October 1, 1983: The day John McEnroe became the most successful Davis Cup player in the history of the United States 

Every day, Tennis Majors takes you back in time to celebrate a great moment in tennis history. Today, we go back to 1983 to witness how John McEnroe made his first ever appearance in Ireland, where his ancestors were from, and scored an American-record 39th Davis Cup win

John McEnroe

What happened exactly on that day?

On this day, October 1 in 1983, in a Davis Cup tie against Ireland, John McEnroe and Peter Fleming outclassed Matt Doyle and Sean Sorensen 6-2, 6-3, 6-4. It was McEnroe’s 39th win in the team competition, which made him the most successful American Davis Cup player of all-time, surpassing Vic Seixas of 38 wins (singles and doubles combined).

The players involved: McEnroe/ Fleming and Sorensen/ Doyle

  • John McEnroe: the southpaw from Queen’s who became world No 1

John McEnroe, born in 1959, was the world No 1 in October 1983. He had first reached the top spot in 1981 after winning his first Wimbledon title, defeating Swedish legend Bjorn Borg in the final (4-6, 7-6, 7-6, 6-4). Known for his outrageous on-court behaviour in the well-mannered world of tennis, his constant quarreling with the officials made him infamous in a gentleman’s sport. The left-hander from New York had stunned the tennis world since his first steps on the tour in 1977, when at the age of 17, showing up at Wimbledon as an amateur, he made his way out of the qualifying draw into the semi-finals.

“Mac”, as he was famously known, was very talented; his game was based on precision and touch built on a lethal left-hander serve that he liked to follow at the net. In 1979, he became the youngest ever US Open champion, defeating Vitas Gerulaitis (7-5, 6-3, 6-3). In 1980, he played his most famous match in the Wimbledon final, where he lost in five sets against Borg, after winning an epic tie-break in the fourth set (18-16).

mcenroe_wimbledon_otd_12_10
JOHN Mc ENROE – Wimbledon 1981 – 25.06.1981

In September, he managed to defend his title at the US Open, beating Borg in the final (7-6, 6-1, 6-7, 5-7, 6-4). In 1981, after his first triumph at the All England Club, McEnroe claimed the US Open crown for a third time, edging Borg once again (4-6, 6-4, 6-2, 6-3) in what would later be remembered as the last appearance of the Swede in a Grand Slam tournament. In 1982, he lost in the final at Wimbledon against a rejuvenated Jimmy Connors (3-6, 6-3, 6-7, 7-6, 6-4), and since then, McEnroe, Connors and Ivan Lendl had fought tooth-and-nail for the world No 1 spot. 

  • Peter Fleming: the top 10 player who also won six Grand Slam doubles with McEnroe

Born in 1955, Peter Fleming was a good singles player, who had won three tournaments on the tour in 1979 and reached world No 8 in 1980. However, Fleming was mostly known for his achievements in doubles with his favourite partner, John McEnroe himself. It was with McEnroe that Fleming won the majority of his titles, including six Grand Slams (Wimbledon in 1979, 1981, 1983 and the US Open in 1979, 1981, 1983).

  • Season Sorensen: the first Irishman to ever appear in a Grand Slam main draw

Born in 1955, Sean Sorensen was the first Irishman to ever appear in the main draw of a Grand Slam tournament , at Wimbledon in 1977, where he was defeated in the first round by Rod Laver (6-0, 6-2, 6-2). The first Irish player to ever hold an ATP ranking, Sorensen peaked at No 203 in the world rankings in 1981.

  • Matt Doyle: The American who represented Ireland in the Davis Cup

Born American in 1955, Matt Doyle, despite still holding United States citizenship, represented Ireland in the Davis Cup. Having reached his highest ranking as world No 65 in 1982, he achieved his best Grand Slam performance the same year at the US Open, reaching the the fourth round, where he was defeated by none other than McEnroe (6-3, 6-3, 6-4). 

The place: The Simmonscourt Main Hall in Dublin, Ireland

The 1983 Davis Cup World Group play-off between Ireland and the United States took place in Dublin, at the Simmonscourt Main Hall, which had a capacity of approximately 7,000 seats. It was the first time that McEnroe, who had Irish roots, set foot on the land of his ancestors and his appearance was long-awaited by the local crowd. It was the biggest tennis event ever held in Ireland at the time.

The facts: John McEnroe and Peter Fleming win in straight sets

In 1983, the United States, who had won the Davis Cup the previous year, were defeated in the first round by Argentina. In Buenos Aires, clay-court specialists, Jose-Luis Clerc and Guillermo Vilas, had both defeated McEnroe, and now the American team had to defeat Ireland in a play-off tie to retain its spot in the World Group.

“I think it was the first and only time we had to build a court for the Davis Cup,” recalled Irish player Sean Sorensen.

However, the United States were the heavy favourites, and there was more hype about McEnroe’s first visit to the land of his ancestors. In fact, his great aunt still lived in a village in central Ireland. McEnroe’s “homecoming” was long-awaited in Ireland and the public was really excited to watch him play for the first time, to the point where it almost felt as if he was the local player.

“I think the media looked on him almost like he was an Irish player coming back to play in Dublin for the United States and Matt was an American who was playing for Ireland.”, Sean Sorensen would recall in 2008, according to The Irish Times.

On the first day, McEnroe easily defeated Sorensen (6-3, 6-2, 6-2), equaling two records at the same time: the 26 singles victories of Arthur Ashe and the 38 victories in singles and doubles set by Vic Seixas back in the 1950s. However, to everyone’s surprise, Matt Doyle then scored the biggest win of his career, defeating Elliot Teltscher in the second match (6-3, 6-4, 6-4). Thus, when the doubles began on Saturday, McEnroe could become the most successful American Davis Cup player of all-time, and had enormous pressure on his shoulders.

McEnroe and Fleming had triumphed at both Wimbledon and the US Open in the months leading up to the tie, and Doyle and Sorensen, even with all the crowd support, were no match for them. The American pair prevailed in straight sets (6-2, 6-3, 6-4) to give McEnroe his 39th Davis Cup win and set a decisive lead for the Americans before the last singles.

What next? John McEnroe wins singles on Sunday to win the tie for the U.S. team

On the following day, John McEnroe would defeat Doyle (9-7, 6-3, 6-3) to save the United States’ spot in the World Group. Throughout his career, the American southpaw would accumulate 59 Davis Cup victories, which would remain the all-time record amongst American players. McEnroe would hold the record of 41 singles won under the stars-and-stripe flag, followed by Andy Roddick, who had 33 wins. However, he would remain far away from the world record held by Nicola Pietrangeli, from Italy, who won a total of 120  Davis Cup matches (78 singles and 42 doubles).

Most successful American Davis Cup players at singles

  1. John McEnroe, 41 wins
  2. Andy Roddick, 33 wins
  3. Andre Agassi, 30 wins

Most successful Davis Cup players at singles overall

  1. Nicola Pietrangeli (Italy), 78 wins
  2. Ilie Nastase (Romania), 74 wins
  3. Manuel Santana (Spain), 69 wins
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