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Frank Deford
December 18, 1978
John McEnroe, 19, played his best tennis and was on his best behavior, winning two matches as the U.S. beat Britain in the Davis Cup
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December 18, 1978

The Kid Didn't Kid Around

John McEnroe, 19, played his best tennis and was on his best behavior, winning two matches as the U.S. beat Britain in the Davis Cup

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The Davis Cup finals began last week in Palm Springs with people asking John McEnroe what he thought about Jimmy Connors not playing for America. The Davis Cup ended with people wondering who needed Jimmy Connors. McEnroe has never beaten Connors in four tries, and Connors may be No. 1 in the world, but after the U.S. won the Cup it was clear that John McEnroe is now the No. 1 player in the U.S.

The teen avenger was simply amazing as he lost only 10 games in six sets to Great Britain's best, John Lloyd and Buster Mottram, and led the U.S. to a 4-1 win, which meant possession of the Davis Cup for the first time since 1972. What can we say of this masterful performance? There was not a weakness in stroke, in temperament, in strategy. McEnroe's shot selection was wise, his touch deft and his use of the whole court superb, especially for one so young, so brash and so often impetuous.

"It's incredible," said the handsome Lloyd, Chris Evert's innamorato. "I have never played anybody, including Borg and Connors, who has been as tough and made me play so many shots. No one has ever made me look like that much of an idiot."

Lloyd at least broke McEnroe's serve once. Mottram never even got to deuce on the young American's service. The measly 10 games McEnroe lost was a record for the finals, lowering the mark of 12 that Bill Tilden set and Bjorn Borg tied. And he did it all, it seemed, at his leisure—"Like going out for a Sunday lunch," Lloyd said.

"Well, if John had played well, I could have, you know, played better," McEnroe explained. Gee, you know, he had a real nice time for a kid playing his first Davis Cup singles.

The Cup matches—and it was a magnificent Cup, brimming with excellence and plot turns—were marred only because the United States Tennis Association had turned the great bowl into a rich man's trinket, scheduling it at a desert oasis named Rancho Mirage, which is located somewhere in the great state of Southern Condominium. The U.S. team had gotten greedy and wanted just the right concrete courts, and the USTA had obtained a sponsor for the event for the first time—so, what the heck, they put it on the expense account. The USTA had a better offer to stage the finals in a real public arena, in New Orleans, a major Super Bowl city. Instead they took their premier event away from the hoi polloi of one-house families, turned back the clock and returned tennis to the carriage trade.

But for the few who did show up, who put down their Bloody Marys and watched, it was a fine show, ending when Brian Gottfried whipped John Lloyd 6-1, 6-2, 6-4 in the redundant fifth match. The other American point, which was won when the outcome was still very much in doubt, came in the doubles, and what a lovely little war that was for the U.S.: 6-2, 6-2, 6-3 for the venerable team of Bob Lutz and Stan Smith.

"I suppose the only word would be impeccable," said Mark Cox, a member of the vanquished doubles team, finding the right word. Cox' partner was John Lloyd's older brother David, an emotional spirit who is given to collapsing in tears after supplying his Britain with a victory. He and Cox were virtually a pickup team, only thrown together for the two previous Cup rounds, but because David Lloyd had been so confident of British victory all year—"We all thought he was quite crazy," admits his brother—and because the team did keep on winning, the British came to invest Lloyd and Cox with a certain amount of magic. Moreover, because Lutz and Smith had struggled to beat a pedestrian Swedish pair in the Interzone finals, while Cox and Lloyd were whipping the redoubtable Australians Ross Case and Geoff Masters, the English faith did not seem altogether out of order.

But Lutz and Smith have been playing doubles together since 1964, when they were teammates at USC and McEnroe was five years old; they were a perfect 9-0 in Davis Cup play, and on Saturday they chose to play their best ever. It was not only how well they hit their shots, but for doubles aficionados their performance was also a breathtaking study of the art. They shifted almost constantly, and instinctively, rarely leaving a vulnerable piece of concrete open. Only once all day did Smith miss a volley, and nine times—eight by Smith—the Americans put away easy poach volleys.

Both Cox and Lloyd have strong cross-court forehands, and the U.S. strategy was specifically aimed at cutting these shots off. Smith and Lutz somehow formed a salient in the middle of the court, and obligingly the British hit into U.S. strength all through the match. The veteran Cox, an exceptionally keen player, appeared to realize early on that he was up against the laws of geometry as well as teamwork, and his abysmal performance reflected that sad recognition.

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