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Steve Flink: American Beauty

11/26/2007 8:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

For those who avidly follow American tennis, and care deeply about the U.S. players and how well they fare in the international game, this latest Davis Cup triumph had been an awfully long time in the making. It had been 12 years since the U.S. had captured the Cup, when Pete Sampras secured two singles victories and a win in the doubles alongside Todd Martin as the U.S. toppled Russia 3-2 in the final indoors on clay at Moscow. Now, over the past weekend, the U.S. faced Russia again in the title round, but this time the clash took place indoors on a very fast surface. And with the home crowd cheering every positive move made by the Americans, the U.S. defeated a different Russian squad 4-1 in Portland, Oregon.

In my mind, there was just no way this formidable U.S. team of Andy Roddick, James Blake and the brothers Bryan was ever going to lose in that setting against Dmitry Tursunov, Mikhail Youzhny, Nikolay Davydenko and Igor Andreev. The quick court, the polite but partisan audience, the insatiable appetite of the Americans--- all of these things put the U.S. in the driver's seat this time around. They were well prepared, highly motivated, eager to get on with it. Not surprisingly, the U.S. wrapped it all up over the first two days, with Roddick cutting down Tursunov surgically 6-4, 6-4, 6-2, Blake overcoming Youzhny 6-3, 7-6 (4),6-7 (3), 7-6 (3) and Bob and Mike Bryan removing Andreev and Davydenko 7-6 (4), 6-4, 6-2.

Roddick avenged an agonizing (17-15 in the fifth set) loss to Tursunov in the semifinals of the 2006 Davis Cup (when Russia defeated the U.S. 3-2) with his emphatic performance. In the three sets, he never lost his serve, released 25 aces, and refused to allow the Russian any cause for optimism. Roddick did have some difficulty closing out the first set. With Tursunov serving at 3-5, Roddick did not convert one set point. Serving in the following game, Roddick needed six more set points before he tucked that set away.

Roddick served three double faults at 4-3 in the second set, facing a break point for the only time in the match. Characteristically, he delivered a 143 M.P.H. serve that Tursunov could not handle, and then held for 5-3 with consecutive aces. Serving for the set in the tenth game, Roddick released four more aces in a love game. Tursunov was thoroughly outclassed in the third set as Roddick marched to victory.

The Blake-Youzhny contest was the highlight of the weekend. Blake could just as easily have lost in four sets rather than prevailing. At his best, Youzhny was the better player, but Blake was superior under pressure and gave one of the finest clutch performances of his career. Blake shaped a more thoughtful strategy than usual. He was not content to win a shot making duel from the baseline. He looked for every chance to take his penetrating inside-out forehand and approach the net, and he came in on such good stuff that Youzhny was always hard pressed to make backhand passing shots. In fact, he made very few. Blake kept Youzhny off guard with the nature of his attack, and vice versa.

Blake grabbed the early break in the first set and made it count. But Youzhny found his range in the second set and competed forthrightly, saving five break points at 4-4. On they went to the tie-break. Blake was too solid in that sequence, racing to 3-0, never looking back. He was ahead two sets to love. But the hard work was far from over. Youzhny served for the third set at 5-4 but bungled that game flagrantly, and then had to hold on gamely from 5-6, 30-30 to reach the tie-break.

In that tie-break, Youzhny was at his best, reaching 5-2 with a superb backhand down the line pass, making it to triple set point at 6-3 with a beautifully struck forehand crosscourt winner off a short ball. He sealed that set deservedly. Now Blake fans had cause for consternation. With a career record of 1-10 in five set matches, he could not afford to let this match go the distance. Moreover, he had blown two set leads four times over the years. He needed to get it done in four sets, which was going to be a tough task with Youzhny striking the ball so confidently.

When Blake broke the Russian for 5-4 in the fourth, he seemed certain to record a win. But three unforced errors from the American virtually handed Youzhny the break back. In the fourth set tie-break, Youzhny took the first two points with a decisive forehand volley and a well executed forehand ground stroke winner down the line. He was ahead 2-0 in the tie-break, seemingly ready to take control of the match. Blake, however, was not through. He collected seven of the last eight points to garner the win, sweeping the last five in a row. He was admirably composed under pressure, while Youzhny, serving at 3-4 in that tie-break, signaled his relative instability. Stationed near the service line, he foolishly went for a backhand drop shot and sent it into the net.

So Blake had succeeded, winning with grit and style, setting the table for Bob and Mike Bryan to finish it off for the U.S. Forcefully, persuasively, methodically, they did just that, taking apart Andreev and Davydenko 7-6 (3), 6-4, 6-2 for their 13th victory in 14 Davis Cup doubles assignments. Davydenko, ranked No. 4 in the world, had not been chosen for singles because his combined career record against Roddick and Blake is 0-11. He is not a natural doubles player, nor is Andreev. But at least Andreev could do some serious damage with his explosive forehand and a potent first serve. He was never broken in the match, while Davydenko surrendered his delivery three times across the last two sets.

There was no way the Bryan brothers could lose to a team that persisted with staying back on serve the entire match. Andreev got away with it but Davydenko did not. The Bryan brothers were overwhelming, with the left-handed Bob playing brilliantly from the deuce court, and his twin Mike performing ably from the advantage court. They returned aggressively, served exceedingly well the whole match, and, most importantly, the two brothers were outstanding on the volley. They put away high volleys better than any other players in the business, and this was their signature play during this victory. Bob Bryan was the best player on the court.

And so it was all over, except for the "dead rubbers" on the final day. Bob Bryan stepped in for Roddick and put up a decent fight against Andreev, who replaced Youzhny. Bryan got the crowd fired up with some first rate serve-and-volley play but bowed 6-3, 7-6 (4) as Andreev took utter control from the baseline, blasting forehand winners almost at will. But Bryan gave the fans something to cheer about even in defeat, and then Blake rallied to upend Tursunov 1-6, 6-3, 7-5 in a scintillating encounter. Too often, "dead rubbers" on the last day are a disservice to the fans because the players are uninspired and they don't necessarily give it everything they have. That was not the case in Portland, as the players put on a very good and lively show. The matches may have been meaningless since the U.S. had already clinched the Cup, but the players shined, and the fans were rewarded with some terrific tennis.

The U.S. contingent should be absolutely proud of bringing the Cup back home. The way I see it, the two individuals who must be saluted the most are Roddick and Captain Patrick McEnroe. Roddick had a fantastic season in Cup play this year, winning all six of his matches, always giving his team the essential lift it needed on opening day by coming through. He was clearly a vocal team leader, frequently speaking of the pride he took in sharing the journey with all of his team mates. He was selfless in pursuit of the Cup, and made it his highest priority this year, as he often has in the past. Roddick and the entire American team were fortunate that Rafael Nadal elected so skip the quarterfinal Spain-U.S. contest when he needed rest. He might well have upended Roddick and Blake and might have propelled his nation past the U.S.

But good breaks like that one do not diminish what Roddick and his team achieved. Roddick has clearly established with his 26-9 career Davis Cup record that he is a great player when representing his nation. Meanwhile, the guiding force behind it all, and the man who built unity among his players and made them fully believe in themselves, was the esteemed McEnroe. In his seventh year as captain, McEnroe finally realized his goal. Demonstrating his considerable grace and magnanimity, he refused to take credit for the success of the Americans. But anyone who follows this closely, and examined the essential role Patrick McEnroe played, is well aware of just how esteemed a captain he has always been. Make no mistake about it: Patrick McEnroe does his job as well, if not better, than anyone in the world. Without McEnroe's immense contribution, the U.S. team would not be the champion nation. Of that much I am certain.

So there you have it. The Americans are on top of the world. They have won the Davis Cup for the 32nd time. They have taken a Cup final at home for the first time since 1992. They can hold their heads high, come back next year, and try to do it again. In the mean time, they should stop and smell the roses.

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