US Davis Cup future looks bleak

For once, John McEnroe had almost nothing to say. He fled in the rain today, along with his soaked and sunken U.S. Davis Cup team, taken down by the Spanish armada in the semifinals.

For once, John McEnroe had almost nothing to say. He fled in the rain today, along with his soaked and sunken U.S. Davis Cup team, taken down by the Spanish armada in the semifinals.

For the first time in 101 years of Davis Cup play, the United States suffered a 5-0 thrashing without the title on the line. "I'm totally spent, I'm deflated," McEnroe said after fleeing the stadium following the last two meaningless matches.

He spoke hours later by phone from his car on the way to the airport in Bilbao. "It was tough for me, and it was tough for everybody," he said. "I feel like I'm going to throw up. I'm not sure if it's emotional or what."

With the victory already clinched, today's matches served only to pad Spain's margin and underscore the weakness of the American team. Juan Balcells, Spain's weakest player, beat Jan-Michael Gambill 1-6, 7-6 (2), 6-4 amid thunder, lightning and driving rain after Juan Carlos Ferrero downed Vince Spadea 4-6, 6-1, 6-4.

Only twice before in the open era - in finals against Australia in 1973 and Sweden in 1997 - did the United States lose so badly. Five other 5-0 losses for the Americans also came in finals.

For all practical purposes, the Americans were dead on arrival, their demise virtually guaranteed the moment Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi begged off by claiming injuries. "Personally, I think that he was angry about Sampras and Agassi," Spanish captain Javier Duarte said of McEnroe. "It's a difficult situation, but I think he is feeling awful for that. Perhaps more than the defeat."

The United States has won the Davis Cup 31 times, more than any other country, since Dwight Davis and his Harvard chums claimed the first one in 1900. But the future looks mighty bleak for the Americans in the next few years, regardless of whether McEnroe stays as captain.

Sampras will be 30 next year and Agassi and Todd Martin will be 31. The likelihood of them carrying the Davis Cup team once more, or even wanting to, is slim. Nor are there any Americans on the horizon to take their place among the best in the world. Gambill is good, but at 23 he still has to prove he's even a top 10 player. Andy Roddick, coming out of the juniors, may develop into a great player, but that could be a long way off.

McEnroe signed a three-year deal last year with every intention of restoring the lost glory of Davis Cup in the United States. In the 1920s, '30s and '40s, Davis Cup was among the biggest events on the American sports calendar, rivaling any of the majors. McEnroe brought back some of its popularity in the late 1970s and early '80s, when he helped win four championships in five years, and he thought his name and status and love of the cup would bring back the top players.

"Either it's bad luck or I haven't made a difference," McEnroe said at the start of this series. "I'm not sure what it is at this point. Obviously one of the reasons I was hired was so that I would make a difference in getting the players to play. Well, I clearly haven't succeeded. I'd like to think it's bad luck."

Sampras was willing to play through pain to win Wimbledon. But even with a week to rest the tendinitis above his left ankle, he was unwilling to come to Spain. Agassi claimed a fender bender left him with back spasms too severe to play. Agassi produced a doctor's note, but don't expect him to miss any tournaments on the way to the U.S. Open.

Sampras and Agassi had said all year that they were committed to Davis Cup this time around, and when they backed out they let down not just McEnroe and their teammates, but American tennis fans who still believe this is important.

Yet, for Sampras and Agassi the decision to save their bodies for the U.S. Open next month is a no-brainer. Davis Cup may be hugely important in Spain and Australia, in Sweden and France and in dozens of other countries, but in the United States it's outdated.

McEnroe's dream of putting the Davis Cup at least on par with golf's Ryder Cup in the United States will remain a fantasy as long as the top American players stay away. And they will stay away as long as the format remains as it is, with matches spread out throughout the year and coming at times, like this one, right after a major tournament.

The top American golfers are eager to play Ryder Cup, and honoured when they are named to the team. But that's one week every two years. Winning Davis Cup means a commitment of four weeks of play a year, plus travel to and from such far-flung sites as Zimbabwe and Australia.

"Ideally, we should have gotten here earlier, but it doesn't work that way anymore," McEnroe said after Spain won the first two singles matches. "It just doesn't happen. You're lucky if guys show up by Sunday. ... The question now for McEnroe is whether he wants to continue as captain.

"I'm no quitter," he said in one breath, but in another he talked about how difficult the job has been, how much time it's taken, how disappointed he is with players showing up, and how tough it is to fit in with his role as parent, his job as a TV commentator, and his commitments to the seniors tour.