Fifty years ago Don Budge met Baron Gottfried von Cramm in the deciding match of a politically charged Davis Cup tie between the U.S. and Germany. The match is considered one of the finest ever. Before play began, Hitler, rankled by America's prowess at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, phoned von Cramm to exhort him to win for the fatherland. Budge dropped the first two sets, came back to win the next two but trailed 4-1 in the fifth before rallying to win.
Last week at the Hartford Civic Center, America and Germany met once again, but this time neither politics nor national honor was at stake. Only respectability. Both countries played more or less out of desperation. Each had lost in the first round of Davis Cup play earlier this year—the Americans to Paraguay, the Germans to Spain. That qualified them for something called a relegation playoff, so named because the loser would be relegated to the pits of zonal play, or what John McEnroe calls the "minor leagues," for at least a year. The defeated country would have to spend 1988 trying to play its way back into the main draw of 16 countries that compete for the Cup each year.
McEnroe struggled mightily to prevent the U.S. from dropping to subsistence-level Davis Cupping. On Friday he and Germany's No. 1 player, Boris Becker, labored for six hours and 38 minutes in a match that echoed Budge's and von Cramm's 1937 classic. But Becker prevailed 4-6, 15-13 (tiebreakers are not used in Davis Cup play), 8-10, 6-2, 6-2, and Germany went on to win, three matches to two. So America will be keeping company in '88 with such tennis powers as Cuba, Uruguay and the Caribbean.
The U.S. was in this situation partly because former U.S. Tennis Association president Randy Gregson suspended McEnroe from the team in 1985 after he refused to accede to a code of conduct. McEnroe and Jimmy Connors qualified for banishment with their boorish disdain for sportsmanship during a 1984 Davis Cup tie in Sweden. U.S. officials asked Mac back in February, but he couldn't make a tie with Paraguay in March. The U.S. team had to contend with a stadium full of Paraguayans who beat drums and hurled stones, bottle caps and insults, and with local linesmen who took homerism to a new level. The Americans emerged from Asunci�n as 3-2 losers.
"I don't think we should be playing in Kampuchea or wherever," said McEnroe shortly after that defeat. "I'll do anything to keep us out of that." McEnroe views Davis Cup as a kind of patriotic duty. He acts as if he's the point man for Americanism and everybody should fall in line behind him. On Friday people pretty much did. A fife-and-drum corps played patriotic tunes, and fans waved hundreds of flags.
"The worst I can see is us winning 3-2," said McEnroe, who apparently didn't think much of Becker's 22-year-old teammate, Eric Jelen, ranked No. 66 in the world. But Jelen set the stage for Germany by upsetting 14th-ranked Tim Mayotte 6-8, 6-2, 1-6, 6-3, 6-2. That put even more pressure on McEnroe, who hadn't played competitively since stumbling in the opening round of the French Open in late May.
In Hartford, McEnroe looked as tightly strung as a racket. He flapped along the baseline, a quivering mass of tics and twitches. Sensing he would need an edge against the younger, better-conditioned Becker, he played as busy a game between points as he did during them. He raised his fists and led the crowd of 12,000 in chants of "U-S-A, U-S-A." The fans stamped their feet and rose, cheering long and loud.
In the first set he befuddled Becker with his serve, keeping him off balance with an array of topspins and slices hit at varying speeds. In the second the antagonists chomped off pieces of each other for two hours and 35 minutes. It was like a soap opera in which there's a crisis every 32 seconds and a hero is resurrected every minute and a half. Down love-40 in Game 22, Becker fought off five set points to hold serve. During the game, McEnroe insulted the French umpire after he overruled a line call. "You can't trust a frog," a spectator railed. "You better believe it," agreed McEnroe, who acted as if unfavorable calls were un-American.
Later he demanded of a linesman, "What the hell country are you in? ...Hey, sprechen Sie English?" He got on fans he suspected of being German sympathizers, too. After one rattled a noise-maker, McEnroe yelled, "Go eat some more sauerkraut." Becker broke McEnroe in the 27th game and then held serve at love to win the 15-13 marathon, which was only 20 minutes shorter than the entire Jelen-Mayotte match.
McEnroe came back to win the 90-minute third set, but he had lost his legs and his fans. They disappointed him by walking out of the arena. "Great city for Davis Cup!" McEnroe said. "We may have a third of the people here by the time it's over." He later said he wished the tie had been held in Oklahoma. "Let's go, America," McEnroe drawled in mock Tulsan. "We're gonna kick some butt."