Action Replay: 1991 Davis Cup final, pt.1
Originally published on: 26/02/10 14:56
There is a dimension imparted upon tennis by the Davis Cup that is virtually inimitable by the sport in any other form. Other competitions the Fed Cup, Hopman Cup, even the Olympic Games – try to capture the added adrenaline rush of unifying players and arenas along national divisions, but none with anywhere near the same level of success.
Forging teams in a sport of individuals is key to that unique aura, a sentiment that is open to wide interpretation as the USA learnt at the Palais des Sports Gerland, Lyon, in the 1991 final.
The Americans arrived with an embarrassment of riches, so much so that a fuming John McEnroe had been overlooked by the USTA in favour of the young guns the preppy and the tearaway, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi.
The US squad had been a foregone conclusion for weeks ahead of the tie. Agassi, who had burst onto the scene in 1990 by reaching the final of the French and US Opens, had reached the world top ten as well as a second French Open final in 1991.
And then there was Sampras Agassis victorious opponent in New York, the youngest US Open champion of the open era and world No.6. Such was the wave of confidence surrounding the 20-year-old, this final tie was his first assignment with the US Davis Cup squad.
In contrast, France appeared to be making it up as they went along. Yannick Noah, the French captain, had raised the odd eyebrow with his decision to omit Fabrice Santoro and Oliver Delaitre from the team on the grounds of inexperience. Instead, looking for a foil to the stalwart Guy Forget, he turned to Henri Leconte.
Henri Leconte, the enigmatic world No.161. Henri Leconte, who was returning from back surgery just four months earlier. Henri Leconte, famed for capitulating in front of his countrymen in the 1988 French Open final, and who had played in the Davis Cup team beaten 4-1 by the US in 1982 and 5-0 in 1989.
Then, as if to bury the French before a ball had been hit, Noah, who had also played in the 1989 tie, declared that he would not be playing.
“The emotions are still there, but I don’t feel like I’m the one who must hold the racquet,” Noah said. “I believe the players we have are good enough to win.”
The first rubber set an ominous precedent. Forget, anchoring the team, battled to claim the first set of his match against Agassi, but the Americans younger legs had the beating of the 26-year-old as he won in four, 6-7(7) 6-2 6-1 6-2.
Ominous indeed. The stage was set for Sampras to definitively mark the changing of the guard, banish Leconte, and perhaps even McEnroe, to a bygone era and continue his heralded ascent to the top of mens tennis.
But Sampras, weighed down by subtext, could not focus on the script.
After his US Open triumph, 1991 had been a daunting prospect for the 19-year-old. No one had expected him to win back then but when the time came to defend his title, he was resentful of the pressure. When he lost to Jim Courier in the quarters, he made the fateful comment: I feel like a ton of bricks has been lifted off my shoulders.
Nevertheless, Sampras arrived in Lyon as the American No.1. Surely he could see his way past this recovering veteran, particularly one who had cracked under the weight of such expectation in the past?
He might well have done, but Sampras never faced such a player. Instead, having opened his Davis Cup debut with a double fault, he faced a possessed a resurgent, fiery Leconte, master of ceremonies as the decadent venue switched from intimate to intimidating.
Leconte fired 12 aces, smothered the net at every given chance and fed off the crowd while a sullen Sampras wilted before them. The American had no answer to Lecontes rushing game, unable to make his passing shots count and eventually falling 6-4 7-5 6-4.
“I can’t remember playing such a complete match, a perfect match, from beginning to end,” the Frenchman said afterwards, having tied the contest ahead of the weekends action.
Check out tomorrow’s action replay for the story of day 2 of the 1991 Davis Cup final.