By Deborah B. Pullen, Special to USTA.com
Winston-Salem, N. C. – The courts were a little smaller this time for the U.S. Davis Cup Champions. The opponents were smaller, too.
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James Blake traded groundstrokes with a four-year old tot swinging a scaled-down racket just his size, on a 36-foot court with a two-foot nine-inch net. The colorful foam ball the size of a grapefruit is all part of the new QuickStart Tennis format, designed to attract American kids to the sport of tennis.
USTA officials estimated that 1,500 area fans jammed the public courts at Hanes Park to participate in the USTA’s Sunday afternoon Block Party. Amid the red, white and blue balloons bobbing in the cold were the players everyone had come to see: the current world champions of Davis Cup, who had brought the cup back home after the longest U. S. drought in history.
When U.S. Davis Cup Captain Patrick McEnroe's 2007 team defeated Russia in the final in Portland last November, it was the first Davis Cup title for the U.S. since 1995. The same team is back and hungry to keep the huge cup.
The U.S. team of James Blake, Andy Roddick and Bob and Mike Bryan continues its quest to repeat as Davis Cup champion this week as it faces France in the quarterfinals at Joel Coliseum in Winston-Salem April 11-13.
“You’re our lucky charm!” McEnroe told watching fans as he batted foam shots with students on the court. McEnroe, Mike and Bob Bryan and Blake told fans and media at the Hanes Park press conference that winning Winston-Salem’s tie against Spain last year got the team off on the right foot to reclaim the Cup at last.
“For me it has fond memories of 2001 (against India), and playing my first match here,” said Blake.
He remembered losing to France on red clay in 2002 with Clement and Llodra in the line-up then as well; and says that this time the advantages go to Team USA.
“We’re gonna have the advantage on those big points of having the crowd to support us and having the surface we want to play on, and a little more experience,” said Blake. “Now Andy and I feel like we’ve been in this situation many more times, and coming through last year is going to make our confidence soar so that we can accomplish this again.”
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McEnroe’s eight year coaching reign as Davis Cup captain will now extend into the kids that QuickStart Tennis is designed to draw. His new role as General Manager of USTA’s Elite Player Development program, headquartered at the USTA Training Center in Florida, will offer magnified opportunities for young players to enter the pipeline towards professional careers. McEnroe’s successful vision for a committed Davis Cup team is the foundation of this new outreach.
“This team has captured the imagination of a lot of people because they are really committed and they really care about it," he said. "I always felt that the camaraderie of the team made the difference. If you could have a team that cared about what each other did…that’s the little X-factor that could make a difference.”
McEnroe chose his 2001 Davis Cup team with potential in mind, taking players like Andy Roddick, James Blake and Mardy Fish and building not only confidence but an identity as a team. It’s a philosophy he now wants to pass on to the future Andy Roddicks and James Blakes still in grade school.
“Everyone has to start somewhere,” said Mardy Fish, who fresh off a win over Federer at Palm Springs is McEnroe’s safety net if Roddick, Blake or the Bryans can’t play. “I started in my basement…in Minnesota when I was two.” He also praised the QuickStart program’s ability to play tennis and have fun.
“It will allow kids to learn quicker, faster and better,” said Kelly Gaines, Executive Director of N. C. Tennis Association, a division of USTA. “Their technique will be better than if they had to wield a big racket.”
USTA’s Sunday afternoon Block Party also featured a mini-tournament for 96 adult players in 35, 45 and 55-age brackets, a fast serve station and art station to paint wooden one-foot rackets. Winston-Salem Davis Cup volunteer Alex Rucker looked at the eager fans lining Hanes Parks’ courts and smiled.
“It’s generated a lot of enthusiasm. I’d say there are a gazillion kids over there waiting,” he said.