U.S. loses doubles, falls into 2-1 hole

Zimbabwe is on verge of 1st-round Davis Cup win

February 06, 2000|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

HARARE, Zimbabwe -- They are preparing to party here, stoking the passions and cuing the clown. They are planning a parade on rationed gas. The mighty United States is on the verge of losing in the first round of the Davis Cup to a team from the northern suburbs of Harare.

The Black brothers, Wayne and Byron, got an assist yesterday from a friend and neighbor, Kevin Ullyett, who grew up a little more than walking distance away. Ullyett teamed with Wayne Black to scramble back from a two-sets-to-one deficit and outlast Americans Alex O'Brien and Rick Leach. A double fault by Leach completed a 7-6 (7-4), 5-7, 0-6, 7-5, 7-5 win for Zimbabwe, putting John McEnroe's team in need of a sweep of today's reverse singles and sending the local fans, clown included, into a frenzy.

First, Andre Agassi must beat Byron Black, and then Chris Woodruff, who was positively wooden in losing to Byron Black on Friday, must take out the 5-foot-7 but indisputably scrappy Wayne.

"If we don't pull it off, maybe we will be the reason why there will be a lot of great African players in 10 years," McEnroe said. "We'll look at the bright side."

McEnroe is trying to, anyway. Beyond a few jousts yesterday with the chair umpire, Bruno Rebeuh, and some post-match sniping with the opposition, McEnroe has been handling what he originally believed would be a scenic drive on safari as well as he can.

"It's building up, like a bomb waiting to explode," he said, but he was smiling, in almost a convivial mood, after a 3-hour, 23-minute ordeal he called "as tough a match as I've ever been part of without playing."

O'Brien and Leach, especially O'Brien, acquitted themselves better than Woodruff on Friday, but in the end, the Americans were done in by Leach's shaky serve and ground strokes. Leach, 35, was called in by captain McEnroe last Friday, after Todd Martin followed Pete Sampras to the inactive list. As long as McEnroe wasn't averse to using an aging southpaw, it was only natural to inquire, given the result, if he regretted not putting himself in.

"I don't feel I could have done a better job than those guys," he said.

We'll never know if McEnroe, one of the all-time doubles greats who won 18 of 20 Davis Cup matches, could have, at 41, better dealt with the chanting, flag-waving and drum-beating than Leach.

"It was a frenzy out there, a blur," Leach said. "Every time I went to serve, the people were whistling. You couldn't hear yourself think."

Actually, the fans, though persistently loud, were usually quiet when the ball was thrown up. And if anyone was aroused after Leach lost his serve in the 12th game of the fourth set to bring about the fifth, it was Ullyett and Black. Down the homestretch, they formed the more cohesive unit than the Americans, who had never before been paired.

Visibly wilting, Leach needed consecutive aces to avoid a service break in the eighth game of the fifth set. By the 12th game, Leach serving at 5-6, the match seemed nowhere close to conclusion, as the Americans built a 40-15 lead. Ullyett struck a clean backhand down the line on a first-service return for 40-30. Then Leach, coming in to take "a floater," tripped slightly and netted the backhand.

O'Brien blamed himself for Leach's stumble, saying he feared the down the line pass and was caught "picking my nose" on a ball he could have poached. Match point was set up by another Ullyett pass down the line, this time with the forehand. And that's when Leach double faulted the Americans into a corner Agassi and Woodruff will have to lead them out of.

McEnroe and his players will be trying to avoid a Davis Cup disaster equivalent to losses at Paraguay in 1987 and Colombia in 1974.

Only three times -- the last in 1981 against Mexico -- has the United States recovered from a 2-1 deficit.

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