When the U.S. Davis Cup team arrived at the press conference preceding its quarterfinal tie with France in San Diego last week, John McEnroe, Ken Flach and Robert Seguso, all new fathers, were pushing strollers. The big surprise was that their 18-year-old teammate. Andre Agassi, wasn't in one. Agassi, who faltered badly after winning six tournaments last year, has been whining lately about his waning confidence.
But the Agassi who hammered Henri Leconte in four sets to give the U.S. a 2-0 lead was all business. The closest he came to grandstanding, which is as much his trademark as his lethal forehand, was to fling his sweaty victory shirt into the gallery. During the match Agassi was counseled by none other than McEnroe, whose behavior while thumping Yannick Noah 6-3, 6-4, 6-1 in the opening match was as exemplary as his game.
It was an odd alliance, because tennis's supreme solipsist (McEnroe) and its leading narcissist (Agassi) had been feuding for months. Mac had blasted Agassi for showboating and his overarching obsession with himself. In reply Agassi once said, "If there's one person in the world you can find a lot of negative things about, it's John."
No wonder the tie could have been billed as the first encounter between les deux enfants terribles since early March, when McEnroe eliminated Agassi from the WCT Finals after Agassi claimed a leg injury and retired with a 6-4. 0-3 lead. But they seemed to have reached a rapprochement by last week's press conference. Thereafter, Mac and Andre palled around like old buddies. "I really do think Andre is an exceptional talent," said Mac. "He's made mistakes. He's gotten some negative reaction, and he's confused. I'm pretty sure I could help him deal with some things, but he's got to want that."
The latest version of the self-described "mellow" McEnroe has won his last two tournaments and climbed to sixth in the world. His presence in San Diego made the U.S.—which hasn't won the Davis Cup since 1982—a heavy favorite. Going into the tie, Mac hadn't lost to Leconte or Noah in 12 matches.
His win over Noah extended the string to 13. Noah was so frazzled that he couldn't muster a single break point. At times McEnroe seemed to be playing a different game—badminton maybe. His quickness and anticipation made the ball seem to hang in the air like a shuttlecock while he selected a shot from his vast repertoire. "I've never had such a hard time on the court, never felt so helpless," said Noah.
Against Leconte, Agassi at first looked as if he wouldn't need advice from anyone. Leconte is packing a bit of extra cargo around his waist these days. He couldn't run with Agassi, so he tried to outshoot him, rushing the net at nearly every turn. The strategy seemed pointless until Agassi, serving at 5-2 in the third set, attempted to ace Leconte with a second serve on match point. He double-faulted, blew three more match points and the set.
During the 10-minute break players are permitted following the third set in Davis Cup competition, McEnroe offered Agassi some advice. "He's tiring, so don't just try to rip returns by him." said Mac. "Make him run all over the court." With that, Agassi went out and punished Leconte, who grunted and groaned until the final, merciful point of the 6-1, 6-2, 5-7, 6-1 match.
The U.S. clinched the victory on Saturday when Flach and Seguso defeated Noah and Guy Forget 6-2, 7-6, 4-6, 7-6. After Flaguso dropped the third set, Mac settled them down, too. "Be positive," he said. "Be positive."
McEnroe aims to reclaim his place atop the rankings and to pull the U.S. team with him. To succeed in that latter quest, he'll have to help Agassi prove that he can play the game as well as the crowd and that he belongs with the big boys, not just the fat boys.