Cohesive unit unites U.S. Davis Cup team

There will be banners and bunting festooning Portland Memorial Coliseum this weekend, costume jewelry for this old battle axe of an arena where the U.S. team will host Russia in the first Davis Cup final on home hard court since 1992.

A color guard will march out before the matches on each of the three days and national anthems will be sung, and the four U.S. players who have formed an unusually cohesive unit these last few years will stand at attention in navy blue and white outfits, distinguished by the supra-national corporate logos of their respective sponsors.

National pride gets top billing at Davis Cup, but there will be another, subtler unifying force on display. These players play for each other, and that connection is what compels them to devote themselves to this intense, episodic, best-of-five series that some of their peers regard as an inconvenient chore.

It was a harmonic convergence: A pair of indomitable, sunny twins from southern California, a thoughtful, late-bloomer from the New York suburbs and a brash, emotional serving phenom from the heartland emerged at roughly the same time, tuned into the same frequency from the start. Now Bob and Mike Bryan, James Blake and Andy Roddick are indivisible, with a mutual allegiance that defies the conventions of this narcissistic sport.

True team spirit among tennis professionals is rare and might seem as anachronistic as the 107-year-old sterling silver Davis Cup trophy itself, first hoisted on the grounds of something called a cricket club.

Yet this unity is for real, and has been borne out time after time by roll call alone. Getting the best players to show up is often the first and biggest challenge of Davis Cup. These four haven't, and wouldn't, beg off for anything other than serious injury.

They hold the weeks precious. They get to step off the repetitive treadmill of the season and look at each other around a poker table or a dinner table instead of looking into the mirror. They get to have a few laughs and spread the pressure around.

Roddick has missed one round in seven years, the Bryans none in the four years since they were first named to the squad. Blake began playing in 2001, the same year as Roddick, and regained his place in 2005 after more than a year's absence due to injury and illness. The current U.S. lineup has been undisturbed for more than two years.

U.S. captain Patrick McEnroe has the event in his blood. Yet even he was startled by the Bryans' passion for it the first time they played, in 2003. The brothers campaigned openly to convince McEnroe that their worth as a doubles team outweighed the risk of not having a third pure singles player as a sub in case of injury. He finally rolled the dice and sent them out against Slovakia after the twins reached No. 1 in the world.

"They're all pumped up, they do their warm-up, and they come over and they're getting their towels and I said, 'OK guys, let's go, good luck, blah blah blah, let's do it,' whatever," McEnroe said. "And they turned and looked at me and said, 'We've been waiting 25 years for this moment.'"

Ridiculous. Right? But the Bryans say this kind of action-hero stuff about Davis Cup all the time. Anyone who has spent five minutes with them knows they mean it and can see destiny in a photograph of the two boys at age 9, grinning and waving flags at their first exposure to the event.

Of course, Davis Cup offers the sport's best showcase for doubles, with a dedicated day for the pivotal third match, so it's not entirely surprising that the Bryans would be eager to enlist. They say they get more fan mail after winning a Davis Cup match than a Grand Slam final.

What's more intriguing is the dedication of Roddick, who got his initial taste of Davis Cup as an undersized, peripatetic young kid when his older brother Lawrence took him to Fort Worth, Texas, to see Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, Jim Courier and John McEnroe take on Switzerland in the 1992 final.

Many children are enchanted by heroes or heroines at an early age. Very few get to live out the fantasy of succeeding them. Amid ups and downs, technique tweaks and coaching changes, Roddick's one constant has been his love affair with Davis Cup.

His main problem in the early days was steadying his nerves. He cared too much. Once Roddick learned to handle the environment, he thrived. It gave him a chance to be a team catalyst, to channel the temperament that might have helped him become a clutch hitter or a buzzer-beating shooter had he veered into another sport.

"All these other guys understand the team concept," Roddick said in October as he killed time before an exhibition match outside Philadelphia. "The Bryans went to Stanford, so they're big into it, and having played with each other forever, they get what it takes. James was the same way at Harvard. I'm probably the only guy who hadn't experienced that team aspect, and I love it. I'm drawn to it. I used to watch my brother's college matches and go nuts. I love the camaraderie."

Roddick admitted something else -- he's spoiled by the comfort level he has with his teammates. He can't imagine trying to win this event with guys he didn't like, or with whom he had a mere professional relationship.

"I'd like to think that you could put your differences aside and work towards a common goal, but I just don't know," he said.

No one on this team has a problem with anyone else's gravitational field. That may be because their roles are so well-established: Roddick is the No. 1, Blake the No. 2, the Bryans play on Saturday, and all of them have known each other forever.

Roddick and the Bryans met as kids. The Bryans played Blake and his brother Thomas in college competition. Roddick and Blake mouthed off at each other during their first encounter, at 18 and 21, respectively, at a lower-level tournament in California. They later got to know each other because, Roddick said, "We were the only young Americans at the tournaments in '01, '02 -- we were almost forced together."

Blake and Roddick made their first joint Davis Cup appearance when the U.S. faced relegation at home against India in 2001. The tie was postponed after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 of that year, infusing the act of representing the United States with a sense of higher purpose that made a huge impression on both players.

The Bryans bought a house in Tampa last year to be close to Blake and Mardy Fish. Fish, who has played ably in Davis Cup and will be in Portland as an extra player and practice partner, lived with Roddick's family during the year they went to the same high school in Florida, and the other veteran practice partner, Robby Ginepri, is in the social circle as well.

These guys enjoy doing things together. Watching football, playing ping pong. There's a positive peer pressure. They're all in it together and they're all as committed as the next one.

-- Patrick McEnroe

It may seem strange that these players are so intent on winning an event whose relevance is constantly questioned and whose Byzantine schedule befuddles even devoted fans. McEnroe, who has the best vantage point to comment, thinks he knows why.

"They came along at a time in American tennis when they're following this greatest generation of American tennis players ever," he said. "'How come you're not as good as Andre and Pete? Where's the next great American player? American tennis, forget it.' So I think that's helped bond them together. It's their way to sort of combat that idea that they're not as good as that previous generation.

"These guys enjoy doing things together. Watching football, playing ping pong. There's a positive peer pressure. They're all in it together and they're all as committed as the next one."

This captain knows a little bit about what it's like to follow a hard act to follow, and he may have been the perfect person to help fuse a bunch of players who have had to toil for respect. McEnroe found a way to reconcile the burden and the privilege of his name and maximized his talent. Roddick has remained motivated to improve in the Age of Federer, when chances at major titles have shrunk considerably for everyone. The Bryans have fought to keep their specialty commercially viable.

Blake has had less success than his teammates in Davis Cup, but it would be rash to underestimate him this weekend, despite a 2007 season that had the feel of a slow backslide at times.

He has crushed the odds his whole life largely because of the continuous loyalty of family, friends, and an unswerving coach. Blake is always interested in proving that people are wrong about him, but more than that, he's a competitor fueled by gratitude, and there are few people to whom he feels more indebted than his Davis Cup teammates.

"These guys have been great to me," Blake said simply in a recent conference call with reporters. A Davis Cup title would be "the shining moment of my career," he added later.

Comradeship alone does not win matches; after all, the U.S. team did win three titles in the '90s with great players who were not best friends. Nor do past results, even though Roddick and Blake are a combined 11-0 against Russia's top player, No. 4 Nikolay Davydenko, who is still laboring in the smog of an ongoing match-fixing investigation.

The alternately maddening and endearing Russian Davis Cup stalwart Marat Safin, a key to the country's 2002 and 2006 titles, bailed out of this year's semifinals against Germany to climb a mountain and is not on the official roster for the finals. But a defending champion in minor disarray is still dangerous.

It will take a substantial effort to beat the versatile, thick-skinned Russians. Roddick keeps a close eye on coverage of the sport, so he might be expected to rail about the media's longtime inattention to Davis Cup in this country if that effort succeeds, or say, as Sampras did, that the players don't get enough credit. But Roddick insists that he gets all the satisfaction he needs from the stands and the bench.

"I could care less if one story gets written if we win this Davis Cup," he said fiercely. "I don't care. I'm out there because we've had a common goal. It's been there since I was 9 years old. I've been obsessed with this thing, and I want to win it for these guys, I want to share that moment with these guys."

Bonnie D. Ford is a frequent contributor who is covering the Davis Cup final for ESPN.com.