Once again John McEnroe stood as a lonely, misunderstood genius. This time the setting was Cincinnati's Riverfront Coliseum, where last weekend he almost single-handedly defeated Argentina to win the Davis Cup for the U.S. Threatened from within his own circle and by his two opponents, who put aside their own petty differences and waged a surprisingly gallant fight, McEnroe performed throughout with a determined look that seemed to say, "I'm the best, like me or not."
After routing Guillermo Vilas 6-3, 6-2, 6-2 in the opening match on Friday, Mac won two dogfights that went the distance. On Saturday he and his longtime doubles partner, Peter Fleming, edged Vilas and Jose-Luis Clerc 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, 4-6, 11-9 to put the U.S. up two matches to one. The day before, Roscoe Tanner, the U.S.'s No. 2 singles player, had lost 7-5, 6-3, 8-6 to Clerc. Then on Sunday McEnroe clinched the Cup with a 7-5, 5-7, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3 defeat of Clerc. In different ways all three victories once again illustrated that, however boorish he can be, McEnroe is a champion patriot.
Clerc, who had beaten McEnroe in their previous four matches, served and passed so well on Sunday that at one point Mac yelled, "This guy is out of his mind!" When Clerc won the second set after being down three set points, he grew more and more confident, while McEnroe, uncharacteristically mute, could only fall to the court in disbelief at several close line calls.
But the fifth set was different. From McEnroe, no agonizing or snarling, just textbook tennis and a lot of fist-waving after his many great shots. He won the first point on Clerc's serve four straight times and lost only four points on his own service. At match point, after Clerc fouled off another monster serve, McEnroe threw his hands roofward, hurdled the net, jumped into the arms of Captain Arthur Ashe and trainer Bill Norris and high-fived everyone in sight. The victory capped a year in which McEnroe won Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and three points in the Davis Cup final.
December 21, 1981
The Davis Cup served as sweet revenge for McEnroe. Last year, in front of a boisterous crowd in Buenos Aires, he lost to both Clerc and Vilas on clay as Argentina routed the U.S. in the American Zone final. But last week's was sure to be different. Not only would the match against Argentina be contested in the U.S. and on a faster, rubberized surface that suits McEnroe's game, but it also appeared that Jimmy Connors would be playing the other singles with McEnroe. Mac and Jimbo had teamed to beat Czechoslovakia, the defending champion, in July, and while Connors had missed the semifinals, a 5-0 rout of Australia, everyone hoped he'd show up in Cincinnati.
Then, on Nov. 25 Ashe announced that McEnroe and Tanner would play the singles against Argentina, just as they had against Australia. Connors' absence was attributed to everything from a prearranged ski trip to needed time with his family to a desire to rest. Whatever, on Thursday night during a cable TV call-in show on which Ashe was the guest, the phone rang and Jimbo was on the line, wishing the skipper the best of luck. "It would be a lot easier if you were with us," said Ashe.
Earlier in the week, Ashe declared that he was prepared to default the U.S. team if its court deportment got out of hand. This was a thinly veiled threat to McEnroe and Fleming, whose outbursts in their doubles match against Australia had embarrassed the captain. Ashe's remark sent reporters running to McEnroe, who replied, "Why do you guys write about that stuff? All you want to do is sell newspapers."
Meanwhile, the news out of the Argentine camp was also less than melodious. There has been bad blood between Clerc and Vilas ever since Clerc, ranked fifth in the world, replaced Vilas, No. 6, earlier this year as Argentina's top player. Specifically, Vilas demanded he be paid a larger percentage of the prize money than Clerc for appearing in international team competition. "They play tennis," said Pato Rodriguez, Clerc's coach. "Not necessary, friends. How many friends you have?"
In a 15,000-seat arena that was only half full, McEnroe needed just 94 minutes to put away Vilas. As McEnroe had done against Bjorn Borg at the U.S. Open, he jumped all over Vilas' second serve. Afterward, Vilas declined to visit the interview room, prompting a cynical reporter, who knew that Vilas writes verse, to yell, "Ask him to send a poem." Vilas didn't oblige.
A short time later, Clerc whipped Tanner. More than any other top player, Tanner must serve well to be effective, and on this day he put in only 43% of his first deliveries. Clerc broke service six times and performed superbly from the baseline.
Heretofore, Vilas and Clerc had given little indication that they were a major league doubles team. They rarely play doubles in tournaments and when they do it's usually not with each other. Certainly no one believed they would provide much competition for McEnroe and Fleming, this year's Wimbledon and U.S. Open champs. Yet they nearly pulled off one of the biggest upsets in Davis Cup history.
The match lasted almost five hours and threatened to turn into a slugfest. Unnerved by the gamesmanship of Clerc and Vilas, and brought to short temper by the closeness of the match, McEnroe lashed out at friend and foe. "We'll see who wins!" he yelled at a group of Argentine fans deriding his efforts.
After the U.S. had won the opening set, Vilas and Clerc switched sides, Vilas going to the deuce court, and played defensively. When receiving serve, both stood well back of the baseline and lobbed often to give themselves more time to get McEnroe's and Fleming's powerful serves and volleys.
Thrown off by these adjustments as well as by subtle delaying tactics, McEnroe and Fleming dropped the second set but recovered to win the third. Suddenly, Vilas and Clerc were packing their bags and were about to leave the court for the 10-minute intermission, although they were aware that the intermission had been waived because of a 23-minute delay in the second set to repair the court. As an exasperated McEnroe stood waiting to serve, he sarcastically screamed to Vilas, "Let me know when you're ready, all right? We got all afternoon."
When all four players converged, shouting and gesticulating, Ashe ran onto the court, stood before McEnroe and pointed, indicating he should get on with his business. Grudgingly, McEnroe retreated and served out the opening game. On the changeover, after McEnroe and Clerc exchanged additional words, Ashe engaged McEnroe and Fleming in a blistering conversation. Finally, as the players again returned to the court, Clerc said, "You so nice" to McEnroe, who responded with an obscenity. That brought Ashe out again, and the captain and McEnroe acted as if they were about to square off.
The rest of the afternoon, Ashe sat emotionless on the sideline, a caretaker more than a coach, occasionally rearranging a towel. He hadn't talked to McEnroe during his singles match on Friday, and now he didn't even look at him.
After McEnroe and Fleming pulled out the victory, thanks to some fantastic saves at net and Vilas' inability to serve out the win at 7-6 in the fifth set—McEnroe-Fleming broke at love by blitzing back four returns—everyone wanted to talk more about tennis manners than tennis strokes. "Brat boy," said Clerc of McEnroe. "He so brat on court."
"All they're worried about is messing you up," said McEnroe. "They're not a doubles team. We're a doubles team. They're all gamesmanship. If people don't think Davis Cup is different from a regular tournament, then they didn't see what happened out there today."
But on Sunday everyone was talking about McEnroe's racket, not his mouth. Clerc, gracious after his loss to McEnroe, said he had forgotten about Saturday, and Ashe said he was happy. As McEnroe pointed out, "When you win the Davis Cup, a lot is forgotten."