Every so often some championship is handed over to a single performer after the most spectacular heroics: Brooks Robinson's Series, Magic Johnson's playoffs, Pelè's World Cup. Almost never, however, does any event absolutely belong to one athlete even before it begins. But such was the case last weekend as Davis Cup competition returned to New York, after a 22-year absence, with a quarterfinal tie between the U.S. and defending champion Czechoslovakia.
It was his to win if he possibly could. Never mind John McEnroe, Wimbledon champion. Strictly a red herring, all that hoopla. Never mind John McEnroe and the fallout from the Brits. (Why do people say Brits now instead of English?) Never mind John McEnroe and his new hairstyle. (Why do people say hairstyle instead of haircut?) Never mind John McEnroe back home before his hometown fans on his hometown courts. And never mind Jimmy Connors, Stan Smith, Bob Lutz or Captain Arthur Ashe.
Foils. Hurdles. Opponents. Incidentals. For the Czechs to prevail, Lendl, 21, 6'2", 170 pounds, inscrutable, poutymouthed, lean, with Bette Davis thighs, had to win both his singles and lead the way to a doubles triumph as well. Everybody else involved had a role; Lendl had a mission. That he failed was not his shame, for it was a tall order to expect that any one man might gun down what may well be the most formidable American team ever assembled.
July 19, 1981
Here, for example, was the unqualified view of Czech Captain Antonin Bolardt, that eternal optimist, Mister Confidence Builder: "I think we have no chance."
Not for raising expectations has Bolardt held his job 13 years. He was talking tennis, not miracles. Lendl had to whip the No. 1 and No. 3 players in the world upon their favorite surface, and then, while they enjoyed a day off, go out again in the blistering 95° sun, where only mad dogs and Chicago Cubs regularly venture, and put away fresh troops in the doubles—two fellows who together had won 12 of 13 Davis Cup matches and who hold the U.S. Open title, triumphing on this selfsame court.
Lendl did knock off McEnroe in the opening match Friday in long, straight sets, 6-4, 14-12, 7-5 (no sissy tiebreakers in the Cup), but he came a cropper in the doubles the next afternoon against Smith and Lutz. That told the tale because by the time Lendl faced Connors in the finale Sunday, the outcome had been decided. By then, both Connors and McEnroe had performed benevolent acts of euthanasia upon Lendl's lesser partner, Tomas Smid, and the Yanks, up 3-1, were already assured victory. For the record, Connors, a renascent Bill Hartack, who rode every race as if it were the Derby, went 8-0 lifetime against Lendl by winning the dead match 7-5, 6-4 and putting the victory at 4-1 in the books.
Having vanquished Lendl, Cap'n Ashe's troops now have mere countries to deal with. By the luck of the draw, these battles will take place in the States. Only our first-round match with Mexico wasn't played in the U.S., it being contested in Palm Springs, Calif. Australia, victor over Sweden (sans Bjorn Borg of Monte Carlo), will be the semifinal opponent in September in Portland, Ore. After that bit of business the Yankees must deal with either the Buster Mot-tram-led Brits or the clay-court Argentines. Don't cry for me: the finals will probably take place on a fast indoor court the first week in December, almost surely in Madison Square Garden.
For those of you who have been preoccupied with Iran and the prime rate, the Davis Cup has been reconstituted this year. Most particularly, the Cup and, surely, the air rights above it have been leased to the Japanese. A communications and electronics corporation named NEC is paying a million dollars to the players, and all the signs now say: DAVIS CUP BY NEC. By? May we expect soon: OLYMPICS BY BURGER KING? A windy fellow from Tokyo came to the U.S.-Czech draw and told all about the hopes and dreams of NEC. Notwithstanding, the format has been streamlined. Previously, it was divided into geographic zones, and it was an egalitarian mess, an athletic Babel. There were so many matches that it was necessary to start playing the 1980 Davis Cup in 1979 while the 1979 Davis Cup was still dragging on.
Now only 16 countries are permitted in the annual championship flight, but there is no grandfather clause. First-round losers must meet each other, and then the four two-time losers are bumped the next year. They are replaced by four new nations, which qualify through a subsidiary zone competition. For example, Chile and India weren't in the Sweet Sixteen this year, but they have already qualified to move up in '82.
All of this is academic, though, so long as Ashe can assemble America's very best. McEnroe has always devoted himself to Davis Cup play, but Connors had signed on only twice, the last time in '76, Tony Trabert's first year as captain. After Jimbo lost to Raul Ramirez of Mexico in the fifth and deciding match, he gave up all Cup connections until this January in New York when Mr. and Mrs. Ashe sprung for a dinner for Mr. and Mrs. Connors. That evening Connors volunteered, with enthusiasm, to play for the man who used to be his archrival in tennis and tennis politics alike.
So, for the first time ever, a U.S. team took the court with three Wimbledon singles champions plus another one in the captain's chair. (The Great Britain team of 1902 had three Wimbledon winners, Joshua Pim and the Doherty brothers. The French teams of 1927 and 1928 played Rene Lacoste, Henri Cochet and Jean Borotra, all Wimbledon titlists. Perhaps the greatest Davis Cup squad of all, Australia 73, used only two Wimbledon champions, Rod Laver and John Newcombe, but kept a third, Roy Emerson, on the bench along with Ken Rosewall. A fourth Wimbledon winner, Neale Fraser, was the captain. All five had won the U.S. title.) However, given the unusual constitution of this tie, a solid argument can be made that Lutz, the only American without a Wimbledon, was the most important Yank. After all, McEnroe couldn't beat Lendl, and Connors took him only after a U.S. victory had been assured. But Lutz was the most dominant figure in the match upon which the tie turned, the 9-7, 6-3, 6-2 win over Lendl and Smid.
Despite the accomplishments of Lutz and Smith, they were only at Flushing Meadow on a pass. The Mayer brothers were Ashe's first choice, but Gene injured his right wrist at the Italian Open, and still hasn't recovered. McEnroe and Peter Fleming, the Wimbledon champions and acknowledged best team in the world, had been advanced as the logical pair. A great many Davis Cup experts maintain that far from tiring a singles man out, a few sets of doubles is just the right amount of work on the middle day. Ashe agreed in principle, but not for a match in the heat of July. He preferred fresh old horses and a day off for Junior. Besides, as Connors put it for Smith and Lutz, "Their record speaks for themselves."
Lendl rarely plays doubles except in national competition, but he and Smid work well enough together and have shown a facility for winning on the road under pressure. Like so many Eastern European players, Smid is an athlete first, tennis player second, and in doubles his vulnerable slice backhand is not as easily exploited as in singles. The American veterans were respectful. "We wanted to get the first serve in so they couldn't slug away at the second," Smith said. Between them, he and Lutz spun in 73% of their first deliveries, which was enough. Curiously, while Lendl and Smid kept banging away at service returns instead of looking for softer doubles angles, they otherwise played too cautiously, falling back on more of a clay-court defensive style. The hard surface at Flushing Meadow was made quicker than ever before to give even more home edge to the bully-boy U.S. team. No prisoners.
If one point could mean a match, the whole tie, it came in the 15th game of the first set, 7-up, Smith serving and scuffling some at 40-all. A dandy long rally evolved, and Smid threw up a sweetheart of a lob that bounced deep in the alley. Smith hurried back, but he was on his heels and looking the high bounce into the sun. Any natural fast-court pair would have followed such a lob to net, but, instinctively, Lendl and Smid hung back and gave Smith breathing room. Soon the Americans were back in the point. They won it as well as the next one to hold for 8-7.
In the next game, Lendl, who had been inconsistent with his volleys, muffed a couple and lost a 40-15 lead, and Lutz scorched him on set point with a blazing backhand return. Shocked. Lendl somehow got a volley back, but Smith knocked the set off. The Americans were thoroughly in control thereafter. "When you serve an ace and he makes a return like that, he deserves to win the point," Lendl said afterward of Lutz in that same wordly, nearly smug manner in which he dispatches almost all and sundry who would engage him. He is not a man to suffer fools gladly, if at all, and not just fools. Nothing seems to rattle Lendl except, occasionally, inquiries about what exactly it is that he does as a soldier in the Czech army.
Of the four undisputed top players in the world, Lendl, the youngest and the least (so far), is also the least known. The two Americans, of course, are famous for their bombast, and so it is especially easy to lump Lendl in blandness with Borg, the other European. Yet there is an edge to Lendl, an air of mystery that certainly has never seemed part of Borg. But Lendl...who is this manned mask? He appears to be a consummate loner. His only known confidant and friend—"his God," as they say on tour—is Poland's Wojtek Fibak, who is almost a decade his senior and is likewise celebrated among the players for his aloofness and imperiousness. When Lendl plays in New York, he stays at Fibak's manor house in Greenwich, Conn., where, Fibak has reported, "Ivan has his own room, to keep his tennis shoes and fur coats."
Lendl has now beaten McEnroe six straight sets—three on the red clay at Paris, where he figured to win, and the three more at Flushing, where McEnroe is lord and master. In fairness to the No. 1, though, after getting bounced out of Wimbledon in the first round by a qualifier, Lendl repaired to the heat and hard courts of Boca Raton, Fla. for 10 days. McEnroe, meanwhile, continued to fight demons on the cool London greensward.
Besides, even if McEnroe were not being obliged to top his Wimbledon triumph just a few days later, his boorish controversies over there followed him home, snapping at his heels even as his barber snipped his curls. McEnroe himself couldn't help but appreciate that the Davis Cup was too much too soon. Taking off just a few hours to celebrate in an uptown East Side saloon with friends the night after he returned from England, McEnroe had to shake his head as he downed another beer. "Thank God this team has Connors," he said with a laugh.
Of course, that the team also has Ashe may, over the long haul, be just as felicitous for the celebrated McNasty. As outgoing as Junior has, Lord knows, proved to be, his close affiliations in tennis are rather limited. As with Connors before him, the family tends to circle the wagons whenever the dear boy is criticized. Even business is handled within, by his father. So, if nothing else, Ashe is at least a foreign substance that can be rubbed on McEnroe's noggin. At Wimbledon, he went over videotapes of McEnroe serving, showing him where he was going off form, and the day before the finals Ashe visited with the referee and chair umpire to discuss precisely what sort of behavior would be tolerated from his charge. Moreover, Ashe—decked out at Flushing Meadow in a special sea captain-type cap, complete with scrambled eggs on the visor—has a great sense of tradition. "Look, the main thing," Ashe says of his handling McEnroe, "is that he's still only 22, and I just don't want him to bleep up his place in tennis history."
Certainly, against Lendl (and Smid, too) he was a regular McLovely right to the end, when Lendl got the decisive service break, snapping off his best shot, the crosscourt forehand. But, in a curious way, although Lendl always seemed to have an edge, and although McEnroe played without the passion that so often distinguishes him, he never seemed far out of the match. In the long rallies on the steaming court—once an hour and 39 minutes passed between clouds—Lendl would have to stretch and dash about, while McEnroe stood back as collected as ever, his racket always ready, in place, as if it steered him about, rather than the other way around. For all his effortlessness, for all his good manners, there were too many mistakes. After three hours and 14 minutes, Czechoslovakia had its first point.
As it happened, there would be no more. But given the powerful quality of this American squad, as well as our home-surface advantage, it is unlikely that any whole team can threaten the Americans the rest of the way as much as the one great player did. At the moment, it is time to reorganize the Cup again. The only fair tie would be America vs. the world.