It was late on a rainy Thursday evening in the cozy oaken halls of Chavant, an elegant dining establishment in a suburb of Grenoble overlooking the Is√®re River, and the French Tennis Federation was entertaining the visiting U.S. Davis Cup team and its camp followers. The date being Thanksgiving and the country the food-and-drink headquarters of the Western world, one looked for an augury in the meal, which included turkey and, allegedly, all the trimmings. Alas, the French don't know from turkey. The meat was dry and tough, the thimbleful of stuffing was tasteless paste, and the gravy and cranberries were nonexistent. But for the first course, an exquisite poached salmon-with-vegetables dish that could have been concocted only in heaven, Thanksgiving dinner in Grenoble was a washout.
And so, as it turned out for the French, was the tennis. They had hauled in 150 tons of dirt to create a slow clay court indoors—the better to hobble the mighty John McEnroe, who doesn't play his best on the soft stuff. The 14,000-seat Palais des Sports was sold out for all three days of Davis Cup competition—partly for la patrie, partly to witness what seemed likely to be historic McEnroe histrionics. The national media even stalked the invaders' hotel—obviously to catch McEnroe when, upon his arrival, exhausted, he went into conniptions about the size (small) of his room. The local municipal fathers got into the ceremonial scheme of things by conducting the draw at city hall, the presiding pooh-bah being none other than Grenoble's deputy mayor, Hubert Dubedout, who isn't called Scooby even by his closest friends.
In celebration of France's making the final round of the Davis Cup for the first time in half a century, the hosts also arranged a tennis-in-art exhibition at a downtown museum, stocked the Palais des Sports concessions with oysters and white wine and stirred up such interest that long before a ball was struck, the arena was resounding with airhorns, maracas and tambourines until it sounded like a concert hall gone punk. The French were doing the Davis Cup right.
But on Friday, after the home team's great black hope, Yannick Noah, gave McEnroe a scare in the first singles, the French went down the tube. Final score: U.S. 4, McEnroe 2½, France 1. Turkey to turkey, dust to dust. The McEnroe-led U.S. squad now has won the Cup four of the last five years.
In truth, the cast was dyed when Noah was paired against McEnroe in the opening match. Noah, ranked No. 9 in the world, acknowledged the pressure he was under. "I have to win both singles for us to have a chance," he said. As wasn't the case in 1932, when France defeated the U.S. 3-2 at the tail end of the reign of the Four Musketeers, the French now are basically a one-man gang. Jean Borotra, the Bounding Basque, had won the deciding match against Wilmer Allison in that controversial tie only after changing shoes at mysteriously opportune moments and after serving a double fault while down match point. However, no fault was called. "Everyone knows the French hooked us 50 years ago, and I've never forgotten it," said U.S. Captain Arthur Ashe, only half jokingly. "This is revenge."
While Ashe is merely McEnroe's captain, he is Noah's discoverer and benefactor—even though with Noah's recent conversion to a Rastafarian-like 'do, Yannick looks as if he might be a disciple of the late Bob Marley. McEnroe and Noah had played only once, the former winning when they both were in the juniors, but, more than anyone, Ashe knows what Noah can do. Ashe also knows, he said, "what Yannick cannot do." Namely, Noah is defensive off the backhand volley, and from midcourt he doesn't end points as quickly as he should. "I'm more afraid of Yannick's haircut," said McEnroe.
For those who have been wrapped up in the football strike, McEnroe's recent form has been nothing short of perfect. He has shaken off his Lendlean malaise to win 43 straight sets and four Grand Prix tournaments since the U.S. Open. And when he has USA on his back, Johnny Mac is especially tough.
The first set of the tie was your basic one-hour-and-52-minute, extra-inning gut-cruncher. McEnroe and Noah each had won 71 points when the latter came up short in Game 22 and McEnroe nailed a forehand down the line for a 12-10 victory. But then, an improbability: McEnroe promptly double-faulted on the first point of the second set and lost all touch with the proceedings. At the same time, Noah, his nerves and his inhibitions gone, his Rasta braids flinging beads of sweat into the stands, became more aggressive. From 2-1 in the second set, Noah won seven straight games, and at one stretch 24 of 29 points. The Palais, Noah's ark now, was in an uproar. Ashe later said that McEnroe simply fell asleep, that his "mind-set" wasn't right for a best-of-five on clay. "You've got to get your merde together for this," said Ashe. With Noah ahead 4-1 in the third set, Ashe and McEnroe discussed chucking the set and using the 10-minute break that was to follow "to clear the air," as Ashe put it.
Instead, McEnroe fought on to a 6-3 loss, but he had started to serve well. When he came back from the intermission, refreshed, he began hitting harder and deeper, especially to Noah's backhand, and Noah could only slice short balls in return. McEnroe then would come in and knock off the volley. Possibly as important, he behaved impeccably, kept his temper under control and never let the crowd into the match. McEnroe broke for 3-1 after Noah telegraphed a drop shot. As McEnroe's first serve picked up—he was to win the first point in each of his last 12 service games, hold all of them (five at love) and finish with 16 aces—Noah's seemed to wither. At 5-2 in the fourth set Noah missed eight of 10 first deliveries, and McEnroe broke again for 6-2. At 1-0 in the fifth, Noah missed five of six first serves as McEnroe broke once more and then held for 3-0. Ball game.
Or was it? Noah kept coming off the ropes. The last three times McEnroe served, Noah went up 15-30, and at 4-2 he had a break point. But on each occasion McEnroe either unloaded a huge first ball or placed a tough second to set up the point. He finally emerged with a 12-10, 1-6, 3-6, 6-2, 6-3 victory after four hours and 20 minutes. The clay hadn't been as much of a factor as expected, because the light Penn balls speeded up play.
The remainder of the tie seemed more than routine only to the participants. French Captain Jean-Paul Loth went with 19-year-old Henri Leconte against the two-handed artist Gene Mayer in the second singles match. But Leconte not only seems lost on clay but also appears bewildered anytime his ferocious, Brian Oldfield windup hasn't blasted the ball to smithereens. Leconte scattered tape-measure slap shots every which way as he floundered so deep into the soup—the Bounding Bisque?—that Mayer had to resort to his wonderfully disguised drop shot only once in the first two sets. Leconte settled down to win the third set—"I never think I am in a mess," he said later—but at 4-all in the fourth he served his 13th and 14th double faults, and Mayer served out the match to win 6-2, 6-2, 7-9, 6-4 and clean up the, uh, mess.
Which left McEnroe and Peter Fleming to clean up the tie on Saturday against a thoroughly discombobulated Noah and Leconte. How terrified were the Americans? Before taking the court Fleming pointed out that against New Zealand, in their last match, the French pair had played "like lepers." In Grenoble, Noah and Leconte got trapped in midcourt so often that they appeared to be taking a half-volley lesson. So brilliant was McEnroe in exploitation that he could have been teamed with Peggy Fleming—who won her gold in this same building in the 1968 Olympics—and the result might have been the same.
Fleming (Peter) said, "John is 95 percent of the reason we reach our high level. He plays so well, now I expect it, and maybe I don't ask enough of myself."
In the 10 games McEnroe served during a 6-3, 6-4, 9-7 U.S. victory, the French pair never reached break point. In those games the U.S. won 40 of 51 points, and McEnroe didn't make one error. It's this corner of McEnroe's arsenal—his ability in doubles—that sets him apart from the Borgs and the Connorses and the others of the Open era. Ashe calls McEnroe "the most complete, most talented player I've ever seen."
Friday morning the daily paper in Grenoble, Le Dauphiné, ran a picture of McEnroe wiping his face with a towel. Above the picture was the banner headline JOHN LES DOIGTS DANS LE NEZ? (Is John picking his nose?).
But McEnroe turned the other nostril all week in France. After beating Leconte 6-2, 6-3 in his meaningless match on Sunday, again without incident (Mayer unconcernedly went down to Noah 6-1, 6-0), McEnroe was on the verge of breaking two U.S. Davis Cup records. His 26 singles victories are second only to Ashe's 27, and his 36 wins overall are second only to Vic Seixas' 38. Just 23 years old, McEnroe is picking his way toward some very early history.