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Steve Flink: American Davis Cup Destiny

2/13/2012 2:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

Ardent followers of American tennis were not optimistic when the U.S. Davis Cup contingent went to Switzerland last weekend for a 2012 opening round, World Group contest. They were well aware that Roger Federer might strike down the Americans almost all by himself, conceivably sweeping two singles victories along with a win in the doubles alongside Stan Wawrinka. They realized how arduous a task it would be to succeed indoors against a player of Federer’s immense stature. They knew that virtually everything would have to fall immaculately into place for the U.S. team to topple Switzerland.

Consider what transpired in the first three matches in the best of five series. Twice in the latter stages of the fifth set, Mardy Fish was serving to stay in the opening match against Wawrinka. John Isner was down a set against Federer. Fish and Mike Bryan trailed by a set against Federer and Wawrinka. And yet, despite all of the obstacles, the Americans captured all three contests and improbably sealed the verdict on the second day with an insurmountable 3-0 lead over the Swiss. Only a fool would have made such a prognostication. The nature of the triumph for the Americans was a reaffirmation that anything can happen in Davis Cup.

The Fish-Wawrinka encounter was pivotal. The U.S. simply could not afford to lose that battle, not with Federer stepping out on court next to face Isner, not with historical precedent stacked so decidedly against them. The Americans were a remarkable 180-17 after taking the opening match over the course of time, while they were a desultory 30-48 after losing the first match.

Fish fully understood how badly his team needed him to prevail. The American had won both of his previous meetings with the Swiss. But this was Davis Cup. This was in Switzerland. And the Swiss had put down an indoor clay court, knowing that Federer has enjoyed a multitude of successes on that surface including a 2009 French Open win, and realizing that Wawrinka—a former member of the world’s top ten—is first rate on clay. Moreover, the Swiss figured they would diminish the chances of the Americans by forcing Isner and Fish to compete on their least favorite surface.

But it was apparent from early on in the Fish-Wawrinka match that the red clay court indoors in Fribourg was uneven, producing an inordinate number of capricious bounces, disturbing the rhythm of the players. The irregularity of the clay did not seem to be any advantage at all to the Swiss players; in fact, it was to their detriment.

Fish thoroughly outclassed Wawrinka in the opening set. Both players were probing to expose a weakness on their opponent’s forehand side, but Fish was holding up decidedly better off that side. Meanwhile, his fluid two-handed backhand was operating more efficiently than Wawrinka’s stylish one-handed backhand. Moreover, Fish was serving with more authority than Wawrinka. Returning with vigor, covering the court swiftly, eager and energetic, Fish broke Wawrinka twice in the opening set, did not drop his own delivery, and took the set convincingly, 6-2.

Fish had given himself a cushion. But the 30-year-old American dropped his guard in the first game of the second set. He double faulted once, made three ground stroke unforced errors, and lost his serve needlessly at love. That was a dangerous transgression in a foreign land. Wawrinka surged to 3-1 in that second set, yet Fish made it back to 3-3. But Wawrinka played an inspired game to break again for 4-3. Soon he had the set 6-4, not to mention the momentum.

Wawrinka served exceedingly well all through the third set, while Fish played one damagingly bad game. At 30-40 in the opening game, the American netted a routine two-hander off a sliced backhand from Wawrinka, and that one false move cost him the set. Wawrinka won it 6-4, building a two sets to one lead, exploiting the passivity of the American. A deep psychological shift had taken place after the first set. Fish had been controlling the tempo of the contest, but gradually Wawrinka had found his range off the backhand, reducing his forehand errors considerably, settling into a comfortable mode.

It was up to Fish to reassert himself, raise his intensity, and show Wawrinka that this match was not over. The world No. 8 did just that. At 1-1 in the fourth set, Fish survived from 15-40 down, saving three break points in a critical game. When he held by lacing a flat forehand down the line with accelerated pace to induce an error from Wawrinka, Fish revealed his growing vigor, urging himself on by yelling, “Come On!” In the following game, he improved his returns significantly. At break point, Fish’s deep backhand crosscourt was too much for Wawrinka, who netted a backhand half volley under duress.

The chemistry of the match had been altered once more, this time to the benefit of Fish. Playing with growing conviction and tactical acuity, Fish secured the set 6-1, and came barreling into the fifth at full force. Fish was clearly the more versatile player, picking judicious times to get to the net, pressuring Wawrinka in many ways. He seemed to have control of his own destiny. Fish had a break point in the opening game of the fifth set, but did not convert. He had two more in the third game, but again Wawrinka escaped.

Fish, meanwhile, was holding with consummate ease. He took his serve at 15 for 1-1, and held at 15 again for 2-2. In the fifth game, the American broke through as Wawrinka drove a topspin backhand down the line long. Serving at 3-2, Fish was soaring, building extraordinary confidence, playing his finest tennis. He held easily, serving an ace for 40-15, then releasing a crackling forehand inside-out winner. The American was ahead 4-2. He had won 10 of the last 13 games. Victory seemed within his grasp.

In the seventh game, Fish had a break point. He went for a complicated second serve return off the backhand, going down the line. But Wawrinka’s second delivery had too much depth and kick on it. The American missed flagrantly. Jarred by squandering his chance for a second service break and an opportunity to serve out the match in comfort, Fish missed twice more off the backhand. An apprehensive Wawrinka held on tenuously for 3-4. Fish had been shaken out of his zone, and was back in a nerve-wracking skirmish.

But he fought on admirably. Three straight mistakes off the forehand put Fish behind 0-40 in the eighth game, but he battled ferociously through four deuces, saving five break points, advancing to 5-3, going in behind his kick serve to the backhand, eliciting a topspin backhand return wide down the line from the Swiss. Fish served for the match in the tenth game of the gripping fifth set. He had a match point, only to be caught dead in his tracks by a brilliant running forehand crosscourt winner from Wawrinka. In that long and stressful game, Fish put eight of ten first serves in play, but was too conservative off the ground. Wawrinka was audacious with his back to the wall. He broke back for 5-5.

From that juncture, Wawrinka was reinvigorated. Fish served at 5-6, four points away from a bruising defeat. He commenced that game magnificently, releasing a backhand down the line for an outright winner. He then tracked down a drop shot from the Swiss and got surprising pace on a low ball, sending his forehand deep crosscourt for a borderline winner. At 40-15, he aced Wawrinka. But the Swiss answered loudly, serving two aces and holding at 15 for 7-6. Serving to stay in the match a second time, Fish played a terrific game, holding at 15 for 7-7.

Wawrinka drifted to 15-40 in the fifteenth game, rallied to make it deuce, but an unwavering Fish remained on task. He deliberately directed his crosscourt forehand relatively short to lure Wawrinka into an error. At break point for the third time, Fish pounced as a weary Wawrinka sliced a backhand long. Wawrinka had inexplicably resorted to the backhand slice with surprising frequency in the match, but this particular error was singularly costly. Fish served for the match a second time, but was down 15-40. He produced two clutch first serves to reach deuce, going to Wawrinka’s suspect forehand both times. The Swiss missed both returns.

At deuce, Wawrinka pulled a backhand wide, and Fish was at match point for the second time. He tried to serve-and-volley behind another kicking second serve to the Ad court, but Wawrinka read it, driving an exquisite backhand topspin return down the line for a winner. Fish, however, was unswerving. He served his 15th and final ace down the T to earn his third match point, which he sealed with a dazzling angled forehand drop volley winner crosscourt off a tricky low backhand pass from the Swiss. Fish had triumphed courageously, coming through 6-2, 4-6, 4-6, 6-1, 9-7 in four hours and 26 minutes.

To say the least, this was an enormously gratifying personal triumph for Fish, who had lost a pair of agonizing Davis Cup singles duels last summer against Spaniards Feliciano Lopez and David Ferrer. He confirmed why he resides among the ten best players in tennis. But, even more importantly, the Fish win ignited his team, and the 6’9” Isner came out to face Federer in the right frame of mind. With the Americans out in front, Isner stepped out onto the arena and never seemed in awe of the mighty Federer. The American made up his mind that he would proceed with all guns blazing, keep the points as short as possible, take calculated risks, and go for winners at every opportunity.

Nevertheless, Federer was unstoppable in the first set. The supreme accuracy of Federer’s first serve kept Isner at bay, and the Swiss Maestro was controlling many rallies strategically with his inside-out and inside-in forehands. Federer wore that familiar look of serenity and purposefulness, and was buoyed by hearing his compatriots cheering him on robustly. He broke Isner in the third game of the first set, getting just enough pace on his forehand passing shot to coax Isner into a backhand volley mistake.

Federer collected that set confidently, taking it 6-4. He won an overwhelming 20 of 23 points on serve, and seemed on course to bring Switzerland back to 1-1 at day’s end. Isner saved a break point in the opening game of the second set, sticking to a winning pattern, releasing a thunderbolt of a first serve to Federer’s backhand to draw an error from his renowned adversary. Still, with Federer serving at 2-3 in that second set, the favorite seemed in good shape. He had lost only four of his 32 service points. Isner had barely threatened him off the return.

But Federer suffered a fatal lapse in the sixth game of the second set, starting with a wildly errant forehand drive volley long, followed by an unprovoked forehand ground stroke mistake. A tame backhand from the Swiss allowed Isner to rip a scorching forehand for 0-40. Federer fought back to deuce four times, but Isner converted on his seventh break point, making a surprising defensive save off the forehand. Federer was caught slightly off guard, netting a forehand approach. Isner had found a way into the match. He fell behind break point in the following game, but clipped the baseline with a well measured topspin winner forehand down the line behind a stranded Federer. Isner held on for 5-2. Serving for the set two games later, Isner aced Federer down the T at 40-30. Isner had the set, 6-3. After a remarkable reversal of fortunes, the match stood at one set all.

The third set was compelling all the way. Isner opened up boldly off both wings, going for explosive returns, rocking Federer back on his heels. Federer trailed 15-40 in the first game, but Isner made an aggressive error off the forehand. Federer delivered two straight aces and held for 1-0. Isner had another break point in the third game, but Federer was unwavering, holding on gamely again. With Isner serving at 2-3, Federer had four break points, but the American erased them all emphatically with an overhead winner, an improvisational forehand down the line approach off a low ball that was unanswerable, an inside out forehand winner, and a service winner to the backhand.

Federer was thirsting for another opportunity. With Isner serving at 3-4, the world No. 3 earned another break point, but the determined American responded overpoweringly once more, using his big first serve to set up another explosive forehand inside-out winner. Isner held on tenaciously for 4-4. Both men held easily twice to bring about a tie-break, a sequence that would have a considerable bearing on the outcome of the match.

Isner got the immediate mini-break and traveled rapidly to 4-2. But Federer rallied to 4-4 and was serving the crucial ninth point. Isner approached behind an inside-out forehand. He played a couple of careful volleys, but Federer lost the point on a cautious netted forehand down the line passing shot. Isner was right where he needed to be, ahead 5-4 with a chance to seal the set on his own serve. He pounced on a short return from Federer, approaching forcefully off the forehand, rushing the Swiss into a netted backhand passing shot. On the next point, Isner moved forward again, cracking his forehand approach unhesitatingly. Federer went crosscourt with his forehand passing shot, but Isner comfortably executed a forehand drop volley winner down the line. Tie-break to the American, seven points to four.

Isner had passed a critical test by taking that tie-break. But he had some crucial work ahead. At 2-2 in the fourth set, Isner was down 0-40. A break for Federer there could have altered the battle substantially, even permanently. Isner rose to the challenge. An ace down the T took him to 15-40. He released an unstoppable first serve wide to the forehand, then aced Federer wide to the backhand for deuce. An inside out forehand winner brought Isner to game point, and he forged ahead 3-2 with a devastatingly potent inside-in forehand winner. Isner had won five critical points in a row, and never looked back. With Federer serving in the sixth game at 30-40, Isner walloped a mighty forehand to provoke a forehand error from Federer for the break.

Isner had moved to 4-2, then held at 15 for 5-2, unleashing two aces in that game. There was no stopping him now. With Federer serving to save the match in the eighth game, the Swiss reached 15-0, but Isner’s potent return gave him the chance to follow up with a deep forehand approach that was too much for Federer. At 15-15, Isner crushed an inside-out backhand return winner off a second serve. An inside-in forehand winning return off another second serve made it 15-40, and Isner refused to compromise. At double match point, after Federer missed a third consecutive first serve, Isner belted another inside-out backhand return winner. He had completed the most significant win of his career with style and panache, halting Federer 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-2, becoming the first American since James Blake at the 2008 Olympic Games to beat the Swiss stylist.

The most encouraging thing for Isner was how adeptly he played the big points. He outplayed Federer in the all-important tie-break. He saved eleven of the twelve break points he faced in the match. More significantly, Federer had at least one break point in six different service games, but only converted on one. For Isner, that was a bold stand against such an illustrious adversary. After losing his second service game of the match, Isner held 18 consecutive times. He closed out his vastly more experienced opponent with a flourish, winning 17 of the last 21 points from triple break point down in the fifth game of the fourth set.

Isner irrefutably played the match of his career to lift his team into a commanding 2-0 lead. The feeling grows that he could cause some serious problems for all of the leading players at the three remaining majors in 2012. I don’t know one good reason why he should not finish 2012 among the ten best players in his profession. I can envision Isner reaching at least one major semifinal this season, and perhaps even making it to a “Big Four” final.

In any event, Isner was able to sit back and enjoy the doubles, as Fish joined forces with Mike Bryan to face Federer and Wawrinka. Fish had made this all possible for the Americans with his opening day heroics. Now the “must win” label was worn uncomfortably by the Swiss gents. The burden of pressure was almost entirely on them.

But the American men commenced the battle unevenly. Fish served a double point on the first point of the match, and another at game point. The U.S. duo fought persistently through five deuces, but Federer and Wawrinka got the break for 1-0 and made it count. They won all five of their service games, with Federer successfully holding at 5-4 to give his nation a one set lead. From the middle of the second set on, however, the Americans dominated. Bryan was the best player on the court, poaching at all the right times, anticipating uncannily, hardly missing a volley, returning magnificently off both sides. Fish was extraordinary as well, unerring at the net, serving well after the shaky opening game.

The match swung irrevocably in the direction of the Americans in the sixth game of the second set. Wawrinka double faulted to put his team behind 0-30, and then double faulted again at break point down. He was intimidated by the piercing Ad Court returns of Mike Bryan, who provoked both double faults with his consistency and overwhelming aggression on the returns. Fish held at love for 5-2, and Bryan did not drop a point on his serve in closing out the set on his serve two games later. It was one set all.

The Swiss duo was up 3-2 on serve in the third set, but they lost four games in a row to fall behind two sets to one. In that span, Bryan was unrelenting, and Fish’s deuce court returns were terrific. The Americans swept 16 of 23 points in closing out the set, breaking both Wawrinka and Federer. The U.S. duo was vastly superior on second serve returns. Their belief in each other was outstanding, while Federer and Wawrinka seemed almost despondent across the last couple of sets. Fish and Bryan broke Wawrinka to move ahead 3-1 in the fourth as Federer failed to put away a high backhand volley down the middle, leaving his alley wide open for Bryan to drive a forehand winner into the clear.

For all practical purposes, it was over. Fish and Bryan closed out the account confidently, prevailing 4-6, 6-3, 6-3, 6-3. Fish never lost his serve after the opening game of the contest. Bryan was unbroken and never faced a break point. Federer lost his serve only once, while Wawrinka was the most vulnerable competitor on the court, dropping his serve three times. Wawrinka largely cost his team the match, missing too many volleys, returning erratically, serving poorly when it mattered. But Federer did not return particularly well himself as the U.S. men sent a lot of kickers to his backhand in the deuce court all day long, forcing the 30-year-old Swiss to miss a lot of high returns off that side. The bottom line is that there was much more stability and balance on the American side of the net.

The U.S. put some icing on its cake the final day. In the two “dead rubbers”, Ryan Harrison defeated Michael Lammer in a pair of tie-breaks, and Isner cast aside Marco Chiudinelli 6-3, 6-4 to allow the Americans to sweep the Swiss 5-0. American captain Jim Courier’s leadership at courtside was strikingly evident. He set a positive tone, remained placid, and contained his emotions for the betterment of his contingent. He seemed to know exactly when to offer council to his players and when to say nothing at all. Courier was exemplary.

But the lion’s share of the credit belongs to Fish and Isner. They walked out on court abroad and comported themselves as if they were entirely at home. The view here is that these two formidable individuals are on their way toward a wide range of triumphs. A weekend like the one they just celebrated in Switzerland could turn into a very big year for both Americans.