Arthur Ashe, captain of the U.S. Davis Cup team, said today he is prepared to default John McEnroe, his team's No. 1 player, if McEnroe misbehaves during this week's Davis Cup final here against Argentina.
"I was embarrassed and upset by what happened in Portland and so was everyone in the U.S. Tennis Association," said Ashe, who is in his first year as captain. "I think John knows he was wrong and was embarrassed, too. But it cannot happen again. I plan to tell him that."
The incident that upset Ashe took place during the doubles match that clinched the U.S. semifinal victory over Australia in October. McEnroe and partner Peter Fleming, leading, 2-0, in sets, became involved in a dispute with the chair umpire and the match referee that almost led to their being defaulted for arguing too long and too strenuously.
"John and Peter had a legitimate reason to complain because the umpire was wrong," Ashe said. "But I told them, 'Bad luck, boys, we got screwed.' We were still up, 2-0. But they continued to argue. It really made us look like the ugly Americans."
McEnroe said today that he and Fleming probably did go too far in their arguments. "Peter started the argument, and I supported him because he's my teammate," McEnroe said. "We were completely right on the call. But we wouldn't take no for an answer, and I guess that was a mistake.
"I know this is a sensitive issue but I think a coach or a captain should stick up for his player right or wrong. I don't think you're supposed to say bad things about them. I can understand, though, where it might be difficult for Arthur. He's got a reputation as a great gentleman and being on the court with Peter and me probably isn't the easiest thing in the world for him.
"But if it bothers him than I don't think he should take the job. If you feel you are going to have to criticize your players, you shouldn't be the coach. I think if it were me, I would take the heat for my players."
McEnroe always plays Davis Cup, which other top American players over the years have not always done, because it is not lucrative. Davis play also puts McEnroe in a nothing-to-gain, everything-to-lose situation since he is the No. 1 player in the world.
Ashe says he is appreciative of McEnroe's willingness to play Davis Cup -- Jimmy Connors is not here and did not play in Portland -- but also says he plans to talk to McEnroe about his behavior before the matches begin here Friday at Riverfront Coliseum.
"The conversation will only last about three minutes," Ashe said. "I'm not going to tell him anything he doesn't already know. But I want him to realize that if it happens again like in Portland I'm just going to tell him to sit down, walk up to the umpire and say, 'The United States defaults.' It's never been done before but I will do it and I know the USTA will back me."
McEnroe says he has made an effort in recent months to avoid on-court incidents because he finds them -- and their aftermath -- unpleasant. His behavior during the U.S. Open was good and, in the earlier Davis Cup series against Czechoslovakia, near perfect.
"If people say the way I behave is embarrassing for the United States then I have to think about changing my behavior," he said. "It's not my nature to just accept things, though. If I embarrass people, maybe I shouldn't be selected again. I think the standards of behavior should be higher for Davis Cup because you aren't just embarrassing yourself, you're embarrassing your country."
Which is exactly Ashe's point. He sees great irony in the fact that McEnroe should embarrass himself when playing Davis Cup, a situation where he should have a chance to enhance his image merely by showing up.
"I appreciate the fact that John wants to play, but he knows he has to live up to a certain standard to be selected in the future," Ashe said. "Obviously, I want him on the team. But in Davis Cup the standards are higher and the rules are tougher.
"I've got a drawer full of mail, cards, letters and cables telling me I shouldn't play McEnroe. I would say the mail runs about 90 percent against him. I've always been one of the people who have basically been in John's corner. But he's not helping. A lot of us are beginning to lose patience with him, euphemistically speaking."
McEnroe, 22, is the current Wimbledon and U.S. Open champion. He feels a great deal of pressure when playing Davis Cup. "It's reached the point where everyone thinks I should just come in and win three matches automatically," he said. "No one realizes how hard it can be to play Davis Cup or how hard it is to win in the other countries when you've got thousands of people screaming at you.
"When I lose, no one ever thinks it's because the other guy had a great day or I had a bad day; there's always some other reason, like I wasn't going all out.
"Other guys come up with excuses and everyone says they're okay. If you want to think they're legitimate, fine. If I came up with an excuse everyone would say it was just an excuse. And they would be right. Because if you want to play, you play. I've always wanted to."
McEnroe and Roscoe Tanner will play singles for the U.S. against Argentina's Guillermo Vilas and Jose-Luis Clerc. The first two singles matches will be Friday, the doubles Saturday, the concluding two singles Sunday.