The U.S. hasn’t won the Davis Cup in 11 years, a stunning development in U.S. men’s tennis, until you consider that stars such as Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi felt they had already paid their dues to the international competition during the final years of their careers.
Enter 2006, where Andy Roddick’s career has experienced a resurgence due to part-time coach Jimmy Connors, and James Blake is a Top 10 player for the first time in his career. Throw in the veritably-unbeatable Bryan brothers, and you’d think the Davis Cup would be a lock.
Adding to the U.S. advantage is a sense of “team” that you don’t usually see outside of the Australian or French players, with the American Davis Cup squads historically being a coming-together of individuals who tolerated each other’s differences (see: Sampras, Agassi) or outright hated each other (Connors, John McEnroe).
“I don’t think it hurts there’s a history with all the guys on the team,” said Roddick in a press conference at Moscow where the Americans are set to face the Russians on clay this weekend. “I’ve known Bob and Mike [Bryan] since I was eight. I probably knew James [Blake] least when I got on tour, but we’ve become good friends as well. We have the same interests. We all kind of are on the same page.”
Blake says the fact they all tried their hands at pro tennis at the same time made for some early bonding experiences.
“We grew up playing Challengers together,” Blake said. “I started around the same time Andy was starting, same time the Bryans were still playing singles. I played Mike in one of my first Futures in Waco, Texas, I believe. You don’t have press conferences in Waco. You don’t have huge prize money checks. You don’t have great places to go to dinner. You get to know people when you’re on the Futures and Challenger tours. So we all got to know each other that way. At that point you’re not fighting for Davis Cup positions. You’re not fighting for Grand Slams. You’re fighting for an extra $500 and maybe get the bump up to first-class on your next flight or something. You’re actually becoming friends with these people and you’re actually cheering for them. You’re even staying in the same room as some of them. We built that bond. For me, it seemed like, okay, this bond isn’t going to change with money, with titles, anything like that. It’s not going to change the fact that we’re friends. We became friends first.”
The Bryans, who recently moved to the same Tampa, Florida area as Blake and fellow American Mardy Fish, say the friendships extend off the courts and tournament sites.
“It’s great team spirit,” says Bob Bryan. “We’re always laughing and joking together. We’re all truly very supportive of each other and there’s no competitiveness between us. We go out together. And we spend a lot of time at each other’s houses. We’ve spent a few weeks at Andy’s house in Texas, and Mike and I just bought a house in Tampa near James and Mardy to be closer to them and so we can all practice together.”
U.S. captain Patrick McEnroe, who took over the leadership role after his brother John’s short reign, realizes his good fortune at assuming the captaincy at a time when Roddick, Blake, Fish, Robby Ginepri and the Bryans were just beginning to make their marks.
“I did just luck out,” McEnroe said. “The guys are great. They genuinely look forward to the Davis Cup weeks. Andy is definitely the jokester; he likes to pull my pants down so I have to make sure I tie my string real tight on my sweat pants. James is the Harvard guy, so likes to be the smart one — he reminds Andy that he barely graduated from high school. And the Bryans, they’re the Bryans, they’re the twins. We call them one and the same, the two of them together.”
The camaraderie will do them well as they sit on the sidelines shouting for Roddick and Blake in singles, and the Bryans in doubles against the formidable claycourt tandem of Marat Safin and Nikolay Davydenko, and Mikhail Youzhny who beat the Bryans in doubles at the US Open.
“We went about the match every wrong way we could play it,” Bob Bryan said after the US Open loss. “We’re going to go into Moscow with a lot of anger and we have a lot of things we want to do different…it’s good we saw it now and we weren’t surprised on match day.”
Blake hopes the emotion, the hot streaks he and Roddick are on, and the Bryans solid Davis Cup record can combine for what would be an upset on their worst surface — the slow, extra-soft (as the Russians have gone out of their way to make it) European red clay.
“I know they’ll be fired up in Moscow,” he said. “There’s a great sense of security for us that we feel like we’re already up 1-0 with the Bryans. It’s a matter of me and Andy trying to figure out a way to get two wins on clay. I have a feeling we can do it, but I’m sure they’re going in confident.”
Richard Vach, Tennis-X.com senior writer, can currently be seen on The Tennis Channel’s “Tennis Insiders: Super Insiders” episodes, and was recently awarded “Best Hard News” story for 2005 by the United States Tennis Writers Association.
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