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Original Issue

Johnny on The Spot

Besieged by marital woes and paparazzi, John McEnroe rescued the U.S. in the Davis Cup final

Only John McEnroe could work up a hate for a people as unmenacing as the Swiss. By the time McEnroe had finished inciting his fellow Americans against the mild and gentlemanly Jakob Hlasek and Marc Rosset, the two Swiss players had become the villains who personally put the holes in cheese and the degenerates who conspired to create milk chocolate. They were now the evil, wretched Swiss, diabolical timekeepers, pealing Alpine cowbells and trying to take away his Davis Cup.

McEnroe won only one match, and he needed a partner to do that, in the U.S.'s 3-1 victory over Switzerland last week in the Davis Cup finals in Fort Worth. Nonetheless, this Cup was McEnroe's. Andre Agassi walloped Hlasek 6-1, 6-2, 6-2 to open the tie, and Jim Courier beat Hlasek 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 to clinch it, but McEnroe won it. Weighing retirement at age 33 and playing in possibly his last Davis Cup match, McEnroe emerged from virtual seclusion brought on by his marital woes to curse and rant his way to one of his greatest comebacks.

He and Pete Sampras defeated Hlasek and Rosset in a doubles match that was the real glory and backbone of the U.S. effort. "Everybody got to do a little bit," said Agassi after the Americans' 6-7, 6-7, 7-5, 6-1, 6-2 doubles victory. "But it would have been difficult without John."

The Swiss had never before reached the final, but Hlasek and Rosset pushed the Americans to surprising lengths. "We fought like lions," said Swiss captain Dimitri Sturdza. Courier, Sampras and Agassi have five Grand Slam singles titles among them, and neither Hlasek nor Rosset is ranked in the Top 20, but pressure and patriotism do funny things.

So do Swiss people. On Friday morning Agassi arose to find clusters of fans beneath his hotel window dressed in red and white, brandishing Swiss flags. Twelve hundred Swiss had come to Fort Worth in three charter jets, and for three days hey paraded around the Tarrant County Convention Center, swirling flags, playing ocarinas and ringing bells.

Most of the tennis was high drama. There was also some low drama. Paparazzi descended on Fort Worth after reports hat McEnroe and his wife, Tatum O'Neal, lad separated. McEnroe released a brief statement acknowledging that the two were having "marital problems" and then maintained a grim silence. He kept mostly to his hotel with his three children, sons Kevin, 6, and Scan, 5, and daughter Emily, 18 months, and U.S. Davis Cup captain Tom Gorman further shielded him by dosing practice. Thereafter, the only pubic comment from a McEnroe about the separation came from John's mother,. Kay, who told ESPN's Mary Carillo during the remarkable doubles comeback, "I think this is what the doctor ordered."

Agassi, Courier and Sampras also formed a protective barrier around McEnroe. The three so respect him that they have called for him to replace Gorman as captain, a role McEnroe openly covets. "We all want John," said Agassi. "That doesn't mean we have a problem with Tom."

Actually, Gorman, now in his seventh year as captain and seeking a contract renewal from the U.S. Tennis Association, is the winningest U.S. captain ever, and USTA insiders say his job is safe for another year. How could the USTA fire a captain who has led the U.S. to three straight finals and two Cups in three years? Still, Agassi, Courier and Sampras do not regard him as a leader, the way they do the incendiary McEnroe. "John could be that push over the edge between playing and not playing," said Agassi.

Last week McEnroe was the push that won the Cup. In 1991 the U.S. lost the finals in Lyon, where an overachieving and underestimated French team upset an overconfident and underprepared American team, which played without McEnroe. Sampras was the weak link, losing both his singles matches. For a day and a half this year's final looked to be an eerie replay of last year's, with Courier, the No. 1 player in the world, the goat.

Courier's Davis Cup record coming into last weekend was 2-4. He admits he does not like the frenzy of the event. The idea of teammates relying on him is an unfamiliar and uncomfortable sort of pressure, and the noise, including the cries from his own bench, disturbs him. By contrast, Rosset rode the crowd on the way to a 6-3, 6-7, 3-6, 6-4, 6-4 defeat of Courier that evened the tie at 1-1 on Friday.

When Rosset and Hlasek seized a two-sets-to-none lead over McEnroe and Sampras on Saturday, the American team was aghast. That's when McEnroe's aggression took over. He barked to officials about the Swiss cowbells. He snarled at Sampras and swore at Sturdza. Finally, in the third set, his spark ignited the team. Sampras created set point with a forehand return that skimmed the net and landed at Rosset's feet. Then McEnroe smoked a forehand winner that also deposited itself somewhere near Rosset's shoelaces. As the Americans left the court for the traditional 10-minute intermission, McEnroe tore off his shirt and flung it into the roaring crowd.

In the locker room no one said a word except McEnroe, who delivered a diatribe against the Swiss. By the time the break was over, the rest of the Americans were as surly as Mac. Agassi pounded the courtside barricades and screamed at a hostile spectator, "Are you Swiss? Then kiss my——."

An energized Sampras, who was now glowering, unfurled elegant winners and pumped his fists as he never had before, even in winning the 1990 U.S. Open. Later Sampras called his histrionics a personal breakthrough. "I don't think people have seen that from me before," he said. "I think I learned how to use it."

It was left to the still shaken Courier to close out the tie against Hlasek on Sunday. Courier made his own breakthrough. Agassi was in the locker room waiting to play the rubber match against Rosset, when Courier, tied at one set apiece with Hlasek, began struggling in the third. Agassi charged to courtside, where he screamed at Courier to get rid of Hlasek once and for all. Courier stared at Agassi and laughed. He then obliged.

Afterward Sampras grabbed an American flag from the stands, and the players took turns trotting around the court with it. Even then, McEnroe didn't smile as much as grimace. The Swiss had complained about the Americans' poor sportsmanship, but what is Davis Cup if not being cursed at in a foreign language? McEnroe understands this, and he taught his teammates well.

"You root for our guys and against them," said Agassi. "That's what Davis Cup is all about."



McEnroe, with Emily and her nanny, was mum last week about his problems with O'Neal.



Inspired by McEnroe's locker room pep talk, Sampras made a personal breakthrough.