Playing in its 53rd Davis Cup final, the defending champion United States team will face France starting Friday for the first time in 50 years.
The U.S. and French Davis Cup squads last met in a final on July 29-31, 1932, in Paris. France won, 3-2, and still holds a 5-4 edge over the U.S. in this international competition that dates back to 1900.
As captain of this year's American squad, I have selected John McEnroe, Gene Mayer, Eliot Teltscher and Peter Fleming to defend the cup that we won last year.
France will field the same four players who survived the three earlier rounds: Yannick Noah, Thierry Tulasne, Henri LeConte and Gilles Moretton.
For me, it promises to be a highly emotional and sentimental final. For across the net, playing singles and doubles for France, is Noah, whom I ran across in a tour of West Africa 11 years ago. He was then 11 years old. I made a phone call to the French Tennis Federation president, Philippe Chatrier, which resulted in Noah coming to France to improve his game.
It will feel strange and slightly discomforting for me to want to see him lose.
It will also mark the first time in Davis Cup history that two black team members will oppose one another, although I am a nonplaying captain. France had another black Davis Cup player a dozen years ago, Bill N'Godrella, of New Caledonia, but he never achieved Noah's stature.
Next to the Australians, I have been friendlier with the French players over the years than with any other group. In 1968, when I was playing Davis Cup, our American squad toured France in a series of cup-style practice matches against Noah's predecessors. Chatrier is a former captain himself and a great friend. But more importantly, he has dreamed of this final all his tennis life.
Chatrier got into tennis as a boy because he fantasized about playing for France alongside the famed Four Musketeers: Rene LaCoste (yes, the man who put those little alligators on tennis shirts), Jean Borotra, Jacques (Toto) Brugnon and Henri Cochet. Brugnon died two years ago. This weekend's final will belong to them more than any other. Fifty years is a long time.
Ellsworth Vines, one of the American singles players in that 1932 final, now lives in Palm Springs, Calif., and remembers well his two singles matches. "I had just won Wimbledon three weeks earlier and everybody thought we would take them with ease. But they beat us, 3-2, because Borotra played great tennis."
French tennis has blossomed since the beginning of the open era in 1968. The French Open, played on the slow, red clay at Paris' Roland Garros Stadium, is by far the most popular of the Big Four grand-slam events. The French have the most tightly knit network of local clubs of any of the world's major tennis powers. They all belong to the partially government-subsidized French Tennis Federation.
And it is this camaraderie that, if anything, may enable the French to beat us. Their players do almost everything as a group, although Noah has a world ranking of 10. This is in sharp contrast to our U.S. team, which has higher-ranked players, but is really a group of individualists who come together a few times a year.
Says an editorial in the current issue of Tennis de France, France's largest-circulation tennis magazine, "The success . . . of the French team is born of the togetherness of the players, the trainer, the captain and of the harmony which presides among them."
While it would be ideal to have all the best American players available for Davis Cup and for them to enjoy a French-like closeness, those days are a few years away.
This tie (Davis Cup matches are called "ties") will be played at Grenoble, the site of the '68 Winter Olympics. It's 14,000-foot sports palace is the largest indoor arena in France. And the court there will be the same as the one tennis writer E.C. Potter wrote about in 1932: "The court has been watered to the consistency of a quagmire and the surface is as slippery as a skating rink."
McEnroe has not played in a clay-court tournament since May 1981 (although he did compete in a WCT clay event at Forest Hills this past May while playing with a sprained ankle). McEnroe and Fleming, our doubles team, has not played a Davis Cup match on clay in two years.
Gene Mayer did win a clay court event at Munich this past June and Teltscher reached the round of 16 in this year's French Open. Our next up-and-coming clay-court star, Jimmy Arias, will round out the squad as a practice player. He will certainly see Davis Cup action one day.
Might I be so bold as to offer a prediction: The U.S. will win, 4-1.