ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The United States, that note clay-court tennis power, laid claim to its first Davis Cup title in eight years yesterday, playing on a surface about as foreign as Pat Cash's accent.
The United States, which never had played host to a final on
clay, clinched its 29th Davis Cup with a 6-4, 6-2, 3-6, 7-6 (7-2), victory by Rick Leach and Jim Pugh over Australia's doubles team of Cash and John Fitzgerald.
While loudspeakers blared the song, "God Bless the U.S.A.," and Leach blasted a ball into the upper deck, U.S. captain Tom Gorman pumped his fist.
"Winning is the greatest," Gorman said. "Losing is the worst."
The United States never really came close to that. Leach and Pugh, who weathered a blizzard of 14 break points and allowed the Aussies to cash in just once, gave the United States an unbeatable, 3-0 lead with only two singles matches remaining today on the slow red-clay court of the Suncoast Dome.
Let's talk about that clay. For the Australians, the U.S. decision to play the final on this clay court was really bad news. Dirtball -- as American players call clay-court tennis -- simply boomerangs on the Aussies. Australians on clay are like barbies with no shrimp.
So it was probably understandable for Cash to sneer: "We'll get them next time. I'd like to see the Americans, the same team, come down and play on grass next time."
If the Australians were quick to identify clay as some sort of wimpy surface -- they also complained about when the surface was announced, the court itself, the lighting and the air conditioning in the Dome -- the U.S. team didn't seem too upset.
"In fact, I think it was all good," Leach said. "It created a lot of media hype and all."
Hype is something that does not apply to the U.S. Davis Cup doubles team. While the American team traveled a chaotic road to its first title since beating France in 1982, Leach and Pugh provided the only constant.
They won all four doubles matches in their first year of Davis Cup, beating Mexico, Czechoslovakia, Austria and Australia. But the last one didn't come easily.
Cash and Fitzgerald, who began playing better after a brief ball-bashing episode when Leach hit Cash and Cash hit Leach, had a 5-4, 30-0 lead in the fourth set, but faltered.
"We were this far away from a fifth set," said Fitzgerald, holding two fingers about an inch apart.
By then, Leach and Pugh already were mentally prepared to go into a fifth set, so they decided to become more aggressive and see what would happen. It was simple inspiration. They took a 6-5 lead before the Australians held serve to force a tie-breaker.
At 2-2, Pugh rocketed a forehand volley behind Cash on the baseline, then Cash double faulted for 4-2. Pugh's cross-court volley winner made it 5-2, and Leach walked to the line to serve for the Davis Cup.
The first ball he hit was the shot of the match. Leach put a hard-hit serve directly on the line down the middle, catching Fitzgerald dead in his tracks.
"He just hit a bomb," said Fitzgerald. "There wasn't much I could do. That serve was too good. I was hoping they would call it out. I couldn't even find the mark. I think it went straight through the line."
Now at match point, Leach dropped in another big serve, then arrived at the net to send a volley bouncing away on the clay. Gorman quickly bounded onto the court, where an impromptu celebration began.
Gorman, Leach and Pugh were joined by Andre Agassi and Michael Chang, who won singles matches Friday night, and also Aaron Krickston and Jay Berger, who played in earlier Davis Cup rounds. Hugs, waves, smiles and handshakes spread through the group.
During the same time, Cash and Fitzgerald packed their bags and left through a tunnel, but not before raising their hands to acknowledge the cheers from the crowd of 18,156, who seemed to admire their effort in a setting so foreign.
"Their players were just too good," Australian captain Neale Fraser said. "We got to the final. We put up a good fight. We feel proud of ourselves."
Cash said Leach and Pugh saved their best for crucial moments, which is usually what happens when a team faces 14 break points and saves 13.
"They played well when it counted," Cash said. "We played well to get there, and they played well to get out of there."
Fitzgerald, who lives in Newport Beach, Calif., and often practices with Leach, who lives in Laguna Beach, Calif., said, "Rick served as well as I've ever seen him."
Leach and Pugh seem to have worked out their responsibilities: Pugh returns better and Leach volleys better, even on clay.
"This puts American tennis back on track again," Pugh said.
So what if the track begins on clay? Said Gorman: "Who knows, maybe they'll bring back clay courts to Forest Hills [N.Y.] and play the U.S. Open on clay?"
Right, and that will happen the same time Wimbledon digs up its grass. Better dig in, America, before dirtball mania carries us away.
United States 3, Australia 0 FRIDAY
Andre Agassi, Las Vegas, def. Richard Fromberg, Australia, 4-6, 4-6, 6-2, 6-4; Michael Chang, Placentia, Calif., def. Darren Cahill, Australia, 6-2, 7-6 (7-4), 6-0.
Rick Leach, Laguna Beach, Calif., and Jim Pugh, Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., def. Pat Cash and John Fitzgerald, Australia, 6-4, 6-2, 3-6, 7-6 (7-2).
Reverse singles Andre Agassi, Las Vegas, vs. Darren Cahill, Australia; Michael Chang, Placentia, Calif., vs. Richard Fromberg, Australia.