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Spain drops U.S. into 0-2 clay hole


SANTANDER, Spain - There was no positive spin to put on the day, only the monotonous reality of the penetrating topspin strokes that ground the United States' Davis Cup chances to near miracle odds, if not red clay dust.

John McEnroe could not help Todd Martin or Jan-Michael Gambill yesterday, and it is quite possible that Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi would not have saved McEnroe from the bad luck of the semifinal draw. Playing in Spain, on clay, in the heat of summer, was never going to be a day at the beach, even if the beach was only a long forehand away.

"We're not playing chopped liver here," McEnroe said after his team dropped both singles matches and fell into an 0-2 hole, with today's doubles looming as the Americans' last gasp. "We're playing the real deal, and these guys want to win."

It was hot, as promised, but not oppressively humid. The temporary stadium erected above the coastline of the Peninsula de Magdelana was jammed with a crowd of an estimated 13,000 but one not excessively raucous.

Opportunities were abundant for Martin and Gambill, but consistency is the name of the game on clay. In the end, Albert Costa was the Road Runner who eluded Martin's grasp in a 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 victory before Alex Corretja played rope-a-dope and let the aggressive Gambill punch himself out, 1-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4.

The Spaniards, who have never won the Davis Cup, need to win only one of the three remaining matches to reach their first world group final in 33 years.

If they finish the job they began so impressively yesterday, they will play host to Australia next December in Barcelona, meaning they will have played an entire Cup year without leaving home soil, red clay.

"This is tailor-made for them," McEnroe said. "If they can't win this, they'll be winning the Davis Cup in the year 3000."

If there was any encouraging news for the Americans, it was that Gambill, the 23-year-old with the two-fisted ground strokes on either side, showed enough fire and rained enough winners to suggest he might help them contend for their 32nd Cup title long before the next millennium.

Gambill, a quarterfinal loser to Sampras at Wimbledon, wasn't supposed to have enough clay-court game for a specialist of Corretja's quality. Yet after Martin lost to Costa routinely, Gambill set upon Corretja like a cyclone, winning the first set in 31 minutes.

"He was playing just unbelievable tennis, just wonderful," said Corretja, the world's seventh-ranked player. "He was serving big and his returns were every time in the corner. He didn't drop his level until maybe the middle of the second set. I can tell you that I don't know if Sampras or Agassi would play better than Gambill."

Gambill's performance was enough to make McEnroe, given the dire straits his team was in, reconsider the doubles team he will send out today against Corretja and Juan Balcells.

Having originally tabbed Chris Woodruff and Vince Spadea, McEnroe said he would most likely switch to Gambill or Martin with Woodruff, though it seemed unlikely that Martin could play three days in a row.

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