Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Tennis Is My Hot Hot...

A Davis Cup Retrospective

by mmmm8

While it's always a great experience to be part of something historic, it was a lot less fun to be a fan of Russian tennis in Portland this weekend. At some points during the tie, I wondered whether it was worth the money and time spent to come to Portland just to see your team come up miles short.

But unlike some of the fans that had traveled to the tie from Russia (and there were not that many), I am a tennis fan first, and a conflicted patriot second. I had some once in a lifetime experiences this past weekend. Being able to watch the draw ceremony on Thursday was worth the extra night's hotel stay. Waiting for luggage with Igor Andreev and Patrick McEnroe was worth the flight cost, and watching history being made was worth the ticket prices. As depressing as Friday and Saturday were for me, I would gladly do it all over again.

The U.S. team deserved this win both behind their strong play this weekend and throughout the Davis Cup stages in 2007, but also on desire alone. As they walked into the draw ceremony, the tension surrounding the US team was palpable, while the Russians were relaxed and almost aloof. Perhaps complacent after having won the Cup last year, perhaps realizing the limitation of their chances in the tie, they seemed to take a "whatever happens, will" approach to the match even before the tie began.

Did Russian Captain Shamil Tarpishev make the wrong choice putting Dmitry Tursunov in as Andy Roddick's first opponent? Having beaten Roddick before and able to play a power game to contend with Andy's, Dmitry would have been my choice. But the deflated player that took court on Friday against a focused Roddick was not at all the same player that beat Andy in Moscow last year.

Obviously, Russians banked on the rubber against James Blake, but a combination of an unexpectedly focused and aggressive and a slightly off-form Youzhny resulted in a tight four-set loss. Mikhail usually plays each point to the maximum of physical and mental ability, but often either his body or his mind flame out before the match is over. Sometimes, like in his match against Richard Gasquet in the Davis Cup quarters, he is able to overcome these problems and persevere by showing more fight than the opponent. It seemed this could happen in this second match of the tie, as well. Youzhny came through to a third consecutive tiebreak, despite struggling in virtually every one of his service games and was leading 3-1, hoping to take the match to a fifth set, where James is known to lose his focus. But it was Youzhny who lost focus and allowed Blake back into the tiebreaker and the fifth set never happened.

Russia failed to reach it's minimum requirement for the day, and it's difficult to describe the sinking feeling that went through my body. I had already realized after the first match that his awful display meant that I have to give up any remaining trust I have in Dmitry Tursunov, one of my favorites, as a tennis player. Although Youzhny played much better tennis and the second rubber was incomparably better, the loss meant near extinguishing of my hopes for the Russian team. And for Blake, it was a defining moment.

The next day, thinking about Igor Andreev's and
Nikolay Davydenko's complementing gamestyles and past success (they had even won Moscow together once, beating Bhupati/Bjorkman in the final), a little hope appeared again. Although Davydenko started the match returning horribly, the team got to a first-set tiebreak against the Bryan brothers, and for a moment, there seemed to be a chance for Russia. Two points on Davydenko's serve later, the hope was extinguished. Bob and Mike found Andreev's weakness (he has no backhand return) early in the second, and Davydenko, despite playing well overall, began struggling on his serve (just because he is Davydenko). It was over fairly quickly, and after my brain was able to accept the 0-3 score, I felt very happy for the United States.

Sunday featured a tired Bob Bryan against an in-shape Igor Andreev and a hungover James Blake against a brain-dead Dmitry Tursunov. Bob played well, but got killed by Andreev's forehand. Tursunov started well against a barely moving Blake, but as James was getting a jolt of energy by the second set, Tursunov managed to lose focus, played it dangerously close on his serves, and, in the end, lost in three.

Igor, who carried Russia through in the 1/8 away tie with Chile and the semifinal against Germany, was the one saving grace of the final, as well. Despite his nervous flameout in his first slam quarterfinal at RG this year, I've always felt he's the one Russian who can does not have the mental blocks that prey on most of his compatriots. As Andreev came back out from the locker room to cheer on his friend Dmitry Tursunov, the Russian contingent in the stadium broke out in tranquil applause. Quiet recognition for a quiet hero.

As I said in the beginning, there were tons of things I enjoyed in the tennis this weekend despite my team's loss. Moments now permanently in my memory bank:

  • Having a little interaction with umpires Enric Molina and Carlos Ramos, next to whom I sat at the draw. They were both very nice
  • Just standing in the vicinity of one of my all-time favorites, Yevgeny Kafelnikov
  • Watching the team benches. The interaction among players and the support.
  • Watching Tarpishev and PMac observe the matches.
  • Mikhail Youzhny high-fiving a ball kid for earning him an extra serve after tripping on the net post
  • Irina Davydenko caressing Nikolay's head. Sounds kind of disgusting, but it was a really warm moment.
  • James Blake 's repartee with Teimuraz Gabashvili and Nikolay Davydenko during the dead rubber against Tursunov
  • Watching the Russians play soccer on court
  • Seeing the US team celebration. A goal deservedly achieved after so many years
  • Seeing the US team's faces the morning after
  • Bud Collins. Always smiling.
  • Bob Bryan's return flying right into ITF President Francesco Ricci Bitti
  • Shamil Tarpishev's attempt at a speech in English
  • Thomas Blake EVERYWHERE. I'm fairly sure the guy has clones.
  • Waiting for luggage with PMac and Andreev. I kind of wanted to steal the replica of the trophy
  • Standing in a strange airport at 5 am in the morning, surrounded by people in USTA and Russian Tennis Federation uniforms, rolling around racquet cases. More racquets than I have ever seen in my life. Despite Russia's loss and the unpleasant hour, I couldn't help but smile. Tennis makes me happy.

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