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A DARK DAY IN PARAGUAY : 2 Years Ago, a Player Named Hugo Chapacu Shocked Jimmy Arias to Help Give His Country a Davis Cup Victory Over the United States

January 29, 1989|BILL DWYRE | Times Sports Editor

The drumbeats of Paraguay, 1987, still pound in Jimmy Arias' head. They are his migraine. Aspirin doesn't make them go away.

He can tell himself that it was only a tennis match. His family and friends do that. He can tell himself that he hadn't even turned 23 years old at the time, so how devastating should this be? What about the resilience of youth? How long should the hurt hurt?

Yes, this was more than a Friday afternoon quarterfinal at some Shady Oak Tennis Club in Suburbia, USA, where the most at stake is $10,000 and a couple of rungs on the ranking ladder.

Yes, this was the Davis Cup, team tennis for real, where the other guys along the sidelines wearing the same uniform as you really cared whether you won or lost. And so did a country full of tennis fans. A big country.

But shouldn't the drumbeats stop soon? Worse, why had he ever let them start?

It was all so simple. He was among the best tennis players in his country. In fact, he was ranked as high as No. 5 in the world in 1983, at 17. The Davis Cup captain, Tom Gorman, had picked him to play against Paraguay because he was good. He deserved the spot, as did his teammates, Aaron Krickstein, Ken Flach and Robert Seguso.

They would play March 13, 14 and 15, on the slow red clay in Paraguay, at some place in Asuncion called, rather strangely and inappropriately, the Golf and Yacht Club. They had to play in Paraguay because they lost a coin flip. Pretty basic, these Davis Cup rules.

But Arias and Krickstein were America's clay court aces at the time, and Flach and Seguso had never lost a Davis Cup doubles match.

So the attitude was, pretty much, don't worry, be happy, even though John McEnroe referred to these early-round Davis Cup matchups off in the jungles as "banana republic tennis." And even though Gorman was sounding like a coach, talking about the need to be careful when you didn't have the home-court advantage. After all, Paraguay wasn't exactly throwing Smith and Lutz or Laver and Rosewall out there against them.

There was Victor Pecci, a veteran who was, at 31, well into the down curve of his career. There was Francisco Gonzalez, also 31, the former Ohio State player and doubles specialist, who, Gorman claims to this day, "keeps a post office box in Paraguay and spends 6 hours a year there, or whatever it takes to get on their Davis Cup team."

Pecci made it to the French Open final in 1979. Gonzalez beat Jimmy Connors in a final in 1980. Since then, the pickings had been slim for both.

And then there was Hugo Chapacu. Just the mention of his name starts the drumbeats in Arias' head. For everyone else, mention of his name draws blanks.

As TV commentator Fred Stolle, the Australian with the wonderfully dry wit, said on ESPN in his pre-match summing up: "Hugo Chapacu. I really don't know him."

Ah, but he would. And so would Arias, much to his everlasting dismay.

Even now, nearly 2 years later, as the great rematch is about to take place--the United States versus Paraguay in Davis Cup tennis next Friday, Saturday and Sunday at the Sonesta Sanibel Harbour Resort in Ft. Myers, Fla., Arias remains dismayed. As do Gorman, the United States Tennis Assn., and probably a million or more tennis followers who stayed tuned to ESPN into the late hours of Sunday, March 15, 1987, and the early hours of Monday, March 16.

THE MATCH

Arias' first look at Chapacu was on film, just before the team left for Paraguay.

"Aaron and I looked at him against Italy in their previous match," Arias said. "He got beat something like 6-1, 6-0, 6-2. We thought he was a joke."

But Krickstein was laughing a lot less the first day, after Chapacu had taken him to 6-4 in the fifth set before bowing. And when Pecci beat Arias in 4 sets and Flach and Seguso had to battle back from 2 sets down to win the doubles over Pecci and Gonzalez with a 6-4 closing set, this "banana republic" stuff suddenly was no joking matter.

The crowds at the Golf and Yacht Club were unruly from the start. At one point during the doubles, Flach, a highly emotional player, slapped a ball into the crowd in the direction of a man making cat sounds. That prompted other fans to start barking like dogs at the American players. Flach also yelled at Gonzalez over a close point and the 6-foot 4-inch Gonzalez spat in the direction of Flach.

So, when Arias took the court Sunday to play Chapacu, with his team's lead a slim 2-1, it wasn't in warm surroundings. The pressure was on him, even though his match wasn't the finale. Smart money had the veteran Pecci beating Krickstein in the closing match. Pecci had never lost a Davis Cup match in Asuncion, and he was playing as if he liked that streak.

"I kept saying to myself, 'Who is this Chapacu?' " Gorman said.

Chapacu quickly took the first 2 sets from Arias and actually got to a match point with Arias serving at 4-5 in the third.

Chapacu was 24 years old then, was ranked No. 290 in the world and had amassed total winnings of $3,953.

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