The U.S. will face Chile in the first round of Davis Cup World Group play without the services of the longest-serving captain in American tennis history, Patrick McEnroe. He yielded his role to Jim Courier after the U.S. survived the relegation round last fall, but it isn't as if Courier is hell-bent on erasing all vestiges of the decade-long McEnroe era.
As Courier told me a few weeks ago: "The energy of this core group of Davis Cup players is one of Pat's great achievements. He accomplished a shift of the entire Davis Cup vibe. All the American players were ready and eager to play Davis Cup during his tenure; it became a priority for them. And that was a tribute to the way Pat handled the captain's role."
Indeed. Courier is hoping to build on the tradition McEnroe established, and in that quest he has the best of all allies -- Andy Roddick. For if McEnroe gets credit for making Davis Cup a player-friendly proposition for young Americans, Roddick will be remembered as the player whose leadership and competitive ability inspired everyone around him. Roddick made the U.S. squad his team, and his love of Davis Cup proved infectious. An individual can have that degree of influence when a team consists of just four players from a pool of maybe half a dozen.
It's funny, but almost a year ago to the day, it looked as if the U.S. team was embarking on what optimists hoped would be a prosperous new era with John Isner and Sam Querrey playing the roles abandoned by Roddick (who recused himself from Davis Cup duty for 2010) and James Blake, who was busy trying to keep his singles career going.
But while Blake is still preoccupied with surviving on the ATP Tour, Roddick has returned to the Davis Cup fold. And the ever-reliable Bryan twins, Mike and Bob, are back in the yoke, as well. Suddenly, it appears that this is less of a new-look team than a group of veterans plus one -- that one being Isner.
Querrey has had a boatload of problems in 2011, ranging from a disastrous racket-stringing experiment that contributed to his first-round loss to Lukasz Kubot in the Australian Open to the shoulder problems that sidelined him for this tie. Querrey has won all of three matches this year, and did nothing at Memphis or Delray Beach, tournaments at which he was expected to shine. (He won Memphis last year, beating his pal Isner in the final.)
That's discouraging for U.S. fans, but perhaps there's a bright side here. A Davis Cup team is small enough to function best when it has one leader among the players. And Querrey's struggles will allow Roddick to mentor Isner and position him as his heir. And this week in Chile also will allow Courier to further develop his relationship with Isner, preparing the way for the inevitable transition when Roddick decides to call it quits.
The U.S. should have little trouble with Chile, what with Fernando Gonzalez still on the mend from hip surgery and unavailable to represent the home team (no other Chilean is within shouting distance of the ATP top 100). It's an excellent opportunity for a new captain to give the ball to a new go-to guy, even if Andy Roddick, with his outstanding 31-11 Davis Cup singles record (he's second only to John McEnroe in the career win column), is a very tough act to follow.