Despite all the happy-happy concerning the U.S. Davis Cup squad advancing to the semifinals, there are some disconcerting signs that men’s tennis in the U.S. is in the self-fulfilling doledrums.
The U.S. hasn’t won a Davis Cup title since 1995 for a reason — the Americans can’t field two singles players who can compete at a high level on clay — and these days you’re more than likely to run into a Spain or Argentina in the later rounds, or in the American’s case, the Russians who are well acquainted with what’s the worst surface for Andy Roddick and James Blake.
Blake has shown he’s a whiz on hardcourts, and that’s about it. On clay he struggles, and on grass he went 0-2 over the Davis Cup weekend, losing to Fernando Gonzalez and Paul Capdeville. Paul Capdeville, look that one up in your ATP Player Guide. And when you can’t find him, check in the “Other Prominent Players” section in the back where the Challenger-level players are listed three to a page. Last year Blake lost first round at Wimbledon. The grass needs to get greener for James if he wants to be an all-surface threat and Top 10 mainstay.
There was a lot of joy to be had on the U.S. team when Roddick stepped up to clinch the tie over Chile on Sunday with a contentious, hard-fought win over Fernando Gonzalez — but isn’t that pretty much supposed to be a no-brainer? Despite his struggles over the last eight months, the two-time Wimbledon runner-up is widely accepted as the second-best player on grass behind Roger Federer.
Roddick has struggled with his confidence in 2005-06. Robby Ginepri’s confidence level is “suicide watch.” Mardy Fish is playing Challengers as he tries to pad his ranking after wrist surgeries. Blake’s confidence level has justifiably skyrocketed, and it will be interesting to see how he rebounds in Houston and at the tougher European claycourt stops.
The U.S. team could as a whole take a page from Federer’s playbook. During and after a Federer win, he gives you the indication that yes, this was supposed to happen, and it did. When a call doesn’t go his way he doesn’t turn red and have a complete meltdown and start screaming f-bombs as some poor lineswoman. When he takes the ball into the endzone, he doesn’t act surpised, he doesn’t do a wacky endzone dance or whip out a Sharpie — he acts like, ‘Yes, this is what is supposed to happen, this is where I’m supposed to be.’
Tennis is such a pressure cooker of expectation, and whether it’s Roddick dropping read-my-lips after read-my-lips f-bombs on ESPN, or Andy Murray delivering a shocking live “blue” stand-up performance with a chair umpire while going down in Davis Cup doubles flames, or Gonzalez looking like he is about to body slam a female linesperson, it reminds you why the “boring” artistry and demeanor of Federer has him standing in the winner’s circle time and time again.
Sure it’s not as exciting as the firework displays, but it says a lot while saying little.
Blake is 22-8 in 2006, and you’d hope this year he would tackle the European clay circuit and the three Masters Series events on dirt head-on rather than avoiding the grind as in years past. Same with Roddick or Ginepri (2-10 W-L this year), as even a small claycourt title such as Munich, Estoril or St. Poelten (which all still bring a slew of “B”-level dirtballers, which equal “A”-level opposition for the Americans) would be a giant confidence builder.
What’s the point? As in most blogs, by the time you’ve read this far, the point has been lost.
How about, when you’re the winningest Davis Cup nation in history and you’ve just beat a “B”-level nation on your home grasscourts featuring a former No. 1 and two Top 10 players, act like it was supposed to happen. Then take that confidence overseas onto the Euro red dirt, and take another page from Federer and play all three claycourt Masters Series events leading up to the French, and grind out some wins.
Last year Roddick played the MS-Rome and MS-Hamburg, beating former French Open champ Al Costa and stretching Nicolas Massu to three sets in a loss. But those were his two lone events on the Euro-clay before the French. Ginepri blew off all the Euro stops except for St. Poelten. Blake chose to stay in the U.S. and play Challengers.
The Davis Cup semifinal at Russia looms on an indoor claycourt, and in the coming months the U.S. players have a chance to send a message and embrace the European dirt — or “wait out” the clay season as in years past, and wait for Marat Safin and Nikolay Davydenko to lay down some dirt-style punishment in September.
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