By Randy Walker
JACKSONSVILLE, Fla. – Welcome to the new post-Andy Roddick U.S. Davis Cup world.
Gone are the days when one Andrew Stephen Roddick strutted across the baselines of the United States and the world representing his country with fire and fist-pumping passion. The new faces of Davis Cup in the United States are John Isner and Sam Querrey, who this week are playing in this city most notably known for his annual Georgia-Florida football game in their first career home Davis Cup series. It just so happens that it is also the first U.S. home match since the retirement of Roddick.
This new edition of America’s national men’s tennis team, competing for a 98th year in the annual international team competition, is the first to compete at home without Roddick since 2000. It also marks only the second time that the U.S. Tennis Association has hosted a Davis Cup series without the promotional power of a current top 10 American player or former major singles champion on its team since the ATP rankings started in 1973. The lone other time was the 2001 Davis Cup Qualifying Round against India in Winston-Salem, N.C. that featured a 19-year-old and No. 16-ranked Roddick and a 21-year-old and No. 85-ranked James Blake, who, like Isner and Querrey, were also making their home Davis Cup debuts. Six years later, that singles tandem helped the U.S. hoist the Davis Cup trophy in 2007 after a 12-year U.S. title hiatus.
How will the public embrace this new look squad? Will it be a USTA box office smash as it had been over the last decade when Davis Cup sellouts cascaded the country from Charleston, S.C. to Austin, Texas to Portland, Oregon?
The skinny crowd of approximately 3,500 during Friday’s opening singles may not be the most accurate or fair barometer. This first-round match is drama-free against a relatively benign team from Brazil that is five years removed from being a marquee squad following the retirement of Hall of Famer Gustavo Kuerten. One also has to consider the tennis hangover from last week’s Australian Open as well as this series being played the weekend of the unique American holiday that is Super Bowl Sunday.
But there is no denying a new look and feel of this next generation of Davis Cuppers in the United States. U.S. Captain Jim Courier spoke of the “different energy” that his new squad has since the “alpha dog” Roddick, the 2003 U.S. Open champion, last played for the United States in the 2011 quarterfinal against Spain in Austin, Texas. Before Roddick’s Davis Cup arrival in 2001, it was Courier who ruled the U.S. Davis Cup roost for most of the 1990s, along with Andre Agassi and, to a lesser extent when it worked within his schedule, Pete Sampras. Prior to that, from 1978 to 1992, the U.S. Davis Cup team was centered around John McEnroe, the most zealous of all American Davis Cuppers. No one played and won more on an American Davis Cup court than McEnroe, who has his name etched five times as a champion team member on the Davis Cup trophy. In the late 1960s into the 1970s, Arthur Ashe and Stan Smith were the faces of Davis Cup in America.
So now with the Roddick era already dipped below the horizon, what will be the new identity of Davis Cup in the United States? Does Isner, the highest ranking American at No. 16, take the reigns of America’s team like he did as a four-year standout on the University of Georgia’s men’s team? The 27-year-old’s status as folk hero in tennis history is already firmly established, courtesy of his 70-68 fifth-set Wimbledon epic over Nicolas Mahut in no less than 11 hours and five minutes back in 2010. Can he, 25-year-old Querrey or 20-year-old Ryan Harrison become household names and transcend the sport with a performance on – or off – the court? Could they possibly win a major title in this Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray dominated era? Will the U.S. have to wait for another generation in a decade or two when Roddick or Blake are a future Davis Cup captain before the United States has another major singles champion to build a bigger Davis Cup buzz in the United States? Can the Bryan twins – Bob and Mike – become more of a leading Davis cup act now that they have won a record 13th major doubles title and are almost unanimously considered the greatest doubles team of all time? Perhaps a new buzz will come when Davis Cup is given better dates in the tennis calendar and not the suicidal weeks after major events, or as many contend, a better format, some suggesting a Ryder Cup-type format.
But until those days come – if they ever do – followers and observers of Davis Cup in the United States will watch the seeds that Captain Courier is planting at present and watch what sprouts in the months and years to come. Time will tell if Isner and Querrey can achieve the heights that Roddick and Blake ascended to after they made played their first Davis Cup matches on home soil.