McEnroe dusts off his racket to play Davis Cup

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The Independent Online

In those moments when John McEnroe strikes a devilishly angled serve and a sweet drop volley, it is almost possible to imagine he really can muster some magic to rescue his depleted Davis Cup troops.

In those moments when John McEnroe strikes a devilishly angled serve and a sweet drop volley, it is almost possible to imagine he really can muster some magic to rescue his depleted Davis Cup troops.

Ignore his gray hair, pushed back by a green bandanna. Overlook his sunken chest and skinny arms and untoned legs. Forget that he's 41 and that it's been eight years since he last played a Davis Cup match, and six years since he last played any men's doubles, except for batting around balls on what he affectionately calls "the dinosaur tour."

It's easy to see, as the bathing suit-clad fans applaud him at practice for this weekend's semifinal against Spain, that he still has something special. He still shouts at himself or fumes in silence when he misses a shot, still drops his racket in disgust at times and kicks the clay.

They used to say the best doubles team in the world was John McEnroe and anybody else, and when he now occasionally makes those sublime shots with his artistry of old, the thought, or perhaps the wish, slips in that maybe it's still true.

Trouble is, a Davis Cup match is more than just a few moments in the sun. It's the best-of-five sets, two, three, four hours in the lung-scalding heat. And against Spain, in this resort town near Bilbao, it's on a red clay that never was much to McEnroe's liking.

Yet McEnroe, the captain of a U.S. squad abandoned by Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi and rejected by Michael Chang, sounds as if he's leaning toward throwing himself into the fray.

"I don't look at us being wiped out here," said McEnroe, in the face of what he acknowledges are overwhelming odds against his team. "I think Spain has underachieved for 20 years. I'm sure they're going to be feeling the heat."

Todd Martin and Jan-Michael Gambill will play the singles matches on Friday, most likely against two of the sport's most formidable clay courters, Alex Corretja and Juan Carlos Ferrero. The matchups will be determined in Thursday's draw.

Then, depending on how those go, McEnroe will decide whether he will play with Martin or Gambill in Saturday's doubles, or bring in Chris Woodruff or Vince Spadea. For Spain, Corretja and Juan Balcells are expected to play the doubles. On Sunday, they'll play the reverse singles.

If McEnroe chooses to name himself for the doubles, it will be less out of vanity or a belief that he can turn back the hands of time than a realistic assessment of the cards he's been dealt. Neither Woodruff nor Spadea are particularly adept at doubles.

"I'm trying to get myself ready in case it does happen," McEnroe said. McEnroe, who won 77 career doubles titles and the same number of singles titles, played with different partners in practice, didn't lose a set, and looked much more comfortable on the court than Woodruff and Spadea. "I feel like I've known the game of doubles," McEnroe said.

Martin wasn't enthusiastic about McEnroe playing, saying a few weeks ago that there were better choices and that it would hurt his effectiveness as captain.

"I definitely have to hedge from that, seeing we have a completely different squad," Martin said today. "Now we're obviously depleted." Still, Martin said, McEnroe's weak second serve is a serious liability on clay.

McEnroe planned to play Sampras and Martin in doubles, but that idea ended when Sampras pulled out last week with claims that the tendinitis in his left leg needed rest after his Wimbledon victory. When Agassi pulled out, too, saying he was injured in a minor car accident, McEnroe lost his best clay-court player.

"Pete, maybe you could see the writing on the wall that that was going to happen," McEnroe said. "Andre was a shock. I know that he had a really tough loss and that it was probably difficult for him emotionally to bounce back with the scheduling of this."

McEnroe said it all will cause him to consider whether he wants to return as captain next year.

"Obviously one of the reasons I was hired was so that I would make a difference in getting the players to play," he said. "Well, I clearly haven't succeeded."