There may be no ties in baseball, but there did seem to be hints of a pennant race in last weekend's semifinal Davis Cup tie between the U.S. and Sweden. Members of the American team mobbed one another after each victory, like ballplayers in a stretch drive. Even as across town their beloved Twins were battling against elimination in the American League West, the fans in Minneapolis's Target Center waved Homer Hanky-like cloths graced with the stars and stripes. On Friday, Jim Courier and Andre Agassi wore baseball caps as they won their singles matches to put the U.S. ahead 2-0. And on Saturday, John McEnroe and Pete Sampras—a good doubles team, said McEnroe, is like "a good second baseman-shortstop combo"—patrolled the dirt expertly against Stefan Edberg and Anders Jarryd to secure the American victory and a place opposite Switzerland in the final.
The weekend provided McEnroe, Sampras and Courier each with a measure of vindication. Eight years ago, when Sweden defeated the U.S. in the Davis Cup final on clay in G‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√áteborg, McEnroe and Peter Fleming, who were 14-0 in Cup play, lost in doubles to Edberg and Jarryd. McEnroe and Sampras had never before played doubles together, let alone on clay, the weakest surface for both, and they looked so foreign to one another in practice all week that there was a possibility that captain Tom Gorman would drop McEnroe in favor of Courier, who had teamed with Sampras to beat Edberg and Jarryd at the Barcelona Olympics. Not until 1:30 a.m. on Saturday did Gorman assure McEnroe that he would be playing.
"I don't like to leave my best tennis on the practice court," said McEnroe after he and Sampras had prevailed 6-1, 6-7, 4-6, 6-3, 6-3. "And I can safely say, I didn't do that."
No, McEnroe was game. He cajoled his mopey partner into maintaining his intensity every time their fortunes lagged. He rallied them both during the 15-minute break after the third set, a quaint interregnum unique to Davis Cup competition, when they trailed two sets to one. And he conjured up shot after shot during the last two sets. "Eighty-four was a long time ago," said McEnroe, who has won more Davis Cup matches (58) than any other American player. "But it's still nice to equalize when you're balding and gray."
For his part Sampras took two bad memories into the weekend, one fading, the other fresh. He had gone 0-2 in singles during the U.S.'s loss to France in the 1991 Davis Cup final last December, falling to a gimpy Henri Leconte and a beatable Guy Forget. Yet it was his loss in the U.S. Open final to Edberg two weeks ago that Sampras regretted more—more, he says, than any other defeat in his career.
The world had squired Sampras through a gantlet of talk shows after he won Flushing Meadow in 1990, and the burden of being a prodigy sent his game into a long tailspin. He had sorely wanted to win that title again, this time so that he could savor it. On Saturday, Sampras described the sensation he had after double-faulting away the third set in Minneapolis, saying, "It felt like the U.S. Open all over again. That's exactly what was going through my mind." With McEnroe's help, Sampras righted himself and rediscovered his serve.
Courier had angered McEnroe by passing up Davis Cup play earlier this year. Yet in Barcelona, Courier lost twice while playing for his country, and the defeats—with Sampras to Emilio Sànchez and Sergio Casal of Spain in doubles, and to eventual gold medalist Marc Rosset of Switzerland in singles—left him miserable. In Friday's opening match he dropped the first set to Nicklas Kulti, ranked No. 71 in the world, who was a last-minute replacement for Magnus Gustafsson. Then, after having his serve broken early in the second set, Courier spent the changeover with his eyes closed. "I was tired of looking," he would say. With the help of the crowd, which abandoned its Minnesota reserve during crucial points with Courier trailing 5-4 in the second and fourth sets, he soon liked what he saw, a 4-6, 7-6, 6-3, 7-5 victory.
The point Agassi made with his defeat of Edberg was less a single stitch than part of a pattern. Until his unexpected victory at Wimbledon in July, Agassi had a reputation for choking in Grand Slam events. Thus the Davis Cup had developed into a sort of refuge for him, a place where he could play for someone other than the overcoiffed and overexposed self that he and his corporate patrons had created.
With his shirt billowing out on every stroke to expose his midriff—if, as Barbra Streisand suggests, Agassi is a Zen master, then perhaps he needs easy access to his navel in case he's suddenly struck by the urge to contemplate it—Agassi won 5-7, 6-3, 7-6, 6-3. Twice he bamboozled Edberg in the third-set tiebreaker with offensive lobs that hit the baseline. "Davis Cup is the perfect platform for the better competitors to shine," said Agassi, who has now won 18 matches in Cup play, including nine in a row. "The intensity is there, so in-your-face. I go in like it's the end of the world."
The USTA chose Minneapolis as the site of this semifinal in recognition of the Twin Cities' huge Swedish-American population. (A reporter for the Minneapolis Star Tribune searched the local phone book and couldn't find a single Courier or Agassi, and found only one McEnroe—but did find 28 Edbergs.) The notion that Scandinavian Americans might get passionate about anything is the kind of premise Garrison Keillor could have a lot of fun with. But one particularly hot-blooded Minnesotan yelled, "Bring on the Swiss!" early Saturday evening, moments after a McEnroe service winner rendered Sunday's singles matches moot. (Courier lost to Magnus Larsson, who played in place of Edberg, 2-6, 7-6, 7-6, and Agassi beat Kulti 6-7, 6-2, 6-4.)
The Swiss in question are Rosset and Jakob Hlasek, pretty fair singles players who teamed up to win both the Italian and French Open doubles championships this year. In Geneva over the weekend they dispensed with Brazil as emphatically as the Americans dispatched the Swedes. The two countries will meet for the Cup on Dec. 4 in Fort Worth, in a tie all the fondue dippers in north Texas no doubt await with keen anticipation.