When the U.S. Davis Cup team last took the court, John McEnroe was staking his claim as America's foremost tennis patriot. That was last summer in Hartford, Conn., where McEnroe and his fellow Yanks faced West Germany in a relegation tie and Mac was taking every unfavorable call as an affront to Uncle Sam. American linesmen who dared to disagree with him were branded as traitors by Mac. After one, who was black, called one of McEnroe's serves a fault, he shouted, "I didn't know they had black Germans."
After McEnroe defeated 66th-ranked Eric Jelen in the fourth match, he snatched up the American flag and waved it defiantly. But his celebration was short-lived. Boris Becker beat Tim Mayotte in the final match, thereby relegating America, which earlier in the year had lost to Paraguay, to zonal play for 1988. As a result, the U.S. was faced with the prospect of having to defeat both Peru in Lima last week and Argentina in Buenos Aires in July just to get a shot at the Cup in 1989. The Americans surmounted the first hurdle with a 3-0 victory (the meaningless fourth and fifth matches were canceled) behind a couple of amiable rookies in the singles and a formidable veteran pair in the doubles.
The U.S. has not fared well in the Davis Cup in recent years. McEnroe's absence in 1985 and '86, when he was not asked to compete because he refused to adhere to a U.S. Tennis Association code-of-conduct agreement, was a severe blow. The U.S. lost to West Germany in '85 and to Australia in '86. The USTA quietly did away with the conduct stipulation, but chronic back problems kept McEnroe out of Lima, and that disappointed the Peruvians. "He's very scary, and I was hoping to face a scary player," said Pablo Arraya, a member of Peru's Davis Cup squad since 1978.
This year U.S. captain Tom Gorman passed over venerable clay-courters Jimmy Arias and Aaron Krickstein, who were unnerved by rowdy fans who beat drums and threw pebbles onto the court during last year's first-round upset in Paraguay. Instead, Gorman picked the two hottest young Americans on the tour: 17-year-old Andre Agassi, winner of the U.S. National Indoor Championships in February, and Jay Berger, 21, who defeated Mats Wilander last month at a tournament in Orlando, Fla.
April 17, 1988
The 15th-ranked Agassi is not in the McEnroe mold. "Andre is a likable guy," says Arraya. "He's a real sportsman." Yet McEnroe deems Agassi a worthy successor. "He told me I'm the next guy who can do it for America," says Agassi, who encountered Mac at a recent exhibition in Portland, Ore.
The U.S. contingent arrived in Lima expecting the worst. Fearing terrorist violence—the U.S embassy has been the target of bombs a number of times—the USTA tried to get the International Tennis Federation to move the tie to a neutral site. The ITF refused, though security was increased. The U.S. players acted as if they were about to enter the Temple of Doom.
"Playing in Lima will be like the Cardinals coming to the Metrodome," said Ken Flach, half of the U.S. doubles team. "The Peruvians are going to try to steal everything they can to win this. Agassi has got to ignore all the death threats he'll be getting."
As it turned out, no one threatened Agassi's—or anyone else's—life. But paranoia reached such a pitch among the Yanquis that there were persistent rumors of a possible raid by the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), a band of neo-Maoist mountain guerrillas who follow the archaic tribal customs of the Incas. "What's an Inca?" asked Agassi, who seemed to have only a vague idea of what continent he was on. "I came down here knowing just what I needed to know: It's semidangerous and we need a lot of protection."
Arraya doubted that the tie would attract boisterous soccer fans, much less the Senderistas. "Only the upper class can afford to attend this," he said. "Anyway, what went on in Hartford is worse than anything that could happen here."
Like Agassi, Arias and Krickstein, Arraya had done time in Nick Bollettieri's tennis gulag in Bradenton, Fla. Unlike them, he got kicked out. "It was a boot camp," says Arraya, who spent much of his off-court time cleaning latrines. "Nick used to call me a smartass." At the University of Arkansas, where he spent one semester, Arraya was called Lennie the Llama from Lima. "I don't think they'd ever seen a Peruvian in Little Rock," he says.
American pros have been equally scarce at Lima's Club Lawn Tennis, where last week's tie was played. In the opening match Berger, ranked 37th in the world, played Arraya, who is 134th. Gorman said the home court advantage would compensate for the disparity in rankings, but Arraya demurred. "I don't think Berger ever has the fans on his side," said Arraya. "I played him last year in Boston, and everyone was for me. He's not exactly...como se dice...charismatic."
The son of a Plantation, Fla., periodontist, Berger may have the healthiest gums on the pro tour. However, after one knee operation and four shoulder separations, the rest of him looks pretty much patched together. He wears tape around his left wrist, braces on his left ankle and right knee and a look of perpetual consternation. "Berger doesn't move gracefully," says Arraya.
No, he does not. Berger bumbles along the baseline like a punch-drunk prizefighter. He doesn't stroke his backhand; he slugs it. His forehand is suspect, and his no-windup serve packs little wallop. "Nothing I do out there looks good," says Berger. "For me to win I've got to be gutsy."
He won the first two sets 7-5, 6-1 on sheer tenacity. But Arraya, pouncing on Berger's mistakes, took the next two sets by identical scores. The crowd chanted "Pey-ROO, Pey-ROO" whenever Arraya rallied. "Do you hear how loud the fans are?" Berger asked Robert Seguso, the other half of the U.S. doubles combo, during a break.
"I think they're unbelievably polite," said Seguso, a veteran of the Paraguay campaign. "It's like playing in Japan."
In the final set Berger and Arraya traded slice backhands, daring and double-daring each other to rush net, and then taking refuge on the baseline. The periodontist's son took a 4-2 lead and hung on by the skin of his teeth to win 7-5 in a match that lasted five hours and 45 minutes.
The pace picked up considerably in Agassi's match against Jaime Yzaga, who's ranked 70th. Agassi kept the fleet Yzaga on the run, moving him in and back and from side to side with a ferocious topspin forehand. Agassi struggled at first but then prevailed 6-8, 7-5, 6-1, 6-2. Agassi seemed the perfect antidote to McEnroe's nasty nationalism. He applauded Yzaga's good shots and, after losing the first set, accepted that someone from another nation had beaten him with superior skill.
On Sunday, Flach and Seguso, the defending Wimbledon champions, clinched the victory for the U.S. with a 6-2, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 win over Yzaga and Carlos Di Laura. The highlight of the afternoon came in the second set, when hecklers began singing as Flach prepared to serve. Every "Silencio" from the umpire was met with a chorus of "Vamos Peru." Finally Flach gave in and, waving his arms like a conductor, led the crowd in song. "It was so humorous I couldn't resist," he said later.
In July, against the tougher Argentines, Flach may not feel like tangoing with the fans in Buenos Aires.