By Jason Brown, USTA.com
MOSCOW -- After enjoying the home-cooking of successful campaigns in La Jolla and Mission Hills, the United States Davis Cup Team packed their bags and flew halfway around the world to Moscow, in preparation for their biggest test yet, a World Group semifinal clash with powerhouse Russia.
On the heels of a remarkable grand slam tournament completed less than two weeks ago, two of the four US Open men’s semifinalists, Andy Roddick and Mikhail Youzhny, are set to compete for their countries, while a third, Nikolay Davydenko, was omitted by Russian team captain Shamil Tarpischev in Thursday’s draw results.
"We're not very surprised," said United States Davis Cup Captain Patrick McEnroe. "We know that the Russians' strength on their team is they have four players that can sub into a match. Davydenko has had some physical problems this week, but that doesn't really change our preparation. It's really about our guys playing their game and slight adjusting to whomever they're going to play. We feel pretty good about our chances."
Both nations vying for a berth in the 2006 Davis Cup Final, the official Davis Cup by BNP Paribas draw ceremony provided some answers to lineup decisions, specifically, on the Russian side.
Amidst various reports that Davydenko, the top-ranked Russian, suffered a shoulder injury that forced his retirement from a tournament in Beijing, Tarpischev reinforced those injury concerns by bypassing the fifth-ranked player in the world, and selecting the streaking Mikhail Youzhny and Marat Safin as his No. 1 and No. 2 singles players, respectively.
Youzhny and Dmitry Tursunov were nominated for the doubles rubber on Saturday, but that could be altered in a strategic, last-minute switch. In Davis Cup play, captains can make substitutions within an hour of match-time.
Asked if Davydenko had been ruled out for the entire weekend, Tarpischev was non-committal, saying that no one player should be discounted from suiting up for Russia, and that he would be strategic in keeping any possible substitutions over the weekend under wraps until his hand was forced.
"All four of our players are ready to play," said Tarpischev, scoffing at the notion that Davydenko was being shelved for the weekend tie. "He very well may play doubles, and he may well be playing singles on the third day, all depending on the specific tactics that we'll pick up."
According to various team officials, Davydenko tried to give his aching shoulder a go in practice sessions, but was deemed not fit to play, at least until Saturday or Sunday.
While McEnroe’s lineup for the semifinal has been locked in since the team arrived in Moscow – No. 1 singles player Roddick followed by No. 2 singles player Blake, with Bob and Mike Bryan manning doubles – the Russian singles and doubles nominations had been shrouded in secrecy.
Playing on the slow, newly-sodden clay surface inside Moscow’s Olympic Stadium, the same site and surface as the first meeting between the U.S. and Russia in the 1995 World Group Final, several entertaining matches are in the offing.
A marquee pairing of former US Open champions, Roddick takes on Russia’s second singles player, Safin, with the opening match beginning at 1 pm local time (5 am eastern) on Friday.
That match will be followed by Blake, ranked ninth, against Youzhny, the nominated No. 1 singles player for Russia. This match will mark the first career meeting between the two lightning-quick players.
“The bottom line is to win three points any way that we can,” said McEnroe. “And the fact that Youzhny is going to play the second match and then maybe the doubles the next day, might give us a slight advantage. Our guys always know what their roles are, so we feel like for us, that’s our advantage.”
On Saturday, Bob and Mike Bryan, the top-ranked doubles team in the world, will meet the Russian duo of Youzhny and Dmitry Tursunov. At the US Open, Youzhny and partner Leos Friedl stunned the Bryans, the men’s defending champions, in the third round.
“Yeah, we do owe him one,” said Mike Bryan about Youzhny, who snapped their consecutive grand slam finals’ streak at seven, dating back to the 2005 Australian Open.
“The US Open is our biggest tournament of the year, the one that we looked the most forward to, and he caught us by surprise. We’re excited about the opportunity to play him two weeks later – it’s going to take the sting away if we win here.”
OLN will televise same-day coverage of the best-of-five match series daily starting at 2 pm eastern. The Tennis Channel will continue its Davis Cup Prime Time tradition, scheduling daily coverage at 8 pm eastern.
Roddick, 7-0 in deciding Davis Cup matches for the United States, has been dubbed by his teammate Blake, “Mariano Rivera," because of his exceptional closing ability.
“He’s playing well. He finally seems to be doing what we all hoped he would in the last couple years, which is play more aggressively and take the ball earlier. Sort of really impose his game a little more,” said McEnroe, on Roddick's career resurgence, reaching the final of the US Open under the steady influence of brother John Roddick, and from a new voice, legendary American tennis star Jimmy Connors.
“He’s got some confidence back. Just the way he’s stepping into the court and being aggressive with the return is a lot more positive. Just coming to net – and even if he gets passed sometimes, he continues to come in. I think a year ago he could have come in a few times, and if he got passed, he’d stop doing it. I think now he realizes that over the course of a match, that will pay off.”
The United States, which has captured the prestigious Davis Cup a record 31 times, defeated Romania, 4-1, in the first round, followed by a thrilling 3-2 triumph over Chile.
Playing on the road in both ties, Russia defeated the Netherlands, 5-0, in Amsterdam, and knocked out France, 4-1, in Pau on indoor carpet.
The winner of the Davis Cup semifinal in Moscow will face either Argentina or Australia in the 2006 World Group Final, December 1-3.
In Buenos Aires, David Nalbandian leads host Argentina on an outdoor clay surface against Australia. After heavy speculation on whether their top player would commit to playing in a hostile environment where he is considered enemy No. 1, Lleyton Hewitt accepted his nomination and will suit up for his country. Hewitt is joined by the resurgent Mark Philippoussis.