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By Jason Brown, USTA.com
Vienna, Austria – Like so many other nations have tried in the past, Austria has chosen a slow, red-clay surface to attempt to neutralize the offensive punch of the United States.
But as they’ve proven so many times before, the Davis Cup defending champions have played better on clay than given credit for, and, like the NFL Super Bowl champion New York Giants, are not intimidated in the least by playing frequently on the road.
In the United States, this week has been filled with Super Bowl parades and Super Tuesday presidential primaries. But in Vienna, the real fun begins on Friday and with good fortune, concludes with “Super Sunday” joked U.S. Captain Patrick McEnroe.
“I don’t think there is just another tie in Davis Cup,” said James Blake, the ninth-ranked player in the world, with a U.S. singles record of 14-8.
“There’s so much pressure that we put on ourselves for many reasons, especially how much we care about the team and the fact that we’re representing our country. We’re proud to be Davis Cup champions, but we understand that the bulls-eye is on our back. But I think that Andy and the Bryans are even more comfortable with that, having been at the top of the game for so long. So we should be pretty well equipped to deal with whatever pressure that’s been put on.”
Respectful of this weekend’s adversaries, Team USA expects a tussle against a team featuring a pair of talented left-handers, Stefan Koubek (ranked No. 55) and Jurgen Melzer (ranked No. 71), with plenty of crowd support expected.
“Austria has a very solid team all-around,” said McEnroe. “We’re expecting a tough match, but the court is fine. I think it’s normal that an indoor clay court takes a couple of days to settle and get a little better. I think for the first couple of days, it’s been OK, and by Friday, it’ll be much better.”
Just a few short months removed from defeating Russia, 4-1, to win its record-extending 32nd Davis Cup title and first since 1995, the United States is still savoring its first title in 12 years, yet understands the challenges in re-grouping fast to begin the title defense.
“It’s tougher for the fans to realize than us,” said Blake. “For the fans to see how thrilled and excited we were to become Davis Cup champions just a couple of months ago and realize that we’re already playing again is just crazy. Maybe there are going to be calls for reform and having the finalist nations get a (first-round) bye or having the Davis Cup every two years, but that’s something that we need to discuss with the ITF.”
One of the greatest team strengths, few nations have enjoyed the continuity and chemistry that the Americans have found.
McEnroe has used the same four-man line-up – Andy Roddick, Blake, Bob Bryan and Mike Bryan – for eight consecutive Davis Cup ties, the most consecutive ties a U.S. team has ever played together. Presumably, that streak will continue well into the new campaign.
“I think we’re lucky,” said McEnroe. “These guys have been committed to playing for their country ever since they’ve started playing. It’s no secret, other than that they care and are committed through wins and losses. I’ve just been lucky to be here and to be part of this ride.”
“I think the desire is still there to keep going,” continued McEnroe. “The guys really enjoy these weeks and being with each other. Now that we’ve done it once, I think in some ways the pressure’s off, and we can keep going out there and keep trying and fighting to win another one.”
The knowledge that the United States has played tough matches on the road and on clay – notably, the 2005 World Group Play-Off against Belgium in Leuven and the 2007 first-round series over the Czech Republic in Ostrava – gives the team a sense of confidence as it prepares for Austria.
“We always know that playing on clay and away is tough for us, but the guys are adjusting well,” said McEnroe. “Andy had a great practice this morning. This is part of what makes Davis Cup so special – to come here and play in tough conditions.”
Roddick (26-9) will have two opportunities to tie Arthur Ashe for third on the all-time U.S. singles victory list this weekend.
He’ll get his first shot on Friday, presumably against Koubek or Melzer. He is also just four wins away from tying Andre Agassi for second-place all-time.A combined 10-0 against Koubek (4-0) and Melzer (6-0), including straight-set wins over both in the 2004 Davis Cup first round in Uncasville, Conn., Roddick will be favored in both of his singles matches, but the conditions have changed.
“You can look at that two ways, whether that’s a good thing or if they’re due to win a set or two or three,” said Andy Roddick. “In the matches that I remember, I’ve played some of my best tennis against those two guys for whatever reason. But it’s never been in this type of atmosphere. In their home country, on clay, it’s probably going to be the most difficult situation for me to play them in.”
The 13-1 Bryan brothers are already considered to be one of the greatest Americans tandems of all time. At Portland, they won the title-clinching point for the United States and have been dubbed by many as “Davis Cup lifers.”
“We’re still riding high after winning that,” said Mike Bryan. “I think that was the pinnacle of our career, after just dreaming about Davis Cup for so long and being able to clinch it. Looking back and seeing some of the pictures, seeing Andy and James jump on us, and the celebrations were so fun. It was one of our huge goals, and we accomplished it.”
At the 2008 Australian Open, Bob and Mike were upset in the quarterfinals but view that result as a blip on the radar on what is quickly becoming a hall-of-fame-worthy career.
“Obviously, it was tough to lose a heart-breaker in the quarters,” said Bob Bryan, “but like James said, the schedule never stops, and there’s always the next opportunity. Right after we lost there, we shifted our sights to this match right here. Tennis always gives you that next chance to redeem yourself.”
Veteran Julian Knowle, who teamed with Simon Aspelin of Sweden to win the 2007 US Open men’s doubles title, upsetting the Bryans along the way, is expected to be nominated for Austria and is likely to be paired with Melzer.
With a successful point on Saturday, the Bryans would match the 14-win mark set by two U.S. Davis Cup pairs – Peter Fleming and John McEnroe, and Wilmer Alison and John Van Ryn. The Bryans could conceivably become the new doubles record-holders as soon as April, when the U.S. team would play on home soil in Winston-Salem, N.C., if they advance this weekend.
“For them, especially in doubles in Davis Cup, it’s so important,” said McEnroe. “So I think for them to clinch it is a dream come true. Not just for them to be part of the winning team, but also to win that last point was pretty special. I think the way that it transpired, that each guy won a match and a point, was pretty cool.”
Versus and Tennis Channel will air same-day coverage of the United States vs. Austria first-round series.
Versus coverage begins at 12 p.m. Eastern for all three days of competition, Friday through Sunday. Tennis Channel will continue its Davis Cup prime-time tradition, re-airing coverage daily at 8 p.m. Eastern.
Reporter’s Notebook: Joining the likes of superstar athletes Boris Becker, Ernie Els, Carl Lewis, Pele, Mark Spitz, George Foreman, and Steffi Graf, the entire U.S. Davis Cup team became members of the Vienna Avenue of Champions. Earlier this week, each team member laid a hand down in the cement casting, and Captain Patrick McEnroe’s feet were immortalized on the bronze plaque. On Wednesday night, Austria will host Germany in an international soccer-friendly match at the Ernst Happel Stadion, the site of the 1990 Davis Cup tie between Austria and the United States. Approximately 50,000 fans are expected to attend the national rivalry. The Ernst Happel Stadion will play host to the presitigious 2008 European Cup Final on June 29.