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U.S. Tries To Stem Historical Tide

May 25, 2008 01:28 PM


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All-Time Davis Cup Champions

By Matthew Cronin, special to USTA.com

Portland, Ore. – The United States team spent a good portion of Saturday night and Sunday afternoon celebrating its record 32nd Davis Cup title, after its 4-1 victory over Russia in the final in Portland, but that didn't stop the men from looking ahead to next year's campaign.

No nation has repeated as titlists since Sweden in 1997-1998 and the U.S. would love to become the first country to do so in a decade.

However, captain Patrick McEnroe, Andy Roddick, James Blake and the Bryan brothers will face a difficult task, as they open away at Austria February 8-10, presumably on clay, and even if they best a very capable team that should contain Stefan Koubek, Jurgen Melzer and doubles standout Julian Knowle, they could face traditional powerhouse France at home in April.

Should the U.S. edge the French (Richard Gasquet, Gael Monfils et al) , the team's most difficult task might be ahead, as Spain is favored to come out of their quadrant and the U.S. would have to travel across the pond to face the clay court demons Rafael Nadal and David Ferrer in the semis. Even if they pull off that shocker, they might have to contend with Argentina or Russia away in the final, ties which would certainly be played on dirt. Repeating will be a monumental challenge.

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“I think this team is really dangerous, and we saw that this week,” said Bob Bryan. “When James plays like that it's going to be tough to beat this team. James is the X factor. We know he can beat anyone, and he showed that this week. Youzhny I thought played incredible and James just stepped up and beat a really tough player. If we're winning that No. 2 singles it's very tough to beat this U.S.A. team. We could win a few of these, [but] it's going to be tough to win two singles matches against a Spain or an Argentina. That's pretty obvious. I mean, they've got some incredible players, monsters. If we get one of those teams we're probably going to be severe underdogs. But I know that those guys will go down there with an open mind and give it 110.”

Blake agreed that with the 2007 title, that the U.S. will go into any future tie more confident.

“I think going in against the Spaniards, if we were to play them on clay away, I'd have the same feeling I've had before, except now I'd have the memory to look back on as we've already gone through this and we've had a win away on clay and we've held the trophy now, so we feel like we can do that hopefully again.”

The United States has dominated Davis Cup competition like no other nation and with its 32nd title, further distanced itself from Australia, which owns 28 Cups.

Many of the U.S.'s victories came before the Open Era began in 1968, but a slew of tremendous American squads were able to dominate as the sport began to spread its international wings.

Captain Donald Dell, who attended this U.S.-Russia final, led the first two teams that went on a five-year title run between 1968 and 1972. US legends Stan Smith (who was also in Portland), and Arthur Ashe headed singles play, while doubles standouts Bob Lutz and Eric van Dillen, as well as spirited singles players Tom Gorman (who later became a Davis Cup captain), Cliff Richey and Frank Froehling, who also joined in the fray.

The Aussies, led by Hall of Famers John Newcombe and Rod Laver, finally stopped the U.S.'s five-year run in 1973, but America would return to the top in 1978, led by a rookie and its soon to be greatest Davis Cup player ever, John McEnroe, who under captain Tony Trabert, led the team to victory over Great Britain in Rancho Mirage, California.

Trabert, McEnroe and his good buddy from New York, Vitas Gerulaitis, along with the lock-down doubles duo of Smith and Lutz, crushed Italy in the 1979 final in San Francisco.

The squad was upset the next year by the Argentines in Buenos Aires, but under its new captain Ashe, won the next two Cups in 1981 and 1982, with McEnroe and Peter Fleming becoming a nearly unbeatable doubles duo. Johnny Mac had become the world's top singles player by then, and with Tennessee serve and volleyer Roscoe Tanner and New Yorker Gene Mayer joining in singles, they took down Argentina in Cincinnati and then the next year, France in Grenoble.

Australia, Sweden and Germany dominated play during the next seven years, with notables such as Mats Wilander, Stefan Edberg, Pat Cash and Boris Becker dotting the Davis Cup landscape.

But under Gorman - who remains the U.S.'s longest running captain at eight years - America found its way back in a big way at the beginning of the 1990s. Behind eventual eventual number one Andre Agassi and 1989 French Open champ Michael Chang, as well as doubles standouts Rick Leach and Jim Pugh, America stopped France at Florida's Suncoast Dome in 1990.

After Hall of Famer Pete Sampras and the number one doubles team of Ken Flach/Robert Seguso went down to Yannick Noah's French squad in Lyon in the 1991 final, Gorman assembled the nation's first so-called “Dream Team” in 1992 - John McEnroe playing doubles with Sampras, as well as Agassi and Courier, who stopped Switzerland in Fort Worth, Texas.

That was the last time the US contested a home final until 2007, a 15-year-gap of struggles and bad draws.

In 1995 under new captain Tom Gullikson, the team pulled off one of its greatest victories ever. They went over to Moscow for the final on slow clay and Gullikson urged Sampras to pull off a remarkable five-set victory over Andrei Chesnokov on day one where he had to be carried off court because of cramps. Day two saw Sampras and Todd Martin take out Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Andrei Olhovskiy; and on the final day, Sampras stomped eventual Roland Garros champion Kafelnikov in the clincher in straight sets.

That would be the last time the U.S. would win the Cup before December 1, 2007, but in that 12-year period, the team did manage to reach the two other times (a 1997 loss to Sweden and a 2004 loss to Spain).

US captain Patrick McEnroe, who has headed his team's efforts since 2001, was happy to finally get a chance to bring the Cup back home, even though being the favorite isn't always easy in the unpredictable world of Davis Cup.

“It's a lot better than going to Spain on red clay, for sure,” McEnroe said. “I think the biggest key for us this weekend was the guys really kept their emotions in check. They went out and prepared really well all week. Even in the last month or so, they had different sort of schedules, but they all were thinking about this, sort of preparing themselves individually as well as they could. There was pressure on us, but I think Andy really set the tone. He has been waiting for this moment for a long time. And I just thought the way he handled the match emotionally, was just real professional and real mature. I think it's always better to go when you've got the home court to play into your hands rather than going away. But we did win two matches on the road this year, which is pretty tough to do. I think that was really the key to the year, was to win two away ties.”

McEnroe would love to secure America's 33rd title next year, but like Bryan and Blake, realizes how enormous the challenge will be.

“It's certainly not impossible to repeat,” he said. “Look at the Russians. They made the final this year and won it last year. It's hard. It's definitely hard, but it's not impossible.
When you have countries, like we've seen in the last few years like Croatia, Slovakia, Chile, that can have two really good players, particularly in a home match can be very dangerous. You go to one of those places, no matter who you are, it's going to be a difficult match. Whereas I think in the past, maybe there were four or five really strong countries. Now you've got a couple of really strong countries that are always in there, but then you've got a lot of other nations that can field a great team, particularly at home. So I think it's harder now than it's ever been.”

 

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