It was a good thing that the U.S. team had traveled all the way to Guayaquil, Ecuador last week for the first round of Davis Cup competition. That's because this bunch needed all the cover it could get as it sweated out an uninspiring 3-2 win over Ecuador in the heat and humidity on the clay courts of the Guayaquil Tennis Club. Andres Gomez, who had both of the host nation's victories, defeating Jimmy Arias 7-5, 4-6, 4-6, 9-7, 6-4 on Friday, and Aaron Krickstein 3-6, 7-5, 6-1, 7-5 on Sunday, said of the current state of American tennis, "Something has to be wrong. They used to be top, and now, no. They have lost a lot." Trying to put the best face on the matter, USTA Davis Cup chairman Gordon Jorgensen said, "It's not that we are falling behind, it's just that others are catching up." Even former Davis Cup Captain Arthur Ashe diplomatically pronounced the U.S. as being "in the doldrums."
Ashe knows whereof he speaks. In 1967 he was on the U.S. team that was dumped by an undistinguished Ecuadoran team. Ashe lost both his singles matches. Losing again last week in a friendly doubles game, Ashe quipped, "I've still never won in Ecuador."
The U.S., however, did win in Ecuador this time, but it was hardly a glorious triumph. The Americans escaped because Ecuador was barely able to muster a team beyond Gomez. In addition to his two singles victories, Gomez was paired in the doubles with Ricardo Ycaza, a nearly retired pro whose doubles ranking is No. 225 in the world. The U.S. doubles combination of Robert Seguso and Ken Flach, defending U.S. Open champions, predictably bullied the Ecuadorans good. O.K., so the match took four sets.
In the other singles matches, Ecuador's representative was gangly Raul Viver, who ranks No. 165 in the world. Viver's most recent career highlight was winning the Orange Bowl 18-and-under championship. He's now 25. First Krickstein, No. 30, and then Arias, No. 19, rolled over him, both in straight sets. The latter's win on Sunday advanced the U.S. to the next Davis Cup round in July against Mexico.
Yet even against such opposition, U.S. tennis officialdom had been genuinely worried that Ecuador—"a nice little country with perhaps 500 players," as veteran tennis observer Bud Collins put it—would eliminate the American team, representing a nation of five million players. Similar fears had been expressed by reporters, prompting Arias to say, "I think it would be nice if the press would stop putting so much pressure on us by saying how bad we are. It's getting annoying."
But not nearly as annoying as watching Arias play in Friday's opening match against the 16th-ranked Gomez. Arias fought and scrapped and hung in there—attaboy, Jimmy!—against Gomez, who was raised on these difficult red-clay courts. Arias lost the first set, won the next two, lost the fourth, after having served for the match—and then came the frantic fifth set.
Arias had just broken Gomez's serve in the seventh game when he inexplicably picked that moment to thumb his nose at a crowd that, as crowds go—especially South American ones—had been relatively decorous. Come on, what are a few whistles, cowbells and foot stomps among friends? Anyway, the crowd, which became dozy in the steamy heat, got back into the flow. Attaboy, Jimmy.
Then Arias, serving, delivered a blazing ace for advantage, leaving him one point from tying the set at 5-all. At which point Arias started mocking the crowd, rubbing his ace in its face. Great chaos ensued, with lots of finger-pointing and arm-waving and language even more colorful than the Ecuadoran flag. When play resumed, Arias lost the next three points, the game and, for all practical purposes, the match. There's a word in Spanish for Arias's actions: est√∫pido.
Afterward, referring to the episode, Arias confessed, "I lost my momentum. That was a bad play." Arias said he was tired from the 95° heat and was trying to buy time to rest. Then he went on with a litany of additional excuses that included cramps, headache, dizziness and a throat so clogged that, he said, he couldn't breathe. What was really wrong, of course, was his behavior. But then, we've been down that street a million regrettable times with Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe.
Ah, yes. Mentioning No. 2-ranked McEnroe and No. 4 Connors brings up another interesting question: Why weren't they on the Davis Cup team?
Answer: Didn't wanna, maybe ma√±ana. But don't book it. Tom Gorman, Ashe's successor as Davis Cup captain, went to Tucson not long ago to visit with McEnroe, and John said he needed time off. "He is very interested in playing," says Gorman, himself a former Davis Cupper, "but not just now."
Connors, approached six weeks ago by Gorman in Philadelphia, offered no real excuse. Just no. "Jimmy is never a hundred percent on his schedule," says Gorman. "He is cutting back, and he's not sure where the Davis Cup fits in."
Even if McEnroe and Connors had deigned to play, the U.S. still would not be a cinch to win the Cup. After all, they have been joined at the top of the tennis rankings by such names as Lendl, Wilander, Becker, Edberg, Jarryd and Nystrom. Even more troubling is the paucity of first-rate talent coming along as the sun sets on Connors and perhaps McEnroe. Ashe says half of the Top 10 should be from the U.S. Currently three are: McEnroe, Connors and Brad Gilbert, ranked 10th, who was in Guayaquil but was not selected to play.
Increasingly, what talent the U.S. does have tends to conclude, as Collins points out, that the Davis Cup is "not on their financial calendar." Never mind that the U.S. players get $15,000 per round and share in an additional purse of some $200,000 if they go through the four rounds to the finals. McEnroe made $125,000 playing Cup matches one year, but he can make almost that much playing a weekend exhibition in the U.S.
Simply put, the Davis Cup is not as important to American players as it is to those of other countries. Besides, the U.S. did win it in 1982, which is not so long ago. Yet.
Gomez's gritty play on the slow clay thrilled the crowd, but he couldn't do it alone.
Arias was drained against Gomez; on Sunday he reached back for a win.
Clearly, Viver was in way over his head.