U.S. to work its magic on the road
And I can't wait to get on the road again.
On the road again -
Like a band of gypsies we go down the highway
We're the best of friends.
Insisting that the world keep turning our way
-- Willie Nelson
ROQUEBRUNE CAP MARTIN, France -- Obviously, country singer Willie Nelson's song "On The Road Again" was related to music, but the lyrics work well in representing the lives of professional tennis players.
And when it comes to the U.S. Davis Cup team, the song title is particularly appropriate as the Americans are playing the sixth away tie in their last seven Davis Cup outings. While the Americans, as every country, would prefer to host a tie, they certainly can't complain about the seductive setting on the Mediterranean Sea for this 16th Davis Cup meeting between the U.S. and France.
The draw ceremony held at the Monte Carlo Beach Club -- the next-door neighbor to the Monte Carlo Country Club where the tennis will take place -- revealed the lineup for the weekend. Top Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga opens against Ryan Harrison, followed by Gilles Simon taking on John Isner in Friday's matches. Bob Ryan and Mike Bryan will face Julien Benneteau and Michael Llodra in Saturday's doubles match, and Tsonga and Isner play first on Sunday with Simon and Harrison closing out the weekend.
Both teams lost key players heading into the weekend. For the U.S., Mardy Fish was too ill to make the trip while France's Gael Monfils pulled his left groin during practice on Sunday. The French replaced Monfils with former top-10 player Simon, who holds a 3-5 record in singles in six Davis Cup ties. The Americans replaced Fish with the 66th-ranked Harrison, a feisty teen who will play his first Davis Cup matches this weekend.
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In looking ahead to this tempting tie there are a few points worth taking into consideration.
1. Ryan Harrison Holding Court
Virtually untested in Davis Cup action, the 19-year-old's experience has been as a practice partner, a non-playing member of the 2010 semifinal squad against Colombia, and in winning the inconsequential fourth match against Michael Lammer in the American's stunning 5-0 victory over Switzerland in the first round.
Harrison, the 137th American man to represent the U.S. in Davis Cup play, has long been touted as a future talent. He definitely has the right tools to become a feared player and his ability to analyze matches is well beyond his years and experience. Composed and comfortable, Harrison sounded self-assured about his position in this tie.
"I think either way, playing first or second, it's the same for both players and we'll both be prepared either way," Harrison said at the draw. "We're very prepared. We have a great team, a great coach and captain. I think we're as prepared as we can be. We're all confident in ourselves and each other."
The flip side to the Harrison story is he has yet to put it together on a regular basis. He's challenged a number of top players, but mostly has eventually fallen short of winning the match. And he'll show some finesse one week but tend not to back it up the next.
Guy Forget, France's Davis Cup captain, is banking on that being in his team's favor.
"You don't get to the top by luck, you have to prove day after day that you can play at that level," Forget said. "Now Ryan, maybe, will be in the next few months or few years top 10 as well, but he hasn't got that consistency yet. But if he plays his best tennis in one match and with a guy like Jim (Courier, the U.S. captain) in the chair and playing for his country, Jo is right that he has to be really focused to show Ryan what kind of player he is. Their match is one of the points I'm counting on."
2. Doubles Dealings
In Davis Cup there's no denying that Saturday's doubles match can be a double-edged sword. It can lift a team out of a hole, put a team over the winning edge, or sink a squad.
Until the Bryan brothers joined the U.S. Davis Cup efforts in 2003, the Americans had gone a long time without a dedicated doubles pairing. They often put together makeshift singles players and the outcome was hard to predict.
The Bryans fought for their involvement in Davis Cup and have earned accolades for their impressive 18-2 record in the prestigious competition. When a team has the top doubles duo in its corner it can anticipate reliability and isn't often disappointed.
"It's a luxury to have Bob and Mike," said Courier. "It was a luxury I never had when I was a playing member of the Davis Cup team. We tended to scrambled singles players together, and we didn't do very well, by and large. Their record is extremely strong. I have the utmost confidence in them. As a captain, having them on your side, it feels like you're almost cheating, so it's great to have them onboard."
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But there could be a glitch this weekend. The French are facing the Bryans with a formative team and Llodra has proven to be a thorn in the brothers' side, including a few big occasions. Llodra teamed with Fabrice Santoro to beat the Bryans for the 2004 Australian Open title and teamed with Arnaud Clement to beat the Bryans for the 2007 Wimbledon title.
And as if that doesn't provide enough bad memories, the last of the two times the Bryans lost a Davis Cup doubles point was to Clement and Llodra in the 2008 quarterfinal that the U.S. ended up winning 4-1 in Winston-Salem, N.C.
"Llodra has been one of the biggest rivals over the last 14 years we've been playing," Bob Bryan said. "(We've) played him in big matches all over the world. This is another big one. We're expecting another tough match."
3. Historical Background
The U.S. arrives at this Davis Cup quarterfinal tie with a slim 8-7 winning edge over France in the team competition. Both teams are surely aware that in 11 of those 15 meetings the team that went off court the winners went on to win the Davis Cup that year. Possibly a good omen for this weekend's winner?
The U.S. is the winningest nation in Davis Cup history, having been named the champions 32 times in 97 years played. The U.S. won the first-ever Davis Cup over Great Britain in 1900. The last time the U.S. won the Davis Cup was 2007.
The French have been Davis Cup champions on nine occasions, with their last victory coming in 2001. They started playing in the Davis Cup in 1904 and have played 92 years.
Davis Cup captains Courier and Forget are no strangers to each other. Back in their playing days, Courier amassed a 7-1 record over Forget. Their last match was a 1995 Davis Cup first-round encounter in which Courier won 6-1, 6-2, 6-2. Courier played on two Davis Cup final teams that captured the title: 1992 against Switzerland and 1995 against Russia. Forget played on the 1996 Davis Cup final winning team and also led the French to the Davis Cup championship as captain in 2001.