Replacing Agassi, Martin puts U.S. into Davis final 27 aces help oust '94 champ Sweden

September 25, 1995|By Robin Finn | Robin Finn,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

LAS VEGAS -- With the hometown host and self-appointed shepherd of this Davis Cup semifinal event, Andre Agassi, on the Caesars Palace sidelines with a surprise injury, it was up to the ultimate understudy to produce some ultimate tennis against defending champion Sweden yesterday afternoon.

Already a loser in doubles and at the gaming tables here, Todd Martin not only turned his luck around but stole some of Agassi's signature thunder in the process.

For the first time in U.S. Davis Cup history, a replacement player stepped into the limelight and clinched a round of competition. In a performance that Agassi described as "flawless" and that inspired its architect to tears, the unsung Martin came through with the clinching victory that sent his team into the Davis Cup final against Russia, which used a 3-2 comeback over Germany to reach its second consecutive final.

Just a day after he and his doubles partner, Jonathan Stark, were humbled in the doubles, a setback that prevented the United States from a 3-0 sweep, the 19th-ranked Martin recorded 27 aces and upset Sweden's top player, eighth-ranked Thomas Enqvist, 7-5, 7-5, 7-6 (7-2). Martin faced just four break points and zapped them all into irrelevance with his booming serve.

In the inconsequential but entertaining fifth match, Pete Sampras concluded the round with a 4-1 overall decision for the host nation by defeating Mats Wilander, 2-6, 7-6 (7-4), 6-3.

But the day belonged to Martin, who more than transcended his wallflower status.

"This is my best moment in tennis, ever," said Martin, who hurled his racket into the packed stands, which were aflutter with tiny American flags, and then, to the tune of a Sousa march, lifted the Davis Cup captain who believed in him for this impromptu assignment, Tom Gullikson, high into the air.

"The emotional roller coaster we all ride during Davis Cup is a little bigger than the average roller coaster," said Martin, 25, who was the first player to volunteer for doubles duty here after Gullikson found himself unable to appoint a pre-existing team. Martin was well aware that with Agassi and Sampras, the world's top two players, on tap to play singles, his only chance of making the team was to acquiesce to a doubles role.

"I just wanted to be here," said Martin, who pleaded for the same chance in the final, which will be held in Russia, presumably in Moscow, Dec. 1-3.

Gullikson knew that Martin's only chance of playing singles here was in a backup capacity, which is just what transpired once the chest muscle pull felt by Agassi in his singles victory against Wilander on Friday failed to improve over the weekend.

Martin said he learned only yesterday morning that it would be up to him to tame Enqvist, a baseline power player he had never before confronted.

"It forced me to get my spirits up," said Martin, who was downcast after his doubles loss cut the United States' lead to 2-1 in this three-of-five match competition. The development was doubly upsetting because it evoked memories of Sweden's comeback from a 2-0 deficit against the United States in this same round last year in Goteborg, where Martin lost the fifth and deciding match.

Sampras was suffering from a pulled hamstring last year in Goteborg, and it was his retirement from his singles match against Stefan Edberg that knotted that series at 2-2. Gullikson later regretted his decision to allow Sampras to attempt to play hurt. Yesterday morning he advised Agassi against trying the same sacrifice.

"There was no question that Todd was going to bring more to the table today than I was," said Agassi. "He's a great backup singles player; he's the ultimate team player, and he proved that."

His serve didn't fail him, particularly where he needed it most -- in the early going. That's when Enqvist, 21, the Davis Cup neophyte, earned a pair of set points against him as Martin served at 4-5.

A pair of confident, competent serves saved those and appeared to rattle Enqvist, who promptly dropped his own serve. Martin bullied the Swede with two aces and a service winner in the game that decided the opening set.

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