Once again, a Davis Cup truism kicked in and played an outsized role in determining the outcome of a tie -- in this case, the clash of the U.S. and Serbia in Boise, Idaho, this weekend. The motto? Beware the doubles.
Going into the tie, the skinny was that with No. 1-ranked Novak Djokovic on board for Serbia, the U.S. needed to win both singles matches against Serbia's No. 2, Viktor Troicki. The apparent (and only rational) game plan basically rested on a Day 1 split, followed by a doubles win by the ultra-reliable Bryan brothers that would leave the home team up 2-1 going into the final two matches.
With that lead, Djokovic could best Sam Querrey in the fourth rubber and the Americans would still be looking good going into that fifth and decisive rubber between John Isner and Troicki. Querrey was obliged to play No. 1 (because he's ranked higher than Isner), but Isner is the big dog on the squad, the most experienced and dangerous player on the U.S. team.
The assignment was doable: Querrey is ranked No. 20 and Isner No. 23. Troicki is No. 44, and he'd be playing away from home, on an indoor hard court tailor-made to give the U.S. the best chance of winning.
Nobody counted on Bob and Mike Bryan losing -- not when Ilija Bozoljac, half of Serbia's doubles team, was ranked No. 335 in singles and No. 1,150 in doubles. That zero in there isn't a typo. And it isn't like Bozoljac is a rising young star; he'll be 28 in August. Granted, his partner, Nenad Zimonjic, was a doubles expert and multiple Grand Slam champion. But the Bryans are, well, the Bryans, winners of more tournaments, including Grand Slam events, than any team in the history of the sport.
Interestingly, Troicki and Zimonjic won the doubles when Serbia played France in the 2010 final (after which Troicki emerged as the overall hero when he subbed for Janko Tipsarevic and clinched the win in the decisive fifth singles rubber). But Serbian captain Bogdan Obradovic elected not to play him in Boise. Either he was saving Troicki for a potential fifth-rubber singles or Obradovic knew something about Bozoljac that we -- and the Bryans -- didn't.
Bozoljac and Zimonjic were 4-2 going into this tie, and that included a win over Great Britain's Andy Murray and Greg Rusedski. It helps explain how and why the U.S. game plan went up in smoke on doubles day. Bozoljac and Zimonjic weathered everything the American threw at them and ultimately won the 4-hour, 23-minute epic, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (1), 5-7, 4-6, 15-13. The Serbs served up 36 aces to just 12 by the Bryans, and they hammered out a whopping 125 winners (to 80 by the Bryans).
The Bryans had been 20-3 coming into the tie, just one of those matches a five-setter. This was the first time the Bryans lost two matches in a row, but they were gracious in defeat. "We have to tip our hats to those guys," Bob Bryan said. "Obviously, I thought they played well all day, 36 aces and they didn't give us much opportunity, especially in the fifth."
Obradovic said after Djokovic clinched the tie with a fourth-rubber win over Querrey: "Nenad yesterday played really good doubles match with Ilija Bozoljac, which was the player that almost no one here knows nothing about him."
There are a few things worth remembering about the doubles rubber, which is always the third match of a tie and the only one played on Saturday:
1. It is almost by definition a potential momentum shifter.
2. Seven of the past 10 Davis Cup champions won the doubles in the final round.
3. If you have an outstanding doubles team, you can win a tie even if you concede the two singles matches to the other team's star player.
4. If you can't count on your doubles team, you'll need at least one win out of your weaker player -- and two out of your No. 1.
5. Almost all the dynastic Davis Cup teams (think the U.S. teams that featured Stan Smith and Bob Lutz, or John McEnroe and Peter Fleming) have been anchored by a great doubles team.
The truth is that the road to the Davis Cup title runs right through the doubles alley.