McEnroe's commitment has U.S. on verge of title

At the end of the day, they're going to play because they want to be with each other, not because of me. I would only be a reason that they wouldn't play.

-- U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe, in an interview with ESPN.com in early November.

PORTLAND, Ore. -- When Patrick McEnroe succeeded his oldest brother, John, as Davis Cup captain before the 2001 season, the country's two best players, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, were ambivalent at best about continuing to sign up. Other fixtures, like Todd Martin, were willing but aging. The generation behind them was raw.

This left McEnroe with a seemingly difficult choice -- try to cajole the veterans into competing for the sake of results, or cast his lot with the youngsters and start constructing a future.

McEnroe weighed his options and wound up making a typically nuanced management decision. He would commit to the young players and keep the door cracked for the legends. It sounded tricky, but McEnroe has navigated similarly treacherous waters his whole career, figuring out how to be his own man.

In his debut as captain, McEnroe selected a green 18-year-old named Andy Roddick to be the fourth player on the team that would face Switzerland in the first round. Roddick watched from the bench as another emerging talent, Roger Federer, won both of his singles matches and played on a winning doubles team to hand the U.S. a loss.

McEnroe threw Roddick into the meaningless fifth match. "He just smoked this guy, Georg Bastl," McEnroe recalled. "And I remember turning to the guys on our bench right after the match ended and saying, 'We've got a future. This guy's our future.'"

Six years later, that early confidence in Roddick and his contemporaries has come to full fruition for McEnroe, the 41-year-old former pro and current ESPN commentator. He guided the team to the final in 2004 and is deep in preparations to try to wrestle the trophy away from defending champion Russia here this weekend.

Winning a Davis Cup title would be far and away McEnroe's most treasured tennis milestone, though he's proud of having parlayed modest skills into a stint in the top 30 and a French Open doubles title. Though a championship obviously would belong to the group, it also would be singular for McEnroe because … well, because of the obvious. John McEnroe won multiple times as a Davis Cup player but not as a captain.

"Sure, it's important," Patrick said. "Just as it was important to me to make the semis of the Australian [Open], whatever my name was. I certainly want to be a captain who wins the Davis Cup and, if we do, there won't be anyone happier than my brother.

"My brother's always been a great team guy. He was just frustrated by the fact that not everyone had the same passion as him when he became captain. Things were out of his control, which he doesn't like. But me, I've always been pretty patient as a person, which is why I did better in Grand Slams than in regular tournaments. I could play five sets. I had a just-put-your-head-down-and-stay-the-course kind of personality."

McEnroe groomed himself for this job all his life. He soaked up different aspects of the Davis Cup tradition like an executive-in-training, first watching John play, then serving as a practice partner, then playing Davis Cup doubles himself, then breaking down matches from the TV booth when Tom Gullikson was captain.

Singer and actress Melissa Errico, McEnroe's wife, sensed his ambition when they started dating in 1996. McEnroe was still resisting retirement, trying to rehab after surgery for a bone spur on his arm that eventually forced him out of the game.

"There was a lot of watching TV and not knowing how he was going to spend his time," said Errico, who grew up with McEnroe on Long Island and was re-introduced to him years later. "He would work out three to four hours a day because that was what he was used to doing. He had all these trainers with these funky ideas.

"I remember trying to provoke him and saying, 'What are the other dreams you have in your life?' He said, 'I'd love someday when I'm old to be Davis Cup captain.' That was the one thing."

Someday arrived sooner than they expected. In deference to his brother, Patrick had withdrawn as a candidate in 2000 to give John a clear path to the job. But, when John left after one tumultuous season, Patrick pursued the postion full-throttle. Asked by the U.S. Tennis Association to write a paper outlining his philosophy, he produced a five-page document -- his longest piece of writing since his days at Stanford University, where he graduated with a degree in political science.

The theme boiled down to this, he said. If the old guard steps up to play, fine, but he wanted guys who didn't have to be talked into it.

"I was always interested in the psychology of motivating and helping other people," McEnroe said. "As a player myself, I wasn't fast, I wasn't strong, but I was smart. I knew how to play. In some ways I thought I was too cerebral a player. I thought if I could put that into someone's head who had more ability and more talent, I could help them."

Early on, McEnroe did open the lines of communication with Sampras and Agassi, each of whom played for him at least once before they retired. But his signature achievement has been to build mutual respect and affection with the Faithful Four -- Roddick, James Blake and the Bryan brothers, Bob and Mike -- that keeps them coming back, no questions asked, when other countries' top players get on and off the carousel on a whim.

"He's adapted with us and grown with us, which I think is commendable," Roddick said. One of the outward signs of that was McEnroe's unconventional decision several years ago to begin inviting the players' individual coaches to come along during Davis Cup weeks. It's the mark of a secure head of state.

Not that the play or the politics has always been silky-smooth.

Three times during McEnroe's tenure, the team has staved off the prospect of relegation, being booted out of the top 16-team draw into the qualifying tournament the following year.

His TV gig puts him in a bind where Blake and Roddick are concerned. Critique them too harshly and he risks straining key relationships; lay off and viewers will think he's biased and soft.

"It's obviously not the easiest situation," Roddick said. "The good thing about Patrick and the reason our relationship has been great is because we've had problems, heated discussions before, but we've talked about it. We haven't let it fester."

McEnroe handed credit right back to Roddick. "He actually helped me be more open," the captain said.

There have been contentious moments between McEnroe and all his regulars, but they generally get put into context and put to rest. The Bryans were miffed he didn't select them sooner, but said their resentment vanished forever the night before their first match in 2003, when McEnroe called to tell them they were cemented into the lineup for the foreseeable future.

In the September semifinal against Sweden, with the momentum in Blake's first match swinging against him, McEnroe got down on one knee during a changeover and, in a public rarity, got into the player's face. After Blake lost, McEnroe vehemently defended him in the post-match news conference.

Blake said he values McEnroe's ability to "think clearly without being clouded by emotion" in the heat of an important match, but he also understands the occasional eruption. "He's a McEnroe, and he can get fired up," Blake said.

He's a McEnroe, and he can get fired up.

-- James Blake

Then there was the time Roddick -- fresh off his 2003 U.S. Open title -- told McEnroe not to bother coaching him during a semifinal match against Slovakia. McEnroe bit his tongue and complied, and with Roddick's increasingly puzzled teammates looking on, the two didn't exchange a single word until Dominik Hrbaty took a two-sets-to-one lead on the way to an eventual win.

"He turned to me and said, 'What should I do?'" McEnroe said. "He snapped out of it. His next match on the final day, he came out and he was fine. Nothing like that ever happened again."

Errico said these anecdotes illustrate what makes her husband well-suited for the job.

"Patrick is a funny combination of qualities," she said. "He's a very calming and centering and supportive person but he's also razor sharp. He's got real goals, which is a really good thing to bring to your team.

"He didn't just take on the job to unify a bunch of young, talented boys and help them have a nice time and feel like a team. He wanted to win. Like his brother. He's really driven. He always gets that reputation as being the 'nicer McEnroe.' His brother John is one of the nicest and kindest people, but he had that reputation of being such a bull. Patrick is a bull, too, actually. There is no 'nicer McEnroe.'"

"Captain," with its vaguely paramilitary overtones, is really an inadequate term for what the multi-tasking McEnroe does. He is a facilitator, diplomat, sports shrink, court-surface tester, coach. He stays in touch with the players year-round, often text-messaging them several times a week, keeps them posted on site selection and gives them input on logistical details.

Yet there's more to this job than being a good player-personnel guy. It takes a dash of the romantic to really, truly love the job. McEnroe has that gene, supplied by his Irish heritage and his self-made parents. As if scripted, his first official Davis Cup trip as a teenage practice partner was to Dublin, courtesy of an invitation by Arthur Ashe.

McEnroe proposed to his future wife on a ski slope, pretending to wipe out so she'd hurry to his aid, and popped the question kneeling in the snow. He dotes unabashedly on 19-month-old Victoria Penny McEnroe, whose birth in the spring of 2006 was the only thing that could have possibly kept him away from a Davis Cup weekend.

His eyes get a little glassy when he talks about finding Roddick slumped in a hallway at Olympic Stadium in Moscow, spent and weeping, after losing a 17-15 fifth set to Dmitry Tursunov in the Davis Cup semifinals last year. By contrast, after the Bryans polished off a tough Swedish tandem to put the U.S. up 2-1 in this year's semis, McEnroe arrived at the post-match news conference in a state of near-giddiness.

When McEnroe stands in the tunnel with his players, shifting from foot to foot, eyes dancing, ready to emerge into the cauldron of noise in the arena, he has the look of someone supremely happy in his work.

"I love the process, the pride that comes from being the captain," he said. "To walk out and stand there with those four guys, to me that's it. That's the moment."

It would be an exaggeration to say McEnroe lives and dies with the players, but it might be interesting to hook him up to a heart monitor this weekend.

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