September 17, 2008

Defending Their Title

If you read last week's post you know that I question the validity of team tennis, at least on a professional level. I suppose Davis Cup is, in theory, no different, but like any real fan I reserve the right to be somewhat hypocritical in my opinions.

There's something fraternal about Davis Cup -- a feeling that the teammates really are rooting for each other, that individual victories don't matter unless the whole group wins. There's a spirit of camaraderie that you don't often see in tennis.

I actually enjoy these matches.

It doesn't hurt, of course, that the U.S. won its record 32nd title last year, which gives me something to cheer for.

This weekend the Americans fly to Madrid in their quest to defend their championship and face a formidable Spanish team. Like the Russians protecting their Fed Cup title, the Americans come to the semifinals with a slightly debilitated team. My favorite James Blake bowed out of this week's match after an exhausting summer schedule and yesterday Bob Bryan, half of the #1 doubles team, withdrew due to a shoulder injury. Andy Roddick and Bob's twin Mike will be playing instead with twenty-year-old Sam Querrey and the man who recaptured my interest two weeks ago, Mardy Fish.

The Spanish, on the other hand, come with their guns a-blazin', literally -- world #1 Rafael Nadal, he of the monster biceps, leads the team comprised of a few other noteworthy names: David Ferrer, Fernando Verdasco and Feliciano Lopez.

I'm hoping the visiting team isn't too intimidated -- after all both Querry and Fish had their hugely successful U.S. Open runs ended at the hands of Nadal.

But the shake-up on the American team brings up a point that many tennis commentators have been harping on -- the future of men's tennis in the U.S.

After the glory days of Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi (and the real glory days of McEnroe and Connors), American men haven't really held onto the top spots. Roddick was ranked #1 for thirteen weeks in 2003-04 but has spent the majority of the last three years in the mid- to low-single digits. And my dear James, despite all his power and speed and resilience (not to mention his loyal fan base), has never won a major title.

Mardy had a great run in Flushing, of course, but still hasn't made it back into the top twenty. Robby Ginepri has had spotty success in recent years and both Taylor Dent and Justin Gimelstob have given up playing for commentating.

So the best hope in future U.S. Davis Cup titles lies in the likes of Querrey, who at #39 in the world is the highest ranked of the American "upstarts".

It's not a totally bleak picture. Querrey won in Las Vegas this year and made it to the semis in Indianapolis. He even beat former #1 Carlos Moya and took an impressive set from Nadal in New York.

But beyond him I feel our best hope lies in a few players who aren't quite in the top 100.

John Isner was my guy last year. At 6'9", the former University of Georgia star might ostensibly be better suited for a career in basketball, but in 2007 he was a menace on a different kind of hard court.

He had beaten Tim Henman and Tommy Haas en route to the finals in Washington and earned himself a wild card entry to the U.S. Open, where he made it to the third round. Earlier this year he cracked the top 100 for the first time in his career. He hasn't quite followed through during the summer season in '08, losing in the first round at all four Grand Slams, but I'm hopeful that with time we'll see more "W"'s in his book.

My other hopeful is nineteen year old Donald Young. The former Juniors champion both in New York and at Wimbledon steps onto the court with so much bling that I'm jealous, but that doesn't make him any less intimidating -- he took Blake to five sets in the first round of the U.S. Open this year and made my DVR cut out in the middle of the match since I didn't think it could possibly last as long as it did. He'll be a force, I imagine, in the coming years.

And what about Ryler DeHeart? He had to win three qualifying matches just for the chance to play Olivier Rochus at the U.S. Open. He didn't even have clean clothes for his night match against Nadal in the second round! Even though he lost in straight sets, you have to give him credit for not blanking out -- he even converted the one break point opportunity he had during the match!

It'll take a lot of work for these guys to make it to the big leagues, but they definitely can get there.

In the meantime, I'll keep rooting for my American boys this weekend. I know the road is rough, but you've all overcome worse! Good luck!

And to everyone else, as always, serve well and play hard!

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