By Bill Simons
The US may not win the Davis Cup this year. We might not win our opening tie against Britain. But America’s Davis Cup venue—a makeshift court in the left field of San Diego’s Petco Field—is quite the winner. Yes, Davis Cup ties have been played on cow dung courts in India, on piers in Rotterdam, in leaky hockey rinks in Zimbabwe, and in Spanish bull rings and soccer stadiums. But never has tennis in America seen a venue within a venue quite like this—astonishing!
Here were myriad sight-lines and visuals. One can’t miss possibly the biggest scoreboard—almost ten stories high—in the history of the game. (Eat your heart out, Wimbledon.) All the standards of baseball architecture were before you: huge stands, massive light fixtures and, of course, the yellow foul poll. The eye catches the velvety green of the lush outfield, giant numbers celebrating Jackie Robinson and Padre heroes, and the brick wall of the century-old Western Metal Supply Co., which overlooks the court. The old edifice was draped with banners marking the 32 times the US has won the Davis Cup.
‘Tis true, America was once a tennis power. But no worries, today’s court is surrounded by mighty towers of corporate power. You know the names: Chase, Merrill Lynch, Fox, Comerica. On another building, fans crowded together on a sixth-floor balcony to catch the action. There’s nothing like free seats. Closer to the court, there were other powers: tennis royalty—Rod Laver—and a giant block-long sign boosting the King of Beers, Budweiser.
Meanwhile—amidst the zany patriotic hats, giddy kids, and “The Netheads,” America’s cowbell-toting cheer group—a Padre baseball fan tried to explain tennis’ arcane scoring system to his befuddled wife. Refined British accents punctuated the San Diego air. Some muttered about soccer scores, or asked how long Dave Winfield played for the Padres. Others announced: “Oh, I’ve just popped in for a little tennis.” And then there was this celeb-watching conversation in the stands:
“Where’s the Duchess?” asked an anonymous voice.
“She in the first row,” came the authoritative answer.
“Which Duchess?” another asked in perfect King’s English.
“The Duchess of Gloucestershire, of course,” answered another scolding voice. “Don’t you know your royals?”
One experienced fan from Bakersfield soon picked up on the whole Downton Abbey factor. “The whole thing is that the Brits are too well-behaved,” he noted. “And that brings the best out in us Americans, which then makes the whole thing far too civil. Now, if we just had some Chileans, some Brazilians, or Croatians on hand, then we’d have some fun.”
Another element at play in San Diego was the southpaw factor. After all, the annals of tennis are crowded with the lofty names of lovely lefties: Laver, Nadal, McEnroe, Connors, Vilas and Young.
And who? Why, Young—Donald Young, the little-known southpaw whose tennis adventure has been marked by controversy and a perplexing underachievement. Young’s career began with a rush of hype. Many were struck by his sweet hands and swift movement. The star-stoking machine was soon promising a gem, America’s next great whiz. But when given one wildcard after another, too often young Young delivered first-round losses. Critics began to grumble, and his helicopter parents never seemed to stop hovering. He didn’t train that hard. “Talent alone will take me all the way,” seemed to be his conceit. There was a sense of entitlement when he unleashed an R-rated rant against “mother tennis”—that would be the USTA—for not giving him a coveted wildcard to the French Open. Worse yet, when he trained with Pete Sampras, the great champion teased him, calling him a “princess.”
But that was all yesterday, and these days, the American tennis landscape is bleak. Andy Roddick and James Blake are resting easy in their slippers. Young Ryan Harrison and Jack Sock seem a bit adrift and have yet to click. And, more to the point, just prior to America’s Davis Cup tie with Great Britain, the top US player, John Isner, pulled out with the same bum ankle that forced him to withdraw from his first-round match at the the Aussie Open.
In the past, Davis Cup captains had shied away from Young, even when he was the highest-ranked American available for open spots. The manchild rarely exudes confidence. But this time our captain, Jim Courier, pulled the trigger.
Why not? Long ago, in Indian Wells, Young scored the biggest win of his career, a shock victory over Great Britain’s top player, Andy Murray. More recently, at the Australian Open, Young had scored another upset win, over Italy’s No. 23 Andreas Seppi. Believe it or not, he was the last American man to standing in Melbourne.
Still, however unconventional the setting in San Diego might be, the result was quite conventional.
Yes, the crowd chanted “USA, USA ,” and “Forever Young.” But it was forever Murray.
Never mind that Andy had back surgery in September, was dismissed with ease by Federer in Melbourne, and that the US surprisingly chose clay—undoubtedly his worst surface—in order to slow him down.
There is many a reason that the Scot won the Olympic gold, and became the first Brit in 77 years to win Wimbledon. Murray’s backhand may not be as good as Wawrinka’s. His offense-to-defense may not be as lethal as Nadal’s, and his return-of-serve and court sense may not be as good as Djokovic’s. But he’s right there or close on all fronts. And today—even before a loud makeshift band could get in tune, and before the Netheads got a chance to loudly clang their cowbells—the Scot was in gear and going forward.
From the outset, Young was run from corner to corner. Too often, he was forced to pirouette and offer squash-like defensive shots. Young later told Inside Tennis about the frustration of playing Murray. “He’s getting everything back,” said the Atlantan. “It’s coming back deep, you’re on the move constantly, you feel like you have to do more than you want to. You’re just uncomfortable. That’s the goal of every tennis player, to make you feel uncomfortable. He did a great job today.”
Young’s 6-1, 6-2, 6-3 loss in 1:38 was a bad (yet, fully expected) spanking: almost a master class.
But not to worry. After all ,Davis Cup is a team competition, with ebbs and flows. Young’s loss was almost a given, as was a victory by Sam Querrey, our No. 1 player. Certainly, he would step up and subdue the relatively obscure Jamie Ward, a lowly London journeyman more familiar with Challengers then prime time events, who was most famous for being Rafa Nadal’s hitting partner and the loser of a six-and-a-half-hour team playoff match to see who would make the British Davis Cup team in 2009.
It wasn’t certain that journeyman Ward would even play. He had only won 16 matches on tour in his entire career.
Not surprisingly, Querrey was confident and commanding at the beginning. He came out on fire. Comfortable on clay, he powered his way to a quick 6-1 first set win.
But Ward upgraded his return, survived some key break points that could have broken the match wide open, and managed to force a second-set tiebreak. And then, with the breaker knotted at 3-3, he took advantage of an awkward Querrey volley error and reeled off four straight points to win the set.
Still, Querrey went into cruise control, rallying back with his powerball game to win the third set and go up 4-2, 30-15 in the fourth. Their were American angels in the San Diego outfield. The Californian—who has won all four of his ATP titles in LA or Vegas, who twice has reached the fourth round of Slams, who has made over $5 million on the tour (compared to a measly $500,000 for Ward), and who once was No. 17 in the world—had to feel comfortable. He was within six points of victory. Ward hadn’t had a single break point. Not just Querrey but most of tennisdom expected him to close out the match and even the tie.
But in tennis you can’t run out the clock. And Querrey sailed a key forehand and Ward broke serve. Something changed. Out of nowhere, the Brit grew ascendant, hit big winners, and broke Querrey five times in a row to race to a 1-6, 7-6 (3), 4-6, 6-1 whiplash victory, finishing with a definitive overhead.
Querrey’s implosion was the most stunning American big match collapse in recent memory.
Why the astounding turnaround? Querrey—a deeply laconic 6’6” figure—is hard to figure out. He’s got a great serve and forehand. But last year he didn’t reach a final for the first time since 2011, and he dropped the deciding rubber of our Davis Cup loss to Serbia, even though Novak Djokovic had badly sprained his ankle.. He lost in the third round of this year’s Aussie Open. His ranking has dropped to No. 49. In the absence of John Isner, there was a lot of pressure on Sam, especially since Young had lost.
In contrast, Ward, a cabbie’s son, drove on with little to lose. It didn’t hurt that the 26-year old had, despite his low ranking, a history of capturing big scalps like Stan Wawrinka, Dimitry Tursonov and none other than Querrey himself, who he beat on grass in 2013. Plus, there are always the quirky impacts unintended consequences: the US chose to play on clay in San Diego and Ward grew up for many years on Spanish clay and adores San Diego.
Britain’s Davis Cup captain Leon Smith said it was a “fantastic win” and one of the best in recent British memory. Ward, who describes himself as just an Arsenal (soccer) fan who is “a normal bloke,” said that he had belief throughout the match, in part because he had beaten Querrey before. His captain told him to hang in there and he would get his chance. Ward said that maybe he got used to Querrey’s patterns and that Sam may have gotten tired and felt the pressure of having to close out the match.
Querrey and Courier both offered a certain non-chalant response. Querrey said he was “a little bummed out, obviously” and the loss stunk, but the US was still in the tie. Somehow there was little sense of urgency and not much devastation.
Yes, we can still win. Miracles happen. But a loss is now probable and our first Davis Cup loss in the San Diego area will beg many a question.
Did we actually out think ourselves in choosing clay? And if we do lose, will the defeat prove to be just be another glitch in the now problematic road of American men’s tennis or a clear marker that the men’s game in our land – once so grand – is now in a severe decline with few prospects of a quick turnaround?