October 7, 1999: The day McEnroe created Davis Cup controversy

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The day US Davis Cup captain John McEnroe caused controversy with 'cow dung' court comment before his team's tie against Zimbabwe.

What happened?

On this day on October 7, 1999, John McEnroe, who had just been appointed as the new captain of the United States Davis Cup team, started his term by creating scandal. In fact, the draw for the 2000 competition had just been released, and in the first round, the American team was to play in Zimbabwe. Worried that it would be very difficult to convince his top players to attend such a remote event, McEnroe made a few unsavoury comments which were not welcomed by the authorities in Zimbabwe.

 

The people involved

John McEnroe, born in 1959, had been world no.1 for 170 weeks between 1980 and 1985. The American lefty had claimed seven Grand Slam titles : three at Wimbledon (1981, 1983, 1984), and four in New-York (1979, 1980, 1981, 1984). In 1979, he became the youngest ever US Open Champion, defeating Vitas Gerulaitis (7-5 6-3 6-3), and in 1980, he played his most famous match in the Wimbledon final, where he lost in five sets against Bjorn Borg, after winning an outstanding tie-break in the fourth set (18-16). His peak season had been 1984, when, after a heartbreaking loss in the French Open final,  he triumphed not only at both Wimbledon and the US Open, but also at the Masters Cup and the Davis Cup, finishing the year as the undisputed world no.1, holding an 82-3 record. After 1984, McEnroe’s domination came to an end. In 1986, mentally worn out, he even took a break from the tour to marry Tatum O’Neal. 

His last remarkable result before he retired from professional tennis was reaching the 1992 Wimbledon semi-final (lost to Andre Agassi, 6-4 6-2 6-3). In total, McEnroe held seven Grand Slam titles and would have spent 170 weeks as world no.1.

Also a great Davis Cup player, he held a record of 41-8 in singles and 18-2 in doubles, having won the competition five times (1978, 1979, 1981, 1982, 1992). 

“Mac” was very talented, his game being based on precision and touch on top of an iconic and lethal serve. He was also known for his shocking on-court behaviour in the well-mannered world of tennis.  He was sometimes vulgar and his constant quarreling with the officials did not go unnoticed in a gentleman’s sport. 

 

The facts

When McEnroe was appointed captain of the United States Davis Cup team, he made it quite clear that he intended to convince the top players to attend the competition again. The United States had lost in the quarterfinals of the Davis Cup in 1999, but Andre Agassi had refused to play because of a feud with the USTA, and Pete Sampras, prioritizing Grand Slam tournaments, had only played one double match since the 1997 final.

“I’ll repeat obviously once again, I’m hopeful to have them on the team. You got a pretty good start. You only have to win three-out-of-five. Pretty good odds they’re going to win three-out-of-four matches.” said the new captain on September 8.

About a month later, the 2000 Davis Cup draw was revealed: America was to play in Zimbabwe, the week following the end of the Australian Open. Not the easiest thing to sell to top players like Sampras and Agassi. McEnroe’s confidence was shaken, as even himself had trouble hiding his lack of enthusiasm when he found out he needed a dozen shots for immunization. ”I’m sure word is seeping out that our worst-case scenario has just taken place,” McEnroe said, according to The New York Times

As Agassi had already committed to attending the event, the captain was more concerned about Sampras’ decision. ”I think it’s critical that all the top players do play,” McEnroe said. ”I think he realizes it’s the right thing to do, but he may have different feelings, particularly when he sees the draw.” 

McEnroe concluded in his own provocative way, hoping to pick his player’s pride : “This will be a gut check for a couple of guys,” he said. ”We will separate the men from the boys.”

The newly appointed captain then created scandal, when asked on what surface he thought Zimbabwe would host the tie.

“They are going to pick a surface that they feel they have the best chance of beating us on, which will probably be cow dung.”

According to indianexpress.com, his statement didn’t go unnoticed in Zimbabwe. The Zimbabwean government, under the dictatorship of Mugabe, was promptly outraged and would declare his comments as disparaging before proceeding to question just what must be going on inside his head. “When we beat Australia last year, we didn’t play on a cow dung court,” added Immanuel Gombo, representing Zimbabwe at the UN.

 

What happened next?

In the end, Pete Sampras would not attend the event, having injured his hip in the Australian Open semi-finals against…Andre Agassi.  McEnroe would fly to Zimbabwe with Agassi, Chris Woodruff, Alex O’Brien and Rick Leach.  The tie was also held indoors, on hard courts (not on cow dung). The United States would survive a big scare in Harare, only winning 3-2, with Woodruff prevailing against Wayne Black in the decider, 6-3, 6-7, 6-2, 6-4. 

McEnroe would participate in a clinic with children in the poor town of Chitungwiza, cooling the controversy created by his comments. 

The American dream team with both Sampras and Agassi would prevail against Czech Republic in April. In July though, McEnroe would travel to Spain with none of them, and Todd Martin, Jan-Michael Gambill, Vince Spadea and Chris Woodruff would be defeated 5-0 on clay.

The United States would not clinch a Davis Cup title before 2007, led by Andy Roddick and James Blake.

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