Golden days when our Cup almost ran over

ON TENNIS EVERY SPORT has a particular claim or boast

ON TENNISEVERY SPORT has a particular claim or boast. That of tennis is that, with over 120 nations, the Davis Cup is the biggest annual international sports event.

Insofar as it concerns Ireland, the competition, which may have passed many people by last weekend as Pádraig Harrington grabbed the attention of the world, took place at Fitzwilliam in Dublin. A feisty Ireland lost 3-2 to the Ukraine but remained firmly in the same group, still hoping that some year soon players will come through to shunt the team three divisions up into the World Group, the relative tennis stratosphere.

Sitting at the side of the court looking after the needs of the Irish players was a sage-looking, bespectacled Sean Sorensen, the non-playing captain and a veteran of some of the most famous of Ireland's Davis Cup campaigns.

Sorensen, a Corkman who now lives in Germany and has generously provided two players for Ireland's top-end cup matches over the years, his sons Kevin and Louk, teamed up with Matt Doyle 25 years ago this September to face the United States in a match that for one weekend warped the dimensions and appeal of Irish tennis and showed what could happen if Irish players handled their racquets as expertly as the golfers wielded their clubs.


The US then had a Davis Cup exponent by the name of John McEnroe, and in 1983, the American with the Irish heritage and the Irish temperament had polished his anti-heroic alter ego to such an extent global opinion on how to behave on a tennis court was entirely divided.

On how to play the game there were few dissenters. The New Yorker was a god. (He would go on to post the most total wins (59-10), the most singles wins (41-8), the best doubles record, with Peter Fleming (14-1), the most ties played (30) and the most years played (12) in Davis Cup.)

How the USA team of McEnroe and Eliot Teltscher came to be playing in Dublin in a World Group relegation match was determined the previous year when the draw, held at Roland Garros, drew the Americans away in the first round against one of the strongest sides in the competition, Argentina.

Ireland drew Italy away and through a confluence of factors both sides lost and were tossed together in the Simmonscourt, Dublin, to see who would fall backward out of the top division.

For the Americans, who always expect to win the cup, this was ignominy and shame, but for Ireland it was party time.

"I think it was the first and only time we had to build a court for the Davis Cup," recalls Sorensen. "The RDS was the only time we played in an arena of that capacity, which I think held about 5,000 or 6,000 people.

"The whole thing was perfect for the media because there were so many angles. Everyone wanted to see McEnroe. He was a Wimbledon champion then and a huge name in tennis.

"I think the media looked on him almost like he was an Irish player coming back to play in Dublin for the USA and Matt was an American who was playing for Ireland."

The world rankings would have said straight-set wins for the US but Doyle pulled one of the upsets of his career, beating Teltscher 6-3, 6-4, 6-4, with Sorensen going down to McEnroe on the first day.

"My memory is that I was thinking it was unbelievable that after day one we were 1-1 with the USA after Matt beat Teltscher," says Sorensen. "It was a great performance from Matt against a guy ranked way above him.

"But that's what Davis Cup does. World rankings don't mean anything and that showed last Sunday when Conor Niland had a good chance to win over a higher-ranked player. That's what stays in my mind."

Five years before that match against the US, Ireland played Sweden in Fitzwilliam. Kjell Johansson and a young man called Bjorn Borg were on the 1978 side that won 5-0. But Borg did not then have the cachet of McEnroe in Ireland.

"The US team took the whole thing dead serious," says Sorensen. "They had the whole huge entourage with them, the USTA, everything. They booked three or four restaurants at night and that's where they went. There was no socialising whatsoever.

"I played a match on Sunday against Eliot Teltscher. It was a long-drawn-out match. By then some of the team had already left because they were playing in tournaments in the US. But it was a great event and great to have been part of a bit of history."

Twenty-fives year after the weekend of the end of September and beginning of September 1983, Ireland has drifted quite a distance from the halcyon days.

Maybe time plays games with the mind. But all it took to make for a magical weekend were a Corkman called Sorensen, living in Stuttgart, an American-born Irishman called Doyle from Redwood City in California and a feisty New Yorker named McEnroe, who probably should have had red hair.

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson is a sports writer with The Irish Times