For the second year in a row, the U.S. dropped a Davis Cup tie
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 Longwood 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
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[degree] courtside 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
As for the Aussies, they celebrated in style. They mobbed Rafter
on the court before turning to their loud cheering section
and--Brandi Chastain, you created a monster--ripping off their
shirts. "What a great feeling, especially this being the 100th
year of Davis Cup," said Rafter. "We sure had a lot of drama
this weekend, didn't we, mate?"
New African-American Star?
HARVARD CAN WAIT
In keeping with a Davis Cup tradition, James Blake endured some
good-natured hazing as the U.S. team's youngest practice
partner. One of his chores was to give a speech at a team dinner
before last weekend's tie. Blake, an affable 19-year-old who had
just finished his sophomore year at Harvard, spoke movingly
about how honored he felt to be on a team of players he had
idolized as a kid. "When I sat down, no one said anything,"
Blake says wistfully. "Then Jim Courier told me I need to make
better eye contact, and everyone started laughing."
Fortunately for Blake, his calling in life is not as a spokesman
but as a strokes man. After finishing the college season ranked
No. 1 and reaching the NCAA singles final (he lost to Florida's
Jeff Morrison in three sets), Blake turned pro. At 6'1" and a
wiry 155 pounds, he is a superb athlete who covers the court
like a tarp, hits the ball hard and draws high marks for his
tennis acumen. "He reminds me a little of Tim Henman at that
age," says Tom Gullikson. "When you talk about promising young
Americans, he's way up there."
With a white mother and an African-American father, Blake has
the additional pressure wrought by race. While he grew up
middle-class in Fairfield, Conn., he first gripped a racket in
the Harlem Junior Tennis Program, for which his dad, Thomas, was
a volunteer coach. "If kids, especially in the inner city, want
to look up to me, I don't want to disappoint them," says James,
who plans on returning to Harvard to get his degree in economics
when his pro career is over.
His older brother, Thomas Jr., who graduated from Harvard in
1998, is ranked No. 420 on the ATP tour, so James knows of the
rigors that confront new pros trying to qualify for main draws.
But because of his sterling college career--and his recent
signing with omnipotent IMG--he ought to receive his share of
wild-card entries. Early this month, in fact, he got a free pass
to the first round of the Newport event and won his first ATP
tour match. His opponent, Mal Washington, is one of the
lamentably few other African-Americans on tour.
"Everything's happening pretty fast," says Blake. "Of course,
someday I'd love to be out there representing our country in
Davis Cup, not just serving as a practice partner." Surely by
then his rhetorical skills will pass muster.
Bigger Balls in Davis Cup
ONCE AND FOR ALL: SIZE MATTERS
In hopes of countering runaway racket technology and of blunting
ballistic serves, the International Tennis Federation will start
a two-year trial of a larger (and slower) tennis ball, albeit
only on fast surfaces. The first laboratory will be low-level
Davis Cup and Federation Cup ties in early 2000.
The new ball, roughly 8% larger than current balls, which are 2
1/2-2 5/8" in diameter, creates more air resistance and gives
returners an extra .03 of a second to react. That amounts to 10%
more time to read a serve. "The ball will make tennis more
attractive to spectators," says Andrew Coe, the ITF's head of
Still, it will be quite some time before the oversized orbs
infiltrate the ATP tour--if they ever do. Like most innovations
in tennis, the bigger balls are being met with hostility from
players. Before last Saturday's Davis Cup doubles match,
hard-serving Pete Sampras dismissed the permutation as "just
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Rafter fought long and hard in coming back from two sets down to beat Martin on Sunday.
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Blake, a Davis Cup practice partner, left the Ivy League to join the pro tour.
by the numbers
0 ATP tour events in 1999 won by a top-seeded player.
42 Percent increase in U.S. television ratings for the Wimbledon
men's final from 1998, when Pete Sampras played Goran
Ivanisevic, to 1999, when Sampras played Andre Agassi.
7 Times that Venus Williams has advanced beyond the fourth round
of a Grand Slam event.
0 Times that Serena Williams has advanced beyond the fourth
round of a Grand Slam event.
32 Combined singles ranking of the top four women's doubles
players (Natasha Zvereva, Martina Hingis, Jana Novotna and
952 Combined singles ranking of the top four men's doubles
players (Leander Paes, Mahesh Bhupathi, Olivier Delaitre and
59 ATP ranking of Michael Chang, who is playing the satellite
circuit in hopes of jump-starting his moribund career.
1 American (Mardy Fish) ranked among the world's top 10 in
junior boys' or girls' singles.