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Monday, March 9, 2009
Masterful McEnroe the right guy

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Although the U.S. won this weekend's first-round Davis Cup tie against Switzerland on a home court in Birmingham, Ala., with seeming ease (credit Roger Federer with an assist), it was still a historic occasion. Three Team USA players, Bob and Mike Bryan (the U.S. doubles team) and Andy Roddick (the No. 1 singles stud), had landmark wins.

The Bryans became the first team American team to post 15 Davis Cup doubles wins, surpassing the team of John McEnroe and Peter Fleming. Roddick eclipsed Andre Agassi to move up to No. 2 on the all-time singles wins list; he now has 31, 10 behind McEnroe.

But the McEnroe we ought to be talking about here is John's younger brother, Patrick. He made some history of his own this weekend, when he became the longest-serving captain in U.S. Davis Cup history. And his leadership is one of the reasons we see some of these individual records teeter-tottering. In order to set records, guys have to play -- both literally and figuratively.

McEnroe has done a masterful job as a 21st-century Davis Cup captain. I'm sure he would be happy to have more than one final win on the résumé, but the fact that he doesn't -- yet has never had the quality of his captaincy questioned -- tells you a lot about the changing world of pro tennis as well as his attributes as a coach.

McEnroe has managed and inspired his nation's top players with great understanding and wisdom. This is no mean feat. As dedicated as the U.S. players may be to Davis Cup, I don't think they would have developed the absolute dedication and fierce loyalty (to each other, as well as the cause) if McEnroe didn't take such a realistic approach to his job. He's more of a coach than a politician, although politics is always in play. And he has helped create and nurture a basic esprit de corps that can be downright touching.

In that last accomplishment, McEnroe has succeeded where many predecessors have failed. And it's a consummate irony that the man he replaced in the captain's chair in 2001 was … John McEnroe. John had a brief, stormy tenure, distinguished by his "my way or the highway" attitude toward player participation. And though the likes of Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi presented unique challenges, putting the dissension down to that alone is selling McEnroe 2.0, and his core group of players, short.

In Patrick, the U.S. found itself with a leader who is shrewd and patient, diplomatic and realistic, tough but flexible. And he has been like that proverbial ideal referee: You know he's doing a great job when you don't even realize he's there. After Andy Roddick clinched the tie for the U.S., I asked him to comment on how Patrick has been able to mold and hold this team together, and he said:

"First of all, he's passionate about his job. He'll tell you what he thinks. But the most impressive thing about Patrick has been his ability to adjust over the course of eight or nine years. He's not the same captain he was when we first came on. We were all a little bit younger. Maybe we didn't know how to run our weeks of practice. He was probably a little bit more forthright in what he wanted from the team and everything.

"I think as we've gotten older, he's learned to trust us a little bit more and to back off. Bob and Mike know what they're going to do, their doubles drill. Patrick is there to facilitate it a little bit more. I think that's impressive from the standpoint of a coach, to really adjust to your players. I think he needs to maybe -- maybe that part of it doesn't get acknowledged."

Pat McEnroe might not have the sexiest coaching style (he doesn't shake the umpire's chair after a bad call, or play riverboat gambler with his lineup, a la the Russian master, Shamil Tarpischev). He hasn't had the resources to build a dynasty, a la Harry Hopman. He's just the right guy for the times and his players, and he has been a major force in a general Davis Cup revival, at home and abroad.