Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Bodo [Print without images]

Monday, February 4, 2013
Team USA going through growing pains


The New Orleans Superdome wasn't the only sporting venue to experience a major, lengthy power outage in the American south yesterday. It also happened at Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena in Florida.

Shortly after serving terror John Isner, the ATP No. 16, built a two-sets-to-one lead on Brazil's Thomaz Bellucci in a first-round World Group Davis Cup tie, things seemed to be rolling along. But an unexpected factor kicked in as No. 36 Bellucci doggedly hung in there and forced a fifth set: Isner's alarming tendency to fade in matches that go the five-set distance.

John Isner
John Isner needs to solve his puzzle in five-set matches.

This has become a troublesome theme for Isner and his backers over the past few Grand Slam events (Isner was 5-9 in career five-set encounters before this tie). He admitted as much after he folded yet again, losing to Bellucci 6-2, 4-6, 7-6 (7), 4-6, 3-6. Bellucci's comeback sent the tie to a decisive fifth rubber.

"Just got to break through in a big moment, whether it's a Davis Cup match, whether it's a Grand Slam," Isner told the media aferward. "It's something I haven't done. It feels like it's a huge gorilla on my back or something … It's wearing on me a bit, to be honest, mentally. It's very disappointing. It's something I have to improve."

But with the U.S. poised at the brink of catastrophe, Sam Querrey (aka Mr. Career Interrupted) finally came through with a four-set win over Thiago Alves. Granted, Alves is ranked No. 141, and he lost the only two previous Davis Cup matches he had played before this week -- including a failure against Croatia's Roko Karanusic, who's ranked No. 1,679.

Never mind that No. 20 Querrey lost the first set to Alves, and was just a few points from having to play five sets. By that point, winning pretty was the farthest thing from the mind of Team USA captain Jim Courier. Ugly would do just fine, thank you very much.

Eventually, Querrey and the USA did win, even if some might understandably characterize the tie as a disaster. I don't see it that way. Remember, Isner and Querrey were poised to take over the team from Andy Roddick, James Blake, and Mardy Fish way back in 2011, when the American youngsters first served as the two U.S. singles players with no adult supervision.

A number of things, including renewed interest by Roddick and a series of injuries to Querrey, put that conspicuous passing of the torch on hold. Now it's a reality, and one of the things this new American team really needed to do was bond, and create winning chemistry. Adversity can tear teams apart when it comes to those elements, but I think it helped in this case because the team survived.

After the tie, Courier remarked: "Sometimes obstacles become opportunities, and that's what this was today for Sam. John [Isner], we thought he was going to get through his match. We thought Bob Bryan and Mike Bryan were going to get through their match [20-2 in Davis Cup doubles before Saturday, the Bryans blew their chance to clinch the tie 3-0]. It came down to Sam, and he stepped up when we needed him to. That's what these teams are all about, catching each other when we fall down, helping each other over the line."

You could say that Courier is trying to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, but I think he was being honest -- and perceptive. Isner's growing habit of losing five-set clashes and his inability to step up in those critical fourth-rubber battles between the No. 1 players of each nation is certainly a problem that could come back to haunt the U.S. (Isner is now 1-3 in that slot). But Isner and Querrey are a solid one-two punch -- and the Bryans remain the gold standard in doubles.

If this team jells it's a legitimate contender in this year's tournament. For that reason, the trials of the weekend might produce more benefit than the squad might have gained by rolling untested to a 3-0 win. The chemistry seems to be there. As Querrey said after he clinched: "It's always exciting to win a fifth and deciding match anywhere. I was thrilled I could help the guys out. It's a team thing. We're all moving on to the next round."

It's like the popular song says, "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger." And with Novak Djokovic and Serbia lurking on the horizon, the USA will need all the strength it can gather.