Clay awaits USA in Davis Cup semis

If the Cold War were still being waged, you could read political symbolism into Russia's choice of indoor clay as the surface for this weekend's Davis Cup semifinals. In 2006, however, what the red stuff represents is a straightforward strategic gamble, a bet that it favors the home team over the visiting United States.

"The Russians are obviously extremely tough, and doing well here, as well," U.S. captain Patrick McEnroe said after naming his team -- a somewhat anticlimactic act, since the roster hasn't varied in almost two years -- during the U.S. Open. "But I wouldn't say clay is their best surface. I'd say it's a surface that they certainly had better results on than we've had, but I think they've picked a surface more against us rather than for themselves."

Dirt should fly as players on both sides are bringing newfound momentum, old memories and recent grudges to the event.

A resurgent Andy Roddick wants to stay in forward motion after reaching the U.S. Open final. James Blake wants to shed the notion that clay undoes him, and maintain confidence for his return to the ATP Tour, where he's clawing to stay in contention for the year-end championships.

Bob and Mike Bryan will aim to avenge their round-of-16 U.S. Open doubles loss to a team that featured Russia's Mikhail Youzhny. That defeat snapped the Bryans' Open-era streak of seven straight Grand Slam finals appearances. The 24-year-old Youzhny also was a surprise singles semifinalist at the U.S. Open, losing to Roddick in four sets.

In December 2002, still mourning the death of his father three months before, Youzhny won a five-set match that clinched his country's only Davis Cup title.

"He doing a lot for me and he cannot watch this match. I be happy, but I cannot be happy for hundred percentage after this match," Youzhny recalled at the U.S. Open, where his performance vaulted him 30 places in the rankings to No. 24.

Plagued by injuries and unable to live up to the hype that followed in the immediate aftermath of the championship, Youzhny now wants to show the accomplishment wasn't a fluke.

"Everyone bring me up because I win [the decisive] match," Youzhny said. "Everybody start to talk about me, he is next number one in the world, because actually people in Russia who understand the tennis, it was not a lot. After January [2003] I was really down, because it's impossible to play always on your emotions."

No one is feeling the heat more than the candid Nikolay Davydenko, Russia's top-ranked player at No. 5. "You say confidence, we are also scared to play at home on clay in Moscow," he said. "Too much people try to pressure to win for us in semifinal. Is not so easy for us also."

The Olympic Stadium in Moscow, where the teams will meet Friday, happens to be the last site where a U.S. team won the Davis Cup title. Those Yanks were carried by a man not known for his clay court prowess -- Pete Sampras, who defeated Andrei Chesnokov and Yevgeny Kafelnikov in singles and paired with Todd Martin for a doubles win in 1995.

Russia upset defending champion France on clay in Paris in 2002 to capture its first Davis Cup on the strength of Marat Safin's two singles wins and Youzhny's epic triumph. The squad readying to play the U.S. team in Moscow could rival that one.

It features two U.S. Open semifinalists -- Youzhny and the sturdy, ultra-consistent Davydenko, who has played more matches (80) than any other man on the ATP circuit this season. Joining them are the apparently reinvigorated Safin, who reached the fourth round of the U.S. Open before falling to Tommy Haas in five sets, and No. 22 Dmitry Tursunov, who are expected to play doubles.

The U.S. hopes to neutralize the home-court advantage with an unusually experienced and cohesive team. Roddick, the U.S. Open runner-up, and Blake are Nos. 6 and 9, respectively; the Bryans are favored to finish on top of the world for the third time in four seasons.

Of the presumed singles players, Davydenko has the best command of the surface with a lifetime 101-64 record, 27-6 in 2006. Roddick is 58-26 lifetime on clay. Each has won five clay-court tournaments.

Youzhny and Blake have middling, .500-ish career clay dossiers. Safin is 103-61 on clay lifetime, but his only two tournament wins on the surface came in 2000. Ranked 72nd, he looked sharper at the Open but is still struggling to regain the form he had prior to a knee injury last year. Tursunov is relatively untested on the surface.

Neither Blake nor Roddick has ever lost to Davydenko in four matches apiece, and Roddick has beaten Youzhny three of the five times they've faced off. Blake and Youzhny have never played.

The Bryans won the 2003 French Open title and were finalists at Roland Garros this season. They've won eight of their last nine Davis Cup matches, making it tempting to record them as an automatic point this weekend.

The unheralded tandem of Youzhny and Leos Friedl of the Czech Republic shocked the twins in a rain-interrupted U.S. Open match a couple of weeks ago, further motivating a pair that hardly needs more fuel.

"We went about the match every wrong way we could play it," Bob Bryan said the next day. "We're going to go into Moscow with a lot of anger and we have a lot of things we want to do different. … it's good we saw it now and we weren't surprised on match day."

McEnroe said having a ready-made doubles team is "huge."

"They love to put the pressure on themselves," he said. "They relish the fact that this is one match. It's all on the line for them in this one match.

"For me as a captain, it's taken a lot of the guesswork out of the team, as opposed to having mix and match with singles players, which a lot of countries do because of the complications if someone gets injured. But I think it's a risk well worth taking considering how good they've been. It also makes our singles guys feel a lot more comfortable and confident about what they do."

Blake concurred. "I know they'll be fired up in Moscow," he said. "There's a great sense of security for us that we feel like we're already up 1-0 with the Bryans. It's a matter of me and Andy trying to figure out a way to get two wins on clay. I have a feeling we can do it, but I'm sure they're going in confident."

The intangible the U.S. team packed for its trip to hostile territory is the camaraderie the players have forged over the last several seasons. They spend their off-hours hitting the town or playing low-stakes poker -- $20 a night, on average, according to Bob Bryan, who said Blake is the shrewdest of the bunch and has honed his skills playing the game online.

"He went to Harvard, has patience, plays the odds," Bryan said. "Andy's a little too emotional, up and down. He doesn't like someone getting the best of him and he'll just go all-in."

But their friendship isn't confined to Davis Cup week. The Bryans recently bought a Tampa-area house to be closer to Blake and fellow U.S. player Mardy Fish, and they've all gathered at Roddick's Austin home to hang out on his boat.

"We are just truly, really supportive of each other," Bryan said. "There's no competitiveness amongst each other. Everyone wants the other to succeed."

The winners will play either Australia or Argentina in December.

Ukraine native Nikita Kryvonos could come in handy as a translator for the U.S. Davis Cup team this week, but he earned a spot as practice partner with his emerging tennis talent, not his linguistic skills. (Ryan Sweeting is the other Davis Cup practice partner.)

The newly minted U.S. citizen is uncommonly thankful for the chance to accompany the team, having had to put the game aside a few years ago when his body betrayed him.

Kryvonos, 20, immigrated to New York with his parents at age 13. His father Sergey, a former engineer who now helps coach his son, and mother Natalia, a software developer who works in children's services for the city of New York, made the move so Nikita would have a better athletic environment than the crowded wood floors of the state-run club near their hometown of Donetsk. The family settled in Queens.

Kryvonos trained at Rick Macci's academy in Pompano Beach, Fla., for half a year when he was 14. He elected to return to New York and has been coached by Nick Brebenel, whose other pupils have included Max Mirnyi and Andrei Pavel, ever since.

Kryvonos was progressing through the junior ranks when, shortly after playing in the Orange Bowl in December 2002, he began feeling dizzy and feverish. Many specialists and tests later, he was diagnosed with a vicious staph infection of uncertain origin that had eaten a small hole in his right femur. Left untreated, it could have permanently compromised the bone.

The condition required two surgeries, one to clean out the infected area and another to fill the hole with grafted bone. Kryvonos, then 16, was confined to his bed and hooked up to an intravenous antibiotic drip for weeks and spent six months on crutches. The inactivity caused his muscles to atrophy and his weight to balloon from 150 to 197 pounds.

Now a fit 6 feet, 170 pounds, Kryvonos, who won a Futures event in Canada this season, is back on track and said the forced hiatus actually benefited him. He spent a lot of time watching tennis on television and absorbing it in a whole new way. Once he regained full health, he became acutely appreciative of it.

"It changed my attitude towards life,'' he said earlier this month as he sat in the players' lounge at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, where two Russian coaches had just approached him to ask if he could warm up one of their players. "I enjoy the fact that I'm still alive and playing tennis."

Bonnie DeSimone is a freelancer who contributes frequently to ESPN.com.