America Wins Battles, Loses War

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Photo by Getty Images

Bill Simons

Madrid 

“Oh, I’m sailin’ away, my own true love,

I’m sailin’ away in the mornin’ –

Is there something I can send you from across the sea

From the place that I’ll be landing…

I just thought you might want something fine

Made of silver or of golden

Either from the mountains of Madrid

Or from the coast of Barcelona.”

~ Bob Dylan

For centuries, Spanish conquistadors, cavaliers and conquerors came to the Americas seeking silver. More recently, American sporting heroes have ventured to the hills and plains of Spain seeking coveted silver of their own: the Davis Cup.

In 2000, I ventured to Santander in Northern Spain to cover our team, led by our prime cavalier, John McEnroe. After climbing a mountain or two, I watched with a bemused smile as Señor Mac stole the show. Everything seemed to revolve around John and the then-burning question of whether at 41 he would insert himself into the doubles lineup. The Spanish icon Manuel Santana observed, “McEnroe is a clown. We will win 5-0.”

They did.

Then, oddly enough, to drown out my tears, I crossed town to take in a gory bullfight and interview Plácido Domingo. The one-sided bullfight was an outrage. The interview had its high notes.

Four years later I was off to the enchanting ancient Spanish capital of Seville. There I stayed in a 16th century inn, saw some Flamenco and watched more than 30,000 flag-waving Spaniards descend on an enormous soccer stadium. The locals, who featured a brash teen named Rafa, crushed us 3-2 to win the Davis Cup championship. To soothe the pain, Captain Pat McEnroe took our team, including Andy Roddick, the Bryans and practice partner Mardy Fish, out to a field for a prompt game of feel-good baseball. Rarely has there been a better antidote to the agony of defeat.

But after Ameria’s loss to Italy, there was no whimsical baseball game to soothe the pain or a bullfight to distract from reality.

While US women’s tennis still has the Williams sisters and a sparkling array of bright young wannabes, including Coco Gauff, the prospects for American men’s tennis remain modest.

True, veteran John Isner, who reached the Miami Masters final this year, was not on the American team, and 6’11” Reilly Opelka who’d beaten Fabio Fognini at the US Open, definitely has a tall future. But tonight the 22-year-old, ranked No. 31, was broken early in the first set of the opener. And despite blasting nine aces he fell quickly, 6-4.

After his loss to Reilly at the US Open, Fognini had called Opelka’s game “boring.” Today, Italian fans, with their blue shirts and musical “Eee-talee-ya! Eee-talee-ya!” were intrigued as their Fabulous Fabio muted the thunderbolts of the American.

Deep into the second set, the Italian flicked a sublime running backhand passing shot. Seemingly he was about to close out matters. But two Opelka backhand winners in the second set (that got the USTA’s Katrina Adams out of her chair) and a truly wretched Fognini forehand volley, which prompted the Italian to smash his poor little innocent French racket with Italian passion, allowed Opelka to keep hope alive as he prevailed 7-4 in the second-set tiebreak.

But then, in the second game of the third and final set, Fognini hit a brilliant return of serve and stroked a gorgeous running down-the-line passing shot winner to break the American giant. Never one to hide his abundant emotions, the 32-year-old Fognini, No. 12 in the world, gyrated and unleashed a fury of fist pumps. The crowd roared “Fabio! Fabio! Fabio!” Their man was too fast, too wily and too experienced for the American blast-meister who fell 6-4, 6-7, 6-3. In a flash, America’s hopes to gain a silver treasure in Spain were dashed.

Taylor Fritz, perhaps our best prospect for the future, did score a brilliant come-from-behind 5-7, 7-6, 6-2 win over world No. 8 Matteo Berrettini. And Jack Sock, who is said to be the best doubles player in the world, team with the still powerful Sam Querrey to score a come from behind match deep into the Spanish night. These were sweet match triumphs. But according to an American tennis official, it was too little too late. It was said that based on complicated calculations the US had narrowly missed out on gaining one of the two wildcard slots for the quarterfinals. So, yet again, there’s just a raw pain in Spain. And there’s no baseball game or bullfight to distract us. Once more, Americans in Spain have been gored.

*****

DAVIS CUP NOTES

  • According to reports, each Davis Cup team gets $600,000.
  • At 12:15 AM the US still was just midway through their second singles match. Taylor Fritz vs. Matteo Berrettini split sets with a doubles match to go.
  • The just-win-baby medallion goes to US Davis Cup Captain Mardy Fish, who noted that he got his first Davis Cup win when Canada forfeited their doubles.
  • What’s the best cry of Canadian greatness? After they reversed their 0-15 record against the US, it was said, “No one beats Canada 16 times in a row.” One Canadian cap read, “The North Over Everybody.”  Another one claimed, “Canada Is Already Great.”
  • Janko Tipsarevic, who is retiring after this Davis Cup, told IT that what tennis taught him the most is toughness.
  • Novak Djokovic said something had to be changed with the Davis Cup as it had been. What was sacrificed were home and away matches, and he says he will miss them greatly. As for the future, he suggested that there might be a change so as to provide for more home and away ties. He added that having the Davis Cup and the new ATP World Cup being played within six weeks of each other probably won’t work. He suggested that the two cups somehow should be combined and be played a couple of weeks after the US Open. But Roger Federer’s Laver Cup is now occupying that spot.
  • Guess what, it’s still tennis after all these years. In other words, while much of the tennis world gathered in Madrid, the game’s top draw is in Argentina. Federer is kicking off a lucrative exhibition tour with Alexander Zverev.
  • In light of tonight’s encounter with Italy, let us note that the last Davis Cup played in Northern California was 40 years ago. In 1979 the American team, with John McEnroe, Vitas Gerulaitis, Stan Smith and Bob Lutz beat Italy 5-0.
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