March 9, 1980: The day John McEnroe lost for the second time to Argentina in a Davis Cup tie

Every day, Tennis Majors looks back at the biggest moments in tennis history. On March 9, 1980, John McEnroe, suffered his second Davis Cup singles defeat in two days

McEnroe OTD 03_09 McEnroe OTD 03_09

What happened exactly on that day?

On this day, March 9, 1980, in Buenos Aires, one day after his first-ever loss in the Davis Cup against Jose-Luis Clerc, John McEnroe faced defeat a second time, this time against Guillermo Vilas. The American, who had fought for over six hours in the opening match and had also played – and won – the doubles rubber, lost in five sets (6-2, 4-6, 6-3, 2-6, 6-4).

The players: Guillermo Vilas and John McEnroe

  • Guillermo Vilas: top-spin titan and Argentine Grand Slam champion

Guillermo Vilas, from Argentina, was born in 1962. He made himself famous in 1974, winning seven titles, including the year-end Masters, where he defeated Ilie Nastase in the final (7-6, 6-2, 3-6, 3-6, 6-4). It was the only title he claimed that year on a surface other than clay, where his game was the most effective. Left-handed, Vilas was one of the first players to play with massive top spin off both wings. In 1975, he reached the Roland-Garros final, losing to Bjorn Borg, the only player who could challenge him in long baseline rallies (6-2, 6-3, 6-4). After being defeated in the US Open semi-finals twice, in 1975 and 1976, Vilas reached his peak form in 1977.

That year, he dominated the game, winning 16 titles, triumphing at Roland-Garros (destroying Brian Gottfried in the final, 6-0, 6-3, 6-0) and at Forest Hills, where he beat the local favourite Jimmy Connors (2-6, 6-3, 7-6, 6-0). On top of that, he also reached the final at the Australian Open, on grass, defeated by Roscoe Tanner in the final (6-3, 6-3, 6-3). He also set a new record, which would remain unbeaten for decades: a 53-match winning streak on clay courts. Despite these great results, Vilas never officially became world No 1, which would create various controversies over time about the ranking system. In 1978, the Argentinian finished runner-up to Borg at Roland-Garros a second time (easily defeated, 6-1, 6-1, 6-3), but he managed to claim another Grand Slam title, defeating John Marks in the Australian Open final (6-4, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3). His 1979 season was disappointing, as he did not obtain any remarkable results in the Grand Slam tournaments, and in December, when the Australian Open began, he had been out of the top five for several months already, a first for him since 1974. However, in Melbourne, he added a final Grand Slam title to his list of achievements, defeating John Sadri in the final (7-6, 6-3, 6-2).

  • John McEnroe: American sensation and Grand Slam champion
John McEnroe

John McEnroe, born in 1959, had amazed the tennis world ever since he took 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 and went all the way to the semi-finals. “Mac” was very talented, his game being based on precision and touch on top of an iconic and lethal serve. In 1979, he became the youngest ever US Open Champion, defeating Vitas Gerulaitis (7-5, 6-3, 6-3). He also created a sensation by beating Bjorn Borg (7-5, 4-6, 6-2, 7-6) to win the WTC Finals. On March 3, 1980, having claimed 12 titles over the last 12 months, he became world No 1 for the first time.

The place: Buenos Aires Lawn Tennis Club, Argentina

The 1980 Davis Cup tie between Argentina and the United States was held on clay at the Buenos Aires Lawn Tennis Club, a venue which could host up to 5,500 spectators in the stands of its main court.

The facts: Vilas beats McEnroe in five sets

In 1980, the Davis Cup was played under a different format from the one that we know today. At the time, in order to win the competition, a country like Argentina had to go through a South American phase, then an American inter-zone final, before being able to compete against countries from other continents.

The 1980 tie between Argentina and the United States was the final of the inter-zone phase. Argentina had decided to play on slow clay courts, as most of the American players, including McEnroe, the new world No 1, were more comfortable on fast surfaces. With specialists like Vilas and Clerc, Argentina really had a chance to upset the American team, especially after Jimmy Connors, despite having been asked by both Arthur Ashe and McEnroe, refused to participate.

In the opening match, McEnroe was defeated by Clerc after a six-hour combat split over two days (6-3, 6-2, 4-6, 13-11). Vilas defeated Brian Gottfried ((7-5, 6-4, 6-3) to give Argentina a 2-0 lead, but McEnroe and Peter Fleming easily won the doubles, allowing the Americans to stay alive.

All American hopes now relied on McEnroe, but the challenge that he was now facing was tremendous. Having played a six-hour opening match and the doubles, he had to beat a real clay-court legend to give his team a chance to qualify for the next round.

The excited crowd witnessed two players with contrasting styles engaging into a mind game, with McEnroe trying to rush to the net as much as possible, while Vilas tried his best to keep the American at bay. However, in the end, despite a tough fight, Vilas’ passing shots turned out sharper than McEnroe’s volleys. In the fifth set, the American, probably tired after his marathon on Saturday, missed a few easy volleys that cost him the match.

When Vilas won, some spectators rushed onto the court to celebrate the victory, while McEnroe, shocked after having suffered his first two Davis Cup losses in one weekend, walked back to his chair.

“I thought it was a terrific match,” said Tom Gorman, the USA captain. “They have two different styles. Vilas was a counter-puncher against McEnroe, who was trying to attack. I thought Vilas was more tired than McEnroe in the fifth set, and that we might have a chance to beat him. But he played well and made the right shots at the right moment.”

What next? Argentina finally win the Davis Cup in 2016

Despite the great start they had made in the 1980 Davis Cup, Vilas and Clerc would be defeated in the semi-finals by Ivan Lendl’s Czechoslovakia. According to Sports Illustrated, their continuing disputes would be one of the main reasons for their loss. Argentina reached the final in 1981, losing to McEnroe and the USA. The Argentines would not win the Davis Cup until 2016, when, led by Juan Martin Del Potro, this great nation of tennis finally lifted the trophy.

McEnroe would continue playing the Davis Cup, leading the United States to a total of five titles. At the end of his career, in this competition, he would hold a 48-8 record in singles (with six of his losses on clay) and an 18-2 record in doubles.

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