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Isner's serves, leadership lead the way for U.S. in Davis Cup

This looked like it would be another Davis Cup tie that has long frustrated team captain Jim Courier and his talented U.S. squad.

Going into this past weekend, the Americans appeared snake-bit. The squad was on the road for the third tie in a row, this time under the most trying conditions -- climate- and location-wise. The Aussies, with sensation Nick Kyrgios and Bernard Tomic playing some of the best tennis of their lives in previous weeks, were generating more buzz than those ubiquitous Melbourne bottle flies.

As if that weren't enough, Aussie icon Lleyton Hewitt -- the most prolific Australian Davis Cup performer -- was making his debut as team captain.

This was more than a Davis Cup weekend Down Under; it was shaping up as a festive occasion to rival Australia Day.

Yet, the U.S. bumped off host Australia 3-1 on a grass court tailor-made for the Aussies to survive the first round of World Group play for the first time since 2013.

"After the last couple of years, [the win is] massive for us," Courier said in his post-tie news conference. "You can't take any of these for granted. This is a tough matchup on paper, and it was a tough matchup in reality. For us to get into the second round is -- it's a big deal."

The U.S. will next host Croatia, a 3-2 winner over Belgium, in the second round in July at a site yet to be determined. It appears to be a more winnable tie than this last one, which cuts right to the heart of the disappointments visited upon recent American teams: They've had trouble getting traction because of the vagaries of the unique Davis Cup rules determining the host nation's choice of surface, injuries and, frankly, some disappointing play at the worst of times.

The Americans did catch some breaks before the opening tie began. Kyrgios, who was suffering with a virus, was a last-minute scratch. His replacement in the first match, No. 77 Sam Groth, proved no match for the U.S. No. 1 singles player, John Isner.

Tomic kept the Aussies alive in the second match with a win against Jack Sock, but then the tie took another surprising turn.

Hewitt, retired for all of five weeks, laced his shoes back up and inserted himself as a substitute for power server Groth in doubles. It was a somewhat controversial decision, although the U.S. team wasn't exactly taken by surprise. Mike Bryan had said of Hewitt: "He's been playing more than anyone out there all week."

Mike and Bob Bryan handled Hewitt and John Peers in a five-setter that wasn't as close as the score made it appear. Isner then dashed the Aussies' final hopes with an outstanding display against Tomic, winning the fourth-match battle of the No. 1s in four sets. Isner fired 49 aces, including a 157 mph third-set rocket that is an official pro record.

Courier described Isner's performance as "unbelievable."

For the U.S., it was more than dumb luck, Kyrgios' virus, Hewitt's substitution or even Isner's fireballs that accounted for the win.

All those factors played a role, but so did dedication and commitment on the part of a U.S. team that made a point to arrive Down Under to practice and acclimatize a full week before the tie.

"It was important for us to get down early, and when we have ties that are far away, these guys tend not to play the week before," Isner said to the media after he clinched. "That's just the way this team tends to operate."

Isner sounded very much like the team leader, not just the designated ace maker. It's yet another sign that things may be looking up for a team that might not be great but is probably much better than its recent record indicates.