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Davis Cup Disaster Ends For U.S.

U.S. Davis Cup captain John McEnroe wipes his brow as he watches team lose to Spain, 5-0.
AP
For the first time in 101 years of the Davis Cup, the United States took a 5-0 thrashing without the title on the line.

Two meaningless singles matches Sunday served only to pad Spain's victory margin in the semifinals and underscore the weakness of the American team.

For the record, Juan Balcells, Spain's weakest player, beat Jan-Michael Gambill 1-6, 7-6 (2), 6-4 amid thunder, lightning and driving rain after Juan Carlos Ferrero downed Vince Spadea 4-6, 6-1, 6-4.

Only twice before in the open era in finals against Australia in 1973 and Sweden in 1997 did the United States lose so badly. Five other 5-0 shutout losses for the Americans also came in the finals.

For all practical purposes, the Americans were dead before they arrived for this series, their demise virtually guaranteed the moment Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi begged off by claiming injuries.

The United States has won the Davis Cup 31 times, more than any other country, since Dwight Davis and his Harvard chums claimed the first one in 1900. But the future looks mighty bleak for the Americans in the next few years, regardless of whether John McEnroe stays as captain.

Sampras will be 30 next year and Agassi and Todd Martin will be 31. The likelihood of them carrying the Davis Cup team once more, or even wanting to, is slim.

Nor are there any Americans on the horizon to take their place among the best in the world. Gambill is good, but at 23 he still has to prove he's even a top 10 player. Andy Roddick, coming out of the juniors, may develop into a great player, but that could be a long way off.

McEnroe signed a three-year deal last year with every intention of restoring the lost glory of Davis Cup in the United States. In the 1920s, '30s and '40s, Davis Cup was among the biggest events on the American sports calendar, rivaling any of the majors. McEnroe brought back some of its popularity in the late 1970s and early '80s, when he helped win four championships in five years, and he thought his name and status and love of the cup would bring back the top players.

"Either it's bad luck or I haven't made a difference," McEnroe said at the start of this series. "I'm not sure what it is at this point. Obviously one of the reasons I was hired was so that I would make a difference in getting the players to play. Well, I clearly haven't succeeded. I'd like to think it's bad luck."

Sampras was willing to play through pain to win Wimbledon. But even with a week to rest the tendinitis abov his left ankle, he was unwilling to come to Spain. Agassi claimed a fender bender left him with back spasms too severe to play. Agassi produced a doctor's note, but don't expect him to miss any tournaments on the way to the U.S. Open.

Sampras and Agassi had said all year that they were committed to Davis Cup this time around, and when they backed out they let down not just McEnroe and their teammates, but American tennis fans who still think the cup is important.

Yet, for Sampras and Agassi the decision to save their bodies for the U.S. Open next month is a no-brainer. Davis Cup may be hugely important in Spain and Australia, in Sweden and France and in dozens of other countries, but in the United States it's outdated.

McEnroe's dream of putting Davis Cup at least on par with golf's Ryder Cup in the United States will remain a fantasy as long as the top American players stay away. And they will stay away as long as the format remains as it is, with matches spread through the year and coming at times, like this one, right after a major tournament.

The top American golfers are eager to play Ryder Cup, and honored when they are named to the team. But that's one week every two years. Winning Davis Cup means a commitment of four weeks of play a year, plus travel to and from such far-flung sites as Zimbabwe and Australia.

"Ideally, we should have gotten here earlier, but it doesn't work that way anymore," McEnroe said after Spain won the first two singles matches. "It just doesn't happen. You're lucky if guys show up by Sunday. ...

"That's Davis cup right now. Andre's not here, Pete's not here, (Michael) Chang doesn't want to play, (Jim) Courier retired. I mean these are 'the next guys,' and this is what happened with them."

The question now for McEnroe is whether he wants to continue as captain.

"I'm no quitter," he says in one breath, but in another he talks about how difficult the job has been, how much time it's taken, how disappointed he is with players showing up, and how tough it is to fit in with his role as parent, his job as a TV commentator, and his commitments to the seniors tour.

McEnroe did not rule out giving up the captain's job, but he said he won't make a snap decision. He wants to let what happened here sink in, and think about what he can do for the future. At the moment, that future looks dark as the sky when the final match ended.


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