Ginepri learns valuable lesson at Davis Cup

UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- At 22, Jurgen Melzer is only one year older than Robby Ginepri, but his experience in navigating the cruel waters of international tennis is vastly greater.

While Ginepri -- America's No. 2 Davis Cup singles player after Andy Roddick -- was playing in his first Davis Cup match on Friday afternoon at the Mohegan Sun, Melzer was wearing the red and white of Austria for the 15th time. The fact that Ginepri was ranked No. 25 on the ATP circuit and Melzer is a rather pedestrian No. 76 seemed of little consequence when Ginepri wandered into the woods and dropped the first two sets.

Ginepri had played only one other five-set match in his brief career -- losing to Arnaud Clement 10-8 in the final frame at last year's Wimbledon -- so he was clearly in uncharted territory.

"Have you ever come back from two sets down?" U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe asked Ginepri on the changeover bench.

"No," Ginepri answered

"Well," McEnroe told him, "today is going to be the day."

Sure enough, Ginepri rallied to defeat Melzer going away, 6-7 (6), 4-6, 6-4, 6-4, 6-2. In more than a century of play, he became the first U.S. Davis Cup rookie to rally from two sets down.

And so, after giving the United States the expected 1-0 lead, Ginepri was able to sit back and enjoy the day's second match between Roddick and one-time doubles partner Stefan Koubek.

"Having Pat there by me for the first time, giving me pointers here and there, all the changeovers, meant a lot, kept me in the match," Ginepri said. "I don't know if I could have done it without him.'"

What did he say?

"Stay relaxed," Ginepri said. "He's not going to keep it up. He was very positive throughout the whole match, which meant a lot."

The only previous match between Ginepri and Melzer was the Newport final last summer, when Ginepri won his first ATP title with a 6-4, 6-7 (3), 6-1 victory against Melzer, a clever left-hander.

Before the match, both players said they anticipated that Melzer would serve better and Ginepri would return better. So, naturally, Ginepri served the lights out to open the match. He won 12 of the first 13 points, serving four aces and running out to a popular 3-0 lead. Then things began to deteriorate.

Melzer, employing a big serve and a nifty net game, prevailed in the first set tiebreaker when Ginepri double-faulted at 6-all and Melzer stroked a backhand volley winner. With Melzer working hard to get into net and Ginepri holding fast to the baseline, Melzer was effectively finishing points.

Ginepri saved a set point at 4-5 in the second set but jerked a backhand wide, and fell into a devastatingly deep two-set hole.

He had been extremely nervous before the match and after warming up had retreated to the players' lounge to watch "Elf," the Will Ferrell vehicle.

"That made me laugh a little bit," Ginepri said. "Got my mind off the match."

By the third set, Ginepri's mind and heart were back in it. Slowly, the equilibrium shifted. More confident, Ginepri's forehand began to keep Melzer pinned to the baseline. His first serve started to find the mark. He won the third and fourth sets, then ran away in the fifth. The last stroke was a 118 mph ace down the middle -- on a second serve -- that brought a significant crowd to its feet.

Afterward, Melzer placed the turning point at the first game of the fifth set.

"I choked," he said with matter-of-fact fatalism. "Up 40-love, I served a double-fault and missed an easy volley. He played two good points at deuce, but if I hold my serve, who knows what happens?"

In the end, it was Ginepri that happened.

"Playing for the country for the first time, you know, there's no other experience out there that teaches you how to deal with that," Ginepri said. "It's a whole different aspect of my tennis career, and I love the atmosphere out there."

McEnroe has gradually drawn Ginepri into the Davis Cup vortex. Ginepri served as a practice partner in preparation for matches with India and Spain in 2001 and 2002. He was named to the team that lost at Croatia in the 2003 first round, but did not play. When he reached the fourth round of the Australian Open a few weeks ago, Ginepri was the choice to join Roddick here -- ahead of Mardy Fish, James Blake and Taylor Dent.

He is the youngest of the group and his ranking has soared in the last five years -- from No. 1247 in 2000 to No. 207 in 2001 to No. 106 in 2002 to No. 30 in 2003 to the present No. 25. That, market analysts, would seem to be a trend.

"There's more pressure because normally I am just playing for myself and my coach," he said. "But playing for the whole country and your teammates looking over there, there's not many chances that you get to play in big situations like this. It is tough to capitalize on them."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.