Sunday, March 8, 2015

This Week in American Tennis: 11 takeaways

1. First and foremost: Congrats Great Britain. No matter what else, props to Great Britain, which beat the USA fair and square in Davis Cup this weekend, for the second straight year. From all accounts (I couldn't watch the match), James Ward played outstanding tennis to upset John Isner from 2 sets down. Andy Murray was at the top of his game, winning both his rubbers in convincing fashion, and Jamie Murray and Dom Inglot combined for a thrilling 5-set loss to the Bryan Brothers.

And the atmosphere in Glasgow was absolutely electric.

2. And yet. This is the third year in a row that the US has underperformed in a winnable tie. Back-to-back losses by our #1 player to Ward, who has yet to reach the Top 100, account for the last two years, and the Bryans' shock loss to Nenad Zimonjic and Ilija Bozoljac in Boise two years ago accounts for the third. Captain Jim Courier is now 5-5 in ties, and other than the miracle run 2012 run to the semifinals - when Isner somehow beat Roger Federer, Gilles Simon, and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on the road on clay (and took Nicolas Almagro to 5-7 in the fifth). - it's been a series of disappointments.

There's plenty of blame to go around, but a fair amount of attention has centered on Courier. Perhaps too much of it was about his wearing a suit and tie - and yet. Clothes can be symbolic: after the US swept Switzerland in 2012, the suit was described by as "testifying to a businesslike ethic that is clearly bringing the best out of the US team." Now it's pointed to as a symbol of his lack of engagement, connection to the team, etc.

Of course, for the most part this is all silly. I'd much rather focus on some of his questionable decisions, including:
  • Contesting the 2014 tie against Great Britain on clay. Of course, a great part of that decision was premised on the idea that Isner had some kind of clay court Davis Cup magic, a la 2012, and when he bowed out of the tie, that looked like an extraordinarily poor choice. But Sam Querrey has had some success on clay, too. The Bryan Brothers are exceptional on the surface. And it was only James Ward, for goodness sake. (Oops.)
  • Leaving Steve Johnson off the team. No, Johnson on the team (likely) wouldn't have led Isner to victory on Friday. And it's very unlikely that Johnson would have prevailed in the first rubber over Murray. But it did make you wonder why a guy like Johnson - so successful in college and higher ranked than Young - didn't get a crack at the squad. 
  • The sideline demeanor. He's a laid back guy there. Davis Cup isn't a laid back competition. We're getting out-enthused. I don't think that generally leads to great results. 
And then there are his quotes. "We're not responsible for promoting [Davis Cup]" (why the heck not?) ... the Bryans are virtually a guaranteed point (except they lost 2 in a row very recently).

Given that this is a team effort, you *have* to judge everyone's value to the team, including the captain, and nothing should be taken for granted. Maybe there's a better option out there, someone who brings out exceptional efforts from his or her team every time. Or maybe there's not.

3. C'mon, tennis fans in America. Just root for America. It's not that hard. Sure, you don't like John Isner, or the style Americans generally play, or you just loooooove being a rebel. But here's the thing:

This is all a fiction. Tennis - it's not real. We're tennis fans not because it's a matter of life and death, but precisely because it isn't. It's escapism. It's drama without consequence. It's fiction.

And Davis Cup is a massive part of tennis. It's been a prominent - nay, vital - part of the sport since before ALL OF US WERE ALIVE. And the only way to really participate in Davis Cup, as a fan, is to ROOT FOR YOUR TEAM. You're from a given nation? Root for that nation! It keeps that part of the fiction alive.

Davis Cup isn't about any of the individual team members. It's about a heritage. It's the past meets the present meets the future. It's the players and the captain and the national federation and the junior hitting partners and the fans getting all riled up, like they were in Glasgow. In other countries, it's not even a question that tennis fans will support the national team. Even when there are big jerks on said team. Why is it so different here? Why can't we get over ourselves and just go with it???

So you don't like Isner. Guess what: I don't like Kobe Bryant. But will I cheer for Team Spain to beat Team USA in Olympic basketball? OF COURSE NOT! And my guess is that you won't either.

4. Dang it, why couldn't it have come down to the 5th rubber? Two years in a row we've wanted to see Donald Young play James Ward. Well, today it happened, but it was a dead rubber "won" by DY 5-7 1-0 (ret.). I think it would have been that much more exciting for everyone concerned. Note to Ward: you would have been just as much of a hero - or even more of won - if you'd saved your wins until Sundays! Have a sense of the moment, man!

5. It could get worse before it gets better. We won't know for months, but we could play Spain in September. Which could mean relegation straight out of the World Group for the first time since 1988. Some people might see that as an opportunity to start getting the Donaldsons and Kozlovs of the world in the lineup. But a country with 5 guys in the Top 60 - and a lot to prove on the international stage - should be playing World Group. Period.

6. Speaking of worse: US women in Mexico. That was bad. 1-9 over two weeks in Acapulco and Monterrey. After such a fantastic January, the last month-plus for anyone not surnamed Williams has been pretty dreadful. (On the WTA level at least. Can't forget CiCi Bellis' win in Rancho Santa Fe!)

7. Tennys is back! It's been a bit of a slog for Tennys Sandgren, who hoped to jump right back into things when he came back from injury last year, but who found himself on the losing end of too many heartbreakers. His talent wasn't the question, but his ability to finish was: since his return, including qualies, Sandgren was 22-4 in first sets, but 12-11 in second sets and 1-11 in third sets, including a four-match losing streak all of which went the distance.

So it was great to follow his week at the $15,000 Canadian F1 Futures event in Gatineau, where he beat Americans Eric Quigley, top seed Jarmere Jenkins, and Nicolas Meister; won a third set against #8 seed Matteo Donati, and then toughing out his final 6-3 7-6(7) against Canadian Philip Bester. He should rise to near #500 and with nothing to defend until the US Open. It's a good thing.

8. And there were some nice other Futures results. Alexander Sarkissian got to the Australia F2 Futures final, Meister and Daniel Nguyen reached the CAN F1 semis, and Collin Johns (who hits forehands on both sides) got to the Nicaragua F1 quarterfinals. Wins! We love wins!!

9. Had fun watching Northwestern dismantle Purdue 7-0 in men's tennis today. They've got a nice team this year, led by Sam Shropshire, Strong Kirchheimer, and Mihir Kumar. Big 10 is playing ad scoring, and to be honest I didn't mind that all 6 singles matches were over in straight sets. (Part of it was that I was waiting to take the courts myself after the matches, and didn't particularly want to wait another 45 minutes!) How about this for a compromise: no-ad for dual matches and team tournaments (except the NCAAs), ad for individual tournaments? Doubles players switch back and forth between ad and no-ad all the time. Why not singles players?

10. Indian Wells pre-qualies is kind of a neat thing, but hopefully they can fix it before next year. Half the women's seeds withdrew before the event - most of them in the bottom half, meaning Mayo Hibi got to the final without facing a ranked player, while Lauren Embree had to face Bernarda Pera and Jessica Pegula before falling to Samantha Crawford in the semis. Fortunately, Embree got a wildcard anyway, as did Crawford and Hibi. Mischa Zverev won the tournament on the men's side, beating Chase Buchanan in the semis.

11. This coming week will be boring. Serena back at Indian Wells. Mardy Fish back at Indian Wells. Jack Sock back at Indian Wells. Chris Evert back at Indian Wells. Oh, that last part is kind of amazing.

Why yes, that was faved by Chrissie herself!

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