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But on Thursday, at the drawing the day before the tie, in public, for all the world to see, El Campéon carefully shook Batata's hand. Argentina had lost a war and the World Cup, and it had never won a Davis Cup. Now it was time to join together and remedy that.
The next day, after Vilas, as expected, had disposed of Mayer (6-3, 6-3, 6-4) in the opening match, McEnroe and Clerc took the court under an unrelenting afternoon summer sun. Clerc assumed command soon, and when he won the first set 6-4, he spiked the ball he held. Spiked it! Batata? Then he really poured it on. Poor McEnroe staggered about, his pasty, city nose shining bright red. Upon his brow he wore a bandanna. The way he was playing, it looked more like a tourniquet to the brain. "No feel," he kept saying to Arthur Ashe, the U.S. captain, during changeovers. "I just don't have any feel out there." Members of the American contingent sent notes to Ashe—have him try this, do that—but Ashe didn't even bother to pass them along. To what purpose? McEnroe couldn't do a thing.
The stands were going berserk. High in a corner, where a score or more of loud fans in T shirts with horns and whistles and flags had been let in free to lead cheers, the national soccer song swept down: Vamos, Argentina, Vamos ("Let's Go, Argentina, Let's Go"). The azure flags mixed with the high azure sky. In the first five games of the second set, El Irascible got all of seven points, and Clerc won the set 6-0.
Now Ashe began to rub DMSO into McEnroe's sore left shoulder, and a spark began to glow. The bandanna came off, and he kept his southpaw sleeve rolled up in the manner of the punk rockers he fancies. He began to use the whole clay court and, better, to serve and volley as if it were tile. By a quarter to seven the match was four hours old; the sun, low in the sky, was glimmering off the smoke that rose from the grills at the concession stands, and the score was even—6-4, 6-0, 3-6, 4-6.
Ashe had continued to rub in the compound. The spectators were hollering, a Greek chorus for every point. "Silencio, por favor, silencio," the umpire kept calling. The disruptions didn't bother Ashe. They were permitting McEnroe to rest after every point, which was just what he needed. Finally, the Argentine team caught on and began to wave to the crowd to knock it off. Who would ever think that the noise from a packed Latin gallery of 10,000 could damage the good cause? The T-shirted ones kept screaming and singing, even as Clerc's teammates beckoned them to stop.
Such ironies abounded. In the fourth set, for example, Clerc had had only a single troublesome service game, and it cost him the set. McEnroe, on the other hand, had been forced to sweat blood in five straight service games, fighting off nine break points along the way. Yet we are so conditioned to football experts attributing every known action of mankind to momentum, that any student of life knew without doubt the fifth set therefore belonged to McEnroe, to the man coming back.
"No, fifth sets are different," Ashe would say that night. "Momentum stops at the fifth set." Besides, despite all that is vouchsafed on behalf of momentum, it has a flip side. It's a great deal less enervating to give up a lead than it is to struggle to appropriate one. As is so often the case on such occasions, whatever the sport, McEnroe took a deep breath of relief as soon as he drew even. By the time he exhaled, the momentumless Clerc had broken him for a 2-love edge. Some of the U.S. contingent began clamoring for Ashe to exercise his option to call play off for the night, but he sat tight in the gloaming until Clerc ran the score to 5-2, at which point Ashe called a halt. "The most pressure is trying to serve out a match," he said later. Let Clerc try and do that with as little preparation as possible the next morning. That was Ashe's plan.
The task was clear. McEnroe would have to hold serve and then break to draw even on service. Clerc would have to hold to win the match—and, quite likely, the tie and the 1983 Davis Cup as well. Batata, sequestered on the Avenida de Florida at the Plaza Hotel with his private coach, Patricio Rodriguez, and away from his wife and child and team, tossed and turned all night. El Irascible, a few blocks away at the Sheraton, the American bivouac, was so exhausted he couldn't even finish a beer with dinner. He left a fashion show that followed, not being up even to ogling models in leather and furs.
On the morrow McEnroe came out smoking. He held at love and then broke at 15. So the momentum was all his once again. That and 40,000 pesos (as we used to say) will get you a cup of coffee. McEnroe had expended so much psychic energy catching up that he didn't have enough left to win. As he admitted afterward, suddenly, when he was even, when it should have been easy, he "got uptight." It was all he could do to hold for 5-all, saving three match points. In his next service game the string ran out. At 15-40 McEnroe sent such a simple backhand far over the baseline that Clerc could only stand and gape in astonishment before he exulted for what he had done for himself and his country.
America got its first point late Saturday afternoon when McEnroe and Peter Fleming, his regular stablemate, won their 10th Davis Cup doubles match in 10 tries. Clerc and Vilas, making a rare appearance as doubles partners, gave the Americans fits before losing 2-6, 10-8, 6-1, 3-6, 6-1. For McEnroe the match was another day at the office. He tried to go into the stands after one obstreperous fan, twice loudly applied a coarse epithet to the entire assemblage, and later picked up a penalty point. These activities served only to postpone the denouement another day.