Friday, September 19, 2008
U.S. finds no satisfaction in a moral victory
By Bonnie D. Ford ESPN.com
Andy Roddick fought valiantly versus David Ferrer but dropped his first Davis Cup match since 2006.
MADRID -- Andy Roddick hadn't lost a Davis Cup match in two full years, and he clearly didn't like the change of pace, or seeing his team backed up to the edge of elimination on the first day of the long weekend.
Two down in a best-of-five series is numerology that speaks for itself, but a reporter underscored it by reminding Roddick that the U.S. is 1-31 in that situation over the last century-plus.
"You mean we have a chance?'' Roddick inquired with mock sincerity after Spain's tenacious David Ferrer outlasted him in a see-saw five-setter, 7-6 (5), 2-6, 1-6, 6-4, 8-6. Davis Cup rookie Sam Querrey played with remarkable composure and was up a set and a break before world No. 1 Rafael Nadal took command of the match to win 6-7 (5), 6-4, 6-3, 6-4.
Neither Querrey nor Roddick capitulated easily despite the hostile environment inside one of Spain's most famous bullrings, and it may be time to tone down the ritual drumbeat of criticism about the American men's performance on clay. The 20-year-old Querrey reconfirmed that he is to be respected on the surface after a good showing last spring in Europe, and Roddick had won four of his five matches on clay this season before a series of injuries limited his playing time.
But the defending champions are beyond taking satisfaction in moral victories. Unless the patchwork doubles team of Mardy Fish and Mike Bryan can upend experienced duo Feliciano Lopez and Fernando Verdasco on Saturday, the U.S. players will relinquish the trophy that took 12 years to regain.
The last time the Americans were swept on the first day, in the 2006 semifinals in Moscow, Bryan and his brother Bob stopped the bleeding by winning the doubles point on the middle Saturday. Roddick then lost one of the most gut-wrenching matches of his career to Russia's Dmitry Tursunov, a marathon that ended with a 17-15 fifth set.
With Bob Bryan home in Florida trying to rehab a shoulder injury, his twin will pair with Fish to try to pull off the upset. If the atmosphere is anything like it was Friday, they'll need a positive attitude to try to exploit the 2,188-foot altitude that could pump some much-needed helium into their serves and groundstrokes.
La Plaza de Toros de las Ventas never quite filled up with the anticipated sellout crowd, but the flag-waving, chanting partisans, who outnumbered U.S. fans approximately 100 to 1, made themselves known. The festivities were mostly just that -- festive -- and before one game in the fifth set, Roddick lifted his arms to join in an impromptu wave circling the stands.
But the fans grew more ardent in their heckling as the Roddick-Ferrer match careened to its conclusion, calling out frequently between Roddick's serves and during rallies.
After Roddick swatted a backhand long on match point and shook hands with Ferrer, Spanish captain Emilio Sanchez and chair umpire Carlos Ramos, he vented his displeasure with the crowd control situation over his shoulder as he walked off the court. Roddick later apologized to Ramos, according to team spokesman Tim Curry, and would not comment about his sentiments afterwards.
But Roddick clearly reserved the brunt of his disappointment for himself. "Probably the worst set I played was the first,'' said the 26-year-old team leader, who had won nine straight matches in Davis Cup competition. He overpowered Ferrer in the second and third sets, when Roddick fired nine of his 23 aces and hit 76 percent of his first serves.
But just when Ferrer seemed low on oxygen, Roddick played a loose game to begin the fourth set. Ferrer broke him and was off and running -- and passing Roddick at the net. "After that, he definitely raised his level,'' Roddick said. The two men traded breaks in the fifth set, but Ferrer later ran off three service games without yielding a point, and gained his final advantage amid increasing crowd interference when Roddick cracked a volley wide on break point.
U.S. captain Patrick McEnroe refused to blame the conditions for the outcome. "At the end of Andy's match, people were calling out, but that happens,'' said a philosophical McEnroe, who called the spectators' behavior "pretty fair.'' "It's a little frustrating, but it's to be expected.''
Intrepid Sam Querrey smacked 17 aces versus world No. 1 Rafael Nadal but it wasn't enough.
Querrey was making his Davis Cup debut, while Nadal had only lost one match on clay all year -- a second-round shocker to Juan Carlos Ferrero in Rome. Yet Nadal was the one who seemed uneasy during the early going. Querrey, who said he was more nervous when he played Nadal before a full house at Arthur Ashe Stadium in the U.S. Open round of 16 a couple of weeks ago, was the chief reason for that.
The Californian served exceptionally well, out-acing Nadal by a whopping 17 to 1 and hitting topspin forehands with confidence. Conversely, the shoulder-high bouncers that twist many of Nadal's opponents into pretzels often arrive right in Querrey's strike zone. "It's still unbelievably heavy, but it's not as tough for me as for a lot of guys,'' Querrey said.
Neither man faced a break point in the first set, but Querrey quickly earned a mini-break in the tiebreaker with a volley winner on the third point and built a 4-1 lead. Nadal broke back to get to 5-4, but then stunningly double-faulted to give Querrey set point, which the American converted on his second try.
When Nadal floated a shot long to lose his first service game of the second set, it looked as if a stunner might be in the making. "I got here a little short on energy,'' he admitted afterwards of the toll his sensational season has taken.
However, Nadal found his footing and began probing Querrey's backhand, breaking back to even things at 2-all. Still, the set remained tight until Querrey, serving at 4-5, made perhaps his most unfortunate choice of the match at deuce as he tried to volley a short ball on the fly and lashed it into the net instead. He stroked a backhand long on break point and Nadal had a set and all the momentum he needed.
"He's one of those guys who doesn't go away,'' Querrey said of Nadal. "When you win the first set against him, you have to have the mindset that you're starting the match from the beginning again.''
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.