Here’s how bad it is for the U.S. team in the Davis Cup: The squad lost in the first round of World Group play this past weekend to Great Britain, a nation that had not won a single WG match (a “tie” in Davis Cup patois) in 30 years.
Not bad enough for you? Try this: The previous time a visiting British team beat the U.S., we were just three years into the new century -- the 20th century (1903).
As U.S. Davis Cup coach Jim Courier said sardonically, when he was asked Sunday how all of that felt: "It feels great to be alive in 2014. We certainly don't feel a lot of kinship to the last team that lost to the Brits on American soil since they've been dead a long time."
The man most responsible for the breakthrough win by the Brits in San Diego was Jamie Ward, a 26-year-old English journeyman ranked No. 175 in the world. His upset of Sam Querrey in the second match (or "rubber") ensured that as long as heavily favored Andy Murray -- by far the best player on either team in this matchup -- won his two singles matches, the Brits could salt away the tie.
Granted, John Isner is the highest ranking U.S. player (No. 13 in the ATP rankings), and he had to withdraw from the team at the 11th hour because of a continuing right ankle injury. He was replaced by Donald Young, who got blown to pieces by Murray in the opening match in San Diego. But that was just a preview of “ugly.” Ward then recovered from a terrible start to beat Querrey in four sets -- the final one so dismal that Querrey won just one game.
This latest insult to the great tradition of U.S. tennis seems emblematic of our woes in the larger picture. It just seems that the U.S. never could get traction in the effort to find Grand Slam contenders to pick up where players like Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Courier and Andy Roddick left off. Young, once a prodigy, has become just another struggling ATP journeyman. Ryan Harrison, another highly touted youngster, is flailing around outside the ATP top 100. And Isner and Querrey, though solid ATP pros, just haven’t produced the impressive wins. They’ve been to a grand total of one Grand Slam quarterfinal between them (Isner, US Open, 2011).
The Davis Cup gives us a pretty good lens through which to view this struggle. Though U.S. fortunes were already crumbling during the Roddick-James Blake-Mardy Fish years, the U.S. was at least competitive in Davis Cup play, and it won the event in 2007. Granted, the singles guys got tremendous help from Bob and Mike Bryan, the superb doubles specialists who have played an outsized role in the consistent success of the American squad.
Isner and Querrey were the heirs apparent in singles, and they were gifted the Bryan brothers to take some of the pressure off (the Bryans did their job in San Diego, winning the doubles). Isner and Querrey made a promising debut as the singles players in a World Group first-round tie in March 2010 against Serbia. At one point that year, both were ranked in the top 20 and considered potential future stars. The U.S. lost that tie, but there was no shame in it -- the tie was in Belgrade, on red clay, and the Serbs had Novak Djokovic.
Fish saved the U.S. squad from the humiliation of falling out of the World Group later that fall by winning two singles and teaming with Isner to take the doubles in the playoff round later that year (only the winners in the playoff round remain in the World Group, tennis’ major league). In subsequent years, Roddick, the Bryan brothers and Isner kept the United States in the World Group. The squad even made the semifinals in 2012 before losing the away tie to Spain.
Isner emerged as an excellent Davis Cup player. Unfortunately, Querrey did not. His singles record has fallen to 3-6, if you discount two meaningless dead rubbers (those are matches played after the five-rubber tie is already decided).
The Davis Cup mirrors Querrey’s day-to-day struggles on tour. He’s down to No. 55 now, but he certainly has time to get his game together before the Davis Cup playoff round in September. If he can’t manage to improve, though, the U.S. -- still the most successful of all Davis Cup nations -- could very well stumble out of the World Group for the first time since 1987.