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Steve Flink: American Pride

2/4/2008 5:15:00 PM

by Steve Flink

It is entirely possible that Andy Roddick will never win another Grand Slam singles championship, although only a fool dismiss his chances altogether. It is very likely that James Blake--- despite his considerable flair and talent-- will not place his name among the elite as a champion at a major event. In 24 career appearances in "Big Four" events, Blake has yet to move beyond the quarterfinals, although he did have a good run to the last eight at the Australian Open to launch his 2008 campaign. But no matter what happens with Roddick and Blake across the rest of their careers, and even if they don't flourish at the majors, these two Americans will continue to represent their country productively and honorably in Davis Cup. That is no small matter.

In 2007, Roddick and Blake propelled the U.S. to its first Davis Cup triumph since 1995 by leading the way in singles, with Bob and Mike Bryan coming through time and again in doubles. That victory was a long time in the making, and was thoroughly deserved because the players made success in that endeavor so important in their hearts and minds. But there was very little time for Roddick and Blake to sit back and enjoy what they had done. They defeated Russia in the 2007 Davis Cup Final the first weekend in December. After a very brief layoff, they were training hard to get ready for the Australian Open, competing in that event over the second half of January.

I have complained on numerous occasions in this space about the absurdity of the scheduling in tennis, and the time has come for me to air my grievances again. Less than two weeks after the end of the Australian Open, the first round of the 2008 Davis Cup World Group competition was underway. That is not enough time for the players to reinvigorate themselves, particularly when they advance to the final weekend in Melbourne. They should not be asked to step up again so soon after a major. Something must be done soon to remedy the situation. Fortunately for the U.S., Roddick was beaten in the third round of the Australian Open by Philipp Kohlschreiber, so he had sufficient time to prepare for the U.S. opening round Davis Cup contest against Austria. Blake made it to the quarters "Down Under", which gave him an opportunity to recharge his engines and rededicate himself to another priority.

But the fact remained that it is never easy to defend a Davis Cup victory, and playing on the road only compounds the task. The Americans went last weekend to Vienna for a contest against Austria, and both Roddick and Blake needed to confront left-handed rivals who could legitimately test them on indoor clay courts which produced the most irregular of bounces. Both Americans were in danger of losing their matches, and the U.S. could well have drifted into a lot of trouble. And yet, when the chips were on the line, at the moments of consequence, with pressure surrounding them on all sides, Roddick and Blake made their presence felt and got their jobs done exceedingly well. Roddick opened the proceedings against Jurgen Melzer. To be sure, he had never lost to Melzer, and had not conceded even a set in six previous clashes. But if ever Melzer was going to turn the tables, this was the moment.

Roddick nearly pulled off a relatively comfortable, four set triumph. Despite the second rate conditions, he was ahead two sets to one, and leading 4-2, 15-30 in the fourth set. He ran around his backhand in the advantage court to play an inside-out forehand return, but did not do enough damage with the shot. Melzer was able to take control of that point, approaching the net forcefully, provoking Roddick into a forehand passing shot error. Melzer held on in that crucial seventh game of the fourth set. Still, Roddick served his way to a 4-3, 40-15 lead. Inexplicably, Roddick attempted an ill-fated backhand drop shot, which he badly netted. At 40-30, Roddick's low forehand volley was not good enough, sitting up invitingly for Melzer to pass the American cleanly. Melzer broke back for 4-4, took that set in a tie-break, and then opened up a 1-0, 40-15 lead in the fifth set. He had the crowd fervently on his side. He had the momentum. He seemingly had a large dose of confidence.

Roddick was not swayed. He connected perfectly for a forehand return winner, drilled a forehand passing shot into the clear, and then released a backhand return winner to thwart Melzer when the Austrian tried to serve-and-volley. Those three consecutive winners gave Roddick break point, and Melzer was shaken, anxiously missing an overhead. Roddick was back in business at 1-1 in the final set. He never doubted himself again. Roddick gained an impressive 6-4, 4-6, 6-3, 6-7 (4), 6-3 victory. From 1-1 in the fifth, he was remarkably good. After he broke Melzer for 3-1, he missed only one first serve in his last three service games, closing out the match by collecting 12 of the last 13 points on his explosive delivery. With typical perspicacity, Roddick gave the U.S. a significant 1-0 lead.

It was then up to Blake to seize the advantage Roddick had given him with his hard fought win. Blake did just that. But he had to battle gamely to prevail. Blake took on Stefan Koubek, and the American served for the first set at 5-4. He got to 30-15. His chances looked good. But Koubek caught him off guard with a forehand return winner down the line off a heavy kicking second serve. Blake missed his first serve on the next two points, and two errant forehands cost him that game. Koubek closed out that set and built a 5-2 lead in the second set. He was on the verge of a two sets to love lead. At 2-5, Blake served a double fault for 30-30. He was two points from losing the set three times in that game, but held on tenaciously, and then broke Koubek at love in the ninth game.

Blake was still not out of the woods. Serving at 4-5, he trailed 15-30 and was twice pushed to deuce. But he rescued himself again, playing some surprisingly effective percentage tennis, forcing errors from an increasingly apprehensive Koubek rather than going for too many outright winners himself. Blake was back to 5-5. He kept plodding along, and won that set on a run of five straight games. In the third and fourth sets, Blake was not to be denied. With maturity, consistency, and immense resolve, Blake stopped Koubek 5-7, 7-5, 6-2, 6-2. He won as much with perspiration as he did with inspiration. It was nice to see him conducting business so sensibly. The U.S. was up 2-0 after a pair of admirable clutch performances from Roddick and Blake. The following day, Mike and Bob Bryan clinched victory for the U.S. with a straight set win in the doubles.

So the U.S. will host France in the quarterfinals. Roddick and Blake should feel very proud of what they did to get the Americans through a potentially arduous opening round skirmish. Roddick has become a magnificent Davis Cup competitor. He has raised his record to 27-9 in singles. Blake backed up his gritty four set, opening day win over Mikhail Youzhny in the 2007 Davis Cup Final with his latest triumph over Koubek. The feeling grows that Roddick and Blake will keep performing prodigiously when representing their nation for some time to come. The view here is that they are in the process of building something much larger than themselves.

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