For those keeping score at the Davis Cup final in San Francisco last week, the end result was U.S. 5, Italy 0, with John McEnroe earning a couple of perfect 10s. And, oh yes, the crowds at San Francisco's downtown Civic Auditorium were near-capacity 6,000, and PBS did another commendable job with its TV coverage. But the local headlines echoed the general lack of interest across the U.S.—Examiner. NORTH BEACH EXCITED? WELL, HARDLY.
This was a continuation of the domestic feelings toward the Cup for a good part of the last decade. When the American teams ushered in tennis' open era by winning the competition five years in succession (1968-72), that was considered fairly nice, but who were Bill Bowrey of Australia, Christian Kuhnke of West Germany and those other characters we were beating? Yawn.
Then came five empty years (1973-77) in which the U.S. got cuffed around on foreign soil by the likes of Colombia and Argentina, and a few people got excited and wanted to know what was the matter. They concluded the matter was Jimmy Connors, who refused to play. Connors was a mercenary. Sure. A traitor. Of course. A very bad guy. Naturally. Then Connors deigned to play in 1976, and Raul Ramirez nailed him in Mexico City in four sets. So it was just a shame about American tennis, but what happens next?
What happened was John McEnroe. Now that, in one year, McEnroe has won 28 straight sets of singles in Cup play, has helped the U.S. team win back the huge silver chalice with a 4-1 victory over England at Palm Springs last December and has led the defense in last week's shutout of Italy, everyone is yawning again. Come clean, American tennis fans. Have you hugged the Davis Cup today?
The fact is that it may be very difficult to stage a competitive Davis Cup over the next few years, what with the number of American players crowding the top of the international rankings. McEnroe, Connors (who says he wants to play Davis Cup again) and Vitas Gerulaitis (the American team's other singles performer last week) are, in that order, three of the top five players in the world. Roscoe Tanner, Eddie Dibbs, Harold Solomon and Brian Gottfried are Top 10 material. Then there are the young monsters: Peter Fleming, Brian Teacher, Hank Pfister, Eliot Teltscher. A couple of dark-horse threats: Tim Wilkison, John Sadri. And 17-year-old Scott Davis. If Captain Tony Trabert could get them all to play, he would have several teams capable of holding on to the Cup.
"I don't think the situation is getting out of hand," Trabert says, referring to the American reign, "because a country needs just two good players to win the Cup. But we are the deepest."
"Too deep," said Paolo Bertolucci, the Italian doubles specialist, last week. "If the United States would play its fourth or fifth team this time, it would win."
As if the odds weren't stacked against them enough, the Italians' effort was wracked with dissension virtually from the moment their supporting contingent—36 journalists and approximately 450 fans, including Italy's own Dancing Harry, 350-pound Singing Serafino—began walking the hills of San Francisco. This was Italy's third final in four years, and the veteran four-man squad of Adriano Panatta, Corrado Barazzutti, Antonio Zugarelli and Bertolucci this year had defeated Hungary, Great Britain and Czechoslovakia with only minimal trouble. However, much of the Italian press felt that 22-year-old Gianni Ocleppo, the team's practice partner, had surpassed Barazzutti and should have been put in the singles lineup alongside the No. 1 Italian, Panatta.
Further scrambling the picture was the death of the Italian captain, Umberto Bergamo, in an automobile accident in October. At Bergamo's funeral, Panatta vowed to play the finals with an empty chair where the captain normally sits and to be alone at the changeovers. In San Francisco, however, Barazzutti objected to that on the grounds that not having the new team coach, Vittorio Crotta, sitting courtside and advising the Italian players during changeovers would be another advantage for the U.S.
A tragicomic hassle ensued within the Italian federation, involving screaming arguments, closed-door meetings, team votes and several compromises. The first compromise was that when Panatta played, there would be an empty chair: when Barazzutti played, Crotta would be sitting by the court. But no. This was still unsatisfactory. More meetings. More screaming. As it turned out, both Crotta and the empty chair were present at all matches. Only Crotta was to sit in his own chair during play and to sit in no chair during the changeovers. That is, he stood up.