It might not fully atone for the dismal showing by the fleet of U.S. players at this year's Australian Open, but the Davis Cup team delivered some good news to American fans last weekend. And the upcoming Fed Cup tie should mean more positive results.
The beatdown in Melbourne was comprehensive, with the vast majority of American players rudely dismissed in the first round. The nation's top three players, No. 8 Jack Sock, No. 12 Sam Querrey and No. 17 John Isner, won one singles match between them, and three of the four American women who turned the last US Open semifinals into a homecoming party lost in the first round in Australia.
But Querrey and Isner acquitted themselves admirably in Davis Cup singles last Friday -- and on a slow indoor clay court in Nis, Serbia -- grinding out two wins. That set up an eventual sweep the next day by the pickup doubles team of Ryan Harrison and Steve Johnson. "Long and successful," is how U.S. Davis Cup captain Jim Courier summed up the opening day of singles in Serbia. The highlight was John Isner's epic five-set win over scrappy Dusan Lajovic in the second singles match. Thanks to the new Davis Cup rule for 2018, the fifth set is now decided by a tiebreak. If not for that rule change, Isner and Lajovic might still be going at it on the red dirt.
Some will scoff at the result by the U.S. Davis Cup team, pointing out that the Serbs were without the services of their top three singles players, No. 13 Novak Djokovic, No. 39 Filip Krajinovic and No. 67 Viktor Troicki. They had to rely instead on two players ranking in the 80s, Lajovic and Laslo Djere.
Nevertheless, the pressure in Davis Cup is unique, and being the host nation, which carries the privilege of choosing the playing surface, means you can often throw the rankings printout right into the circular file.
"Davis Cups are always tricky," Querrey told the press after his first-round win. "If you just look at scores from the other ties, there were some close ones [between] guys with ranking discrepancies."
Case in point: Great Britain's Cam Norrie, ranked just No. 114, threw a scare into mighty, heavily favored Spain with his upset of No. 23 Roberto Bautista Agut on the first day of the clay-court tie in Marbella, Spain.
"That's one of the most amazing wins/results/upsets I've seen in a long time on a tennis court," Andy Murray tweeted in support of his countryman, Norrie.
The U.S.' win ensured the squad will play its next round on home soil in early April, against last year's runner-up team, Belgium.
Led by the return of Serena Williams and her sister Venus, the U.S. women's team will have home-court advantage in Asheville, North Carolina, in a few days. The Netherlands has no player ranked within the top 100 in singles. Aside from the Williams sisters, No. 18 CoCo Vandeweghe, who fell in the opening round Down Under, will be on the Fed Cup squad. She has a six-match winning streak in the team competition.
The American women won Fed Cup for the first time in 18 years, a sharp reminder of the globalization of the game. In the early years, the U.S. stacked wins like cordwood. But after the tennis boom hit other nations, the U.S. stalled. Partly a result of limited participation by the Williams sisters, the red, white and bruised, despite four runner-up results, was in a long funk.
The Davis Cup squad hasn't fared much better. The men last won the premier international event in 2007 but since then haven't been within sniffing distance of the trophy. But the U.S. men have a legitimate shot this year, partly because the path has been conveniently cleared by the absence of some top stars on other teams.
With Great Britain and Switzerland also absorbing first-round losses last weekend, there's no danger of top players Andy Murray, Roger Federer, Stan Wawrinka or Djokovic elbowing their way into the plot later in the year. Should Spain advance and Rafael Nadal decide to take part, the U.S. would face an enormous impediment, but not until the final.
The win over Serbia opened up a significant door for a U.S. squad that hasn't caught too many breaks in recent ties.
"We've played the last two on the road," Courier said. "So we're looking forward to that opportunity to be at home."
Belgium's David Goffin is a top-10 player and distinguished Davis Cup warrior. But Belgium doesn't have another singles player ranked in the top 100. The U.S. probably could call upon Sock, who was unavailable for the first-round tie. Should the Americans master Belgium, they could face a major semifinal obstacle on the road in Croatia, which has a powerful one-two singles punch in Australian Open finalist and world No. 3 Marin Cilic and No. 47 Borna Coric.
Once upon a time, getting to the final, even winning, was a ho-hum event for American Davis Cup and Fed Cup teams. Not anymore. But a little success is better than none at all. After the Australian Open, the U.S. badly needed some.