Pat Cash: 'Flushing Meadows is a dump – but the atmosphere is the best of any Grand Slam'
The Brian Viner Interview: Twenty-five years ago he had a starring role in one of the great days of US Open history. Ahead of the tournament, the Aussie recalls the dirty tricks that once made tennis a more colourful game – and explains why Andy Murray may soon be king of New York
Friday 28 August 2009
Pat Cash can scarcely believe it, but it is 25 years since he played a significant part in what is still remembered as Super Saturday, one of the epic days in the history of US Open tennis.
Play at Flushing Meadows that day in 1984 began at 11.07am and ended at 11.16pm, embracing an over-35s match between John Newcombe and Stan Smith, a women's final between Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, in which the former prevailed 6-4 in the deciding set, and two thrilling five-set men's semi-finals, with John McEnroe beating Jimmy Connors in one, and 19-year-old Cash yielding two match points in the other, before losing a fifth-set tie-break to Ivan Lendl.
A quarter of a century on, Cash smiles at the memory. "New York is notorious for the worst umpires," he says. "Just horrendous umpiring. I don't know why the Americans have worse eyesight than everyone else, but anyway, I was on the receiving end, losing a match point on a disputed call. It haunted me, but it made me keep pushing to get that bastard Lendl [which he triumphantly did three years later in the Wimbledon final". A laugh. "Of course it wasn't his fault it was a bad line call."
As the match progressed, with the juicy prospect of McEnroe v Connors to come, the crowd became raucous even by New York's famously animated standards. Lendl had lost in the two preceding finals, and was the sentimental favourite. But as the clear underdog Cash, too, attracted thunderous support. "It was about half and half, and they were going nuts. McEnroe later said to me, 'I've got to thank you for beating Lendl up.' He'd been so sore after his semi, and was thinking 'oh God, I've got to play Lendl now'. Lendl had a pretty good record against Mac, but then McEnroe went in the locker room and saw Lendl trying to touch his toes. He couldn't get past his knees."
I know the feeling, having just hit balls with Cash in the blazing midday heat of a Sardinian summer's day. We are at the Forte Village, the swish resort in the south of the island where Chelsea FC coaches run the football school and a succession of famous tennis players offer coaching workshops. We chat as Cash goes through his warm-down exercises. By contrast, I am too knackered to move.
What, I ask him, are his thoughts about this year's US Open, which begins on Monday? Last year, of course, Andy Murray reached the final. Can the Scotsman go a step further and win it?
"He can, and he loves the surface. But the balls suit him even more than the surface. The US Open balls are the fastest of the lot, in fact they've had to slow them down for the men; they're faster for the women. So Murray can hit a lot of winners, which he was less able to do at the French [Open] and Wimbledon. He'll win a Grand Slam, for sure, and he could get three or four, maybe even half a dozen. But that kind of depends on how long [Rafael] Nadal and [Roger] Federer stick around. Federer's not playing at quite the level he was a couple of years ago, but he still hardly ever has an off day."
Still, Federer and Nadal have, surely, already mined every ounce of their prodigious ability. In Murray's game, Cash believes, there is still room for significant improvement. "He has a very good attacking game, but he needs to learn when to use it. He'll work it out, because he's a really smart kid, really astute. I was quoted as calling him boring at Wimbledon, but I meant his voice, and he does have a boring voice. But he sure knows a lot about tennis. At Wimbledon and the French he wasn't sure when to step up, when to take the game to his opponent. But he volleys well, and that's one reason why he's got [ahead of Novak] Djokovic. Murray's able to come forward. Djokovic wants to but never has the balls to do it. And you reach a stage of your career when it becomes impossible to change. Having said that, [Andy] Roddick learnt to volley. [His former coach, Jimmy] Connors kept telling him to go forward, and eventually he did."
Roddick, too, is a major contender at the US Open, the tournament he won in 2003. And it's fair to assume that the New York crowd will lend him fervent support, having booed Djokovic last year for having the temerity to beat him in the quarters. "The atmosphere there is the best of all the Grand Slams," says Cash. "The stadium's a bit of a dump, and the crowd are too far away from the players. But the fans make the place. The atmosphere on that old Louis Armstrong court was unbelievable."
He will be wielding his own racket next week, he adds, in the seniors team tennis event. "Billie-Jean King started team tennis years ago, and it's a bit like tag-wrestling. I don't know exactly how it works but I'm going to have to learn because I'm meant to be captain." A laugh turns into a wince, as he stretches the calf muscle in his left leg. "I enjoy the circuit. It's fun, a reminder that sports people are entertainers. That's the bottom line."
Even on the seniors circuit there is not always much evidence, I venture, of his old foe McEnroe having fun. But are the tantrums just McEnroe's way of playing to the crowd? "No, they're real. Look, Mac just loses his temper all the time, and there's usually a moment in the locker room when that 'what did John do last week?' conversation comes up. It amazes me how competitive the guy still is, and how mean he can be. He can be the loveliest guy in the world, but he has a real mean streak, and you see it coming out just about every week. I couldn't look at myself in the mirror if I did some of that stuff."
Nonetheless, Cash rather laments the demise of gamesmanship, at which McEnroe so excelled, on the tennis court. "Nadal's about the only one who does it now, bouncing the ball over and over, although it's more of a habit than gamesmanship. But the game needs more attitude. All the waving to the crowd and blowing kisses, I hate all that. [Andre] Agassi started that, and as much as he was a great player who did a lot for tennis, there were a couple of things he did that really messed the game up. One was not playing Davis Cup. He was the first, and it became a trend."
He starts putting his right leg through its paces. "So I blame Agassi for that, and blowing kisses to the crowd, which is real disrespectful to the other guy. Connors was always a gentleman. Whenever he won, he'd say the other guy was a great player, that he'd had a bad day, blah blah blah. I said on the BBC once that I hate players blowing kisses, and someone e-mailed to say 'hang on mate, you climbed through the stand [to embrace his entourage, after winning Wimbledon]'. I said 'wait, I did that once, and after I won, not in the first round of some tournament nobody gives a rat's arse about.' "
Fair enough, but isn't he being inconsistent, calling for more attitude during a match, but for perfect decorum afterwards? "Not at all. Nobody could be tougher to play than Connors. The year I won Wimbledon I played him in the semi, and when I was two sets and 3-1 up he started clowning around with the crowd. Every time he hit a winner after that, the crowd roared. It was tough for me to finish that match off, and he knew exactly what he was doing, which is fine. I just want more personality in the game, and I see no reason why there can't be a bit of gamesmanship. Nadal has this superstition. He puts his water bottle in the same place every time at the change of ends, have you noticed that? I said to Michael Stich in the commentary box, 'Mate, 20 years ago that bottle wouldn't have lasted 10 seconds.' You'd kick it over, and say, 'Ooh, sorry Rafa, sorry mate, I didn't see that.' "
But even Cash, even McEnroe, even Connors, had to defer to the king of gamesmanship: Ilie Nastase. "I played him when I was still a junior, in a tournament in Bristol. It was only my fourth or fifth tournament, and I was drawn against Nastase. My coach said 'be careful, he'll do anything to disrupt your concentration', and sure enough, even before we started he was swearing, going 'thees is sheet, thees is sheet, I cannot play with thees sheet'. There were TV cameras there, and everyone was trying to get him to stop using offensive language. Eventually the referee came out and asked what was going on, and Nastase pointed to the gigantic towel he'd been given, and said 'thees not towel, thees is sheet'!"
It's a marvellous story, doubtless honed by many tellings. Cash does a bit of corporate speaking these days, but as the next stage in his career, he tells me, he wants to roll out a string of Pat Cash academies.
"I have a certain coaching philosophy, and I'm very particular about technique. With the right technique you can play tennis for the rest of your life." If he thinks, by extension, that with my technique I should probably quit today, he is too polite to say so.
The Five Star tennis academy at the Forte Village runs until the end of September, with Thomas Enqvist the next of the five stars (including Cash) to offer private lessons. Hour-long sessions cost from €295. 0039 070 92171, www.fortevillageresort.com
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