FRIBOURG, SWITZERLAND: It's easy to wonder whether there is greater significance to USA's victory over Switzerland in Fribourg than meets the eye. Of course John Isner's four-sets win over Roger Federer on Friday was the highlight, but there are two areas where the Americans look to have made a massive leap forward as a Davis Cup by BNP Paribas team.
The first is in the team culture that Jim Courier has ushered in as captain. This was only his third tie, but he has clearly learned lessons from last year's victory in Chile and defeat at home to Spain which he is building on now. There are outward signs, such as his players always referring to him as 'Captain Courier' in public pronouncements, and Courier's own decision to sit on the bench in suit and tie rather than the traditional team tracksuit. But these are symbols testifying to a businesslike ethic that is clearly bringing the best out of the US team.
“The culture begins at the top,” Courier said after his team had completed a 5-0 whitewash over the Swiss, “and it has to start with me as I'm the team captain. We will win matches, we will lose matches, but what's important is that we put ourselves in a position where we can get the best out of our team, and that means doing things right. And we're trying to do things right. In my playing career I tried to make the most of what I had, and that's what I want from this team.”
It was a point backed up by Ryan Harrison, the 19-year-old American to whom Courier gave a Davis Cup debut in the first of Sunday's singles. “I've heard about what made Captain Courier great, and he's introducing a lot of those things into our team. He leaves me in no doubt about what I have to do to progress.”
The second is in USA's belief in its ability to play on clay. For the past 20 years it has been second nature for teams hosting the US to choose clay to try and exploit the Americans' weakness, but Isner clearly enjoys playing on red clay, Mardy Fish has got better on it throughout his career, the Bryans love playing on clay, and Courier himself is the only American to win the French Open twice.
“I think that if teams are good on clay they'll continue to pick clay against us,” Courier said, “but maybe they'll think twice about picking it as a surface that we'll be uncomfortable on. I don't think that clay is necessarily going to be a weakness for us on a go-forward basis.”
That could be of major significance, as the Americans may have to play every round away from home this year given the way other first round results have gone. In April's quarterfinals, France may well think twice about choosing clay, especially as its top singles player Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is best on hard courts, and the Americans will not fear France's natural clay-courters such as Richard Gasquet and Gilles Simon.
While the weekend is a great triumph for USA, Sunday's dead rubbers illustrated how sad it is for the 2012 Davis Cup to have lost the Swiss so early. The Fribourg Forum was still two thirds full for Sunday's two matches, and the sound of cheering and cow bells cheered on Michael Lammer and Marco Chiudinelli in their matches against vastly higher-ranked opponents. This is the kind of atmosphere the competition thrives on, and it would be nice to hear the cow bells in the latter half of the year.
Even Roger Federer played his part in an off-court role. At the end of a weekend when he played well below his best and was sending out odd signals as to his motivation, he sat through both singles (Harrison beat Michael Lammer 76(0) 76(4), while Isner beat Marco Chiudinelli 63 64), he led his team-mates in an on-court vote of thanks to Switzerland's loyal supporters, and he signed every autograph requested of him. At one stage the security staff had to hold back the crush barriers, such was the demand for the great man's signature. It means a lot of disappointed fans will have gone home happy on Sunday.
But another year slips by in which Federer will not win the only top honour still to elude him. Speaking on Sunday night, he gave every indication of wanting another crack at the Davis Cup next year, but for him and Wawrinka it again looks like having to be a two-man quest.
Captain Jim Courier (USA) - 12/02/2012