The success of the U.S. Davis Cup team this weekend in Birmingham, Ala., once again raises the question: Is a new day dawning for the beleaguered -- but still most successful -- nation in the history of the competition?
True, the Swiss team that was swept by the U.S. Davis Cup squad over the weekend did not have the services of Roger Federer or Stan Wawrinka. So what? That's how Davis Cup works these days and, by the end of the competition, nobody remembers or cares.
Enough top players play enough times, and the event has enough history, pageantry, drama and global popularity to wipe away the asterisks.
Novak Djokovic was the only top-10 player (or marquee name) in action this past weekend, and nobody is certain of who might show up to compete for the nations still eligible in the quarterfinals in April. That's helpful for the version 3.0 U.S. squad in the post-Andy Roddick era, a group that seems tightly knit and committed.
"It's a new generation for us for a Davis Cup team," Jack Sock, the No. 1 U.S. singles player, told the press after he won his first match. "You got four very capable singles and doubles players. We all love being together, and we all get along so well."
The way this win evolved seemed almost symbolic when compared to last year's quarterfinal humiliation. In 2016, the U.S. jumped to a 2-0 lead over Croatia in Portland, Ore., only to lose the final three matches. It was only the fourth time in 157 tries that the U.S. lost 2-3 after winning the first two matches. Just as rare: The meltdown began with a loss by the most successful doubles team in U.S. Davis Cup history, brothers Mike and Bob Bryan.
Significantly, the U.S. secured the sweep this weekend with a doubles win by the pair who replaced the Bryan brothers in doubles, Rio Olympic Games bronze medalists Sock and Steve Johnson. "We played together a bunch of times in the past, so once we get going, we get the familiarity back," Johnson told the press after Saturday's win over Henri Laaksonen and Adrien Bossel of Switzerland. "Everything kind of clicked toward the end, or we got it going, so just keep it rolling."
True, the Swiss squad was composed of journeymen gifted a rare star-turn. But as Sock said, after overcoming early jitters to win his singles on the first day: "Favored or not, you see a lot of upsets in Davis Cup. I mean, I think [Pablo] Carreno Busta lost to [Franco] Skugor today. Kind of by ranking that's an upset [Carreno Busta is No. 26; Skugor, No. 223]. But in Davis Cup, anything can happen. You see it every year. [Almost] every time you see some kind of crazy things happen."
The U.S. no longer boasts a singles star who can almost single-handedly carry the squad to a win, the way a Pete Sampras or Andre Agassi once did. Other nations have that now. But once the Grand Slam contenders check a Davis Cup championship off their bucket lists -- and get domestic critics off their backs -- they tend to cut back and pick and choose their Davis Cup appearances.
Exceptional talent is the most desirable commodity for team. But if you don't have that, the next best thing is solid, well-balanced talent married to exceptional unity. This U.S. squad appears to have that.
All four U.S. players (Sock, John Isner, Sam Querrey, Johnson) have said they are committed to the Davis Cup effort. They are ranked between No. 20 (Sock) and 31 (Johnson). Together, they give team captain Jim Courier great flexibility, especially now that he has improved singles options and is no longer locked into fielding a dedicated doubles team.
As Sock said, "If any of us are playing our game, playing well, on any given day we're going to be dangerous to play anybody in singles and doubles."
That flexibility and team loyalty will be especially valuable in a time when Davis Cup participation is spotty and only Spain and France can boast four players bunched as closely in the singles rankings as the U.S.
The next opponent for the U.S. is arch-rival Australia, which has a dangerous, but volatile team. Led at home by No. 15 Nick Kyrgios, the Aussies destroyed the Czech Republic, which was without the heavy artillery of No. 12 Tomas Berdych. The Czechs didn't win a set on hard courts in the first three matches; they didn't even reach a tiebreaker.
The U.S. vs. Australia Davis Cup rivalry is one of the best in sports. The U.S. clings to a slim 26-20 lead. The quarterfinal tie will be in Australia on hard courts. If Kyrgios stays on message and Bernard Tomic, once ranked No. 17, returns to the Davis Cup fold, the tie will be a formidable test for this confident, enthusiastic U.S. team.
It's an obstacle Courier is already trying to will his team past, even though it lies two months away. He said in in Birmingham, "We really want to get out to the semifinals and see what we can do this year."
The captain, like the team, clearly has high expectations.