This weekend in St. Petersburg, Fla., teams representing the United States and Australia will play the finals of the Davis Cup. We are going to win, and we're going to win big, because we've maneuvered a cheesy home court advantage. At the ceremony after the matches they ought to award us a big slab of cheddar to commemorate our rat-box tactics.
The rules of Davis Cup permit the host nation to choose the surface of the court, and the U.S. Tennis Association selected red clay -- a surface the Aussies cannot possibly hope to master because they don't play on it at home.
Then again, neither do we.
But hey, a win is a win, right?
We play mainly on fast surfaces: hard courts outdoors, carpet indoors. Clay has become a disreputable surface here. You need remember no further back than the recent switch to hard courts at the D.C. Classic, a switch that was made by local promoters -- amid much breast-beating -- to attract the world's best players to a late summer tournament that was foundering under the stultifying dominance of South American moonballers. "Get rid of that damn slow clay!" people howled.
Even when we have clay tournaments, they are played on green clay, not red. And they are minor events. The U.S. Clay Court championship in Charleston, S.C., was won this year by David Wheaton over a South African named Mark Kaplan.
Davis Cup rules specify that you pick a surface indigenous to your country. By all rights we should have picked something fast. But Australia has Pat Cash, and he can play on something fast, which would have been risky for us. "Clay is the right choice for us," maintains former Davis Cup player and captain Arthur Ashe, explaining, "Among the entire Aussie team they have no one who has won a clay court tournament anywhere. Ever. So what are we talking about? It's clay." Ashe assumed we would "pick green clay and play. What's the big deal?" But we didn't choose green clay because it has some quick to it, and Cash might have prospered.
We picked the slow red stuff, the slower the better. Indeed, we planned to import the slowest of the slow red stuff from Germany! But the Aussies screamed to high heaven, and shamed us into manufacturing it domestically. So we got it from a Florida brickyard in Plant City, and trucked it to the Suncoast Dome. Trucked-in red clay doesn't strike me as any more indigenous than tinfoil, but I don't make the rules. Even Ashe concedes, "I think we should be playing them on clay, but I don't think we have to go to extraordinary lengths to do it."
We chose red clay because Michael Chang and Andre Agassi play fabulously on it. Chang won the French Open on it, and Agassi reached the final. Which would be fine if we were the French Davis Cup team. So much for the spirit of sportsmanship.
"If Dwight Davis were alive," tennis commentator Mary Carillo said of the Davis Cup founder, "he'd be barfing all over the court."
People who defend the notion of maximizing your competitive advantage point out the United States isn't doing anything that hasn't been done to it. Ashe told how in 1983 Argentina sought to water its red clay every two games to blunt the American power and benefit Guillermo Vilas and Jose-Luis Clerc. (Doodling with a home field is by no means a foreign invention: When Maury Wills was stealing hundreds of bases for the Dodgers, the Giants soaked their basepaths until they resembled mud tunnels.) Home court carries a huge advantage in other countries, often owing to the raucous behavior of fans. Europeans have been known to heat up coins and slingshot them at players. South Americans have heaved bottles. Our crowds act like they're in a museum. In St. Pete the crowd will be genteel and geriatric. So what is our home court advantage if not the court itself? "If you want to be sporting and give the people a good, tight match, play it on the same courts as the U.S. Open," Ashe said. "If you want to win, 5-0, play it on red clay. Hell yes, I want to win 5-0. I've been on the other side too many times."
The inescapable irony is that for years we've complained bitterly how other countries forced us to play on this awful gunky red clay. At least it was their indigenous surface. Here we are cheapening everything we've said about the surface to gerrymander this one match. How do we defend our apparent hypocrisy?
We could probably beat Australia on hard court using John McEnroe and Pete Sampras, though Sampras could be shaky making his Davis Cup debut in a final -- particularly against the experienced, hellacious Cash. Our commitment to Agassi and Chang made red clay preferable. Chang is a total gamer on clay; his comeback five-setter over Horst Skoff in Austria got us into this final against Australia. Agassi is more of a question. Clay is undoubtedly his best surface, but even there his Davis Cup record is spotty. He tanked against Carl-Uwe Steeb in the 1989 West German tie, and got wiped by Thomas Muster in Austria, forcing Chang's heroics. Agassi's history of poor performances in major finals earned him the dubious nickname: Andre "Never On Sunday" Agassi. His critics -- and there are many -- say he's the all-time exhibition player, but if you put the flag on his back, he can't carry it. They warn we should have chosen McEnroe, Sampras and carpet, because if it comes down to a decisive match against Cash, Agassi will fold. For a kid who boasts in a self-incriminatory camera commercial that "image is everything," there is this weekend on the slow red clay of dreams to turn his around.