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.
December 18, 1978
"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.
The devastating doubles triumph would have capped a 3-0 U.S. victory but for the incredible goings-on of the night before, when the American second singles player, Brian Gottfried, gave away the most commanding of leads and was upset by Mottram. This match was, all things considered—the stage, the plot—surely one of the more bizarre moments in Davis Cup history. It will be remembered like some farfetched desert legend, a tale of a lost gold mine up in the mountains, perhaps, or better yet, the Mad Match of the Half Moon.
Because it lasted only 55 games and a modest 4½ hours, it was not, as we conventionally measure these things, of record length. But in fact, the Mad Match transcended the hours, lasting through whole seasons. It began at 1:30 of a crisp spring afternoon, ran through a brief cloudless summer, and then concluded as autumn temperatures fell to near freezing, while citrus fruits and spectators perished all over the Coachella Valley. Only the moon was constant, beginning as a pale spot against the high blue sky, growing brighter as the play went on, and ending up as a leering golden eye.
Below, for much of the match, a crowd of perhaps 300 watched, huddling as the day went to dusk, the dusk to an amazing blue-velvet twilight, and the twilight to utter black. Presiding upon the court was the suave Mexican referee, Pancho Contreras, wearing a yachtsman's white pants and a midnight-blue blazer, and looking for all the world like some Ingmar Bergman metaphor for God (or for Bowie Kuhn, anyway). The only sounds came from the BBC radio announcer, babbling from on high into the eerie void as if he were personally trying to bounce his voice off the moon back to London. Mottram—trailing 2-0 in sets and 3-2 in the third set—got his first break in the match when Gottfried clearly heard the British radio announcer say, "Maybe he'll serve a double," just as he hit his serve. In fact, Brian got the serve in, but, rattled, he banged the following volley long to lose the game—before, in his understated way, he turned and tossed a beseeching look up at the voice.
A few more of the condominium people left; for goodness' sake, it was cocktail time. This rare international competition, which this year involved 59 nations, and had been fought out in the great arenas and cities of the world, was being reduced to a barren absurdity. To keep warm, the surviving spectators began to stamp their feet and call out personal good wishes to the players. Davis Cup final? It was more like a junior-varsity football game, with only girl friends and parents in attendance. This intimacy seemed to affect Gottfried, because he is a nice self-conscious person who performs most comfortably when surrounded by a crowd of quiet, polite spectators. More and more, Brian would play the early points of a game well, but then, as his coterie of pals called to rouse him in the clutch, he would tighten up, rush his shots, fail to hit through them.
Privately, the British were pleased when Tony Trabert, the U.S. captain, selected Gottfried for the singles assignment instead of either of two lower-ranked players: Arthur Ashe, unpredictable but still given to flights of brilliance, or Harold Solomon, always punishing in his indefatigability.
And now, by contrast with Gottfried, Mottram, who is a mysterious soul, immature at 23 and naturally defensive, seemed to grow under the desert moon. Long, pale, blond, all in white, he came to appear nearly luminous, striding about in his size-14 sneakers. Though he is 6'4" and capable of slamming the ball, and though both his parents were world-class British players—born to the fast grass—Buster plays the cautious, don't-lose style of a small, clay-court Continental.
Perhaps until this very match he was too much under the sway of his father. Tony Mottram. Buster has been given to inner demons, to quitting. Once, in a junior match, up two sets to love to a vastly inferior Spanish opponent, he dropped his serve and came back to announce to the team captain, John Barrett. "I can't hold my serve." Whereupon, despite all Barrett's appeals to logic and emotion, Mottram continued to lose his serve for no good reason—and, at last, the match. "His father wasn't there and he had a death wish," Barrett says.
For the past two years, Mottram wouldn't play for Paul Hutchins, the British Cup captain, and when that row was finally patched up and he joined the team this year, he and the Lloyd brothers were so at odds that he and David once nearly came to blows on the court. In tennis, "Mottram stories"—usually relating to his puerility and tastelessness—abound, on the order of Polish jokes, and he courted more serious opprobrium, even pickets chanting against him at Cup matches, by supporting the National Front, a racist neo-fascist group.
It was all the more impressive, then, that he displayed such calm and courage against Gottfried. Only 10 other men in the finals of the Davis Cup have come back from two sets down to win, and who knows how many of those—one or two, maybe?—also had to endure a match point in the third. Even before that, Mottram almost lost the third set in the shifting shadows of dusk that penalized the player on the east side of the court. Those shadows cost him the break the BBC man had helped him regain, and then Gottfried drew ahead 7-6 on his serve, then to advantage on Mottram's. But Gottfried tried a lob instead of a passing shot when he had Mottram on the ropes, and the Englishman just reached up and put away the overhead. Reprieved, Mottram saved his serve, and went on and took the set 10-8.
As the fourth set began, it was strictly a night match. In the frigid desert air, the court was slower, the balls heavier, and all this worked to Mottram's advantage, for now he could chase Gottfried about with his classic slow-court ground strokes. Staying with his own style, Gottfried continued to rush the net, even after second serves—which was all too often, because he kept missing on first service. His most potent weapon, the volley, betrayed him, and he lost the fourth set with a succession of volley errors. The crucial breaks in the final set followed the same pattern: missed first serves, good Mottram returns off the second, bad volleys. Whenever Brian had a chance to recover, his backhands—now pushed at, rather than swung out—failed him.
When Mottram closed him out 6-3, the British hugged Buster and whoever else was available upon the court, while in the stands the fans waved Union Jacks in the pitch darkness and sang For He's a Jolly Good Fellow.
"A match like this could only have happened in the Davis Cup." Paul Hutchins said. "It couldn't even happen at Wimbledon or Flushing Meadow."
And almost surely he was right. It doesn't matter that this most stirring and symbolic Davis Cup match was won by the losing team. Britain and the U.S. played the first Davis Cup matches in 1900, and while until now they had not met in a final since 1937, the first two nations of tennis showed their lasting quality. Mottram's victory will never be forgotten for being so extraordinary; the triumph of Smith and Lutz will stand as the apex of their brilliant doubles career; and if McEnroe is as special a talent as he appears, the 1978 Davis Cup will forever be celebrated as the instant when he first took his game preeminent upon a world stage. But then....
An English visitor took out his cigarettes and, emboldened by another whiskey, forgot about being polite. "In a bloody desert." he said bitterly. "A bloody resort conversation piece. Would we put it on in a beach pavilion at Cornwall? Would we take it to Bermuda and make it into a reception in the Governor's garden? Two hundred people watching the Davis Cup final—and half of them flown from England. Your players deserve the Cup. Well and good. America doesn't. Sorry."