By Mark Bodenrader, USTA.com
Both the United States Davis and Fed Cup squads experienced success in 2006, even if neither reached their ultimate goals.
For the Davis Cup team, a semifinal finish was likely not a desired result, for a group as talented as the Americans wants nothing more than to end a title drought that dates back to 1995. But in 2006 the U.S. still made strides toward revisiting Davis Cup glory.
Boasting a squad of two highly ranked singles players – Andy Roddick and James Blake – and tennis’ top-ranked doubles team – Bob and Mike Bryan – Captain Patrick McEnroe’s squad started its ‘06 campaign in La Jolla with a 4-1 drubbing of Romania.
The winning ways continued at Mission Hills where the Americans shook off an opening match defeat of Blake by Fernando Gonzalez to reel off three straight victories and dispose of Chile. The win featured a pair of singles victories by Roddick and secured the U.S.’s first semifinal appearance in the event since 2004.
The semis brought a date with Russia and marked the U.S.’s first trip outside its borders in ’06. More ominously, the match-up presented the challenge of playing on clay – a surface that has historically given American players fits.
The U.S. put itself behind the eight ball early in Moscow with Roddick and Blake losing the opening two matches to Marat Safin and Mikhail Youzhny, respectively. But the Bryans gave the Americans new life by improving upon their nearly flawless Davis Cup record.
Unfortunately, Roddick wasn’t able to keep the momentum going on the final day and lost a marathon duel to Dmitry Tursunov that sealed the win for the red-hot Russians, who would eventually defeat Argentina in the Davis Cup final to claim the title.
• Click here to listen to the 2006 Davis Cup Audio Slideshow Review
Expectations for the U.S. Fed Cup squad weren’t as high as those of the Davis Cup team, which was what made its first round victory over Germany in April so impressive. The unherladed Americans, playing without big names Lindsay Davenport, Serena Williams and Venus Williams, traveled to Ettenheim to take on the Germans and came away with a surprising 3-2 triumph.
Rising star Jamea Jackson stole the show for the U.S., winning both of her singles matches against Anna-Lena Groenefeld and Martina Muller. Jackson’s second match win sealed the deal, as it gave the Americans an insurmountable 3-1 lead. Veteran Jill Craybas accounted for the other win by defeating Julia Schruff.
Next it was on to Ostend to battle Belgium in July’s semifinal round, where the Americans’ magic ran out. Waiting for them was perennial women's tour power Kim Clijsters, who proceeded to defeat Jackson and Vania King in back-to-back singles matches to clinch the win for her country.
Despite the loss, the Americans came away from the ’06 competition with their share of positives. Zina Garrison’s squad had advanced further along in the competition than most anticipated using a roster that lacked experience. Three of the team’s main contributors – Jackson, King and Shenay Perry – were raw talents partaking in their first ever Fed Cup. And while King and Perry failed to post a victory, they served notice that the foundation has been laid for a squad that should be a force in years to come.
• Click here for the 2006 Fed Cup Audio Slideshow Review
Both Garrison and McEnroe will be back to captain their respective squads in 2007. McEnroe, who first captained the team during the 2001 campaign, got the nod to continue through the 2008 Davis Cup following their ’06 semifinal appearance, while just last month it was announced that Garrison will remain as the U.S. Fed Cup captain for 2007. It will mark Garrison’s fifth year guiding the squad.
McEnroe will have a challenge on his hands when gets back to work with the U.S. squad in February. The Americans have drawn the stingy Czechs as their first round opponent and the tie is set to be contested on foreign soil. Or foreign clay to be more precise. The Americans’ recent struggles on clay have been well documented, which made choosing the indoor clay courts at CZE Arena in Ostrava a no-brainer for the Czech Republic.
Among the U.S. members that partook in the ‘06 Davis Cup, Roddick is the one who suffers most from playing on clay. The 2003 US Open champ has posted just a 3-7 mark on the surface all-time. Blake has fared better, going 4-3, but two of his victories occurred in dead rubbers. The Bryans, meanwhile, have actually played phenomenally well on clay – a footnote that seems to get overlooked whenever the U.S.’s recent history on clay is brought up. Bob and Mike are undefeated in the four doubles matches they have contested on the surface.
In fact, the Bryans have only dropped one match overall in the international competition (2005 to Croatia’s Ivan Ljubicic and Mario Ancic). Bob carries a 10-1 all-time mark in Davis Cup play, while Mike is 9-1.
After being named the Davis Cup captain through 2008, McEnroe made it clear that bringing back the same players is fine by him should they want to return for the red, white and blue. But even though a roster shakeup is unlikely, McEnroe is keeping his options open.
“I would certainly love the problem of seeing a Robby Ginepri or Mardy Fish, in particular, step up their level in the next few months and make a run to be a part of the team,” said McEnroe. “That's always a good problem to have as the captain.”
That problem could get even better in the near future should rising stars like Ryan Sweeting, Sam Querrey and Donald Young continue to improve. But for now, McEnroe is likely to stick with Roddick, Blake and Bob and Mike Bryan, and none of them have given any indication that they don’t plan on returning.
While the men get back at it in about a month, the women don’t hit court again until April when they face Belgium in a rematch of their semifinal encounter from 2006. The Belgians won that affair rather easily, but the Americans will have a few things in their favor when they square off this time around.
For one thing, the U.S. will host the tie, giving it the chance to choose the venue and the surface and the obvious advantage of playing in front of their home fans. Prior to losing to Belgium in 2006, the Americans had won all four of the previous meetings between the countires, including a 3-0 mark in ties contested in the U.S.
Also, the participation of Clijsters and Justine Henin-Hardenne will be in question, as both have missed significant time because of injuries in recent years. Clijsters has been bothered by a nagging wrist injury that forced her to miss the Belgium-Italy Fed Cup final in ’06. Henin-Hardenne played in the loss to Italy, but was forced to quit the decisive fifth match of the tie after suffering a knee injury.
Clijsters has said that 2007 will be her last year playing professional tennis, but it remains to be seen what kind of effect this will have. On one hand, it could limit her Fed Cup participation because she could prefer to focus her attention on WTA events. On the other hand, she might be keen on making one last run at the Fed Cup title with her countrywomen.
While the U.S. Davis Cup roster is pretty much set in stone, predicting the make-up of the women’s squad is a lot more difficult. Of course, ideally Garrison would love to be able to trot out American stars like Davenport and the Williams sisters. But Davenport’s career is essentially over with the three-time Grand Slam champ expecting her first child, while injuries and off-the-court interests have kept Venus and Serena away from the competition for some time now.
But that doesn’t mean the U.S. can’t come to battle with a formidable squad. The Americans proved they can win without Lindsay, Venus and Serena by defeating Germany in during the first round in ’06. And in the process, some of the younger team members gained invaluable experience. Members like King and Jackson, who have made strides on the women’s tour. Jackson finished ‘06 ranked No. 45 after starting the year at No. 75, while King captured her first career title in October by winning in Bangkok.