Balls Remembers: When The Eyes Of The Tennis World Were On Ireland
A chance meeting at a French satellite tournament in 1980 between 2 touring pros started the process that brought the eyes of the tennis world to Dublin 3 years later. American born, but a very proud Cork man, Sean Sorensen was playing Yale graduate Matt Doyle in a semi-final. Doyle felt Sorensen’s heart wasn’t in the game. Sorensen told him he was playing for Ireland in the Kings Cup that week and that that’s what must have been on his mind.
The next time they met Doyle asked how the team got on. Sorensen told him Ireland lost but explained that it was pretty normal; “I’m the only professional”. “Well you know I’m Irish”, replied Doyle.
Doyle’s paternal grandfather was a Corkman and the Irish Lawn Tennis Association (ILTA - now Tennis Ireland) began the process of getting Doyle a passport. He officially gained dual citizenship at the end of 1980 and was eligible to represent Ireland in the (now defunct) Kings Cup and the Davis Cup the following year.
The Davis Cup first round tie in 1981 was in Oslo. The last time Ireland played Norway, they lost 0-5 in 1973. This time would be different. Sorensen wasn’t fit enough to play singles but he partnered Doyle in the doubles and the man from California won both singles to give Ireland a 3-2 victory. It was Ireland’s first Davis Cup win since 1978 and only our 2nd over European opposition in 10 years. They’d lose to the Netherlands in the quarter final but again Sorensen and Doyle won the doubles.
1982 was a historic year for Irish tennis. Doyle and Sorensen were a combined 18-0 as Ireland beat Luxembourg, Monaco, Finland and Switzerland to win Zone A of the Europe Zone. All 4 ties were played in the Fitzwilliam LTC in Dublin and incredibly earned Ireland a place in the Davis Cup World Group for 1983.
1982 was also a career best year personally for Matt Doyle. He reached number 65 in the world and in September won 3 matches in the US Open before losing to the top seeded John McEnroe in the last 16.
Ireland were handed a tough draw for the World Group of the 1983 Davis Cup, and would have to travel to the southern Italian city of Reggio Calabria. Italy had reached the quarter finals in 1982 and the team included Corrado Barazzutti, who was part of the 1976 Italian team to win the competition.
In the opening rubber, Sorensen lost the first set 6-1 to Claudio Panetta (ranked in the world’s top 50) but the Irishman fought back to stun the Italian and win Ireland’s first ever World Group tie.
Italy won the next two rubbers but Doyle beat Panetta on day 3 to set up a winner-takes-all final match between Barazutti and Sorensen. The Italian won the first set to love and, despite his best efforts, Sorensen couldn’t stop Italy clinching their place in the last 8.
Elsewhere in the first round the holders, the USA, lost 3-2 to Argentina with world number 1 John McEnroe losing both singles matches.
The next round for both countries was a relegation play-off and the draw gave Ireland a home tie against the mighty USA.
After the successful run at the Fitzwilliam Centre, the ILTA toyed with the idea of hosting the game there. They quickly realized demand for tickets would mean a new venue had to be found, and the RDS Simmonscourt Pavilion was turned into a 6,000 capacity arena for the biggest tennis event Ireland would host in decades.
Could Ireland do the unthinkable and beat the USA, relegating the powerhouse out of the Davis Cup World Group? The US sporting media decamped to Dublin to find out. The New York Times headlined their preview “A Yank To Lead Ireland in Davis Cup”.
Much of the build-up centred around John McEnroe. The world number one was a polarizing figure in world tennis and to this day is still one of the most recognisable figures in the game. McEnroe joked that he was more Irish than Doyle as he had two Irish grandparents compared to Doyle who only had one. (Doyle later responded at a pre-match event that "John's bloodline may make him more Irish than mine, but I bleed Guinness and he doesn't").
The Irish sporting press corps, predictably, were joined by their colleagues from the newsrooms. After McEnroe refused to comply with their every whim in Dublin Airport, the Irish Independent led with the front page;
TIRED 'SUPERBRAT' SAGS AS HE ARRIVES IN DUBLIN
The Evening Herald ran a story on McEnroe spending thousands on clothes and room service while having round-the-clock armed guards to keep him safe. McEnroe wasn't happy as he attended the draw to see who would play who;
This is lies from start to finish! This happens to me all over the world, and naturally it annoys me. Who wouldn't it annoy?
I haven't been able to go in the streets and meet the real people. I don't consider the press real people.
Where the Irish press lead, the British tabloids followed with the Daily Mail sniping as Sports Illustrated reported in 1984.
SUPERBRAT SNUBS HIS IRISH HERITAGE
McEnroe finally got to meet some real people on the Friday as a capacity crowd eagerly awaited his clash with Sorensen. Both players were warmly welcomed to the court with the Irish crowd appreciating the opportunity to watch one of the game's greatest exponents. Sean Sorensen would later recall (to the Irish Times) that many treated McEnroe;
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
McEnroe dismissed Sorensen in straight sets as expected. The second match of the day saw Doyle face Eliot Teltscher. Teltsher was ranked in the world's top 10 (he reached the quarter finals of the US and Australian open that year) but was stunned by Doyle who sent the crowd into raptures with a straight sets win!
Doyle and Sorensen teamed up to face the mighty doubles team of McEnroe and Peter Fleming. Less than 3 weeks earlier they had won the US Open doubles for a third time (they would win 7 grand slams in total as a pair). The USA won easily enough and if Ireland was to cause the upset, they'd need to win both singles on the Sunday.
McEnroe and Doyle were first up with Doyle putting up a great fight in the first set pushing McEnroe all the way to a 9-7 win. He'd win each of the next two sets with one break and the USA were saved from relegation. In the final dead rubber, Sorensen lost to Teltsher in a marathon three setter (14-16, 10-8, 8-6).
The US team, captained by Arthur Ashe and lead by the brilliant McEnroe, thanked the Irish crowd for the hospitality and that was that, the Davis Cup bandwagon moved on.
Sorensen and Doyle would continue to play Davis Cup for Ireland until 1987 and 1988 respectively but they'd never reach the World Group stage again. Both men had a stint as national coach, and Sorensen was non-playing captain of the Davis Cup team for a period of time. His son Louk eclipsed his dad when he won his first round match at the Australian Open in 2010. His other son Kevin also played Davis Cup for Ireland.
While the odd flash of an Irishman playing in a grand slam has happened since, nothing compares to that year in 1983 when Ireland were competing with the giant nations of the world, and the eyes of the tennis world were on Dublin for a weekend in late September.