Monday, March 7, 2011
Jim Courier conquers Davis Cup challenge
By Peter Bodo
On paper, it was a yawner. The U.S. beat beat Chile 4-1 in a first-round Davis Cup World Group tie in Santiago. The Chileans didn't even have the use of their heavy cannon, as former Grand Slam finalist and top-10 performer Fernando Gonzalez is still on the mend following hip surgery.
But the on-the-ground reality was different. Jim Courier, who sat in the U.S. captain's chair for the first time in his life at this tie, can attest to that. Courier certainly wasn't rattling the change in his pockets, examining his fingernails or glancing at his wrist watch during the second match of the tie, featuring relative newcomer Long John Isner against Chile's No. 1, Paul Capdeville.
Isner, 6-foot-7 and ranked No. 32 in the world, won the first two sets over Capdeville, who's four inches shorter and more important was ranked 133 places lower. But the American gradually melted away in the heat of the moment like a tall wax candle. Patrick McEnroe, whom Courier succeeded as captain, knew what his pal and successor was going through on the U.S. bench. McEnroe, agonizing back at home in Manhattan, N.Y., was moved to tweet: "Wow. 4 sets no breaks. Welcome to Captaincy Jim. Let's get this 5th."
Nor was there much stretching, napping nor yawning when Andy Roddick dropped the first set to Capdeville in the fourth match Sunday and then found himself in the crap-shoot commonly called the tiebreaker. Had Roddick faltered there, the entire tie would have been on the shaky racket of Isner in a sudden-death fifth, decisive match.
But there's a reason Team USA members call Roddick "The Closer," even if it isn't the nickname he gave Sunday when he remarked to the press following the win, "I don't get a chance to clinch without Mike and Bob [Bryan] putting me in position 11 times." It was a reference to the outstanding doubles work done once again by the Bryan brothers, who put the USA up 2-1 with a win. "Just because they play on Saturday doesn't mean their point is worth any less."
It was gracious of Roddick to give the Bryans their due, but his 12-0 record finishing off opponents is remarkable, especially when it's considered that nearly half (five) of those clinching wins played out on another nation's home court. Roddick is a perfect role model for Isner, who clearly needs one.
Davis Cup is funny. Some great players and numerous ordinary ones simply never take to it, often because their early experience leaves them permanently gun shy. Davis Cup pressure is unique in number of ways, and so is the challenge of operating as a team member.
Isner, a graduate of the University of Georgia, loved playing on a team, so he has that part down pat. It's the other things, such as playing with "USA" instead of "Isner" on the scoreboard and playing on a surface he's not crazy about before a hostile crowd and against opponents who may be relatively unknown but understand how to push his buttons, that appear to give him trouble.
Isner is 0-3 in Davis Cup singles, but remember that every match he has played has been on clay, away. There's nothing to be ashamed about, losing to Novak Djokovic on clay in Serbia. And Isner has shined in doubles, winning both the matches he's played (partnered with Bob Bryan in Serbia and Mardy Fish in Colombia).
With Isner's pal and wingman, Sam Querrey, struggling, it looks like Long John might inherit the mantle of leadership from Roddick, 28. Isner couldn't learn at the feet of a finer master, but until he absorbs the lessons The Closer doles out Courier won't have to worry about some cameraman catching him asleep -- no matter where the U.S. plays.