Jim Courier, the new U.S. Davis Cup captain, recorded his first big win the other day even though his team hasn't played an official tie yet. That comes later -- a World Group first-round battle in Chile, where the hosts undoubtedly will choose to play on Andy Roddick's least favorite surface, red clay.
Roddick's decision gives Team USA an enormous boost; Courier is a rookie captain (but a veteran Davis Cup performer) with a great doubles team (Mike and Bob Bryan) at his disposal. Right off the bat, Roddick has provided the American singles players with a good reason to ratchet up their games because Courier's choices are expanded.
John Isner, who's 25, and 23-year-old Sam Querrey both played Davis Cup this year, and the twin towers appeared to be the heirs apparent to the singles jobs. But this past summer, a resurgent Mardy Fish inserted himself into the conversation, and he ended up as the hero of the September playoffs-round win over Colombia. Suddenly, the line of succession isn't so obvious.
Granted, the tournaments early next year will have a major impact on team selection, but it's hard to imagine that Roddick would be left off the squad that travels to Chile shortly after the Australian Open. It's hard to imagine that Roddick won't be on that team. And Bob and Mike Bryan have been as stalwart in the Davis Cup effort as Roddick. And that's where Courier is likely to meet some intriguing problems.
Having a go-to doubles team such as the Bryans has been a godsend for the U.S., but dedicating two places on a four-man team to players who can't really help you in singles carries some risk, especially when you don't have two singles players (such as Roddick and longtime top-10 player James Blake) who figuratively tower over their compatriots.
Former U.S. captain Patrick McEnroe faced this dilemma in advance of the World Group playoffs this September, when the team traveled to Colombia. Fish, Isner and Querrey were similarly credentialed singles competitors but also excellent doubles players. McEnroe toyed with the idea of taking along just one Bryan as a doubles specialist, thereby broadening his singles options.
But the Bryans, with their outstanding 16-2 record in Davis Cup, don't like to be broken up. I'm not even sure they would agree to the move (note that neither of them ultimately made the trip to Colombia), and trying to force them to accept the de facto demotion would guarantee Courier a healthy dose of controversy at the start of his tenure.
If this is indeed going to be a problem, it's unlikely it will surface in the opening tie. Fernando Gonzalez, Chile's sole singles star, might not even be ready (he had hip surgery late this year, plus he's over 30 -- a daunting combination). And veteran Nicolas Massu is even older than Gonzalez. His last result was a singles loss to Ivo Minar of the Czech Republic earlier this year. Massu won all of five games, but it was a moral victory for the AARP contingent.
If the U.S. survives Chile, in all likelihood it will host Spain. And in close ties, having a third man who can play singles, as Serbia and France demonstrated just a few days ago, can be an enormous factor (both teams elected substitutes to play the fifth and decisive rubber).
Roddick's decision to play this year both clarifies and muddies the Davis Cup picture for the U.S.