U.S. Davis Cup team needs better No. 2 player

Andy Roddick thrilled his nation with his near upset of Roger Federer in the Wimbledon final, but his subsequent pullout from the U.S. Davis Cup team’s quarterfinal tie against Croatia due to emotional exhaustion and a minor injury proved costly.

Instead of having his dependable and fiery No. 1 to go up against the talented Marin Cilic and the service-bombing Ivo Karlovic, U.S. captain Patrick McEnroe was forced to name the underachieving James Blake as his leader and call upon Mardy Fish, no clay court demon, as his No. 2 player.

Both men played their hearts out on the opening day but didn’t have the skill set or the inner belief to pull off victories on foreign soil, as Karlovic (who was 0-11 in five set matches entering the day) came from two sets down to overcome Blake 6-7 (5), 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (3), 7-5, and then Marin Cilic fried Fish 4-6, 6-3, 6-7 (3), 6-1, 8-6 in four hours and 23 minutes.

The nearly unbeatable duo of Bob and Mike Bryan gave the U.S. a glimmer of hope when they took a simple 6-3, 6-1, 6-3 win over inexperienced Croatian pair of Roko Karanusic and Lovro Zovko on Saturday. But on Sunday, America didn’t come close to pulling off what it hasn’t done since 1934, coming back from an 0-2 deficit when the enthusiastic and lethal 20-year-old Cilic wiped the clay with Blake in a 6-3, 6-3, 4-6, 6-2 victory.

On Friday against Karlovic, Blake showed tremendous heart, but against Cilic, he played a sloppy and confusing contest, rarely taking the time to set up points and show off his athleticism. Clearly, Blake has never been comfortable in dirt, but it wasn’t as if he was facing four-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal in the seaside resort of Porec. Rather, he’s a young and sometimes erratic player who was being asked to lift his nation on his thin shoulders over the most successful Davis Cup county in history.

Had Blake been able to get on top of Cilic early, extend the points and make the Croat feel the heat on his service games, he might have been able to make Cilic’s hands shake when trying to close the match out. But Blake largely went away in the fifth set, serving miserably, returning without direction and wildly slapping his forehand about the court.

“I think this was one of the best matches I’ve played,” Cilic said. “I was a little tired from the five sets on Friday, and today I played a lot of it on adrenaline, the crowd was carrying me throughout the match. I really played well, I felt good on court, moved really well, and even though I lost the third set, I felt I was playing good and my tactics were perfect, so I kept going and eventually broke him.”

While Roddick was clearly too tired to drag himself to the Croatian indoor stadium just five days after his heroic defeat to Federer, had he managed to make the trip, there’s little question that he would have folded as easily. Even though Roddick is a mediocre player on clay, at the very least he understands game-time situations and would have surely realized that Cilic was ripe for the picking based on his inexperience alone. That’s why Roddick has been able to score 31 Davis Cup singles wins since his debut in 2001, and although he has a 6-9 record on clay, he’s managed to pocket a few victories on dirt in foreign environments against decent players, including over Czech Tomas Berdych and Austrian Juergen Melzer.

On the other hand, Blake has scored just one live win on clay, over Austria’s Stefan Koubek, and only one other singles win away from home in the past eight years. While he’s had some spectacular moments playing at home, including during the United States’ 2007 title run, Blake has been less than dependable away from the comforts of red, white and blue arenas.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for James to slide into the No. 1 singles role,” McEnroe said before the tie began. “He’s always been the No. 2 guy on this team, with Andy playing the role of No. 1 quite well. But James has a lot of experience, and I think it’s a nice change for him to be put in that position.”

While that might have been the case at home, Blake did not embrace the change abroad.

Even before Roddick pulled out, captain McEnroe had the opportunity to select young American Sam Querrey over Blake for the No. 2 spot, as the Californian had taken Cilic to five sets at Wimbledon and showed decent clay ability last year, when the U.S. fell to Spain.

But McEnroe was understandably not enamored with Querrey’s results this year and instead, went with his veterans — first with Blake — even though he was coming off of awful Grand Slam performances at the French Open and Wimbledon. Then he went with Fish, who has been performing better over the past two months and is Blake’s best friend on tour, as well as his doubles partner. Like Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson, McEnroe has developed a love of his veteran players, guys whom he knows inside and out and whom he believes are less prone to making rookie errors.

That philosophy has paid off when it comes to Roddick and the Bryans, but McEnroe has yet to find a dependable No. 2 player, which he can’t be totally blamed for given that overall talent level since he took over as captain in 2001 hasn’t been superior, But he has to take responsibility for picking whom he has in individual ties. In some ways, it’s a bit of a crap shoot as no captain can be completely sure as to how a player will perform on a single day, but in other ways, it’s not. At least from the outside of the locker room, it sure looks like Blake, and also Fish, are not up to the task of going up against good clay courters in away matches.

Perhaps next year, if McEnroe is forced to select a team to play away on clay, he’ll try his luck again with Querrey, or young lefthander Wayne Odesnik, who professes a love of dirt and has had some decent results on the surface. Whatever the case, without Roddick in the fold for every tough away tie, the U.S. is going to be a serious underdog.

After the match, Blake admitted that there was a comfort level in playing No. 2 behind Roddick, the de facto team leader with a Davis Cup singles record of 31-11.

“I got a ton of respect for Andy. I really can’t see myself having any more respect for him than today,” said Blake. “Being in the No. 1 spot, it shows me how hard his job has been for this many years and how outstanding he’s really been as a teammate and a leader of this team because he’s counted on as the No. 1 to put up two points, and he does it time after time. Davis Cup is always pressure-packed, but being in the No. 2 spot is less pressure-packed than being in that one spot.”

Croatia will host the Czech Republic in the semifinals after the Czechs beat last year’s runners-up Argentina in Ostrava. On Sunday, Juan Martin del Potro had taken out Berdych 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 to send the tie down to the wire on an indoor hardcourt, but then the experienced Radek Stepanek — who had once shunned the competition — took an inspired 7-6, 6-3, 6-2 win over Juan Monaco. Both Croatia and the Czechs sport

big-serving players who love fast surfaces, so it will be interesting to see whether the Croats choose clay again, as Cilic appears more comfortable sliding than either Berdych or Stepanek do.

The other semifinal will feature first-timer Israel, which stunned powerhouse Russia in Tel Aviv, 4-1, getting singles wins from veteran Harel Levy, the scrappy Dudi Sela and the competent doubles duo of Jonathan Erlich and Andy Ram. But Israel’s Cinderella run will likely come to a close in September, when it must travel to Spain, which went deep into its bench to put down Germany, 3-2. Nadal and Spain’s No. 2 David Ferrer were unable to play due to injuries, so Spanish captain Albert Costa selected the up-and-down lefty Fernando Verdasco and the capable, yet often disappointing Tommy Robredo to play singles. Before he knew it, the tie was locked at 2-2 as Germany’s high-flying Philipp

Kohlschreiber knocked off both his singles players.

In the final contest, Costa tabbed his old friend, 2003 French Open champion Juan Carlos Ferrero, to sub for Robredo and the move paid off as he punched out Germany’s Andreas Beck 6-4, 6-4, 6-4.

Now Spain, which won the Cup last year, is looking like the favorite to go back to back, but that will largely depend on Nadal’s health. While it can beat Israel on clay with a B-level team, Spain will need its top men against either of the talented Croatian or Czech teams. After his performance on Sunday, it’s possible that one of those top guys could be the revived Ferrero.

“It’s been a long time since I was on the team because we are blessed with such a lot of great players,” said Ferrero, who last played for Spain in 2005. “Playing the last match is always hard and we suffered right down to the last point, but I am over the moon.”