John McEnroe and Peter Fleming, the world's top-rated doubles team, defeated Guillermo Vilas and Jose-Luis Clerc today to give the United States a 2-1 lead over Argentina in the best-of-five Davis Cup final.
In Sunday's singles, McEnroe faces Clerc and Roscoe Tanner plays Vilas.
The doubles match twisted and turned, soared and dived for 4 hours 52 minutes before it was settled in the 20th game of the fifth set, 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, 4-6, 11-9.
This was more a confrontation of wills than a tennis match. It started as sport and ended as a personal duel. The four men probably would have been as content to decide the outcome with boxing gloves as with tennis rackets.
The end came when, serving at 9-10, 30-all, Clerc finished the point, in which the Americans made four amazing gets, by botching an easy overhead.
That gave the U.S. its second match point of the day and McEnroe jumped on a Clerc serve, rifling a backhand down the middle. Clerc lunged, reached the ball, but hit it far out and, finally, the U.S. had the point it had counted on going into Sunday's concluding singles matches.
Clerc and Vilas don't like each other very much, but, united by country and dislike for their opponents, they played doubles as they have never played it before.
Vilas, thought by some to be past his best tennis at 29, played like the champion he was in 1977 when he dominated the game with 50 straight match wins, including a U.S. Open title. Time after time, Vilas pummeled returns that left the Americans lunging helplessly.
There was animosity on all sides. McEnroe and Clerc yelled obscenities at each other and had to be held apart; the captains argued with the chair umpire and the referee; U.S. Captain Arthur Ashe and McEnroe exchanged angry words.
There was controversy over line calls, over the condition of the court and over what some thought to be a racial slur directed toward a line judge by McEnroe.
And, almost as a sidelight, it had magnificent tennis, filled with wonderful shotmaking and a taut, remarkable fifth set that had 11,888 in Riverfront Coliseum screaming, chanting, stomping and, often, groaning.
"It certainly wasn't the best match we ever played but it might have been the most exciting," said McEnroe, like the other players so drained he could barely talk when it was over. "This is what makes Davis Cup so different. It's so emotional. You're never going to see a crowd like that at a regular tournament."
It was not supposed to be this way, though. This was to be the Americans' walkover day, their automatic point. In fact, it was not until one hour before the match that Argentine Captain Carlos Junquet decided to use Vilas and Clerc. He had considered resting them today to prepare for Sunday's singles but decided that, at the very least, his two men would get some practice time on the slick Supreme Court surface by playing the doubles.
Although Junquet did not know it then, his decision turned a routine day into an unforgettable one.
It started innocently, McEnroe and Fleming breaking Clerc twice to win the first set with Fleming the best player on the court. He was consistently pounding his first serves in and volleying confidently, poaching at the right times, showing both power and touch.
But in the second set, at 1-1 with Fleming serving, Vilas hit a return just long. Junquet, thinking the ball good, jumped from his chair to protest. McEnroe turned to him and said, "Sit down."
Junquet immediately protested to chair umpire Robert Jenkins and Ashe came on court to tell McEnroe to calm down. Before Ashe was reseated, McEnroe and Clerc were jawing and pointing at each other.
Fleming served out the game but as the players changed courts, Clerc said something to McEnroe. "I was upset because of the way he talked to my captain," Clerc said. "He said bad words to him and that is not part of the tennis. Maybe off the court he is a nice person but he is not on the court."
When Clerc made his comment, McEnroe began yelling and moved toward him. Ashe jumped between them and ordered McEnroe to his chair. McEnroe then exchanged words with Ashe.
Normally, flareups seem to inspire McEnroe. Not today. His game went into remission after the argument, especially his serving. Clerc and Vilas broke him at love in the fifth game to lead, 3-2.
They still were leading, 4-3, when McEnroe, running for a forehand, fell. He got up slowly, called for referee Kurt Nielsen and showed him a seam in the court. Nielsen called for repair work. The delay was 22 minutes.
Once play resumed, Clerc and Vilas served out the set. It was 1-1.
The third set began with three straight breaks, the Argentines getting two. But the Americans broke back in the sixth game, then broke for the set in the 10th game when McEnroe rocketed a volley down the middle on set point.
Leading, 2-1, the Americans prepared to start the fourth set. The Argentines, however, were gathering equipment to head for the dressing room for the 10-minute break that normally comes at the end of the third set in Davis Cup doubles.
But Jenkins and Nielsen ordered them to continue. According to Cup rules, if there is a break in play during the first three sets, the break comes after the fourth set.
"Nielsen told us all that when we were waiting for the court to be fixed," McEnroe said. "They knew what was going on. What they did was just gamesmanship. We were playing doubles, they were playing games."
"It's in the rules," Ashe said. "There should not have been an argument."
"Everything here is for the Americans," Clerc said.
The Argentines slowly returned to the court. McEnroe yelled at Vilas sarcastically, "Whenever you're ready." That started the shouting again, Vilas urging McEnroe to come to the net to say what he had to say. When McEnroe began walking forward, Ashe again came on court. This time Fleming, jumping around as if trying to keep loose, blocked his path briefly. Reaching McEnroe, Ashe pointed to the baseline and said, "Serve."
He did, finally, and held serve, putting away a volley on the last point and yelling at the lunging Clerc, "Take that . . . " Again, the two began shouting during the court change and they continued over the net after returning to the court.
Nielsen at that point spoke to both captains, asking that they restrain their players. He then moved from the stands to courtside. That seemed to calm things.
The Argentines, who now were urging each other on after barely speaking in the beginning, raised their play. In the eighth game, Vilas survived three break points. On one of them, McEnroe netted a second serve that was close to being a double-fault.
Buoyed by holding serve to reach 4-4, Vilas and Clerc broke McEnroe, thanks largely to Vilas' rocketing returns, then held serve to even the match at two sets each.
The players then got their break and returned to play the most intense tennis of the day. There were no breaks, only several near misses, until 6-6. With Fleming serving, Clerc and Vilas finally got through. McEnroe chipped a volley deep and Clerc whipsawed a backhand return for a winner and the game.
Now, Vilas had the match on his racquet.
"We didn't say anything to each other," Fleming said. "You didn't have to be Einstein to know we had to come up big or it was sayonara."
They came up big, each player crushing two returns to break Vilas at love. It was 7-7 and it continued on serve until 9-9, McEnroe surviving two break points on his serve. Vilas a match point on his.
McEnroe finally held easily -- for the first time in the set -- for 10-9. By now, the crowd was chanting, "U S A, U S A," on every change and screaming during point. The last game reached 30-30 on a great reach volley by Fleming before Clerc's missed volley set up the finale, the first time in 13 games, going back to set one, that Clerc had lost his serve.
"I don't know what happened on the overhead," Clerc said. "I was nervous, I lost concentration. I don't know. I only know I am exhausted."