Davis Cup Memory: USA at Ireland, 1983
Let me be right up front about this. This tie didn’t produce anything like John McEnroe’s six-hour and 22-minute win over Mats Wilander in fifth and decisive rubber of the U.S. vs. Sweden Davis Cup quarterfinal in 1982. Nor does it compare to Rafael Nadal-less Spain’s stunning defeat of Argentina in the 2008 final in Mar del Plata.
Still, the World Group playoff-round tie between the U.S. and non-powerhouse Ireland in 1983 represented some of the finest and most charming qualities of this century-old competition. Davis Cup takes tennis—as well as players, tour administrators and even journalists—to places they never expected to go.
It’s not that Dublin, Ireland, is such a “remote” or inconceivable location (let’s remember, the USA has also traveled to Harare, Zimbabwe, and even Tehran, Iran). It’s just that there hasn’t been a load of first-class ATP- or WTA-grade tennis played there. In fact, I’m pretty sure there’s never been a main tour event in Dublin—or anywhere else in Ireland.
This meant that nobody on the U.S. squad or the traveling group (of which I was part) really knew what they were getting into when they de-planed to take part into what was, basically, as much of an ancestral homecoming for John McEnroe as a potentially brief and shining moment for Ireland’s Davis Cup laddies.
How did this tie even come to be? Well, Argentina’s Guillermo Vilas and Jose Luis Clerc spearheaded an upset of the U.S. in the first round of play earlier that year (Vilas clinched the tie with a win over McEnroe on red clay). Meanwhile, a big fella named Matt Doyle had “tennis defected” to his Irish home (think Alex Bogomolov Jr.) and helped the, er, fighting Irish vault into the World Group, where the squad promptly lost to Italy, setting up this playoff-round meeting.
The Irish are down-to-earth folks. If there’s anything most of them can’t stand, it’s someone putting on airs. Thus, from the moment McEnroe set foot on ye olde sod, it was made clear to him by everyone that he might be John McEnroe and all, but that didn’t give him the right to act like, as the Irish like to say, “himself.”
Thus, when the U.S. contingent showed up for the draw press conference, there were no handlers, no green room, no sequestration of the delicate stars (the U.S. team also featured Eliot Teltscher and McEnroe’s doubles partner and wingman, Peter Fleming). The large room (I believe the ceremony was at the U.S. embassy) was filled with all manner of people, most of them were half—or more—in the bag, and none of them very expert about tennis.
Team captain Arthur Ashe looked on in horror as people boiled around McEnroe, treating him more like a cousin or long-lost colleague than a tennis superstar. Meanwhile, television presenters tugged him this way and that and showed no compunctions about calling him out on various issues, mostly the well-documented behavioral ones.
Ashe had his own problems, though. The Irish are a very socially-conscious people, and Ashe was subjected to an unexpected barrage of questions having to do with racism, imperialism, sexism, capitalism, or maybe all four. I honestly forget. Whatever the case, there didn’t appear to be a sportswriter (besides me) on hand.
Ashe and Co. eventually escaped, but things weren’t much better (except the eating and drinking bits—did I mention the beer?) at the official Irish-American Davis Cup brotherhood dinner. Doyle, having had a few pints, pigeonholed McEnroe to tell him how happy he was that Johnny Mac made the trip to the old country. Whereupon, McEnroe later told me, a look of utter disgust still on his face, Doyle cut loose with an enormous beer burp that almost blew the American off his feet.
If that was part of the underdog Irish squad’s strategy, it almost worked.
At the arena on the first day of the tie, it was clear that the usual protocols regarding locker rooms and privacy were not to be observed. Ashe had to put his foot down not long before the start of the match to get the dressing room in an old draughty auditorium called the Simmonscourt Pavilion cleared of hangers-on, which is when McEnroe came out of hiding from behind some corner lockers.
The first rubber featured Sean Sorensen, who’s since moved on to live in Germany, against McEnroe. I took my seat (there were no press passes or facilities). When my neighbors arrived I saw they were a couple of members of the Irish group, U2. I found myself sitting right beside Bono.
This was obviously before Bono became the Davos-attending, FoB (Friend of Bill, Clinton) and great philanthropist. In fact, he was almost unknown, and seemed very happy when I told him I’d seen U2 play in New York when they on the road supporting their first album, Boy. He was a good neighbor who clapped at all the right times and none of the wrong ones. But that was about it, as far as tennis knowledge went.
The surface in the arena was ultra-fast, which didn’t bother serving-and-volleying McEnroe one bit. He hammered Sorensen with ease. In the next match, though, the baseliner Teltscher caved under the pressure of Doyle’s massive serve and went down meekly in straights. The Irish crowd loved it.
That was it for the lads, though. McEnroe and Fleming eased through the Doyle-Sorensen doubles team, and in the first of the reverse singles, McEnroe easily subued Doyle.
By that time, I noticed, a large number of the USTA staff and volunteers who had made the trip were long gone, off to hunt up the promised discounts at various factories and boutiques producing everything from Irish lace to crystal to woolen sweaters.
Me, I took off in a rental car to knock around the Irish coast for a week or so, but that’s a whole other story.
More Memories:Peter Bodo: USA at Ireland, 1983 World Group Playoff
Steve Tignor: Russia at USA, 2007 Final
Richard Pagliaro: Austria at USA, 2004 First Round
Ed McGrogan: Argentina at Spain, 2011 Final