TENNIS / BILL DWYRE : It’s a Davis Cup Replay in Las Vegas for U.S. and Sweden
This weekend, Davis Cup play visits Las Vegas, a city whose recent tennis lore has been built mostly on the notoriety of a short, slightly pigeon-toed baseline player who dresses funny and makes lots of commercials.
Now, since native son Andre Agassi is No. 1 in the world of tennis and Las Vegas certainly has lots of computer points in the world rankings of entertainment capitals, the fit seems just fine.
This will be a semifinal match, or tie, as Davis Cup traditionalists call it. And it will match Agassi and his United States team in Friday, Saturday and Sunday competition against Sweden in a rematch of last year’s dramatic semifinals won by the Swedes in their home country.
In that semifinal, the U.S. team took a 2-0 lead into the Saturday doubles and ended up losing, 3-2, when Jonathan Stark and Jared Palmer lost the doubles to Jonas Bjorkman and Jan Apell on Saturday, and Pete Sampras and Todd Martin lost singles matches on Sunday. Sampras, who had defeated Magnus Larsson the first day, had to default to Stefan Edberg because of an injury, and Martin, who had beaten Edberg on the first day, lost the deciding match to Larsson.
Many of the faces on both teams are the same. The main exception is Agassi, who has played Davis Cup loyally for many years, but sat out last year’s match with Sweden in the immediate aftermath of his stunning run, as an unseeded player, to the U.S. Open title. This year, Agassi lost that title at Flushing Meadow to Sampras but is not about to lose his chance to play for the U.S. Davis Cup team in his hometown.
Sampras, only 441 points behind Agassi in the computer race for tennis’ No. 1, and Agassi give the U.S. team a look of invincibility. Their probable singles opponents will be a fast-rising Thomas Enqvist, No. 60 at the end of last year and now No. 8, and a slow-falling Edberg, winner of six Grand Slam titles and one of the grand gentlemen of the game who, four months shy of his 30th birthday, has slipped to No. 19.
It may be Edberg, though, who will be the only player to compete in both singles and doubles. Sweden’s top doubles team of Bjorkman and Apell is without Apell, out because of a shoulder injury, and Sweden’s next-best doubles player, by far, is Edberg.
The fourth player on Sweden’s team adds an element of intrigue, because it is unclear where he fits. Mats Wilander, like Edberg a former No. 1 player and a former Grand Slam titlist with seven victories, turned 31 in August and has steadily played his way back into prominence at No. 47 after quitting the tour for about three years after knee surgery in 1991. It would appear that Wilander, there because Larsson is injured, will sit and watch in Las Vegas, but Davis Cup tends to thrive on mystique, and Wilander brings plenty of that.
The U.S. doubles team is an interesting study in strategy by American Capt. Tom Gullikson, who has paired singles specialist Martin with doubles specialist Stark.
“The thinking was that Todd has played some pretty good doubles this year and he’d give us a good backup for singles, just in case,” Gullikson said.
Martin and Stark have played doubles together only once. Each has won two doubles titles this year, but each with other players. Stark’s doubles record is 30-13 and is ranked No. 8. Martin is 19-8 and is ranked No. 69.
Martin’s availability as a third singles player gives Gullikson a luxury he didn’t have last year, when an injured Sampras couldn’t get through his match against Edberg.
The matches will be played in an outdoor stadium at Caesars Palace, where seating capacity is 13,000 and the court surface is medium-slow hard courts. Matches, all best-of-five sets until a team winner is determined, are scheduled to begin at 11 a.m. on Friday and Sunday and noon on Saturday. A few tickets are still available.
Among those on hand will be Tim Gullikson, Tom’s twin brother and Sampras’ coach, who is recovering from brain cancer and who hasn’t seen Sampras play in person since he was stricken during the Australian Open in January.
“I just booked his flight from Chicago,” Tom Gullikson said Thursday from his home in Florida. “I’m so happy he’s coming and getting a chance to see Pete play again.”
The Champions Tour for senior players, which will stop for a Sept. 26-Oct. 1 tournament at the Sherwood Country Club, got a recent boost when Bjorn Borg beat Jimmy Connors in a tournament final at Cape Cod. Connors had so dominated the tour that his victories were hurting the credibility of the tour he help create. “Borg has come so far after only playing a few years,” Connors said. “He was away from the game entirely for nine years.” . . . Davis Cup Capt. Tom Gullikson said that he looked at the Southern California doubles team of Rick Leach and Scott Melville, which reached the final at Wimbledon and the quarterfinals at the U.S. Open. “I considered Ricky quite heavily, but not the team, per se,” Gullikson said.