Wednesday, April 11, 2012

U.S. Marching on Against All Odds

By Mert Ertunga

When USA Davis Cup team began last Friday their encounter against the French, it was almost like a flashback to two months ago. On February 7th, Mardy Fish walked on the court to play the first match against the Swiss player Stanislas Wawrinka in a first-round Davis Cup tie in which the Americans were clearly the underdogs. The match took place in Switzerland, on red clay, and the Swiss team was going to profit from the services of Roger Federer, appearing for the first time in a first-round main draw tie for his country since 2004. Two days later, the Americans stunned the world by winning the first three matches and declaring victory before even Sunday came around.

Fifty-seven days later, when the young American Ryan Harrison walked to the court to play the first match of the tie against France in the second round, it seemed as if the match against Switzerland never took place, and in the eyes of the tennis world, the Americans were once again supposed to lose. It was again an away match, this time on the red clay courts of the Monte-Carlo Country Club. The Americans did not even have Mardy Fish this time around, and his absence was a bigger blow to USA than the absence of Gaëlle Monfils was to the French, who were able to replace him with a regular top-20 player in Gilles Simon.

Just like two months ago, USA walked away with the upset, beating the French 3-2 on their home court. The tie generated little interest in the USA, only a few reporters making the trip overseas to cover the tie directly. French commentators expressed their surprise on how little "Americans cared" about this tie. Unluckily for them, captain Jim Courier and the American team did care, a lot, and that is what mattered the most on the court.

Harrison gave a valiant effort against Tsonga despite losing in four sets. Simon and John Isner were to follow. The French were already talking about whether they could close the door on the Americans Saturday by winning the doubles match, never mind that Isner took out Roger Federer on red clay two months before, recorded an ATP Tour win over the world No. 1 Novak Djokovic, and cracked the top 10 for the first time in his career, all during the first quarter of 2012.

Not everyone overlooked the giant Isner: one of the headlines in the program for the day at the club read "Isner: un building made in USA" — surely there is no need to translate that one! It talked about how the sheer power of Isner's strokes and serve can throw his opponents off, never allowing them to settle into their element. That is precisely what took place in the next match; Simon submitted to the power of the "building" over and over again, and was defeated in three sets.

The worry was planted in the French's minds. Guy Forget, the experienced French Captain, was well aware of the danger facing his team, as he continuously reminded the media of how dangerous this "fresh" American team could be, days prior to the beginning of the tie. His worries were justified on Saturday when Bob and Mike Brian took out Michael Llodra and Julien Bennetteau, who are both excellent doubles players. Llodra summarized what happened in a concise sentence: "we took it on the teeth."

When Sunday rolled around, home fans were still optimistic. After all, their star, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, has had a more accomplished career than Isner, and the match was on red clay, which seems to be, for many years now, the emblematic quote for saying "Americans can't win." The "building," however, had other thoughts.

Isner took it to Tsonga at every stage of the first two sets, outplaying the French player even from the baseline in many instances. Down two sets to none, the crowd was bewildered, for the first time facing the reality that they were about to see Guy Forget's last day as the captain of the French Davis Cup team; he announced previously that he was retiring after this year.

Tsonga did provide them with a ray of hope by winning the third set. During the break at the end of the third set, the French's belief was back. A couple of the players on the French bench who were sparring partners for their team, Michael Llodra, and French Tennis Federation President Jean Gachassin were completely elated in their short interviews about that moment, and in their excitement, one of them went as far as saying that Isner was now "done." Once again, Isner was being underestimated, and once again, he proved everyone wrong.

He walked back out and got the break immediately to go up 3-0 in the fourth set, never looking back. From there until the end of the match, the big shots kept raining down relentlessly on Tsonga. At one point, the French player felt so helpless that he was heard murmuring, "He [Isner] has an answer to everything I throw at him, and he throws back some at me to which I have no answer!" At the end of the match, U.S. Davis Cup team was celebrating their second improbable victory in a row in two months. Jim Courier admitted later in an interview that when he first saw the draw, he was already thinking about hoping to stay in the World Group at the end of the year.

In the semifinals, Courier and his squad must face Spain, once again in an away match that is surely going to take place on red clay. They will again be considered huge underdogs against a Spanish team that has not lost at home since 1999. Will Spain underestimate the Americans like the Swiss and the French did? Probably not this time around, even though the U.S. team would probably feel more in their element if they were greatly underestimated!

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