Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The case for a Bryan-less Davis Cup squad

Even as a kid I was never able to do flips in gymnastics class - something so disorienting about the whole thing - yet somehow, upon learning that Davis Cup was coming to the Chicago area next month, I spontaneously performed a backhandspring-double twist-punch front-Arabian handspring-full layout combo on Michigan Avenue without even dropping my phone. You guys: I was excited.  I am excited.

I went to Fed Cup in St. Louis back in June and had an absolute blast making up my own chants, cheering double faults, snatching shirts being thrown to the kids in the crowd... anyway, it was a memorable weekend. I'm certain I've never had as much fun at a match as I did watching Madison Keys come back from way down to upset an ailing Alize Cornet. I'm sure you can hear me on the video of the match, although I haven't watched it. (Note: I'm nowhere near as loud as the French fans.)

But there's something about Davis Cup's history, best-of-five sets, three-day format, and much bigger international buzz (even if it is partly because of sexism) that, when added to this tie's proximity to my home, makes me a bit more over-the-top obsessive about it.

Soon after the US Open, the USA team will face the Slovak Republic in a "playoff" round - really, for us, a relegation tie. The winner will be in the 2015 World Group with the other 7 playoff winners and the 8 teams that won ties in February (including Great Britain, which beat USA). Only those 16 teams will have a chance at winning Davis Cup 2015. The loser will be OUT of the World Group. For the USA, this would be a bit ignominious, as such relegation hasn't happened since 1987 when a 19-year-old Boris Becker won two five setters (the first against John McEnroe in a 6-hour-38-minute epic and the second against Tim Mayotte) to help West Germany upset USA indoors in Hartford. 

Please note that I think the USA could be highly competitive in the Davis Cup World Group in 2015 and so I have my eyes set both on avoiding ignominy and making sure we have a chance to compete for an actual title ASAP.  Plus I want to leave Allstate Arena feeling happy feelings rather than sad feelings, so my entire interest is in USA winning three rubbers, however they can.

I think USA should put forward a team with players other than Bob and Mike Bryan.

This may come across as kind of a mean post, but please know that I don't mean it as such. Certainly the idea has proved highly controversial on Twitter tonight. I write this from a place of incredible respect for those two amazing tennis players - to me, the greatest doubles team of all time. Their service to Team USA in Davis Cup and the Olympics has been stellar, and their Grand Slam record and weeks spent at #1 are quite simply remarkable. Crucially, they've been through Davis Cup many times in the past, and you can't discount experience when forming a squad. I haven't done the research but I'm guessing it will prove that experience tends to beat greenness (although don't tell that to James Ward).

I also think the Bryans still have a lot of brilliant wins ahead of them (particularly once they get over the 100 titles hump). Nonetheless, I think USA will be better off next month with a different group. Here are my reasons.

1) Math
There are five matches in a Davis Cup tie, and four players on a Davis Cup squad. Having two of those players capable of playing only one of the matches gives you extremely limited options in the other four matches. Both singles players have to play singles and reverse singles. What happens if one of them (particularly the best one) gets injured on Day 1, or if their form is exceedingly poor? The fact is - no other team in the 2014 World Group has two doubles-only players on their roster. Part of that is because no other country has a team that plays at the highest level all year round. But part of that is because they would lose flexibility. And the truth is that the best singles players in the world can hang with the best doubles players on any given day, while the reverse is not true.

Plus, do you really trust John Isner to stay healthy through Atlanta, DC, Toronto, Cincinnati, Winston-Salem, the US Open, AND two five-set Davis Cup rubbers?

2) Recent Results
a) The Bryans. It is not a secret that the Bryan Brothers have struggled in 2014. After their monster run following Wimbledon 2012 (Olympic gold and a non-calendar Grand Slam), they have reached only one final of the last four majors: this year's Wimbledon, where they lost to Jack Sock and Vasek Pospisil - two singles players. On summer hard courts they lost in DC to two more singles players (Sam Querrey and Steve Johnson) and just today in Toronto, they lost their first match of the Rogers Cup to a singles-doubles combo in Marin Cilic and Santiago Gonzalez. They are simply not dominating like we are used to them dominating.

Then there's the fact that the tie will be indoors. The brothers have struggled in the great indoors: they haven't won a World Tour Final since 2009, they've only won 2 of their last 10 indoor tournaments, they've had several head-scratching losses indoors (Benjamin Becker?), their Wimbledon loss was under the roof, and most crucial of all the last two Davis Cup matches they've played indoors have been losses. Home losses

Read that again: The once unbeatable Davis Cup duo are 1-2 in their last 3 matches, with both losses (to Brazil and Serbia) coming indoor at home. And 3 of their 4 career Davis Cup losses have been on indoor hard courts in the USA, the other in 2008 vs France in Winston-Salem. The fact is they are not a sure thing to win next month's doubles rubber and all thinking about the formation of the team has to reflect that.

b) Jack SockSteve Johnson, and Donald Young. These three guys have had some mighty nice wins between them this year.  Just in the last month they've beaten John Isner (twice), Kevin Anderson, Ivo Karlovic, Denis Istomin, Julien Benneteau, and Lukas Lacko (SVK). No Top 10 wins but a lot of decent scalps. All three guys are now solidly in the Top 60 and (as of this writing) in the Top 50 of the Race to London.  Two of them, as mentioned, have doubles wins over the Bryans. Johnson's college results have shown he's a great team player. I also think there's evidence to suggest that Sock plays his best in higher intensity matches (3-0 in major finals, including his US Open Mixed Doubles championship with Melanie Oudin and his Junior US Open crown).  Unfortunately for Young, the jury is still out on his Davis Cup potential, as he lost in San Diego to one of the best players in the world in Andy Murray (on DY's worst surface); while Sam Querrey's collapse against James Ward robbed him of the chance to show his mettle against someone more beatable.  But his confidence justifiably is high right now and I think he deserves another shot (certainly over Querrey after what happened in San Diego).

3) Future Results
Yes, all attention should be focused on next month's tie as 2015 won't matter if we aren't in the World Group.  We have to put our best team on the court, period. But given the fact that it's no longer clear who our best team is, there is something to be said for prepping these guys for future ties. Who knows, all three guys could be in for a Ryan Harrison-like fall from grace next year but for several reasons (talent, athleticism, even mental toughness to some extent) I think they'll be in decent shape. I think those three guys plus Isner could make an absolutely formidable team for years to come and yes, I think they could challenge for a Davis Cup title in 2015. And I think laying the foundation for 2015's team now can only benefit the squad overall.

Look, I could be dead wrong about this. Two alternate timelines already exist, if my understanding of quantum physics is correct (hint: it's probably not), that show me to be an utter idiot: one in which the Bryans play and USA wins, and one in which the Bryans don't play and USA loses.  Given Captain Courier's commitment to Bob and Mike, I think the latter is far more likely to come to take place.  In other words: I think we will likely win Davis Cup Chicago with or without the Bryans.  So why mess with a good thing for a gamble that could blow up in our faces?  And that could understandably piss off two players who we could end up needing in the future?

The bottom line is this: the USA has won just ONE Davis Cup title in the Bryan Brothers era, and are now facing a dire situation in which relegation is a real possibility. The Slovak Republic is a beatable team but with Klizan, Lacko and two out of Mertinak, Martin, Mecir, and Gombos they have some real talent and are not to be taken for granted.  The USA needs to put its best team forward.  I believe that team includes John Isner, Jack Sock, Steve Johnson, and Donald Young.  And unfortunately, not the Bryan Brothers.*

Okay, now have at me.

*Note: I actually might be okay with one Bryan Brother, a la 2008 when Mardy Fish played doubles in Spain with Mike Bryan and the two beat Feliciano Lopez and Fernando Verdasco in 5 sets.  For the records, USA lost the tie 4-1 with Roddick losing to Nadal and Ferrer and Querrey also losing to Nadal.

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