John McEnroe is probably not the go-to guy for many people when it comes to diplomacy, but back in 1999 he proved he can cause an actual international incident.
McEnroe had not even been the US Davis Cup captain for a month when they were drawn to play an away tie in Zimbabwe.
“I am sure that word is seeping out that our worse case scenario has just taken place,” McEnroe told reporters within minutes. “We need like 27 shots or something to go down there.”
McEnroe wasn’t finished there. When asked what surface he expected the tie to be played on, he replied: “That is their choice.
“They are going to try to pick a surface that they feel they have the best chance of beating us on, which will probably be cow dung.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, McEnroe’s comments went all the way to the top of Zimbabwean government, and they did not go down well.
“When we beat Australia last year, we didn’t play on cow dung,” Immanuel Gumbo, attaché at the Zimbabwe mission to the US told the New York Post.
“We admire Mr McEnroe for his gifts but you have to wonder what must go on inside his head.”
As it happened, the surface wasn’t cow dung. It was an indoor hardcourt at the Harare Sports Club, and it was a far more competitive tie than most – excluding McEnroe, of course – probably expected.
Led by the then-world number one Andre Agassi, the US team sneaked through 3-2.
Agassi won two singles matches, first against Wayne Black before then beating Wayne’s brother Byron. However, with Chris Woodruff losing his first singles rubber against Byron and Zimbabwe winning the doubles match-up, it went to a decider.
This time, though, Woodruff beat Wayne Black in four sets to spare more McEnroe blushes.
Incidentally, the US went all the way to the semi-finals that year before losing to an Alex Corretja-inspired Spain in Santander – on clay, not cow dung.
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