By Jason Brown, USTA.com
– Losing his footing but not the match, Andy Roddick fought through slow court conditions, defeating Austria’s Jurgen Melzer in five sets, 6-4, 4-6, 6-3, 6-7(4), 6-3.
Then, seizing a commanding 2-0 lead in the best-of-five World Group series, James Blake of the United States came back from a set down to defeat Stefan Koubek of Austria in Friday’s nightcap, 5-7, 7-5, 6-2, 6-2. Blake came back from a 5-7, 2-5 deficit to rally and win the next three sets. With the win, he improved his Davis Cup singles to 15-8.
"This is probably my best day as captain of the team,'' said U.S. Captain Patrick McEnroe. "Of course, winning the Davis Cup last year was huge, but today I was really impressed by the way the guys battled and showed their physical and mental strength under difficult circumstances.''
Historically, the United States is 156-3 when holding a two points to none lead.
The defending Davis Cup champions will now turn to the 13-1 Bryan brothers, Bob and Mike, to clinch the tie on Saturday The doubles rubber begins at 2 pm local time (8 am Eastern) and will be televised on Versus at 12 pm Eastern.
The opening match in Vienna took 4 hours and 5 minutes to complete. The seventh-longest in Davis Cup history, it was nowhere close to the record 4 hour and 48 minute epic that Roddick played against Russian Dmitry Tursunov in the 2006 Davis Cup semifinals.
“I think too much gets made of five-set experience,” said Roddick. “If someone’s riding a hot racquet, I’d rather feel like the hot player than the experienced one in the middle of a fifth set. But I guess there’s a certain sense of calm knowing that you’ve been through that before.”
Uncharacteristically, Roddick’s mighty serve wasn’t always a weapon. Melzer used the dull court to his advantage, breaking Roddick five times. To his credit, Roddick slammed 21 aces through the dirt, several on break point opportunities.
“It’s obviously frustrating when someone returns your serve so well,” said Roddick. “I think by far that’s the most times that I’ve been broken against him, but clay slows down a serve. You can’t get the spins that you want on it. He was taking it early and he was definitely making his presence felt on the returns.”
Carrying a seven-match Davis Cup winning streak, including a perfect 2007 season, Roddick (27-9) moved into a tie for third-place on the all-time U.S. victory list, sharing elite company with the great Arthur Ashe.
Just 25 years old, only one man, John McEnroe (49), has played more matches in the Stars and Stripes uniform.
“Patrick showed some faith in me early on and kind of let me play my way into becoming an ok Davis Cup player,” said Roddick. “Without his faith and giving me the chance to go out there and play, I probably wouldn’t be saying that. To look at the individual record books in the United States and see that I’m slowly starting to creep up is nice. It’s something that I enjoy.”
At the Ferry Dusika Stadium, originally designed as an indoor cycling center, the court conditions were poor for both players. The ceiling hung low over the court and the lights produced a strange glare difficult for players and fans, alike.
The court was laid down last Wednesday, just six days before Team USA began practice sessions, because of a track and field event in Vienna that ended on Tuesday.
“The court was terrible but it was terrible on both sides,” said Roddick, who later called the temporary clay-court “absolutely” the worst that he’s ever played on in Davis Cup competition.
Under typical ITF regulations, the court would have been in place a few days earlier to that. The result ended with choppy conditions along the baseline, far worse, Roddick said, than what the team experienced on indoor clay during the 2006 semifinals in Moscow.
Still, Roddick persevered through the match undeterred. Evening his Davis Cup record on the road to 7-7 and one game under .500 (6-7) on clay, the American No. 1 won the first three games of the match en route to a quick one-set advantage.
Up two sets to one, Roddick was broken in the eighth game of the fourth set as the 57th-ranked Melzer extended the match to a decisive fifth set.
"I tried telling all of you all week that it was going to be a tough match,” said Roddick. “The conditions probably were more favorable for him than they had been in our previous matches. I think the crowd support helped him. I thought he played pretty well, but I’m happy to have gotten a win for our team.”
Pushed to five sets in a Davis Cup match for the third time in his career, Roddick’s experience and toughness shined as Melzer began to wilt.
After Melzer broke Roddick to seize an early advantage in the fifth, Roddick reeled off four consecutive games, including back-to-back breaks, to pull away.
The last time that Roddick won a five-setter on the road, he defeated Belgium’s Olivier Rochus in Leuven on clay, a crucial victory that secured the United States a berth in the 2006 World Group.
Playing as defending champions has given Roddick and his teammates newfound freedoms, for the first time in years allowing them to play with minimal pressure.
“Probably a little bit less,” Roddick agreed of the pressure. “We’ve kind of accomplished our goal, but I don’t think that makes us any less hungry. I’m maybe just a little bit less nervous before a match.”
Set up to be a high-quality affair, the top-ranked Bryan brothers carry their imposing Davis Cup doubles record into the fray against a Top 10 doubles player in Julian Knowle and Melzer.
“I think this was the best team that they could put together,” said Mike Bryan, who later praised Knowle’s clean ball-striking ability, especially on the return of serve.
“They’ve played many matches before. We’ve played a lot of teams before that were make-shift teams that played out to our advantage, but this is a team that’s established. It’s going to be a tough test for us.”
“Obviously, they’re the best team in the world,” said Julian Knowle, who partnered with Sweden’s Simon Aspelin to upset the Bryan brothers at the 2007 US Open en route to their first Grand Slam doubles title together.
“It’s very difficult to beat them, and it’s even more difficult to beat them in a best-of-five set match. The Bryans like to play on clay, but we’re going to give our best and see what happens on Saturday.”
Steady partners for over a year and a half, Knowle and Jurgen Melzer parted their separate ways in April of 2007 because of a nagging wrist injury to Melzer. Reunited, they face a stern test.
In Sunday’s reverse singles (12:30 pm local time, 6:30 am Eastern), the team No.1’s, Roddick and Koubek, will play the first match, followed by Blake against Melzer.
“There probably is going to be some similarities, but it's going to be different,” said Roddick. “I think Koubek plays a little bit more spin goes for broke a little bit more from the baseline.”
“Melzer can maybe play some drop-shots and come into the net and play some volleys," he added. "So similar in the fact that they're both lefties and can kind of get that lefty spin on the ball, but the intricacies of the game are a bit different.”
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.
The winner of the United States and Austria will meet either France or Romania in the quarterfinals. France leads Romania, 2-0, behind the strength of wins from Richard Gasquet and Jo-Wlifried Tsonga.
If France and the United States win their respective ties, the Americans would host the French, April 11-13, at the Joel Coliseum in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The Joel Coliseum hosted the 2006 Davis Cup Quarterfinals between the United States and Spain.