It was a Faustian bargain. When USTA officials named John McEnroe as Davis Cup captain last fall, they knew they'd be getting his unfettered opinions and lapses in decorum. But he was also supposed to do what his predecessor, Tom Gullikson, could not: coax/menace/humiliate the top American players into participating in the century-old international competition. On the night of his appointment, McEnroe, providing television commentary for the U.S. Open, mischievously phoned Pete Sampras at home and, live on the air, prodded him about playing.
Yet after Spain's doubles team of Alex Corretja and Juan Balcells finished off Todd Martin and Chris Woodruff in five sets last Saturday, giving host Spain a 3-0 lead on the way to a 5-0 sweep at the Davis Cup semifinal, McEnroe was left commiserating with a U.S. team that was strictly jayvee. McEnroe had been as obstreperous as ever. He arrived wearing only a bathrobe for a meeting with Spanish team captain Javier Duarte and a Davis Cup judge and dismissed the heavily favored Spaniards as "chokers." But Sampras and Andre Agassi—who lobbied vigorously last year for McEnroe to be captain—had begged off Davis Cup duty with suspiciously convenient excuses: Sampras blamed sore shins from Wimbledon; Agassi cited a back injury from an auto accident (one he never reported to police). "I'm disappointed and hurt," said McEnroe. "I believed that my presence would be a way of uniting the team, but I have come up against players who promise to play and then a couple of days later say no."
It's unlikely McEnroe will hear many yesses in the near future. The demands of the Davis Cup schedule—four weekends of best-of-five-set matches each year—are high, especially considering that Sampras and Agassi are in their sunset years and need to ration their energy. The USTA has attempted to throw money at the problem by paying players $100,000 per weekend. But as Sampras has noted, "American fans simply don't care enough" about the Davis Cup to make it worth his while.
All of which raises an obvious question: How long before the captain jumps ship? McEnroe, perhaps the most unflinchingly loyal Davis Cupper in U.S. history, has a three-year contract, but it's hard to imagine his continuing to oversee such a halfhearted endeavor. "This hasn't worked out the way I planned," he concedes. "But I still believe Davis Cup is an event worth fighting for." Rest assured that somewhere Tom Gullikson is chuckling.