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|How will a U.S. Davis Cup team in transition fare against Roger Federer and the Swiss?|
The U.S. Davis Cup team had its Alamo moment in July, although it took place down the trail a bit from San Antonio in Austin, Texas. The squad was beaten decisively by a Spanish team playing on our surface of choice and without the services of their best player, Rafael Nadal.
We won just one of the five matches, the doubles (thanks to the always reliable Bryan brothers).
The team that sallied forth today in Fribourg, Switzerland, has an entirely different look. For just the second time in many years, neither veteran Andy Roddick nor the Bryan brothers are on the team. Roddick is still down with injury and only Mike Bryan made this road trip; brother Bob is back at home in California, learning how to change diapers for his newborn daughter, Micaela.
The U.S. is a team in transition. In football, they might call this a "rebuilding" year, although it's a little disconcerting that we're rebuilding a rebuild, transitioning from a transition.
Almost two years ago in Belgrade, Serbia, then-captain Patrick McEnroe implicitly called on the twin towers (ATP newcomers and buddies John Isner and Sam Querrey) to step up and take over the team from Roddick and that other blooded singles veteran, James Blake.
That didn't work out so well. Isner has made progress, if not quite as quickly as some hoped. Querrey ran afoul of injury and confidence problems, but the U.S. was lucky that at roughly the same time, Mardy Fish was transforming himself from a lazy underachiever into a dedicated contender.
Fish was always in the mix in Davis Cup, but he was usually elbowed out of the way by the more successful and ambitious Roddick or Blake. That seemed fine with Mardy; he just ordered pizza and enjoyed the show.
At 30, Fish is the same age as Roddick, but he has far fewer miles on his odometer and is playing like he hears the clock of career ticking. He's riding a career-high ranking of No. 8 and came up as nothing less than a hero in the U.S.'s critically important playoff-round tie on red clay at altitude in Bogota, Colombia, in September 2010; Fish won two singles and paired with Isner to win the doubles.
This is Jim Courier's third tie as the U.S. captain, and even he must marvel at how unpredictable the U.S. players have been. He still has a 30-year-old in the top singles slot, but with Bob Bryan MIA, Courier is denied the sure thing in doubles. Ryan Harrison, playing just his second Davis Cup tie, is penciled in to partner with Mike Bryan.
Give this lack of clarity and anticipating Harrison's continued development as a singles player, it may not be such a bad idea to get away from complete dependence on the Bryans, who take up two places on the four-man squad. Having one doubles expert and three singles players -- all of whom are solid to excellent in doubles -- gives the captain valuable options for both the doubles and singles of the final day.
On the face of it, facing a Swiss team led by Roger Federer on slow, red, indoor clay may sound like an impossible mission, but keep these two things in mind: The two U.S. singles players are a combined 4-1 against Stanislas Wawrinka, and one of those wins, by Isner, was on clay.
Also, Federer is 30 years old and slated to play three matches in this tie. If I'm Courier, I'd be telling Isner and the doubles team, "I don't care if you have to lock your jaws on Roger's ankles, keep him on that court for four, four-and-a-half hours."
Easier said than done, even for a bulldog like Isner or a little pit bull like Harrison.