- 10 Jul 2020
What happened exactly on that day
On this day, July 10, 1981, the Davis Cup was hosted for the first time at the USTA Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, where the US Open had been held since 1978. This quarter-final between the United States and Czechoslovakia displayed three of the four best players in the world with the presence of John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl. In front of a record attendance of 17,445 spectators, Lendl and Connors both earned one point for their team on this opening day, but in the end, the American team prevailed in the following days.
The USA team
Jimmy Connors, born in 1952, was one of the greatest tennis players of his time. Coached by his mother Gloria, Connors was one of the first few players to hit the ball flat and mainly from the baseline. Hitting the ball on the rise, his game would be very influential for future generations of tennis players. “Jimbo” turned pro in 1972 and became world No 1 by 1974. In fact, that year he won three out of the four Grand Slam tournaments, and was not permitted to participate in Roland-Garros, the fourth one, due to a lawsuit he filed against the ATP. He stayed at the top spot of the ATP rankings for a record of 160 weeks in a row, from 1974 to 1977. Losing his throne to Bjorn Borg on August 23, 1977, for just one week, he had reclaimed it for another 84 weeks, until the spring of 1979. He had won five Grand Slams titles until that day: the Australian Open (1974), Wimbledon (1974) and the US Open (1974, 1976, 1978). Since 1979, Connors had not been performing as well as in his peak years. Although he had managed to win the WTC Finals in 1980, defeating John McEnroe, he had not reached a Grand Slam final since his 1978 US Open title, and yet he was still ranked No 3 in the world.
John McEnroe, born in 1959, had just become world No 1 again in 1981, after claiming his first Wimbledon crown, defeating Swedish legend Borg in the final (4-6, 7-6, 7-6, 6-4). The lefty from New York amazed 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 qualifications unto the semi-finals. “Mac” was hugely talented, his game based on precision and touch on top of an iconic and lethal serve that he liked to follow to the net. In 1979, he became the youngest ever US Open Champion, defeating Vitas Gerulaitis (7-5, 6-3, 6-3). He also made quite a sensation by edging Borg (7-5, 4-6, 6-2, 7-6) to win the WTC Finals. In 1980, he managed to defend his title at the US Open, edging Borg in the final (7-6, 6-1, 6-7, 5-7, 6-4).
Both players were known for their shocking on-court behaviour in the well-mannered world of tennis. They were sometimes vulgar — Connors giving the finger to a linesman or putting his racket between his legs in a crude manner. Their constant quarreling with the officials made them famous in a gentleman’s sport. They were usually rivals and they genuinely disliked each other, but on this occasion they were part of the same team. It was only the second year that Connors participated in the Davis Cup, as he wouldn’t get involved in a competition spread over four weeks without any prize money.
Stan Smith and Bob Lutz were the doubles team. In singles, Smith had been one of the greatest players of the early 1970s, when he triumphed at the US Open in 1971 and at Wimbledon in 1972. Since 1975, he obtained his best results in doubles, where, partnering Bob Lutz, he had claimed five Grand Slam titles (the Australian Open in 1970, the US Open in 1968, 1974, 1978 and 1980) and reached eight major finals.
The Czech team
Ivan Lendl, born in 1960, was No 4 in the world in July 1981, behind McEnroe. After turning professional in 1978, he stood as one of the four best players in the world since 1980, along with Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors. He had claimed nine ATP titles already, seven of them in 1980. In 1981, he had reached his first Grand Slam final at Roland-Garros, where he defeated McEnroe in the quarter-final before losing in five sets against the great Borg (6-1, 4-6, 6-2, 3-6, 6-1). He set new standards in the baseline game, with a very powerful topspin forehand that allowed him to play aggressively while staying extremely consistent, pushing his opponents into a very tough physical challenge. He also set new standards in work ethics, practising more than anyone before, paying attention to his fitness and to his diet in a way tennis players were not used to.
Tomas Smid was born in 1956. He had claimed four single titles in his career so far, he had never gone past the third round of a Grand Slam and he was No 27 in the world, not far from his highest ranking of No 22. In doubles, he had lifted four trophies as well, but he had reached the Roland-Garros semi-finals in 1979, partnering Jan Kodes.
The USTA National Tennis center, located in Flushing Meadows, New York, was opened in 1978 to host the US Open Grand Slam tennis tournament, held every year in August and September. Its center court at the time was the Louis Armstrong Stadium, which had a capacity of 18,000 spectators. The Tennis Center was one of the biggest tennis complexes in the world. Since the US Open had moved from its former location, at Forest Hills, to its new premises at Flushing Meadows, only American players had lifted the trophy: Connors in 1978 and McEnroe in 1979 and 1980.
On July 10, for the first time, a Davis Cup tie, which looked like a tennis all-star game, between the USA and Czechoslovakia was held at the USTA National Center. In front of a record crowd of 17,445 spectators, McEnroe faced Lendl in the opener. The two players had played against each other three times already, and, even if McEnroe had won their two first matches, Lendl had prevailed the last time, at Roland-Garros (6-4, 6-4, 7-5).
McEnroe had just triumphed at Wimbledon, only a week before. This should have given him confidence, but since his famous “you cannot be serious” emotional outburst against Tom Gullikson, McEnroe was facing heavy criticism. He ended up being heavily fined and denied the honorary club membership accorded to all singles champions. Arthur Ashe, captain of the USA team, expected him not to perform at his best level, as the Wimbledon champion appeared mentally worn out by the constant controversy which followed him during and after the tournament.
On the other hand, Lendl had been kicked out of Wimbledon in the first round and had practised for 10 days in Florida to prepare the event. He dominated the game, with deep shots which prevented McEnroe from taking the net as often as usual. Although McEnroe clearly made an effort to behave properly under the US flag, he was defeated in three sets, 6-4, 14-12, 7-5.
Connors pulled the United States level at 1-1 tie with a 6-3, 6-1, 6-2 victory over Smid in the second match, explaining later that he “didn’t want to end the day 0-2, especially on Arthur Ashe’s birthday.” Although the first day ended level, the American team was still confident regarding the outcome. “I’ve never lost to Smid, and I shouldn’t now. On paper, we shouldn’t lose any more matches,” said McEnroe, while Arthur Ashe predicted that “by the end of the first match on Sunday, I think it will be all over.”
Things would happen exactly the way McEnroe and Ashe had anticipated. On Saturday, Smith and Lutz would beat Lendl and Smid, 9-7, 6-3, 6-2. On Sunday, McEnroe would secure the victory, easily beating Smid in straight sets, 6-3, 6-1, 6-4. The United States would win the 1981 Davis Cup, beating Argentina in the final, this time with a different team; McEnroe and Roscoe Tanner would play the singles, while Peter Fleming would partner McEnroe in the doubles. Connors would not appear again in the Davis Cup until 1984. This time, he would participate in the entire campaign, that ended up with a 4-1 loss in the final against Sweden.
- Read more: July 9, 2001: The day Goran Ivanisevic finally won Wimbledon
- Read more: July 8, 2006: The day Amelie Mauresmo justified her world No 1 ranking
- Read more: July 7, 2013: The day Andy Murray won his first Wimbledon
- Read more: July 6, 2008: The day Rafael Nadal beat Roger Federer to win Wimbledon