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TBT, 1978: Teenager John McEnroe sparks U.S. Davis Cup team to victory
It had been six years since the United States had last won the team event. The American cause in particular was hindered by the refusal of world No. 1 Jimmy Connors to participate, but McEnroe regarded the Davis Cup as a personal Holy Grail.
Published Dec 10, 2020
For all the ways he behaved and excelled as a singular entity, John McEnroe dreamed of success in team sports. All through his New York City youth, McEnroe ardently followed such local teams as the Knicks, Jets and Mets. Cool athletes such as point guard “Clyde” Walt Frazier, quarterback “Broadway Joe” Namath and pitcher “Tom Terrific” Seaver all led their teams to championships during the formative years of McEnroe’s childhood. These were the athletes that inspired him, arguably even more than tennis stars.
Such collaborative opportunities are rare in tennis, Davis Cup one prominent exception. As fate had it, very early in his tennis life, McEnroe learned first-hand about the importance of Davis Cup. Port Washington Tennis Academy, the venue where McEnroe frequently trained well into his teens, also employed Australian legend Harry Hopman. Hopman had led the Australian Davis Cup during its glory years, piloting the team to a staggering 15 titles between 1950 and ‘67. These were inspiring runs, filled with tales of Aussie titans Frank Sedgman, Ken Rosewall, Lew Hoad, Roy Emerson, Fred Stolle, John Newcombe, as well as the left-handed McEnroe’s idol, Rod Laver. Taking in all this lore first-hand from Hopman, McEnroe knew that should the chance arise, he would immediately agree to play Davis Cup.
By December 1978, it had been six years since America had last won the Davis Cup. For much of the decade, as Open tennis grew, money entered the sport and players devoted themselves to tournaments and lucrative exhibitions, the event was losing a great deal of its luster. The American cause in particular was hindered by the refusal of world No. 1 Jimmy Connors to participate (by ’78, he’d played just two ties).
But McEnroe regarded the Davis Cup as a personal Holy Grail. In September, just after the US Open, he’d traveled to Chile and made his Davis Cup debut, winning a doubles match with Brian Gottfried. Less than three months later, the 19-year-old McEnroe was a comet. He’d won the first four singles tournaments of his career—including a win over Bjorn Borg in their first meeting—and seemed to be improving by the minute.
“Against Connors and Borg you feel like you're being hit with a sledgehammer,” Arthur Ashe said that fall. “But this guy is a stiletto. Junior has great balance and hands and he just slices people up. He's got a ton of shots. It's slice here, nick there, cut over here. Pretty soon you've got blood all over you even though the wounds aren't deep. Soon after that, you've bled to death.”
With the U.S. team in the final versus Great Britain, Davis Cup captain Tony Trabert named McEnroe one of the two singles players. The final was set to take place at Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage, California (Palm Springs area).
In the opening match, McEnroe took on John Lloyd, who a year earlier had beaten Newcombe on his way to the Australian Open final. Would the teenager be nervous on such a high-stakes occasion? Not for a minute.
It was all one-way traffic. McEnroe opened with an ace and obliterated Lloyd, 6-1, 6-2, 6-2. Said Lloyd, “I have never played anybody, including Borg and Connors, who has been as tough and made me play so many shots. No one has ever made me look like that much of an idiot.”
McEnroe and Andre Agassi at the 1992 Davis Cup final against Switzerland.(Getty Images)
Two days later, on December 10, America led 2-1—one win away from clinching the Cup. McEnroe’s opponent was another formidable veteran, crafty Buster Mottram. Two days earlier, following McEnroe’s win over Lloyd, Mottram had rallied from two sets to love down to beat Gottfried. Mottram was also one of the more eccentric personalities in tennis, a member of Great Britain’s National Front—a group rumored to have connections with white supremacy movements.
McEnroe dominated Mottram, also dropping only five games to win the match, 6-2, 6-2, 6-1. From 2-all in the second set, he won 32 of 37 points. “It’s probably the best I’ve ever played in an important match,” said McEnroe.
No doubt McEnroe was also pleased by the high praise he received from Hopman, who’d sat courtside for the matches versus Great Britain.
“He's about where Rod Laver was at 19,” said Hopman. “He's got tremendous potential. I like his game, his ability to slow it, attack. He did that today. Wonderful variety.”
Over the next year, McEnroe’s star would continue to climb. In 1979, he would win ten singles and 27 doubles tournaments, including both events at the US Open. Ask McEnroe to recall his most enjoyable times in tennis, and he will always return to those grand years of ascent, commencing in 1978, supremely capped off that year with his Davis Cup heroics – the first of five times McEnroe would play on the championship team.