awwwwww holly.... I'd like to! One day, maybe......
nice wrapup sort of DC article
Davis Cup: Come Together
There was James Blake hugging Andy Roddick. There were the Bryan brothers, virtually conceived for this moment. There were the practice partners, Mardy Fish, Robby Ginepri, Donald Young and John Isner, joining in the hugs. And of course, there was captain Patrick McEnroe – just part of the whole troupe doused in a smelly, frat house mix of champagne and beer. All sat on the dais inside the cozy Portland Memorial Coliseum to celebrate America’s first Davis Cup win since 1995.
Most of all, they were a group. Roddick, asked if this was as close as tennis can get to the shared joy of a Super Bowl or World Series team, gave a blunt one-word answer: “Absolutely.”
Davis Cup is that rare moment when a tennis player can share the responsibility and emotional toll. Its lure is largely a tribute to its rareness. As no less a Davis Cup stalwart than Jim Courier once told me, “You play tennis so you don’t have people telling you what to do.”
Having attended Davis Cup ties for nearly 20 years, what I find most engaging – and taxing – is the incredible amount of collective energy expended and displayed at this high-stakes competition. This holds true for everyone from players to captains and spectators. It is a striking contrast to the detached solitude seen at just about every other match a pro plays.
But in Davis Cup, something as significant as a love-15 lead can incite soccer-like noise. As a result of all the attention, benchside engagement, and heightened amplification attending each point, Davis Cup matches are often akin to playing a three-hour tiebreaker.
Certainly the energy was high in Portland, where local promoter Brian Parrott (the man who’d produced prior ties there in ’81 and ’84) had done much to get the tennis community behind this event. Portland’s support proved the notion that tennis doesn’t need major media markets for success. In every town, there are passionate pockets that if stimulated properly can turn out in big numbers. Parrott and his group, the Oregon Sports Authority, had done that quite well. After all, Portland is the home of two major tennis superpowers. Forget the old Cold War rivalry between the U.S. and Russia. In tennis we’re talking about Nike and adidas. Nike got in on the action rapidly as a local sponsor. Adidas was present in various ways too, most notably through the Bryan brothers.
So with a packed venue ranting after virtually every point, it takes a special kind of player to manage this kind of energy. Those demands were likely one reason why Russian captain Shamil Tarpischev (who resembles a beefed up version of famed psychologist Jim Loehr and comedian Garry Shandling) dropped Nikolay Davydenko from the singles lineup. Accomplished as Daydenko is – he’s been a top four player for two years – his weakness is an inability to raise his fine counterpunching game on the big occasion.
In contrast, Roddick has always thrived in Davis Cup, knowing most of all that he has the stones to strike boldly with the two weapons most vital in contemporary tennis, his massive serve and his haymaker forehand. He’s also enough of a sports zealot to know that there will be odd emotional patches – a contrast to the rational fatalism that’s often infected such Russians as Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Marat Safin, and Davydenko.
Roddick’s opponent on Day One, Dmitry Tursunov, had beaten him a year ago in the Davis Cup semis, 17-15 in the fifth, to clinch the tie for Russia. But on this afternoon, on one of the slickest carpets you’ll see in tennis these days
, Tursunov was strangely subdued (had he been advised to hit this slowly?), and in short order was hammered 6-4, 6-4, 6-2. Roddick threw down 25 aces and played precisely the kind of rapid, low-stress match his teammate Blake had hoped for. For Blake – like any teammate – had too often had his energy sapped awaiting his turn at bat.
Blake Breaks Through
Clearly Blake was the man under the microscope this weekend. Only this past September had he at last earned a victory in a five-set match. Though his effort was always exemplary, his Davis Cup results were spotty. Too prone to get down on himself, often unable to grub his way through rough spots, Blake knew that versus Mikhail Youzhny he’d encounter a full spectrum of emotions.
I was sitting ten feet behind the U.S. team bench for much of this match, two rows in front of Blake’s mother, Betty. Aware of how tentative he could get in big matches, Blake played fine attacking tennis to earn the first two sets. When he lost the third in a tiebreaker, the tension was palpable. Youzhny is one rough customer, his one-handed backhand elegant and powerful, his all-court prowess impressive. Blake served for the match at 5-4 and played a miserable game. When Youzhny took a 2-0 lead in the tiebreak, a fifth seemed in the offing.
But this was Davis Cup, and with his team cheering him on, Blake found enough to get even. Serving at 3-4, Youzhny made a fatal tactical error, attempting a drop shot from further back than he could ever make at such a tight stage. It nestled into the net, giving Blake enough of a cushion to surge to victory. Soon after, Blake ran into the crowd, his sweat dripping over several of us, to give Betty a grand hug and thank her for everything. Sweet, sincere, passionate – not exactly what you’d see in a routine opening round elsewhere. As Blake noted, this was clearly the biggest win of his entire career. It was also the pivotal match in the entire tie.
McEnroe Brings it Home
Afterwards, captain McEnroe looked as weary as if he’d flown the red-eye. “Sure, he watched two matches, we each only played one,” joked Blake.
The next morning I bumped into McEnroe as he walked off the practice court with Bob Bryan. Though he looked more rested than he had Friday night, McEnroe was hardly a daisy. Like Blake, like Roddick, he knew how important this all was. As they had so many times going back to his brother’s days as a player, McEnroe’s parents, Kay and John, were on-site. Betty Blake was joined by her oldest son, Thomas. Besides his coach, John, Roddick’s contingent included parents Blanche and Jerry, as well as brother Lawrence. Certainly aware of all this support and expectation two hours before the doubles match, Patrick turned to me and said, “How ‘bout we get this done today?”
Though the Bryans were heavy favorites, as every tennis player knows, being told you should bludgeon someone is often poisonous. Again, the microscopic intensity of Davis Cup made matters quite different early on. When Mike and Bob failed to cash in a break point on Igor Andreev and Daydenko’s opening service game, the set advanced in rather tight fashion. Andreev’s forehand was massive and his volleys were disruptive. Davydenko was solid. With the Russians leading 3-1 in the first set tiebreak, a long day loomed.
This time I was two rows in front of Wayne Bryan, who on this big moment had gone against his custom and decided to see his boys in-person. He was with a flock of his friends, all wearing T-shirts and cheering the boys on.
“You watch,” said the man on my right, Mark Bey, a prominent Chicago coach who’d known the brothers since they were juniors. “If they can get out of this, they’ll break it open.”
Bey was right as rain. Soon after they wriggled out of the first set, the Bryans opened the second with a service break. Still, to watch a match this closely, to see the twists and turns of every single point, speaks volumes to the intensity and skill it take to play world class tennis. Andreev and Davydenko did not roll over. But they were beaten, eventually, toothpick by toothpick, the Bryans assembling their share of serves, volleys and, most impressive of all, Mike’s crisp service returns. The score told everything: 7-6, 6-4, 6-2. As the celebration got underway, tennis for once took on football-like qualities.
Now check out this notion: America’s decline as a tennis power has made it better-equipped for Davis Cup. For there was a time when our best players were tumbling over each other fighting for the select few goodies at the very top. It hardly made Sampras, Agassi, Courier and Chang buddies the way Roddick, Blake et al have been. Even worse, back in those days, the riches of having so many top tenners available made recruitment confusing and destined to incur rancor. At other times, it was even worse, such as when John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors formed an alleged “Dream Team” that refused at times to even occupy the same hotel.
But this squad is different. Only Roddick has been a top ten player for long. Blake barely made into the top ten in 2006 and fell out of that perch in ’07. Others who’ve played over the course of McEnroe’s tenure – Fish, Ginepri, Taylor Dent – are still seeking to become top 20 mainstays. The Bryans are all about doubles. The upshot is that these guys are each occupying enough different places on the tennis ladder to feel gracious enough to support one another.
Roddick deserves much credit for this. Dedicated as John McEnroe was to Davis Cup, during the year he hardly ever spoke graciously about such teammates as Brian Gottfried, Gene Mayer or Eliot Teltscher. Davis Cup during those years seemed more a matter of John McEnroe and his backup band. In contrast, Roddick during the rest of the year is often quite generous in praising the skills and chances of such good buddies as his former housemate Fish, his friend Blake and many others.
And while on the subject of McEnroe, pass another heaping of credit for this team’s success to the captain. I am sick of reading articles that say his all-time great of a brother left the job because he was unable to convince top players such as Sampras and Agassi to play for him. The truth is that John McEnroe’s leadership skills are negligible. Yes, he led by example as a player. But as a captain, leadership requires engagement the ability to carefully point others towards a goal – and in tennis, a goal that by design does not always capture a player’s complete attention. John McEnroe was clueless in this department, essentially tanking the job once the team lost in the 2000 semis. As with so many aspects of his life – art, music, his cable TV show – he was unwilling to put in the heavy lifting required for long-term success.
Patrick McEnroe approached the task with a completely different attitude. He has worked hard to instill and gain confidence with this group. He has personally road-tested various surfaces and made the team’s demands quite clear to the USTA. Through dozens of text messages, e-mails, phone calls and time spent watching and occasionally working with these players, he has led by dint of gentle persuasion.
But he’s also no wallflower. He has publicly criticized Roddick and Blake for various tennis-related matters. He held off on bringing the Bryans on-board until he felt they were a truly dominant team. And in one of my favorite off-court moments of the tie, he gave a fumbling reporter a hawk-like look that was just forceful enough to get the message across without telling the gentleman to jump in the lake. Here’s the interaction:
Q. Patrick, I don't know if you're aware of what the Russian coach just said 15 minutes ago, that he came here with a strategy. If James probably would have lost yesterday he would have put in for the doubles the same team like Tursunov and Youzhny and saved Davydenko and Andreev for tomorrow. How would you feel if that would happen? How would you feel today if you know the score was 2‑1 for the U.S. and have to face two fresh players for tomorrow's matches?
CAPTAIN McENROE: I think it's 3‑0. I think it's over. It's over.
So wave your flag for USA. But most of all, think less of America’s 300 million citizens and more about Patrick, Andy, James, Bob and Mike.