On the surface, whether grass, clay, composition or paper, the idea of the United States losing a Davis Cup match is preposterous.
In the men's world tennis rankings, five United States players are among the top 9: Jim Courier is No. 1, Pete Sampras No. 2, Andre Agassi No. 7, Ivan Lendl (who as a U.S. citizen is now eligible) No. 8, and Michael Chang No. 9. No other nation has even two players among the top nine.
But last weekend, the United States, the defending cup-holder, lost in the first round to Australia, 4-1, a nation with no singles players in the top 10. Then again, none of the top five Americans were there. The two who played singles, Brad Gilbert and David Wheaton, are ranked No. 30 and No. 48, respectively.
As embarrassing as that upset by Australia was, it's not nearly as embarrassing as the reasons, if not the conspiracy, behind it.
One: Courier, Sampras and Agassi declined to fit a trip Down Under into their schedules while they pursued their world rankings.
Two: If the United States were eliminated without those players, it might hasten the departure of Tom Gorman as captain and the appointment of John McEnroe.
The possibility of this double fault did not go unnoticed.
"You have to congratulate the Americans," said Guy Forget, a French Davis Cup player. "They did everything to lose and they succeeded. It's perhaps some politics to push out Gorman."
"Maybe Gorman is not such a good salesman," said Neale Fraser, the Australian Davis Cup captain, "but there is something wrong if those players don't want to be part of the Davis Cup."
Something very wrong.
If the Davis Cup is worth winning, isn't it worth defending? If Courier, Sampras and Agassi were so emotionally involved in winning last year's final against Switzerland, why couldn't one or two take the time to make sure the team wouldn't be rudely eliminated in the first round of this year's competition? It's not as if players were donating their time. Over a Davis Cup campaign, a player can earn close to $500,000.
But were those absent players using a Davis Cup loss as a rubber hammer in pounding U.S. Tennis Association officials to name McEnroe as captain?
"To fear John losing his temper as a reason not to be Davis Cup captain is completely ridiculous," Agassi recently told Inside Tennis. "They're more concerned about making sure the team shows up to celebrate with them than us winning or doing what's right for Davis Cup."
Sampras has called McEnroe "my father figure on the court," and Courier, in discussing USTA officials, recently told a confidant: "The hell with 'em. They'll learn."
Over his career, McEnroe has been a devoted member of five reigning Davis Cup teams. He has described Davis Cup as "the ultimate, the pure side of tennis." Against Switzerland his exhortations were as important as his share of the doubles victory with Sampas.
But some USTA officials remember when McEnroe declined to play Davis Cup for four years as a protest against a code of conduct imposed after McEnroe and Jimmy Connors trashed a 1984 loss to Sweden.
To consider McEnroe as a Davis Cup captain is to consider which McEnroe will be sitting at courtside as a representative of the United States in international team sports: the McEnroe who considers it the "pure side" of tennis, or the McEnroe who might embarrass the United States if he has a beef.
In other words, is the reward worth the risk?
But to assure the presence of the players who support McEnroe's candidacy, the USTA may not have a choice. To stay with Gorman might mean staying with Brad Gilbert and David Wheaton instead of Courier, Sampras or Agassi.
Now in his eighth year as captain, Gorman has led two winning teams. But he isn't revered by the players, as McEnroe is.
To avert being dropped into zonal play with several small nations next year, the United States must defeat Brazil sometime in the fall. If that American team were to lose, it would be like the World Series champion Toronto Blue Jays being put in the International League.
But who will be on that team?
In declining to go to Australia last week, Agassi explained, "I put in my time," as if it were a military obligation. Will he find time in the fall? Will Courier? Will Sampras? Will Lendl or Chang be invited? Will Gorman still be the captain? Or will McEnroe be installed by then?
The world rankings won't supply the answers.