The Davis Cup may be the most wordly competition in tennis, but it will be more like a backyard outing for the star and the coach of the American team when it entertains Czechoslovakia in the quarterfinal round starting Friday at Flushing Meadow.
John McEnroe, the newly crowned Wimbledon champion, lives almost next door in Queens. Arthur Ashe, in charge of the United States squad, is a mere subway ride away in Manhattan.
"Mac thinks the fans here don't like him," says Ashe, "but he still likes playing in the city."
At one point, three of Ashe's four players were from within a 45-minute drive of the National Tennis Center stadium, but he then replaced the doubles pair of Gene and Sandy Mayer from New Jersey with the more experienced Stan Smith and Bob Lutz, who lost in the Wimbledon finals to McEnroe and Peter Fleming.
Joining McEnroe in the singles lineup will be Jimmy Connors, a wimbledon semifinalist whose favorite place to play is New York City. (The format calls for four singles and one doubles match over three days.)
"With Players like that, I have to feel pressure," says Ashe. "What excuse could there be for losing? We have awesome singles players and a hot doubles team. They tell me on the tour that Gene Mayer and Mac would be the best doubles pair in the world, but Smith and Lutz have something like 12 cup wins. I have to have John fresh for singles, but it's nice to know he's there for doubles if needed."
Oddly, McEnroe and Connors have never served together on a Davis Cup team, largely because Connors has volunteered only one year. Why did he choose to play this year?
"I didn't have to press him," says Ashe. "We became friendlier, and he just to let me know he was ready to play. I didn't ask him why." One surmise is that Connors is eager to take on the Czechs -- specifically Ivan Lendl, who he felt made an insufficient effort when they met in the round robin Grand Prix Masters early this year in a match that neither needed to win.
Lendl is the main hope for the visitors, who cannot equal the Americans' quality depth. The imposingly mustachioed Tomas Smid, who played surprisingly well as his country beat Italy to win the cup last winter in Prague, is the second- best Czech.
"Lendl has a good record against Bjorn Borg," Ashe points out, "but I think he could have more trouble with Connors. He's never beaten Connors. He'll have to run faster for Connors's hard, flat, deep shot. Borg's ball comes up, which gives you a little more time.Lendl has good passing shots, and Mac comes in more than Connors."
McEnroe has had only a week to enjoy his monumental Wimbledon victory over Borg and prepare for the Czechs. Shifting from Wimbledon's grass to Flushing Meadow's cement is only one adjustment he must make.
"An even bigger change is in the humidity," notes Ashe. "There's a lot more of it in New York City in July. But Mac's a great athlete, entirely capable of adapting to any conditions. He has the best serve in the game, I think, and he has more shots than anyone else."
It has been 22 years since the 81-year-old Davis Cup came to New York, and the event brings a new corporate sponsorship and a sleeker look.
Before, cup play took place in four zones and lasted longer than a year, with many of the best matches coming in the early rounds. Now the top 16 tennis nations participate in a non-zone format that is run off in less than a year. Other nations still meet in zone play, with the leaders moving up into the top 16 the following year, while the low finishers among the 16 fall back.
In another quarterfinal showdown this week, Sweden and Australia will oppose each other in Sweden, with the winner facing the winner of the United States-Czechoslovakia series in October. Borg was not expected to play for Sweden.
For Ashe, whose squad advanced by defeating Mexico last March in Palm Springs , Calif., the toughest part of the coaching job for this week's test may have ended when he settled on his lineup. "I felt Roscoe Tanner cold beat Lendl, and had to leave him off. He's especially strong early in the year. There's no way to accommodate every deserving player.
"The team we have is very formidable and very flexible. It's a coach's dream."
Ashe, whose playing career has ended, claims he's "very satisfied" in his new nonplaying role. "I've put playing out of my mind, and I'm enjoying coaching," he says.
With a team like this, who wouldn't?