- Joel Drucker
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Australian Fred Stolle, a member of the Tennis Hall of Fame, put it best when talking about Davis Cup: "Very strange things can happen."
Stolle should know. In 1964, as Stolle fought to level his finals round match against American Dennis Ralston, a courtside comment from the legendary Don Budge irked Stolle so much that he ended up winning the match from a break down in the fifth set.
That was just one of many beguiling twists and turns that have happened in the 108-year-old history of this international team competition. Here are five exceptionally dramatic Davis Cup moments that have happened in the Open era.
2002 Finals: Russia vs. France
Winner: Russia, 3-2
Recap: Since 1968, only six times has the Davis Cup final come down to a single match. In 2002, the man of the hour was Russian Mikhail Youzhny. Up against Frenchman Paul-Henri Mathieu, Youzhny lost the first two sets -- and rallied to win the 4-hour and 26 minute epic, 3-6, 2-6, 6-3, 7-5, 6-4. With jubilant former Russian President Boris Yeltsin on hand, Russia won its first Davis Cup title.
Seminal moment: In the fourth set, Youzhny served at 4-5 deuce -- two points away from defeat. He won the game and immediately broke serve. "Nobody expected he could win after two sets to love," said his teammate, Marat Safin. "But I think he surprised even himself. He showed he's a real man, a Russian man, and how to fight and get out of a difficult situation."
Significance: Youzhny is on this year's Russian team. Experience is particularly critical in Davis Cup.
1995 Finals: United States vs. Russia
Winner: U.S., 3-2
Recap: The U.S. team traveled to Moscow. Pete Sampras, America's best player, was forced to play on his least favorite surface -- red clay. But Sampras proved the hero, taking all three points, including the clincher versus Yevgeny Kafelnikov on the final Sunday.
Seminal Moment: At the end of his five-set day one win over Andrei Chesnokov, a depleted Sampras fell to the ground and was carried off the court. People questioned if he would he be able to play again. But the next day, Sampras was refreshed. He and Todd Martin partnered and easily won the doubles to put the U.S. up 2-1. Said Martin, "We weren't sure what was going to happen, but then Pete said he was ready to go, so naturally it was logical for him to play."
Significance: This was the last time the U.S. won the Cup, currently enduring the longest title drought in American history.
1990 Semifinals: United States vs. Austria
Winner: U.S., 3-2
Recap: Once again on the road, once again on red clay, America's fate came down to one match. This one pitted Michael Chang against Horst Skoff. The Austrian raced off to a two sets to love lead. Chang won the third set, after which the match was called due to darkness.
Seminal moment: Chang's older brother Carl, then a student at UC Berkeley, was watching ESPN's broadcast of the match. He spoke with Michael that evening, and the two figured out ways to defuse Skoff's ballistic forehand. The next day, Chang leveled the match, went up in the fifth set and began to cramp. Realizing he might pass out, on match point Chang threw everything into a forehand return and smacked a winner.
Significance: America went on that December to win the Cup. By the next year, Carl Chang had become Michael's coach, an extremely successful relationship that helped Chang rise to No. 2 in the world.
1982 Quarterfinals: United States vs. Sweden
Site: St. Louis
Winner: U.S., 3-2
Recap: One week after he'd lost a Wimbledon final that lasted more than four hours to Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe was on the hot seat on a muggy afternoon inside St. Louis' Checkerdome. The tie came down to McEnroe versus Mats Wilander, then a 17-year-old phenom who'd won the French Open a month earlier. McEnroe took the first two sets 9-7, 6-2, and when he went up 4-2 in the third, the runway appeared in sight. Then things took quite a turn.
Seminal moment: Wilander came back and won the third by the remarkable score of 17-15. With momentum swinging, he snapped up the fourth 6-3. Starting off the fifth, McEnroe struck a ball near a linesman he thought had given him a bad call. Assessed a point penalty, McEnroe buckled down. With Wilander serving at 6-7, 15-all, McEnroe came to net on the next two points, earned a pair of match points and cashed in his second. At 6 hours and 22 minutes, this remains the second-longest match in tennis history.
Significance: Yet another notch in McEnroe's gold-plated Davis Cup belt. The U.S. went on to win the Cup that year -- one of five championship squads McEnroe played on in three separate decades.
1972 Finals: United States vs. Romania
Winner: U.S., 3-2
Recap: Headed to Bucharest on the red clay, the U.S. encountered a host squad that made sure its linesmen were corrupt and ready to help the home squad win. Added intrigue was ultra-tight security due to Cold War tensions and death threats to America's Jewish players, Harold Solomon and Brian Gottfried. (This tie took place one month after the 1972 Munich Olympics and the killing of 11 Israeli athletes.) Stan Smith was Captain America, notching wins in both his singles and the doubles with Erik van Dillen.
Seminal Moment: With U.S. leading 2-1, Smith went up against Ion Tiriac, an exceptionally clever competitor. With officials calling tons of balls in Tiriac's favor and permitting him to delay time between points as he so desired, Tiriac extended Smith to a fifth set. As U.S. Davis Cup captain Dennis Ralston said, "There was a strong chance that if we lost that match it was going to be hard to beat Nastase in the final rubber." Smith opened the fifth with an uncontestable ace, lost but nine points in the set and won it 6-0. As he shook the devious Tiriac's hand he said, "Ion, I will always respect you as a competitor. But I will never respect you as a man."
Significance: Prior to 1972, the defending Davis Cup champion sat out the entire season, awaiting a finalist. But that year America had to earn its title, creating a new and engaging paradigm for Cup play.
Joel Drucker is based in Oakland, Calif., and writes for Tennis Magazine and Tennis Channel.
From Pete Sampras' collapse on clay to Mikhail Youzhny's 2002 comeback, Joel Drucker lists five of the more notable Davis Cup moments in the Open era.