Wasn't it Freud who said we spend our lives trying to fulfill
our first three or four wishes? And hasn't John McEnroe craved
the U.S. Davis Cup captaincy ever since he emerged screaming
from the womb? Well, McEnroe doesn't need Freud to tell him he
should have been careful what he wished for. Two rounds into his
captaincy he seems ready to check himself into a Viennese clinic.
"I've got a headache, I've lost a little of my voice, and
there's a tension in my body that just won't leave," McEnroe
said Friday after unheralded Jiri Novak opened a quarterfinal
tie between the Czech Republic and the U.S. in Los Angeles by
lobotomizing uninspired Pete Sampras 7-6, 6-3, 6-2. The
thrashing, by a player ranked 39th in the world, was the most
lopsided loss of Sampras's 26-match Davis Cup career. "My job is
to motivate my players," McEnroe said, "but when Pete fell
behind, I couldn't come up with the goods. He was stunned, and I
was stunned. Stress built up in me like a bomb waiting to
The explosion came on Saturday when a straight-set doubles loss
by Alex O'Brien and Jared Palmer put the U.S. behind 2-1 in the
best-of-five series. His complexion eggy, McEnroe sprayed shots
at the "passive" fans, "negative" press and Sampras--who,
McEnroe claimed, hadn't "worked hard enough." By Sunday, though,
Sampras had apparently changed his work habits enough to beat
Slava Dosedel 6-4, 6-4, 7-6 in the reverse singles. That win,
coupled with Andre Agassi's 6-3, 6-3, 6-1 defeat of Novak, gave
the U.S. its second improbable come-from-behind victory in the
McEnroe era. "The scary thing is, it's going to get tougher,"
said McEnroe, whose team advanced to a semifinal on Spanish clay
Not since the Pequod took off after bigger fish has a skipper so
overshadowed his crew. McEnroe was the most successful U.S.
Davis Cup player in history, with a 41-8 record in singles and
an 18-2 mark in doubles. In a fit of pre-tie braggadocio he
said, "Considering all the factors, we should sweep." Mac's
factors included his roster (the world's No. 1 and No. 3 singles
players and top-ranked doubles team) and the Forum's fast carpet
and partisan crowd. His only compliment for the Czechs was a
backhand slice: "They have a lazy style, what appears to be less
than 100-percent intensity. The danger is that our guys may be
lulled to sleep."
Which would be tough with McEnroe sitting courtside. Since
becoming captain last fall, he has been a one-man publicity
machine, flacking the Davis Cup all the way from the Today Show
to the Tonight Show. He cajoled the reluctant Sampras into
committing to the entire 2000 schedule and coaxed back Agassi,
who had refused to play Davis Cup since falling out with the
U.S. Tennis Association in 1998.
Sampras was supposed to travel to Zimbabwe for Round 1 in
February, but he pulled out with a hip injury. Livid, McEnroe
told reporters he didn't believe Sampras had ever intended to
make the trip. Equally livid, Sampras questioned McEnroe for
questioning his integrity. "Let's just say Pete was pissed and I
was disappointed," McEnroe said last week. "I called him later,
and we talked things out." Without Sampras around, the lowly
Zimbabweans, cheered on by a hip-hopping clown, won two of the
first three matches. It was left to Agassi, with an assist from
Chris Woodruff, to pull out the U.S. victory. "Weird things
happen in Davis Cup," McEnroe offered at the quarterfinal draw
in L.A. "If I see naked guys dancing, I'll start worrying."
"This is L.A.," Sampras reminded him.
McEnroe had hoped to make his U.S. debut as captain in his
hometown, New York City, but Madison Square Garden was already
booked. So he lobbied for his second home, L.A., where his
friend Jeanie Buss, executive vice president of the Lakers, was
until recently president of the Forum.
"I was asked to provide pageantry, excitement, a show," says
Buss, who provided fireworks, Laker Girls and a P.A. announcer
more WWF than USTA. She tried to get Pat Sajak to preside over
the draw, but he was _UT _F T_WN. Buss's second choice was Verne
Troyer, the 2'8" actor of Austin Powers fame. "I wanted to dress
him up as Mini-Mac," Buss says. Alas, the task was too small for
Troyer, and it fell to tennis great Jack Kramer.
Against Novak the effort of Sampras seemed minimal. While the
six-time Wimbledon champ chipped and charged, Novak attacked his
backhand and scored winners with miraculous lunges at balls that
seemed well beyond his reach. McEnroe looked on grimly. During
one changeover Sampras told him, "This guy is playing out of his
mind, and I don't know what to do. I'm coming in, I'm staying
back. I just don't have the answers." Neither did McEnroe.
Sampras committed 31 unforced errors to Novak's 12 and
squandered all 11 chances to break Novak's serve. After botching
number 11 (on a netted backhand in the fifth game of the second
set), Sampras pretty much hung back on what Novak called the
"basic line." Said Novak, "In the past [Pete and I] rarely play
from the basicline. I thought, This is a very good advantage for
me, because he kills the ball very, very fast."
The U.S. evened things up when Agassi defeated basicliner
Dosedel very, very fast, 6-3, 6-3, 6-3. Dosedel is ranked 40th
and played like it. "Andre is saving himself for me and Davis
Cup," said a jubilant McEnroe. "The hell with those other
Though McEnroe, the 41-year-old father of six, retired from
Davis Cup doubles in 1992, he has toyed with the idea of
unretiring to team with Sampras or Agassi, given that the
Americans' 15 post-McEnroe pairings have gone 9-13. O'Brien and
Palmer played together at Stanford in '92 but didn't reunite
until this year, and were untested in the Davis Cup crucible. In
their humbling 7-5, 6-4, 6-4 loss to Novak and David Rikl, they
got trapped in midcourt so often that they seemed to be taking a
half-volley lesson. In their place McEnroe couldn't have done
any worse. "We're acting like spoiled kids," he later grumbled.
"You can't just expect it to happen without having to work for
it, like rich kids--like my kids, actually."
On Sunday, Agassi jerked Novak along the basicline from left to
right and right to left. By the second set the Czech had the
ragged look of a man who had played three crucial matches in
three days.Sampras, despite a strained thigh and a bruised
psyche, slew Slava by serving his country at speeds of up to 129
mph. His 18 aces sealed the win and McEnroe's second victory as
captain. "I never lost faith," Mac said.
As Freud might have concluded, he's a tough nut to crack.