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You May Hate Him...
Sally Jenkins
December 21, 1992
...but the players love John McEnroe, which is why he should become U.S. Davis Cup captain
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December 21, 1992

You May Hate Him...

...but the players love John McEnroe, which is why he should become U.S. Davis Cup captain

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Based on his cheerful disposition, thoughtful diplomacy and exemplary comportment, I cannot recommend that John McEnroe be named U.S. Davis Cup captain. Witness his comments on the job's requirements and on the character of the decision makers at the U.S. Tennis Association: "If they want somebody who is going to suck up to the suits, they're never going to give it to me." Nevertheless, I call for McEnroe to be made captain of the Davis Cup team, plead for him even.

McEnroe, who last week all but announced his retirement as a player, has made it clear that he wants to be captain next year. But the USTA will probably retain the incumbent, Tom Gorman, who has led the U.S. to the final round in each of the last three years and to victory in two of them. Gorman has asked to remain in the position for at least one more year.

There is only one compelling reason to replace Gorman. Jim Courier, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, the stalwarts of the U.S. team, would rather play for McEnroe, the incendiary genius whom they idolize and who rallied them to a dramatic come-from-behind win over Switzerland two weeks ago in Fort Worth. With the teams having split the first two singles matches, McEnroe and Sampras trailed Jakob Hlasek and Marc Rosset two sets to none in doubles when McEnroe turned the match—and the tie—around. First, he lifted his game and, along with it, Sampras's. Then, during the 10-minute break after the U.S. had won the third set, he delivered a Rockne-like locker-room speech to all his teammates. Said Agassi after winning the Cup, "Everybody got to do a little bit, but it would have been difficult without John."

McEnroe has been a member of five victorious U.S. Davis Cup teams, and he has won some ties almost single-handedly. Nevertheless, the USTA views him as a dangerous choice as captain. His on-court behavior is profane, and off the court he has never gotten along with USTA executives. The Americans lost the Cup four years in a row during the 1980s, when McEnroe didn't play because he refused to agree to a USTA code of conduct. The USTA required all U.S. Davis Cup players to abide by the code after McEnroe and Jimmy Connors acted reprehensibly while being beaten by Sweden in 1984. "We lost those Davis Cups through politics," says McEnroe. Let's face it, he is not the ideal banquet toastmaster.

The Davis Cup, however, is not a gentleman's affair. The American doubles team of Ken Flach and Robert Seguso needed a military escort to get off the court during a 1987 tie in Paraguay, where spectators hurled epithets, coins and bottles at them. "I've got to be honest: I am not concerned with the people who wear a coat and tie saying John doesn't act the way we want him to," says Agassi. "Tennis and Davis Cup would get a big boost out of his being captain."

If you want a guy whom Courier, Sampras and Agassi will follow to the ends of the earth, a guy who will find a way to scrape out wins on foreign soil, a guy who will whip home crowds into a frenzy, McEnroe is your man. The players have already demonstrated that they play better for McEnroe than they do for Gorman. And a source close to the team says that Courier, Sampras and Agassi view Gorman as indecisive.

Gorman has been merely adequate in his seven years at the helm. Yes, he won in 1990 and '92, but he should have. Consider the talent at his disposal: This year he had Courier, the No. 1 player in the world; Sampras, who is No. 3; Agassi, the reigning Wimbledon champion; and McEnroe, the best doubles player in history. Still, the US lost last year's final to France, and Gorman must be blamed for that.

He made two major errors. He left McEnroe off the team, despite the fact that he would have been a sound choice for doubles. Worse, Gorman used Sampras, who had never before played a Davis Cup match, much less one in a final round. Sampras, paralyzed, lost both his singles matches, and the result was one of the most stunning upsets in Cup history.

By comparison, with Switzerland threatening to pull off an even bigger upset, the Americans became energized after McEnroe's locker-room tirade. When the Swiss later accused McEnroe of not showing them enough respect on the court, he replied, "Let's straighten out any misconceptions. We were trying to win the Davis Cup."

Some USTA insiders think that McEnroe needs to demonstrate patience and diplomacy for a year or so before he is named captain, but the U.S. needs him now. With the first tie of 1993—against Australia in Melbourne—set for March, the USTA must announce its choice for captain soon, because the players are currently making their schedules for next year. Moreover, the tie will be played on grass, for which players need more time to prepare than for the game's more frequently used surfaces. To date, Courier, Sampras and Agassi have refused to commit to Davis Cup play, saying they are hesitant to sign on until a captain is named. They also say that even though they are reluctant to return to Australia in March after having played the Australian Open in January, they would make the trip more readily for captain McEnroe.

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