From captain to practice players, Davis Cup title a team effort

PORTLAND, Ore. -- In typically arcane Davis Cup fashion, the line score for the 2007 championship final will read 4-1, with the United States and Russia splitting exhibition matches on the final day. But make no mistake -- this was a sweep, as one-sided a thrashing as it gets in international sport.

The U.S. team dropped just one set against defending titlist Russia in the first three matches, making the last two moot. It's not like this happens all the time. Sweden was the last team to clinch in three back in 1998, although the first match ended with the fifth-set retirement by Italy's Andrea Gaudenzi. To find a performance this dominant, you have to flip the calendar back to the previous year, when that same Swedish team massacred a U.S. squad 5-0 and also lost only one set in the matches that counted.

That losing side included Michael Chang, Todd Martin and an injury-hampered Pete Sampras, three of the best five players of that generation -- the generation with whom the current U.S. players are so often unflatteringly compared.

What may be most impressive about this U.S. win is that two matches were pretty much in the books before they opened the first can of balls, thanks to the cumulative feats of Andy Roddick and the Bryan brothers, perfect in Davis Cup play this year. Russian captain Shamil Tarpischev all but conceded those points and instead took the understandable tactic of targeting James Blake.

Tarpischev chose Mikhail Youzhny for the job and minced no words about why he shelved the No. 4 player in the world Friday. "I don't think that [Nikolay] Davydenko would have beaten Blake today," Tarpischev said. Youzhny played valiantly and nearly pushed Blake into the red zone of a fifth set, but even if Youzhny had managed to win, chances are he or a pinch-hitting Davydenko would have been inhaled by the ravenous Roddick on Sunday.

Frankly, there was no good strategy against the U.S. team, short of cutting the power lines to Memorial Coliseum or arranging for a convenient case of food poisoning. Roddick and the Bryans saw to that with their intimidating records and reputations, and Blake cowboyed up and denied the Russians their already slim chances of extending the competition to a third day.

All that mattered Sunday was the final ceremony, whose central object is a strange prize both physically and spiritually. You can't dance with the Davis Cup trophy unless you're driving a forklift. It's a hulking 231.5-pound wood-and-silver plated wedding cake with a detachable punch-bowl top. The players get medals and trophy replicas of a manageable size, mere muffins next to the behemoth.

If you're an American, you're not given a lot of room to enjoy this victory. The bubbly is barely out of the bottle before people are demanding to know whether the event is relevant, what a win might do for you next season, for the rest of your individual career, for television ratings and level of interest in men's tennis in this country.

U.S. captain Patrick McEnroe, normally the diplomat, ran over the last words of the familiar question Saturday with a response that showed a faint flicker of Irish temper.

"I don't really concern myself with that too much," he said. "What it does sort of on a bigger level, you know, you hope it has some effect. But to be perfectly honest, that's sort of out of our control. I think we've done our part. I think the guys have done their part. I think the people see their passion and their commitment for playing for their country and playing for each other.

"And, to be honest, I feel like that's enough. I mean, that's enough. I think we're doing everything we can. We're putting on a great event. The guys are into it. If the rest of the world catches on, great."

For better, worse or indifferent, it doesn't look like the much-debated Davis Cup format -- every year, four times a year -- will be changing any time soon. Quick -- how will the United States' success be rewarded in next year's draw? Away first-round matches in balmy Austria next February, probably on indoor clay, but only because the International Tennis Federation doesn't allow outdoor snow.

ITF president Francesco Ricci Bitti rejected the notion that the tournament should be held less often or compressed into one time period annually. Speaking to reporters Sunday, he acknowledged the tennis calendar is crowded, but pointedly said that's the ATP's doing, not his. Ricci Bitti also ventured the observation that most players aren't playing all week, every week.

"There are many players that on Monday, they are free," he said. "In the Grand Slam[s], we have many players that are first-week players. So these are not so busy as the other ones. The number of tournaments is relative to what the level of the player is."

Which brings us back to the engine of this Davis Cup team. Roddick is a player who's seldom liberated from the draw on Mondays and generally goes deep into the second week of Slams. He is the best, and busiest, U.S. player of his class, yet he's made it a priority to take this elective while he's trying to make a living, solve Roger Federer and capture another major championship.

Now Roddick has led the team to a title that may not be its last. Even given the increasing difficulty of winning this scattershot tournament, with its overwhelming home-court advantage and ever-multiplying contenders, the U.S. lineup should continue to be formidable going forward.

The players' loyalty to McEnroe is key to that, and his contract runs through next year. Even though he supports a different format for the tournament, McEnroe made it clear that's not a reason to bail.

"There's a lot that's right about it," he said. "There's a lot that's great about it. I think we should not lose focus of that."

All the players say they're on board. And clubby as this group can seem, the regulars have made a point to embrace younger players like John Isner, Donald Young and Sam Querrey.

The matches you're supposed to win can be sneakily elusive in Davis Cup, especially if you've been fixated on that goal since you were a kid. Yet Roddick didn't just beat the much lower-ranked Dmitry Tursunov to open the tie on Friday -- he clubbed him into submission, and didn't let emotion clog his arteries.

Great athletes who hit walls in one place tend to figure out where the daylight is. Roddick has determined just how much this event suits him. He has a terrifically hard time sitting still for anything, yet his rapt attention to this hasn't wavered for a minute. That's enough for his teammates and his captain. Maybe it should be enough for everyone watching to give him some space to take a bow, and stop asking what he's done for us lately.

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