For the second year in a row, the U.S. dropped a Davis Cup tie at home
At the inaugural Davis Cup competition in 1900, there were no $450 tickets, the matches weren't simulcast on a JumboTron in downtown Boston, and the players arrived without personal racket stringers. Still, there were striking similarities between that first tie and last weekend's electrifying encounter between the U.S. and Australia on the Cup's centennial. The events were played at the same venue—the Long-wood Cricket Club in Brookline, Mass.—and, as ever, the team format and overlay of patriotism imbued the matches with an intensity and purity seldom seen at tennis tournaments.
What's more, just as the two best players of their day, British brothers Reggie and Laurie Doherty, declined to compete in the initial tie—they cited an aversion to ocean travel—there were glaring absences last weekend. Hubristic Andre Agassi has vowed never to play Davis Cup again; Aussie power hitter Mark Philippoussis was out with an injured left knee; and Pete Sampras, fresh from winning Wimbledon, was present but unaccounted for, at least in the singles lineup.
After watching his compatriots Todd Martin and Jim Courier spring a stunning upset of Great Britain in a first-round tie in April, Sampras had called U.S. captain Tom Gullikson and inquired about rejoining the team for the second round. Sampras's offer came with a noble, if silly, caveat: Reluctant to shunt either Martin or Courier off the stage, Petey-come-lately wanted to make only a doubles cameo.
To many, the notion of the best player of this generation sitting on the sidelines made less sense than the lyrics to Livin' La Vida Loca. The Aussies, in fact, regarded Sampras's doubles-only pledge skeptically. "I'm expecting some shoulder and elbow injuries," half-joked team captain John Newcombe, referring to the rule that teams can make substitutions only when players are injured.
With Sampras on the bench, the U.S. fell behind 2-0 last Friday. Whipping lasers from the backcourt, diminutive 18-year-old Lleyton Hewitt dispatched Martin in four sets. Patrick Rafter, who will become the world's top-ranked on July 26, then dismembered Courier. Thus it was left to Sampras to keep the U.S.'s hopes alive the next day. Paired with Alex O'Brien, Sampras did little to distinguish himself, but the Americans prevailed against Sandon Stolle and Mark Woodforde in five gripping sets.
Reporters then asked Gullikson about Sampras's availability for the reverse singles on Sunday. Coyly, Gullikson said that substituting Sampras was "a possibility" and that Martin "has really not been healthy all year." This was news to Martin, who told journalists he felt fine.
Sunday kicked off with a moving ceremony honoring a legion of past Davis Cuppers. Words such as sportsmanship and dignity were bandied about. At roughly the same time, Gullikson was telling Sampras that he might play singles against Rafter. After giving Martin "a visual examination," the U.S. team doctor, David Altchek, said Martin was suffering from heat exhaustion and should not play. Problem was, under Davis Cup rules, a player's injury must be deemed legit by a neutral physician, and when Boston orthopedic surgeon G. Richard Paul examined Martin, he declared him fit to compete. "We asked for proof like an electrolyte count and body temperature," says a physician who consulted with Paul. "They didn't give us anything."
In fairness to Martin, a player known for his integrity, he appeared woozy and took IV fluids before his match with Rafter. But after Gullikson's remarks the previous day, the situation smelled more peculiar than Vegemite.
In either a triumph of will or a confirmation of Paul's assessment, Martin won the first two sets against Rafter. The Aussie, however, had plenty of fight in him. In the infernal 120� court-side heat he grew stronger as the afternoon progressed, and he won his 11th straight five-set match. That sealed the U.S. team's second Davis Cup debacle at home in less than a year (after a loss to Italy in Milwaukee last fall) and may have placed a chalk outline around Gullikson's tenure as captain.