While all eyes are on the Davis Cup World Group semifinals, being fought out starting today in France and Serbia, the U.S. team is playing a tie that may be second to the final in significance and potential repercussions.
A green American squad led by veteran Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe (it's his swan song as U.S. captain) is bunkered up in the Plaza de Toros La Santamaria in Bogota, Colombia, and fighting to retain its place in the World Group. Any time a team plays an away match in a Spanish-speaking land and in a stadium including the world toros (bulls), it's potentially in deep doo-doo, I don't care how poetic the entire five-word string sounds. Santamaria!
The genius of the World Group concept, much like in the divisional format of soccer, is that job No. 1 for any team that hopes to contend is remaining up in that elite first division, or World Group. Each year, half the teams (the losers in the first round) have to battle to keep their places in the World Group, and the alternating choice-of-ground rule (all teams take turns hosting ties) guarantees that they can't take anything for granted.
For example, the U.S. (without the services of its veterans, Andy Roddick and James Blake) is in a do-or-die situation because the squad lost to Serbia, on indoor clay in Belgrade, back in March. It must now beat Colombia this weekend to vie for the Davis Cup in 2011. If the U.S. loses in the Colombian bullring, it will have to battle its way back through zonal competition in hopes of getting back into the elite first division for 2012.
The last time the U.S. team was in a comparable situation was in 1987 when the team, led by Patrick's brother John McEnroe, was upset in the first-round of World Group play at Paraguay. Guess who the U.S. drew for the critical "playoff" or "relegation" round? Germany, led by some kid named Boris Becker.
It's never known which teams will run into each other in these situations. Compared to a World Group playoff tie, a quarterfinal and even semifinal is a piece of cake, with nothing but up-side.
The U.S. lost that last playoff-round match at Germany on outdoor clay, and had to fight through Peru and Argentina to get back into the World Group, in which it visited a little payback on Paraguay, winning 5-0 at home. Two years elapsed in the interim.
I expect the U.S. to survive this playoffs, despite the relative inexperience of the squad (for the first time since forever, the Bryan brothers aren't making the trip). I think the North American men will be motivated by a desire to send McEnroe -- one of the most popular U.S. captains, ever -- out with a win. Mardy Fish brings just the right veteran leadership to inspire Sam Querrey and John Isner, who have both developed in 2010.
The elevation at the Plaza de Toros (over 8,000 feet) might appear to be an asset for the U.S. team, given how balls fly at altitude, but the Colombians chose to use pressure-less Tretorn balls. They play like little rocks. So the U.S. men have their work cut out for them. "We have to play really aggressive early," Fish said after the draw ceremony. "We are looking to strike first and finish the point early."
Those are scary words, given the balls and surface. The U.S. obviously is going to roll the die. All in all, this tie, and all the issues it engenders, is a pretty good example of Davis Cup at its best. It is also the most nerve-wracking.