Whether building a red clay tennis court, hidden away from the glorious Florida sunshine inside a domed stadium, to ensure victory in the Davis Cup finals was a bigger crime against nature than Philip Agassi's astounding new wig became a moot question last weekend, when the United States of America finally won the thing. Not the hairpiece, the Davis Cup. It had been eight long years, but the way the U.S. team—composed of Andre ("Let's dance") Agassi, Phil's exquisitely coiffed little brother; Michael Chang, who is merely little; Rick Leach; Jim Pugh; and Lee ("Proud to be an American") Greenwood—celebrated, one would have thought that 800 years had gone by since the country had prevailed.
The final score was U.S. 3, Australia 2, Greenwood 47. Although Greenwood, a country and western singer, wasn't there in the flesh at St. Petersburg's intimate 50,000-seat (but only 20,000 for tennis) Suncoast Dome, he was there in voice: Forty-seven was the approximate number of times Greenwood's patriotic anthem, God Bless the U.S.A., was played over the loudspeakers throughout the weekend, reviving a jingoism that hadn't been seen on domestic sports battlefields since the 1984 Summer Olympics.
Whoo, boy! You think Andre and the other U.S. giants could have beaten the Aussies without such flag-waving? O.K., how about without the U.S. Tennis Association's having installed that bogus dust-to-dust surface in the dome? It would have been nice to see the U.S. try to win on something normal. After all, Agassi had just won the ATP Tour World Championship on indoor carpet in Germany, beating the two best players in the world, Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg, back-to-back. Further, the Australians showed up in St. Pete with a Davis Cup rookie from Tasmania named Richard Fromberg and a still-gimpy Pat Cash, who would be limited to doubles. What was everybody—read: the USTA—so terrified about?
Nobody asked the Agassi boys how they liked the musical interludes spicing up the first Davis Cup finals in the U.S. since 1981 (America 3, Argentina 1, in Cincinnati). As most television viewers know, Andre is a Red Hot Chili Peppers man, that being the backup band on his newest rock-'n'-roll-and-tennis-shoe video. Phil is a fan of late '50s music, judging from his spectacularly inventive Fabian-does-Julio-of-Tuscaloosa's-perm-curls new look. Instead, the younger Agassi, who makes a living at tennis, was kept busy giving answers about the surface, and the older Agassi, who makes a living around the game, was kept busy planting the questions.
December 10, 1990
After acknowledging that the Americans had gone out of their way "to create a scenario to give us the best chance to win," Andre made his case. "We've played all over the world," he said. "You want to see unfair? Go to the stadiums where they pound the drums." And all the time, thanks to those Nike commercials, you thought this guy liked tennis loud.
While it is true that American teams have been repeatedly abused on foreign soil by thieving linesmen and ornery crowds, shouldn't the USTA stand above petty connivery? And shouldn't the opponent—Australia, an honored tennis rival since early in the century and the most sportsmanlike nation on earth—have been considered in the mix? The scenario Andre Agassi referred to evolved like this. Following the U.S.'s semifinal defeat of Austria on red clay in Vienna in September, America's captain, Tom Gorman, discovered that a clay court—a European clay court, at that—could be set down in the Suncoast Dome. Clay is not only Agassi's and Chang's best surface but also Australia's worst, and only the 20-year-old Fromberg had enjoyed any kind of success on the slow stuff.
The USTA didn't decide to go with red clay until Oct. 11, nine days after it had been required to announce its surface selection. The lateness of the decision, coupled with the surface itself, raised the considerable ire of longtime Aussie captain Neale Fraser, who pointed out that the rules stipulate that the surface must be "in general use" in the country where the tie is played. So the USTA canceled an order for German clay and ordered 170 tons (two courts' worth) of a good domestic '90 burgundy from Plant City, Fla. It still wasn't green Har-Tru, an ersatz clay that is prevalent in the U.S. and is somewhat faster than the imported brand. And it certainly wasn't a surface on which pro tennis is played in America. It was, admitted Agassi, "something similar to a beach." But, hey, who cares? A 'W is a 'W,' especially when the Americans hadn't had one in the finals since they whipped France in Grenoble in '82.
"This is an embarrassment to the USTA," said Cash. And that was before he got a couple of bad bounces in a practice match and smashed several rackets to smithereens. "Aw, Cashy gets frustrated even on his own court at home," Fraser would say later.
As either a player or a coach, Fraser has been part of eight winning Davis Cup teams, and in both 1959 and '60 he won the singles, doubles and mixed-doubles crowns at Forest Hills. He is a feisty sort, who last week complained about the arena, the match scheduling, the works. "The lighting is not uniform," Fraser said. "And it's colder in here than [when we arrived]. They've obviously turned on the air conditioner. I've been in a lot of Davis Cup finals, and everything is spot-on. But here, things are just not spot-on."
The ESPN-dictated starting time of 5 p.m. for the first of Friday's two singles matches, followed by doubles on Saturday at 1, was especially galling to Fraser. He said the scheduling forced him to change his lineup. "We've talked and argued, and everybody knows it [the schedule] is wrong," he said. "So we have to wait until 1991 to get back to some sanity." (As of next year, there must be at least 22 hours between the start of the singles and the start of the doubles.)
Fraser's decision to name Darren Ca-hill and Fromberg in singles and let Cash concentrate on doubles, with partner John Fitzgerald, was a bold gamble. Not only did the move deprive Australia of having Cash, the 1987 Wimbledon champion and his team's spiritual leader, stare down Agassi and Chang, but it also meant the Aussies' best doubles pair, Cahill and Mark Kratzmann, who won three tournaments this year, would not play. "The timing of the matches makes it impossible now for the second guy in singles to get up the next day and play doubles," said Cash.
At a press conference following last Thursday's draw for the singles pairings, which was held under a scalding sun at the Pier in downtown St. Pete, Fromberg, a curly-haired son of an accountant from New Town, Tasmania, seemed out of his element. "I've got nothing to lose," said Fromberg, who is ranked 33rd in the world. "Andre has a tendency to feel the pressure."
Agassi lost to Fromberg in Cincinnati in August, after which he ever-so-graciously said he "couldn't get up for guys like this."
As if the duke of diplomacy and the USTA had not been party to enough shenanigans, they immediately became accomplices in another bizarre incident. Brad Gilbert, who played singles for the U.S. in early-round victories over Mexico and Czechoslovakia this year, had been flown to St. Petersburg as the USTA's designated color analyst for the ESPN telecasts. He was standing at the rear of the press conference, in his USA team sweat suit, when Phil Agassi—"the Persian Rug," Pat Calabria of New York Newsday took to calling him—stopped preening long enough to whisper in Gilbert's ear. Gilbert, in the guise of a member of the media, then raised his hand and asked Phil's brother, "Andre, do you think if this match were held outdoors, there would be all this controversy over playing on clay?"
To which Andre replied, "You know, Brad, that's a good question. People go off on tangents reacting to the idea of playing clay indoors. If we had played this outdoors, they would accept it more."
A memo to the USTA: Please leave the plants in the press room to the horticultural committee.
No, John McEnroe was not flown in by the USTA to cover the tie for The Malibu Beachcomber. But yes, Agassi nearly suffered another stunning Davis Cup defeat. (Thomas Muster upset him in straight sets in the Austrian tie.) Not that From-berg was any pushover. He's tall, stiff and gangly, but he had used his big serve and forehand and some very un-Australian-like patience at the baseline to win two clay-court tournaments this year.
Frommy, as his mates call him, set Agassi back on his neon-lime heels, taking a 6-4, 2-6, 6-4 lead into the 10-minute break. But Fromberg had never experienced this sort of timeout, which is the rule in Davis Cup competition but nowhere else. How could he have? This was his first Cup match. "I got cold," he said later. "I would rather have continued, because I just wasn't used to stopping."
Agassi jumped on Fromberg after the intermission, winning 11 of 15 games to win the fourth set 6-2 and go up 5-2 in the fifth. "He looked like he had nothing left," said Agassi afterward.
Fromberg, however, struck back, winning nine straight points before Agassi served out the match at 5-4. "I thought I was a bit unlucky; I thought Andre played about as well as he could play," said Fromberg, who was as astonished as everybody else to hear Agassi say at the postmatch press conference that he was suffering from a "horrible virus," that he had "not eaten for three days" and that his muscles hurt so much he "couldn't roll over in bed."
Strangely, Agassi had not required a doctor. But he said he had almost pulled out of the tie and had asked Gorman to get alternate Aaron Krickstein ready to play in his place. Of course, everybody heard all of this from Andre. "Even when I'm weak, I guess I'm less tired than him [Fromberg]," said Agassi. "No question. I didn't win it with tennis. It was something else—just guts."
"Just rubbish," said Fromberg. "I didn't see him sick during the match."
A more thorough investigation was unavailing, even though Agassi was seen at one o'clock on Saturday morning, entourage-encircled, chowing down at a Bennigan's. The poor thing was obviously too sick to be interviewed.
As for the tennis competition, it pretty much began and ended with the Agassi-Fromberg match. In the second singles, Chang routed Cahill 6-2, 7-6, 6-0 in about 15 minutes. For those who believed that Cash would have been tougher stew, he was woefully off form in the doubles. Although he's only 25, Cash's marvelous athletic gifts have eroded beyond his years. The spirit seems unquenchable, but the Achilles operation he had in 1989 has cost him valuable steps and flexibility. While Fitzgerald, a doubles specialist who has won all four Grand Slam titles, fought gamely, Cash's slow start enabled the Greater Los Angeles/Southern Californian/All-Freeway/All-Beach/All-American team of Leach and Pugh to break serve in the first game of the first two sets and win a 6-4, 6-2, 3-6, 7-6 Cup-clinching victory.
In the middle of the fourth set, the crowd of 18,000—part of the three-day total of 52,000, the highest in Davis Cup history in the U.S.—started a wave through the cavernous Suncoast Dome. At that point Leach said he felt a "calming feeling." That was only fitting, because Leach and Pugh have been the calm in the midst of the U.S. Davis Cup team storm all year long. Even one of Sunday's meaningless reverse singles matches was tempestuous. After having evened the score with Cahill at one set apiece, Agassi quit, claiming he had strained a muscle in his chest. The Aussies were skeptical. "He didn't look injured to me, hitting those groundstrokes," said Cahill. "Andre is a great player, but what comes out of his mouth is of little significance. I wouldn't want him on [our] team. We have a tradition; we go down fighting."
Cash said that he can hardly wait for a rematch with the U.S. in next year's finals. Should such a tie eventuate, it would take place Down Under. "We'll probably have to play on some weird, exotic surface, like grass," said Gorman.
And, one hopes, in a Davis Cup competition in which everything will be a bit more spot-on.