LONDON (Reuters) - The tennis world was already abuzz with the name John McEnroe well before Britain arrived to play the United States in the 1978 Davis Cup final in the Californian desert.
He had, after all, reached the Wimbledon semi-finals the year before as an 18-year-old qualifier, losing to Jimmy Connors, and repeated the feat at the 1978 U.S. Open.
But the wild-eyed left-hander had never been exposed to a Davis Cup singles rubber for the U.S. and eyebrows were raised when he ousted Arthur Ashe from the team to face Britain — who had reached their first final since their heady days of 1936.
Not only that but McEnroe was drawn to play the opening rubber of the tie at Mission Hills against Britain’s John Lloyd.
Lloyd’s team mate Mark Cox, who was to lose the doubles with David Lloyd, remembers what followed vividly from the safety of his position on the court-side bench.
“I remember we were all quite excited to be facing McEnroe; he was the new young kid on the block,” Cox, who will be watching in Belgium next week when Britain try to win the title for the first time since 1936, told Reuters.
“I thought he might be tight, maybe a bit nervous. But he served an ace on the first point. Kind of launched himself into the fray in quite spectacular fashion.
“He came out all guns blazing.”
There was even a glimpse of the famous McEnroe temper which earned him the “Super-Brat” nickname after he was distracted by the voice of iconic British commentator Dan Maskell.
“Dan was talking from a balcony above the court and it wasn’t enclosed and his lovely tones were drifting out to court,” Cox said. “That caused something of a confrontation between Dan and McEnroe, Dan got the full Mac glare!
“Dan was the voice of Wimbledon and for this brash youngster to get into a confrontation with him was quite something.”
Unless Belgium have been hiding away a potential world beater, Britain will have less to fear when they arrive in Ghent next week for their first Davis Cup final since losing to the McEnroe-inspired Americans 37 years ago.
World number 16 David Goffin is a sweet ball-striker and their number two player Steve Darcis once beat Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon, but the task facing captain Leon Smith’s side, boasting world number two Andy Murray, does not compare with the challenge facing Paul Hutchins’ team in 1978.
McEnroe crushed Lloyd 6-1 6-2 6-2 and was equally ruthless when he demolished Buster Mottram 6-2 6-2 6-1 to give his team a winning 3-1 lead in the second singles.
“Reaching the Davis Cup final was the highlight of my career,” Lloyd, who went on to captain the side, recalled in a BBC Radio interview this week.
“And to go up against McEnroe and get annihilated and be up against genius. I saw shots that I didn’t think could be hit by another human being.”
Hutchins, who captained the British 31 times and masterminded their run to the final, past a Czech team including a young Ivan Lendl and then arch-rivals Australia in the semis at Crystal Palace, said McEnroe already had an aura.
“I knew he would be really good but never imagined that good,” he told Reuters. “Brash, confident and so talented were my thoughts sitting on the side of the court.”
While the Americans had McEnroe, Britain’s talented maverick was Mottram, who levelled the tie with a brilliant victory over Brian Gottfried from two sets down.
“I remember Buster beating Lendl in the quarter-final,” Cox, who lost the doubles to Stan Smith and Bob Lutz, said.
“When Buster got his teeth into anyone in the Davis Cup he was like a barracuda, he was a very fine Davis Cup player.”
Now Murray is the man his country relies on and seven-times grand slam champion McEnroe believes the Scot can do to Belgium what he did to Britain at Mission Hills.
“To me Britain should win,” McEnroe said.
“It’s set up for them. There will be pressure for Murray, but the way he handled it against Australia, he’ll handle it again and win two singles.”
Editing by Rex Gowar