OSTRAVA, CZECH REPUBLIC –
By Jason Brown, USTA.com
Playing like the team stopper, a role that he has excelled at for the United States so often in the past, Andy Roddick started the opening match strong and ended with a flourish, defeating Davis Cup first-timer Ivo Minar of the Czech Republic in four sets, 6-4, 4-6, 6-2, 6-3, giving the Americans an early 1-0 lead.
That score would be leveled at one point apiece by day’s end, after Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic defeated American James Blake in four hard-fought sets, 6-1, 2-6, 7-5, 7-5.
The second match, which featured flurries of eye-pleasing tennis from both sides of the net, was marred by a controversial call by the chair umpire.
Down a set to Berdych but threatening with a break point on the Czech’s serve at 2-2 in the fourth frame, Blake contested what he and the U.S. team's bench believed to be an obvious double fault.
Instead, the chair umpire ruled that because Blake didn’t stop playing the point, he couldn’t overrule the decision and reward the American.
While it was not apparent whether that non-call will come back to haunt the U.S., their captain believes that they remain in excellent position.
“I’d prefer to be out there in the fifth set, which probably should have happened, but it was a very well-played match by both guys,” said U.S. Davis Cup Captain Patrick McEnroe, whose view of the point in question was on the same side of the service box where the ball had landed.
“I thought James played very well, and Andy did, too, particularly the last two sets. So I think, overall, it was a positive day for us but could have been a lot better. You feel good about our chances, and James will just put this behind him, know that he played well, and be ready to potentially play a fifth match if it gets to that.”
Before play started on the first day of the best-of-five World Group series in front of a 7,500-fan strong, sold-out CEZ Arena, a converted hockey arena in downtown Ostrava, Roddick was clued in that the U.S. team had fallen behind, 0-1, in eight of their last nine ties. Roddick was determined to get the team on the winning track this time around.
“I didn’t know this stat before the match, but I guess we’ve been down in the past, 1-0, eight or nine times, something like that, so it’s nice to have it be a little bit different,” said Roddick, who improved his Davis Cup singles record to 21-9 with the victory.
“And especially in a tough match, at one set all, it was looking a little dicey, so it’s nice to come through and pull out those last two sets.”
A match that lasted 2 hours, 12 minutes, Roddick split the first two sets and experienced a few nervous moments while the match was hanging in the balance. But it was nothing that the fourth-ranked player in the world couldn’t handle. Sticking to his game plan, Roddick pinned the 160th-ranked Minar well behind the baseline and picked his moments to attack.
“I thought that he was going to play aggressively and high-risk tennis. I felt that maybe that was his best chance to win,” said Rodidck, a portrait of efficiency at 44 winners to just 18 unforced errors over four sets, in contrast to his 22-year-old Czech opponent, who hit 52 winners but unraveled to the tune of 31 errors.
“When you play a big match in those circumstances, you’re either going to play really well or very badly. It’s rare when you sort of play in the middle. The first two sets, I thought that he played very well. I felt like I was putting him in some difficult positions, and he was coming up with some good shots.”
But Roddick’s biggest asset on this day was his world-class serve, the stroke that has gained him accolades and a Grand Slam title at the US Open. On a fairly slow- to mid-paced indoor clay surface, Roddick struck 28 aces, each one counted out in unison by the U.S. Davis Cup supporter group, the Net Heads.
“I thought that I had been hitting my serve very well during the week, as well as I have since last summer,” said Roddick, owner of the fastest serve in tennis, clocked upwards of 154 mph. “Even in Australia, I didn’t feel that I served that well. It got me out of some tough situations today, definitely.”
In fact, one of those 28 rockets landed in the chest of Czech President Vaclav Klaus, sitting in the box directly behind the middle of the court. Asked if he knew what world leader he had struck when his serve leaped down the tee of the service box and out of Minar’s reach, Roddick said he was clueless.
“I didn’t notice that,” said Roddick, “but I said in warm-up that most of the time, there’s a net behind the wall, and I saw that this one didn’t have one, so someone might be dodging some tennis balls today. But I promise you that it was nothing personal.”
Extremely satisfied with the on-court conditions, Roddick praised the Ostrava grounds crew for creating a level playing field, the well-manicured and brightly lit CEZ Arena, that produced few bad bounces for either player.
“I think the court is in a lot better shape than it was in Moscow," said Roddick, referring to the conditions of the red clay at the Olympic Stadium, when the U.S. fell to Russia in the 2006 World Group Semifinals.
“Moscow was disappointing, to say the least, as far as the conditions were concerned. Here is a lot better -– you aren’t taking huge chunks out of the court. I had a couple of bad bounces today, but that’s clay, so you just hope that they don't happen on really big points.”
A key stat to the match, other than his two dozen-plus ace tally, Roddick was extremely efficient at net, several of which were deftly touched over on the forehand and backhand side for 4 of his 12 break-point opportunities.
“Early on, I was really playing back in the first set,” said Roddick. “I had him running a lot; I liked how the points were being constructed. Later on in the match, I tried to come forward a bit more, and maybe he wasn’t in the same position as he was in the first set. Overall, I felt very comfortable at the net. I don’t know what my conversion rate was, but I assume that it was pretty high.”
Now at a distinct advantage -– when the United States wins the first rubber of a Davis Cup tie, it holds a 172-17 record, when it loses, it treads water at 29-44 -– it was up to Blake, the second singles player for the U.S., to carry the momentum.
Taking on the Czech’s top gun, Blake carried the confidence that only a career 2-0 record against the world’s 12th-ranked player can bring.
Spurred on by the fans that had packed the CEZ arena, Berdych seized the first set, which was quickly followed by a rebuttal from Blake, who leveled the match at one set apiece. This set the stage for the turning point of the match at two-all in the fourth. The third of four break-point opportunities on Berdych’s serve, Blake was about to sprint back to the bench with new-found life, when the tables were turned on him by the umpire’s decision.
“I felt like it was my point,” said Blake, obviously still fuming over the call less than 20 minutes removed from coming off the court.
"He missed the serve, the umpire admitted that he missed the serve, but that I was still playing at deuce. To me, that seems wrong. I hit the return, a reflex shot, but apparently I didn’t stop enough. Maybe next time I’ll sit down on the court Indian-style and raise my hand, but it seems silly to me. It was obviously a very important point of the match. It could have turned the entire match around, to get an early break in the fourth set. He admitted that he made a mistake, which is rare for an umpire, and that mistake cost me today.”
Blake contended that the umpire made two errors, but the umpire agreed on the only judgment call in question that mattered to the end result.
Both men agreed that the ball, which should have been a double-fault giving Blake a break of serve, was out. Stating that in clay-court tennis, the player is allowed to reflex the ball back, Blake felt that the shot was struck so fast that that was his only defense.
“I heard my bench say that it was out,” continued Blake. “I looked at the mark, and it was out, and I stopped. I stood there and didn’t move. I didn’t take one step. He, the chair umpire, said that I didn’t stop fast enough; that in his judgment, I reacted to the ball. I’ve got to call it as I see it. It was out, and I should be sitting on the bench up 3-2.”
Ultimately, though, the end result is all the matters. The United States and the Czech Republic are deadlocked at one point apiece heading into Saturday’s doubles rubber featuring top-ranked twins Bob and Mike Bryan. They will take on an established doubles pair, Lukas Dlouhy and Pavel Vizner. The match will be broadcast on VERSUS beginning at Noon eastern time, followed by an encore performance on the Tennis Channel beginning at 8 p.m.