Player health key for Davis Cup team

Jim Courier was the ultimate Davis Cup warrior, but he has exchanged his battle gear for a captain’s hat in an attempt to lead a veteran U.S. team back to the promised land, which means a 33rd Davis Cup crown.

His first task is to make sure Andy Roddick, John Isner and the Bryan brothers stay healthy and focused and take care of a weak Chilean team on red clay beginning Friday in Santiago.

Even though clay is by far Roddick’s worst surface and isn’t exactly the towering Isner’s favorite one, either, both have scored enough decent wins on dirt that they will be heavily favored against the likes of the mediocre Chilean No. 1, Paul Capdeville, and their rapidly declining No. 2, Nicolas Massu. Had former top-five player Fernando Gonzalez been able to rehab after his hip surgery more quickly, this could have been a very dicey tie for the Americans, but Gonzalez will be cheering from the sidelines and likely will have very little to clap about.

World No. 8 Roddick will kick off play against former Olympic gold medalist Massu, who won that medal on hard courts back in 2004. He hasn’t been anywhere near the same player since, entering the match ranked No. 241, even though he says his ranking is low only because of injuries and he believes he can crack the top 50 again this year.

Isner, who did manage to reach the final of a small red clay-court tournament in Belgrade, Serbia, last year and is currently ranked No. 34, then will take on No. 164 Capdeville, who is far from the quintessential grinder type of player who might be able to wear the North Carolinian down.

On Saturday, the No. 1 doubles team of Bob and Mike Bryan is slated to play Massu and Jorge Aguilar. Given the Bryans have won the French Open and are all but unbeatable in Davis Cup, that point is a lock.

It should be noted, however, that Roddick is 1-3 against Massu (including 0-2 on clay) and both prior meetings between Isner and Capdeville went to a third set. Plus, Chilean captain Hans Gildemeister thinks his men can play a bit over their heads at home and possibly pull an upset. But Roddick is super experienced in Davis Cup play and should be able to get into Massu’s fragile head. And, as Courier said, Isner likes the high bounce the elevated conditions will give both teams and should be able to do damage with his forehand.

It’s possible Courier will have a sleepless night before his first time as captain, because it’s not as if the two-time French Open champion can come off the bench and insert himself into the lineup if his players get their feet stuck in red mud.

“I’m the right amount of nervous,” Courier said. “It’s kind of like Christmas, waiting to open the presents, and my presents are the matches that are ahead.”

Should the U.S. beat Chile, it will face the winner of the match between Spain and Belgium, which almost certainly will be a matchup against No. 1 Rafael Nadal and his extremely talented friends. Even though it’s playing in Belgium on hard courts, Spain is a huge favorite with nine-time Grand Slam champ Nadal, the red-hot David Ferrer, top-10 player Fernando Verdasco and his sometimes doubles partner, the left-handed Feliciano Lopez. Belgium’s Xavier Malisse, Ruben Bemelmans and Olivier Rochus are capable players, but they don’t have the talent to stave off the Spanish powerhouse.

Should the United States and Spain both win as expected, they would face off five days after the Wimbledon final in a tie in which both Roddick and Nadal could be questionable given how deep both men usually go at the All England Club. Nonetheless, both nations are deep enough to trot out strong teams, and should Nadal make the trip stateside, his wildly popular presence will almost guarantee a sellout.

But neither of those two Cup-winning nations is the defending champion. That accolade goes to little-yet-mighty Serbia, which begins its quest for another title at home against India without its top player, Novak Djokovic, but full of confidence, as India has no singles players of note and Serbians Janko Tipsarevic and Victor Troicki are both good enough to take care of business decisively.

Assuming Djokovic returns to play later in the Davis Cup, Serbia also will be favored in its next tie against the winner of the Sweden-Russia paring, as Russia’s best player, Mikhail Youzhny, has sworn off Davis Cup, and Sweden has had so much trouble finding a No. 2 singles player behind world No. 4 Robin Soderling it had to call the fragile Joachim Johansson out of retirement again.

Argentina, which believes it already should have won at least two Davis Cup titles, is the strongest nation behind Serbia in the top half of the draw and should have an easy time against Romania at home. Even though 2009 U.S. Open champion Juan Martin del Potro isn’t playing (he has indicated he will play the second round), the squad features Davis Cup hero David Nalbandian and the consistent Juan Monaco.

Nalbandian and his buddies should meet the Czechs in the next round, assuming Tomas Berdych leads them to a negotiable victory over Kazakhstan. Perhaps this year, the Argentines will respond properly to the pressure and make its way to another final. In 2008, a Fernando Verdasco-led Spanish team stunned them in Mar de Plata in the final.

While Davis Cup doesn’t tend to have as much off-court intrigue as the women’s Fed Cup does, there is almost always some spat between a player and captain. This week, there was none bigger than the one between French captain Guy Forget and his top player against Austria, Gilles Simon. Forget is in his 12th season, and there have been some analysts who have said he has lost touch with his younger players. Simon is among them, and he said recently that Forget does not understand his counterpunching game. France reached the final last year, but this weekend will be without its top two players, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Gael Monfils, as well as another man who could have played No. 2 singles, Richard Gasquet.

France will open play Friday on a specially constructed indoor clay court in a converted airplane hangar in Vienna, where the atmosphere is sure to be raucous. Given how well 10th-ranked Jurgen Melzer has been playing during the past year, France could be facing a first-round exit — and it may very well be Forget’s last tie as captain. The winner of that match will face the winner of Croatia-Germany. If young Croatian Marin Cilic continues his good form from over the past months, Croatia, which won the title in 2005, could be a force to reckon with again.

But the focus in the United States will be on former No. 1 Courier, who played on Davis Cup-winning teams in 1992 and 1995. While Roddick, Isner and the Bryans should put the clamps down quickly against Chile, funnier things have happened to U.S. teams on red clay before.

Courier is a fiery guy, but like former captain Patrick McEnroe discovered in his 10-year span as captain, sometimes laying a cool hand on a panicked player’s shoulder is a more fitting maneuver than a hard slap in the back. Courier believes his team can go all the way, and it seems like his players do, too.

“When Patrick stepped down, I think we were all excited to see Jim step in,” Mike Bryan said. “He’s one of the boys. He’s a really smart coach, and he has passion for Davis Cup. We’re coming together as a team. It’s fun playing for a guy that you idolized when you grew up.”