At the Masters tennis tournament last January, Jimmy Connors signed a commitment to play on the United States Davis Cup team for all of 1984. It was the first total Davis Cup commitment he ever made and, together with John McEnroe's presence, made for a singles twosome of strength unseen since the 1950s.
In my euphoria, I allowed myself brief flashes of every captain's dream: four straight victories without the loss of a match or a set. But what began with brash optimism has just ended with embarrassment, disappointment and defeat. America's 4-1 loss to Sweden this week has rightly elicited a long overdue review of our Davis Cup effort.
We were embarrassed by the poor showing of the world's top two players. McEnroe lost in three straight sets to relatively unheralded Henrik Sundstrom on the first day; Connors not only lost to Mats Wilander in straight sets on the first day, he incurred fines of $2,000 for obscenity and abuse of officials. He later offered a sincere apology to both the referee and the umpire, but the damage was done.
Since McEnroe became a team member in 1978, he never has missed a match and the United States has lost only three times -- twice to Argentina and once to Sweden, all on slow clay courts. Which brings me to list some of the reasons for our dismal showing.
Starting at the top, the U.S. Tennis Association is partly to blame because nearly all our top junior events are on fast surfaces.
Second, the top players load their schedules with big-money exhibitions during November and December, when the Davis Cup final is played. With Masters playoff slots already assured by early November, players such as McEnroe, Connors and Ivan Lendl forgo tournaments -- the Australian Open is the one notable exception -- and play a series of one-nighters.
This year, McEnroe was hit with a three-week suspension and a wrist injury that deprived him of six weeks of valuable match toughness just before our Davis Cup effort. Connors' wife was expecting their second child to be born on the third day of the Swedish match. He asked for and I granted an extra day before arrival for practice.
Perhaps our most singular failing was overconfidence. We assumed that the world's two best singles players and the world's best doubles team of McEnroe and Peter Fleming would prevail, despite the presence of Wilander.
We have seldom seen McEnroe so out of touch with the ball. In particular, his return of serve against Sundstrom frustrated him continuously. Afterward, he commented that he "couldn't find the court."
Connors sensed early his inability to penetrate Wilander's defense. Since he does not have a serve-and-volley option, he reacted by overhitting and making far more unforced errors than normal.
I felt more regret for Fleming than anyone else. He had a good practice session but will forever remember the ninth double fault on match point that resulted in his first-ever Davis Cup defeat.
Perhaps something good will come of this. In August 1967, I experienced the nadir of my own career, losing to two unheard-of Ecuadorians in a Davis Cup loss there -- also on slow clay. But 1968 was my best year ever, motivated by my subpar performance the year before.
We will be back in 1985; better motivated, better prepared, and better behaved.