Just when you might have thought the future couldn’t look gloomier for American tennis, Team USA loses to Great Britain in the first round of Davis Cup World Group play for the second consecutive year -- this time in Glasgow, Scotland.
That’s dispiriting in and of itself. What takes mere unease over the line into the realm of panic -- or nightmare -- is that at roughly the same time Australia clobbered a Czech team that had won the championship in two of the past three years.
History tells us that from 1932 until 1974 no nation other than Great Britain, the U.S. or Australia managed to win the Davis Cup. That isn’t satisfactorily explained by the fact that in those years, the “Challenge Round” format was in effect (the holder of the championship sat out the following year’s competition until the final round, when a challenger emerged from the elimination rounds). The plain fact is that the axis of three Anglophone nations simply dominated tennis. And that the USA and Australia marched toward glory more or less in lockstep.
I’ll see your Ken Rosewall and raise you one Arthur Ashe. I’ll see your Ashe and raise you a Rod Laver. I’ll see your Laver and raise you a John McEnroe. And so on.
The U.S., though, has been the best: It won the championship 32 times. But the nation is clearly living on its reputation. Since World Group play began in 1981, it has won six titles, but just two in the past two decades.
The key to the British win this weekend was ATP No. 111 Jamie Ward’s win over a fella who can pop aces like an ATM machine spits $20 bills, No. 20 John Isner. That win, in the second match (or “rubber”) of the tie was the pivotal moment -- as well as a reprise of Ward’s statement win at the same stage last year in San Diego over Sam Querrey.
There will be calls for USA captain Jim Courier’s head in the coming days. The guy in the crisp suit and pretty tie will take the blame, but it was the kid in the short pants and sweaty baseball cap who dropped the proverbial ball. Not only did Isner play a poor match against Ward, but as the senior singles player on the squad, he also bears responsibility what Andy Murray’s brother, Jamie, described as the visitors’ poor team spirit.
Murray was a loser in a heartbreaking doubles match against Mike and Bob Bryan. Afterward, Jamie said, “It’s obvious to me that we’re a much tighter team than the Americans. The way everyone on the bench is getting behind us. I didn’t feel that from their team at all.
“They weren’t getting up or cheering or anything for the Bryans. Our guys were going hell for leather every point.”
That was prime bulletin-board material for the Yanks. Unfortunately, nobody in team USA appeared to read or post it. You can shoot the messenger if you like, but Jamie was just describing what he saw -- and felt.
Meanwhile, in Ivan Lendl’s hometown of Ostrava, Czech Republic, the Aussies were busier than hogs in a corn crib. Granted, the Czechs were without their top player, world No. 9 ranked Tomas Berdych. But Australia’s top-ranked player, 19-year-old ATP No. 36 Nick Kyrgios, also missed this tie. Plus the Czechs were at home, facing a squad with an old-timer (Hewitt is about to turn 34), a wet-behind-the-ears youngster, 18-year-old Thanasi Kokkinakis and nothing-between-the-ears Bernard Tomic.
But Kokkinakis pulled off a Davis Cup stunt for the ages. Lukas Rosol served for the match leading 5-4 and 2-0 in sets. He then allowed Kokkinakis his first break point. The kid from Adelaide took it and went on to make the long climb for the win. Tomic then backed him up with a second rubber win over Jiri Vesely. That was no gimme: At No. 45, Vesely is ranked just five spots lower than Tomic.
Let’s be honest about this. Although the U.S. team is mired in the blues, and seemingly in myriad ways, the Australians -- also victims of hard times in recent years -- appear to be flourishing.
Davis Cup is the great but by no means sole indicator. The average age of Tomic, Kyrgios, and Kokkinakis is 19. It appears that the emergence of the two younger men has suddenly lit a fire under reckless 22-year-old Tomic. Perhaps he has decided that it wouldn’t be so cool to end up a cautionary tale for prodigies, while Kyrgios and Kokkinakis carry on the legacy of the two Pats, Cash and Rafter.
Also, in Hewitt, the young pups have an amazing role model. The guy bleeds Aussie green and gold, and that has already influenced the youngsters. That pride, team spirit and sense of superiority will certainly carry over as Tomic and company wander the pro tour.
Team USA doesn’t have a Lleyton Hewitt (it lost the closest thing it had when Andy Roddick called it quits). It also doesn’t have a Kyrgios or Kokkinakis. All it has is a great tradition and, in the Davis Cup, a canary in the mine.