U.S. Davis Cup hopes for 2010 seemed doomed when Andy Roddick and James Blake, the two stalwart singles players on captain Pat McEnroe's squad for nearly a decade, declared they wouldn't play in the upcoming tie against Serbia. But slim-to-none might really be decent-to-pretty-darned-good when the new-look U.S. team, featuring singles players John Isner and Sam Querrey, storms the Belgrade Arena.
In Davis Cup, everybody talks about the challenges of playing on the road, in arenas packed with hostile fans, but the real pressure for all but the most self-assured and experienced stars is manifest in home ties. Think of it this way: If you're going to hurl after eating or drinking a little too much, would you rather do it surrounded by strangers in a restaurant or at a dinner party for 15?
The singles players backing up Novak Djokovic for the Serbs are Viktor Troicki and Janko Tipsarevic, ranked Nos. 35 and 36, respectively. The latter is a seasoned Davis Cup player, although his best win in recent years was over a player ranked in the 70s, Denis Istomin. Troicki, by contrast, has played just eight matches (he's 6-2), and he's lost the only "live" singles rubber he's played against a top-50 opponent (Nikolay Davydenko).
Yet team captain Bogdan Obradovic -- somewhat puzzlingly -- selected Troicki over Tipsarevic for singles. I suppose he wants to save "Tipsy" for the doubles, figuring that with outstanding doubles specialist Nenad Zimonjic on hand, the Serbs could pull the upset of Bob and Mike Bryan.
Only one match has to be pulled from a hat for Davis Cup ties, because the rules stipulate that the two No. 1 players meet in the fourth match of a tie. Thus, the only question is the order of the No. 1 versus No. 2 matches on opening day. Once that's determined, the rest of the lineup falls into place.
McEnroe and his young squad caught a nice break when Troicki-Isner was drawn as the tie-opening match; it sure beats opening with Djokovic-Querrey. Isner has even less experience than Troicki, but he is ranked 15 spots above his rival, puts a lot of pressure on opponents with his serve and even on clay will be looking to end points quickly.
Theoretically, Troicki's playing on clay, at home, against a Davis Cup rookie wipes out Isner's 15-place ranking advantage, but only the first of those conditions (the surface) can clearly be called an advantage. The home-crowd factor could go either way, and if Troicki has a little more Davis Cup experience, he's also going to be subject to higher expectations against a guy who's never tasted Davis Cup glory before.
Isner's power-based game and need to end points quickly could keep Troicki from getting into a good clay-court groove, and the assorted pressures of Troicki's situation surely will work on him. And if the so-called U.S. B-team wins the first rubber, the pressure on all the Serbs will only get that much more intense. You have to give the edge to the Bryans in the doubles, so even if Djokovic comes through and wins both singles, a Querrey win over Troicki in the decisive fifth rubber is entirely plausible.
That's Davis Cup; one great player can get you far -- but not quite over the finish line.