March 8, 1980: The day José Luis Clerc got the best of John McEnroe at Davis Cup

On this day in tennis history, John McEnroe lost for the first time at Davis Cup as Argentina took out the Americans to advance.

John McEnroe, On This Day

What happened exactly on that day?

On this day, March 8, 1980, in Buenos Aires, John McEnroe met defeat for the first time in the Davis Cup, edged by Jose-Luis Clerc after a more than six-hour combat (6-3, 6-2, 4-6, 13-11). The match was finished on Saturday, as it had to be delayed due to darkness on Friday night, before the players could start the three hour and nine minute fourth set. A few hours after having completed one of the longest matches in tennis history, McEnroe was back on court to play doubles with Peter Fleming.

The players : John McEnroe and Jose Luis Clerc

John McEnroe, born in 1959, 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. “Johnny Mac” was very talented, his game being based on precision and touch on top of an iconic, lethal corkscrew serve. 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 beating Bjorn Borg (7-5, 4-6, 6-2, 7-6) to win the WTC Finals. On March 3, 1980, having claimed 12 titles in the last 12 months, he became world No.1 for the first time.

Also read: February 24, 1984 – the day McEnroe and Connors finally join forces at Davis Cup

Jose-Luis Clerc, from Argentina, was born in 1958. A clay-court specialist, he claimed his first title on his favourite surface in 1978, in Florence (defeating Patrice Dominguez in the final, 6-4, 6-2, 6-1). In 1979, he reached the fourth round at both Wimbledon and the US Open, and, in March 1980, he was world No 15.

The place : Buenos Aires Lawn Tennis Club

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.

John McEnroe

The facts

In 1980, the Davis Cup was played under a different format that the one 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 in the inter-zonal zone 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 great specialists like Guillermo Vilas and Jose-Luis Clerc, Argentina really had a chance to upset the American team, especially after Jimmy Connors, despite having been asked by both Arthur Ashe and John McEnroe, refused to participate.

Also read: December 10, 1978 – the day 19-year-old John McEnroe crushed Great Britain in the Davis Cup final

In the opening match, in front of a roaring crowd, Clerc, nicknamed “Batata” (“sweet potato”) by his own supporters, faced a pale version of McEnroe, disoriented by a particularly slow surface. The Argentinian took a two-set lead almost easily, 6-3, 6-2. However, the American fought back to win the third set, 6-4, and the match was then interrupted by darkness and was postponed to the following day.

A brand new McEnroe came back on court on Saturday. Serving much harder than the previous day, he even served for the set, but missed the opportunity to push Clerc into a fifth set. Instead, both players held on to their serve until the Argentinian managed to clinch a three-hour-and-nine minute set, thus sealing his win over McEnroe, 6-3, 6-2, 4-6, 13-11. It was the first time that the left-hander was defeated in the Davis Cup.

Although, at the time, The New York Times stated that the match lasted six and a half hours, there is no official record of the match length and it is more likely that the rubber between Clerc and McEnroe was actually fifteen minutes shorter.

What happened next

The same day, Guillermo Vilas would defeat Brian Gottfried (7-5, 6-4, 6-3), giving Argentina a 2-0 lead, but McEnroe and Peter Fleming would easily win the doubles. The following day, McEnroe, who had suffered his first Davis Cup loss against Clerc, would see his week-end turn into a nightmare when he would be defeated by Guillermo Vilas (6-2, 4-6, 6-3, 2-6, 6-4). 

Despite the great start they had taken 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.

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