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They Swore That It Couldn’t Happen--but It Did

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Should the U.S. Tennis Assn. develop a sudden interest in a reading of Davis Cup history, this would be a good week to skip the scary parts. Like the final between Sweden and the United States, here in 1984.

With No. 1 Pete Sampras and No. 3 Michael Chang playing against Sweden on Friday, the opening day of this year’s final, USTA officials are talking about a dream team that will lead the U.S. to its 32nd Davis Cup title. But maybe it would be best for them not to dwell on the parallels to 1984.

Then, as now, the best American players were playing. But hubris brought down that team and the U.S. suffered its most embarrassing Davis Cup defeat.

In 1984, the American team had the fearsome combination of John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors. Between them, they had won 159 titles and 15 Grand Slam events.

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It was clearly the best American Davis Cup team ever, perhaps the best Davis Cup team from any country, including the 1973 Australian team that had Rod Laver and John Newcombe.

McEnroe was No. 1 in the world and having the kind of brilliant but tortured season that was his trademark. He was 82-3 during the year and won 13 titles. Connors was No. 3 but considered by his peers to be second only to McEnroe fighting his way out of difficult match situations.

Then there was Peter Fleming. He and McEnroe made up the world’s No. 1 doubles team, and before the match against Sweden, Fleming had never lost a doubles match in Davis Cup.

The Americans, captained by Arthur Ashe, were supremely confident. That did not come from the unassuming Ashe, however, and after the 4-1 humiliation, massive circumspection broke out.

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Ashe wrote a post-mortem in the Washington Post, trying to make some sense of the shocking defeat. He cited overconfidence as the main trouble.

“What began with brash optimism has just ended with embarrassment, disappointment and defeat,” he wrote. “America’s 4-1 loss to Sweden this week has rightly elicited a long overdue review of our Davis Cup effort. We were embarrassed by the poor showing of the world’s top two players. Perhaps our most singular failing was overconfidence.”

Ashe put 10 years of service into Davis Cup, as a player and captain. With his charisma and integrity, he did much to persuade the top American players to participate in Davis Cup, which then--as now--was periodically ignored by superstars with other agendas.

Ashe found in McEnroe an eager recruit.

“My mother made me promise her I’d always play for my country if I was asked,” McEnroe said.

His role in Davis Cup was as pivotal as it was controversial. His rock-solid commitment and his fervor while playing gave Davis Cup a cachet among players and fans that it had lacked for years.

McEnroe played his first match as a 19-year-old in 1978. By 1984, he was a decorated veteran. He played doubles and singles because of his high rankings in both and because he was asked by successive captains to do just that.

That meant McEnroe would play three of the best-of-five matches in three days. And he was often involved in long matches. Against Sweden in the 1982 quarterfinals, for instance, he beat Mats Wilander, 9-7, 6-2, 15-17, 3-6, 8-6.

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That third set was the record for most games until the tiebreaker was introduced in 1989. The players were on the court for 6 hours 22 minutes. Five years later, McEnroe played a 6-hour 21-minute Davis Cup match against Boris Becker.

For a player not renowned for his fitness, McEnroe never appeared to suffer.

Connors was another story.

His presence represented a coup of sorts for Ashe. Always an iconoclast, Connors failed to see the benefit--to him, at least--of Davis Cup participation. He had played twice, in 1976 and 1981, but ’84 was the first year he had agreed to play from the first round on.

If overconfidence was a problem in 1984, so was lack of preparation.

McEnroe’s problems, fittingly, began in Sweden. He won the Stockholm Open but only after throwing tantrums in the semifinal against Anders Jarryd. He was fined for ball abuse, abuse of an official, and unsportsmanlike behavior.

The fines put McEnroe over the limit and he was suspended for 21 days. To add to his frustration, he injured his left wrist while training during the suspension and had to sit out the Australian Open, played in early December in those days.

A crabby and flabby McEnroe was still dangerous, but he needed a strong supporting cast.

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The timing for Connors couldn’t have been worse. Before the Davis Cup final, he hadn’t played in a tournament in six weeks. In addition, he and his wife, Patti, were expecting their second child during the week of the final and Connors admitted to being distracted.

Still, the lack of preparation was no immediate cause for alarm.

“The last thing I need is to go out and practice,” McEnroe said.

The Swedes were all they have ever been--a team of consistent players, steadfast and ever ready. Often underestimated, Swedish players have seldom fallen prey to common Davis Cup complaints--indifference, marginal injuries or scheduling problems.

Stefan Edberg cheerfully put in 13 years with the Swedish Davis Cup team.

“I’ve never understood why some countries have problems [getting players to participate],” Edberg said a few years ago. “I have a full schedule too, all these years. It’s a matter of priorities.”

The final against the Americans here was Edberg’s first foray into Davis Cup and the fledgling was given only a doubles assignment. He had offered an indication of his future greatness, but was still unproven. He won the junior Grand Slam in 1983, but as a pro in 1984 he was still nothing more than a promising 18-year-old. He teamed with Jarryd in doubles.

The star of the Swedish team was Wilander, ranked No. 4 and coming off his second French Open title and two Australian Open titles. Henrik Sundstrom, 21, a clay-court specialist, was ranked seventh. Like his teammates, Sundstrom had poise beyond his years. The four Swedes had an average age of 20.

The deadliest blow was struck before the matches began. Given choice of ground, the Swedes wisely selected clay, the surface least favored by their guests.

Forty-two tons of crushed brick were dumped over the ice at the Scandinavium--the same arena is being used this weekend--and for a $30,000 investment, the Swedes gained a huge advantage. The slow clay negated all of the U.S. team’s aggression.

Ashe had feared the Swedes would choose clay but also remembered that the French had constructed an indoor clay court for the 1982 final, when the U.S. won, 4-1.

“This team may have a few problems on clay, just maybe,” Ashe said before the final.

With Connors given permission to arrive late, the U.S. team began its quest for the Cup.

The first day began disastrously, then got worse.

Wilander crushed Connors, 6-1, 6-3, 6-3, in the opening match. Connors, who was warned for an audible obscenity early in the match, was assessed a point for a second one and, with a chance to tie the third set, was penalized a game for a third swearing jag. He also swung his racket at the umpire’s chair.

Connors dug himself in deeper by refusing to shake the chair umpire’s hand after the match, then uttering an oath at him as he was walking off the court.

Alan Mills, the match referee, said he was considering defaulting Connors for his behavior. Instead, Connors was fined $2,000.

Thus was the stage set for McEnroe. Rusty, lacking timing and concentration, McEnroe threw his racket to the ground in frustration, shouted at fans and swore, but was not penalized by the umpire.

Sundstrom, however, took full advantage, defeating McEnroe, 13-11, 6-4, 6-3, and giving Sweden a commanding 2-0 lead.

“We have seldom seen McEnroe so out of touch with the ball,” Ashe said.

The next day’s doubles match was a must-win for the United States. But the top team in the world was taken down by Edberg and Jarryd, 7-5, 5-7, 6-2, 7-5. Fleming double-faulted on match point, giving Sweden an insurmountable lead.

“This is a great moment for Sweden,” Swedish captain Hans Olsson said.

It was a nadir for the Americans. Their crude language was amplified, literally, by a courtside television microphone. Thus, obscenities by both McEnroe and Connors were heard throughout Sweden.

When told of this, Connors made nothing of it. Since he had been swearing in English, how could he have offended anyone? A nation of largely English-speaking Swedes was incredulous.

Connors then left before the reverse singles and Jimmy Arias played Sundstrom. Arias played well--winning a set being the standard of excellence for the Americans--but Sundstrom won in the shortened match, 3-6, 8-6, 6-3.

McEnroe then gave the U.S. team its sole point, defeating Wilander, 6-3, 6-7, 6-3.

Ashe, a consummate sportsman and gentleman, was embarrassed, both by the performance of his players and their behavior, and promised a new leaf.

“We will be back in 1985--better motivated, better prepared and better behaved,” he said.

What happened?

The USTA in 1985 required Davis Cup players to sign a behavior-guideline agreement. McEnroe refused. Connors had no intention of playing Davis Cup ever again. That left Eliot Teltscher and Aaron Krickstein, who had just turned 18, as the two singles players.

Accordingly, the U.S. team lost in the second round and Sweden defeated Germany to retain the title.

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Davis Cup at a Glance

* What: Davis Cup final.

* Who: United States vs. Sweden.

* When: Friday through Sunday.

* Where: Indoors, on carpet at the Scandinavium, Goteborg, Sweden.

* Teams: U.S.--Pete Sampras, Michael Chang, Todd Martin, Jonathan Stark. Sweden--Jonas Bjorkman, Thomas Enqvist, Magnus Larsson, Nicklas Kulti.

* Format: Best of five; two singles matches Friday, one doubles match Saturday, reverse singles Sunday.

Records: U.S.--31 titles, 58 times in finals. Sweden--Five titles, 10 times in finals.


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