American loss in Davis Cup is short and Swede 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 doubles win gives Sweden sixth title

November 30, 1997|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

GOTEBORG, Sweden -- Hexed and vexed by a combination of bad play and worse luck in snowy Goteborg at the Davis Cup, the U.S. team was eliminated, 3-0, after a straight-set loss by Todd Martin and Jonathan Stark in yesterday's must-have doubles against Sweden.

The 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 victory by Jonas Bjorkman and Nicklas Kulti guaranteed Sweden the 1997 title by acclamation.

The devastation began Friday, when a confidence-starved Michael Chang put the United States behind 1-0 and top-ranked Pete Sampras doubled the predicament by limping away from his unfinished match with a leg injury. Not since 1939 had a Davis Cup squad recovered from a 2-0 deficit in a final-round contest, a hurdle that became all the more intimidating because of Sweden's proud tradition of never relinquishing a 2-0 lead in any round.

"I came here with the idea of exorcising all the ghosts of Goteborg past," the American captain, Tom Gullikson, said in reference to losses here in the 1994 semifinals and the 1984 final, "and instead we have another nightmare here. It couldn't have been worse."

When Bjorkman, Sweden's hero in both singles and doubles, and Kulti weren't busy bumping chests, this year's celebratory ritual for the close-knit Swedish team, to punctuate their point-by-point superiority over Martin and Stark, they were busy thumping the American duo into Davis Cup obscurity.

"It was perfect," said Bjorkman, now ranked a career-best fourth.

Though the United States boasts some of the best players in the world, it has yet, since Gullikson took over the captaincy four years ago, to cement a legitimate Davis Cup doubles duo to counter the elite tandems from rivals like Sweden and Australia.

"To play the Davis Cup, you have to have a good doubles team," Swedish captain Carl-Axel Hageskog said, "and we have that. When I see I have all the boys around me, they have done a fantastic year, and it's an honor to be a captain of this team. It was five open matches, as I saw it, and we were tough for the first three."

Even with the world's best player, Sampras, and the third-ranked Chang committed to handling the singles chores that second-stringers like Jim Courier, Andre Agassi and MaliVai Washington performed in the earlier rounds, the Americans failed to make an impact here.

"In the end, you have to win with tennis, not hype," Gullikson said.

Sweden's triumph on its home court gave the host nation its sixth Davis Cup title and improved its record in Davis Cup finals to 6-5. It improved Sweden's record against the United States in championship matches to 2-0.

The last time the United States sent a dream team here to fight in a final was 1984, and not only were that team's singles stars, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe, ranked No. 1 and No. 3 in the world, the same as Sampras and Chang, but the result through three matches in the best-of-five competition was just as hapless as this one. Then as now, the United States was whipped, 3-0.

With Sampras confined to the sideline after a calf-muscle pull he suffered in Friday's singles match, and with Chang a shadow of his normal combative self, the United States found itself behind 2-0 and put the team on the cusp of elimination.

That left it to Martin and Stark to save the U.S. squad the embarrassment of being swept. But neither Martin, who is ranked 1,277th in doubles, nor Stark, who is 13th and last week captured the world championship with his customary partner, Rick Leach, was close to being up to the task.

"The way they returned in the first two sets was some of the best I've ever seen," Martin said. "They're solid in every facet. They're a presence when they're at net, and you feel pressure to hit a great volley when you're at net."

Bjorkman and Kulti, 5-2 in Davis Cup doubles and ninth overall in the world doubles rankings, took control of yesterday's match straight from the opening game, in which Stark was forced to spout an ace to save a break point. When the Swedes again closed in on Stark, who has an 0-4 record in Davis Cup, in the ninth game of the opening set, they didn't let him off the hook so easily.

Stark saved one break point with a service winner, but after Kulti's vicious slash of a backhand volley gave the Swedes a second chance for a 5-4 lead, Martin converted it for them by pushing an awkward forehand volley long. Bjorkman then served out the set, where a forehand return to the net by Martin put the Americans one set in arrears.

Martin and Stark had been asked by a frazzled Gullikson to "put it all on the line" and play as aggressively as they could, but the Swedes made that impossible.

Though the teams traded early breaks in the second set, Stark dropped his serve in the seventh game, and Kulti put Sweden one set away from the championship by claiming the set with a second-serve ace.

Though Martin and Stark scrambled back from a 3-1 deficit in the final set, Martin lost his serve in the seventh game to put Sweden in front 4-3, and Bjorkman sealed the victory and the championship with an ace at match point.

"Todd and I lost to a better team," Stark said. Apparently, they all did.

Pub Date: 11/30/97

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