quarterfinal tie between the Czech Republic and the U.S. in Los Angeles by lobotomizing uninspired Pete Sampras 7-6, 6-3, 6-2. The thrashing, by a player ranked 39th in the world, was the most lopsided loss of Sampras's 26-match Davis Cup career. "My job is to motivate my players," McEnroe said, "but when Pete fell behind, I couldn't come up with the goods. He was stunned, and I was stunned. Stress built up in me like a bomb waiting to explode."
The explosion came on Saturday when a straight-set doubles loss by Alex O'Brien and Jared Palmer put the U.S. behind 2-1 in the best-of-five series. His complexion eggy, McEnroe sprayed shots at the "passive" fans, "negative" press and Sampras—who, McEnroe claimed, hadn't "worked hard enough." By Sunday, though, Sampras had apparently changed his work habits enough to beat Slava Dosedel 6-4, 6-4, 7-6 in the reverse singles. That win, coupled with Andre Agassi's 6-3, 6-3, 6-1 defeat of Novak, gave the U.S. its second improbable come-from-behind victory in the McEnroe era. "The scary thing is, it's going to get tougher," said McEnroe, whose team advanced to a semifinal on Spanish clay in July.
Not since the Pequod took off after bigger fish has a skipper so overshadowed his crew. McEnroe was the most successful U.S. Davis Cup player in history, with a 41-8 record in singles and an 18-2 mark in doubles. In a fit of pre-tie braggadocio he said, "Considering all the factors, we should sweep." Mac's factors included his roster (the world's No. 1 and No. 3 singles players and top-ranked doubles team) and the Forum's fast carpet and partisan crowd. His only compliment for the Czechs was a backhand slice: "They have a lazy style, what appears to be less than 100-percent intensity. The danger is that our guys may be lulled to sleep."
Which would be tough with McEnroe sitting courtside. Since becoming captain last fall, he has been a one-man publicity machine, flacking the Davis Cup all the way from the Today Show to the Tonight Show. He cajoled the reluctant Sampras into committing to the entire 2000 schedule and coaxed back Agassi, who had refused to play Davis Cup since falling out with the U.S. Tennis Association in 1998.
Sampras was supposed to travel to Zimbabwe for Round 1 in February, but he pulled out with a hip injury. Livid, McEnroe told reporters he didn't believe Sampras had ever intended to make the trip. Equally livid, Sampras questioned McEnroe for questioning his integrity. "Let's just say Pete was pissed and I was disappointed," McEnroe said last week. "I called him later, and we talked things out." Without Sampras around, the lowly Zimbabweans, cheered on by a hip-hopping clown, won two of the first three matches. It was left to Agassi, with an assist from Chris Woodruff, to pull out the U.S. victory. "Weird things happen in Davis Cup," McEnroe offered at the quarterfinal draw in L.A. "If I see naked guys dancing, I'll start worrying."
"This is L.A.," Sampras reminded him. McEnroe had hoped to make his U.S. debut as captain in his hometown, New York City, but Madison Square Garden was already booked. So he lobbied for his second home, L.A., where his friend Jeanie Buss, executive vice president of the Lakers, was until recently president of the Forum.
"I was asked to provide pageantry, excitement, a show," says Buss, who provided fireworks, Laker Girls and a P.A. announcer more WWF than USTA. She tried to get Pat Sajak to preside over the draw, but he was _UT _F T_WN. Buss's second choice was Verne Troyer, the 2'8" actor of Austin Powers fame. "I wanted to dress him up as Mini-Mac," Buss says. Alas, the task was too small for Troyer, and it fell to tennis great Jack Kramer.
Against Novak the effort of Sampras seemed minimal. While the six-time Wimbledon champ chipped and charged, Novak attacked his backhand and scored winners with miraculous lunges at balls that seemed well beyond his reach. McEnroe looked on grimly. During one changeover Sampras told him, "This guy is playing out of his mind, and I don't know what to do. I'm coming in, I'm staying back. I just don't have the answers." Neither did McEnroe.
Sampras committed 31 unforced errors to Novak's 12 and squandered all 11 chances to break Novak's serve. After botching number 11 (on a netted backhand in the fifth game of the second set), Sampras pretty much hung back on what Novak called the "basic line." Said Novak, "In the past [Pete and I] rarely play from the basicline. I thought, This is a very good advantage for me, because he kills the ball very, very fast."