The paths of John McEnroe and Boris Becker have crossed just three times, yet they have produced two outstanding tennis matches. On Friday, in their third meeting, they gave Davis Cup fans a classic for the ages.
It was a memorable match for a couple of reasons. Becker and McEnroe traded shots longer than any other two players have in U.S. Davis Cup history--for 6 hours 20 minutes. The total time, which included a 20-minute break after the third set, was 6:40.
And surely, no one could have expected such an effort from either player. Becker was pushed to the limit before he managed to secure a 4-6, 15-13, 8-10, 6-2, 6-2 victory in the second match of this relegation round between the United States and West Germany at the Civic Center.
The match rivaled McEnroe's five-set Wimbledon final against Bjorn Borg in 1980 and his five-set victory over Mats Wilander in the 1982 Davis Cup quarterfinals. Of course, those epics came when he was at the peak of his game, while now he is struggling to return to the top.
McEnroe was forced to give a supreme effort because of the predicament the United States found itself in after one match here. Tim Mayotte, the local hope with the suspect psyche, managed to live up to his reputation against lightly regarded Eric Jelen, who defeated him, 6-8, 6-2, 1-6, 6-3, 6-2.
"There was a lot of pressure for Tim," Jelen said. "He is the No. 13 and I am No. 67 (in the world rankings). It was tough for him to play at home in the States. For him, the start of the match was very important. He played not that relaxed."
Mayotte, meanwhile, claimed that extra pressure was not what made him fold after he led, 2 sets to 1; rather, it was Jelen's inspired attacking game.
"He's a streaky player and he just played solid tennis," Mayotte said. "I served well consistently, but he got the returns at my feet."
So, basically, the Americans' future in Davis Cup was then left in the hands of someone who hasn't played a match in more than six weeks and who has spent most of the spring and summer struggling with injuries. Subsequently, McEnroe was forced to give one of the most momentous efforts of his career against Becker.
"I gave it all I had, and it was a hell of a tennis match," McEnroe said. "I wish the results were different, but it's nice to be a part of a match like that."
Said Becker: "I knew after Mayotte lost, John was going to be ready to go out there and say it's now or never. It was a war."
From the start, it was obvious to the crowd of 11,902 that the McEnroe of old was playing against Becker. His shots were directed purposefully and he moved much more fluidly than in the last year and a half.
McEnroe won the first set routinely--at least compared to the rest of the match--breaking Becker twice, with the second time coming in the 10th game at love. Then came the 28-game second set, which lasted 2:35.
A 6-hour 20-minute match clearly does not have just one turning point, but McEnroe missed an excellent opportunity to take a 2-0 lead in sets during the 20th game of the second set. He led, 10-9, on Becker's serve and missed an easy floater when he pushed a backhand volley long.
That would have given him triple-set point. Instead, it gave Becker added confidence for the rest of the match as he fought off five set points in the 22nd game.
"At that moment, I realized pretty much that he was getting shaky," Becker said. "And it made me a little stronger. I knew I was going to put the ball in and he was going to have to make the winners."
In the third set, though, some of Becker's luck disappeared, and McEnroe began to get the breaks. Becker dominated the set but was unable to convert on numerous break-point opportunities. McEnroe won the set by breaking Becker at 30 in the 18th game.
"I really was the much better player from the beginning of the third set through the fifth," Becker said. "I got a little lucky in the second, and then I think the guy up there wanted me to get even again and said now we're going to start again."
After McEnroe took the third set, the 20-minute break seemed to turn the momentum. In the final two sets, Becker thoroughly outplayed McEnroe, breaking him twice in each set.
With the United States down, 0-2, in this match, trying to stay in the World Group for the 1988 Davis Cup competition, the Americans are left with Ken Flach and Robert Seguso today to stave off possible banishment to the zonal qualifying competition.
"Our doubles have to come out strong," U.S. Captain Tom Gorman said. "They've won their two points and now we've got to win three. John will have two matches under his belt, and maybe Boris will have too many under his."
But the ever-honest McEnroe, while pleased with his own better-than-expected performance, knows what kind of odds the Americans face.
"It's a very bad situation," he said.
Davis Cup Notes
Originally, ESPN was not going to broadcast the Boris Becker-John McEnroe match live because of a scheduling conflict with the U.S. Women's Open golf tournament. ESPN aired the first match, Tim Mayotte vs. Eric Jelen, and then proceeded with the golf. However, rain interrupted play at Edison, N.J., so the cable network picked up the Becker-McEnroe match in progress. . . . McEnroe, obviously not knowing about the change in weather, made a comment to ESPN's Fred Stolle during the second game of the second set. Hearing some noise from the broadcast booth, McEnroe made a motion, pretending he was turning a knob on a television set. Said McEnroe to Stolle: "It's not even on now. Women's golf is on. Wake me up when it's over." . . . More Mac: Looking back, he claimed that the United States' 3-2 loss to Paraguay in the opening round of Davis Cup last March did not surprise him. "I thought we'd beat Paraguay, but I started to have bad feelings when I realized we'd have to depend on (Jimmy) Arias and (Aaron) Krickstein," he told Bud Collins of the Boston Globe. "I knew that was trouble."