From the very beginning it was dubbed the Battle of Bogota, and both Colombia and USA fought bitterly to win the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas World Group play-off by BNP Paribas tie last weekend.
Each had different motivations, though. Colombia was trying to enter the World Group for the first time, while USA was bidding to avoid regulation for the first time in over 20 years and send captain Patrick McEnroe, who announced his retirement following the conclusion of the tie, out a winner.
“It has been quite an honour to be a captain and I would like to go out with a win,” confessed McEnroe before the action got under way. “We always feel the pressure to win in a play-off tie.”
Taking a page out of the Spanish Davis Cup book, Colombia turned its famed Plaza de Toros La Santamaria in Bogota into a tennis court. The home town crowd did its part, too, as the bullring became a sea of bright yellow, blue and red.
“Spain (in 2008) might have been a larger venue, but this crowd is just as vocal and passionate, only slightly smaller,” said USTA President Lucy Garvin.
Tricky conditions in Bogota
As expected, the tie began with plenty of discussion about the altitude - 2,600 meters - and the Tretorn pressure¬-less balls. Players on both sides had something to say about the conditions, but what became clear from the first match, Alejandro Falla versus Mardy Fish, was that any differences in rankings would be negated by the challenging conditions and Davis Cup drama.
Falla took Fish the distance in a five set thriller. The Colombian pushed his higher ranked opponent to the brink of defeat, only to have Fish come through for his country in the clutch. Santiago Giraldo then gave Sam Querrey a lesson in high altitude tennis, winning in straight sets in 95 minutes.
“Physically I felt fine,” said Querrey. “But mentally it can get frustrating that you end up spraying balls that you normally would not miss. But you know, it is the same for both players.”
Doubles dilemna for McEnroe
With the tie locked at 1-1, questions were raised about the absence of the Bryan brothers, the number one doubles team in the world and stalwarts of the American team for the last eight years.
“The altitude had a lot to do with it,” explained McEnroe. “I felt that we might need a couple of extra singles players in case someone got sick. It was a very tough decision. The brothers and I talked about it a lot during the summer. Fortunately, Mardy gives us choices as a singles and doubles player.”
Now, with USA in a bind, it quickly became obvious that if McEnroe and his American team was going to avoid relegation and retain its place in the World Group then they would need a hero. Fish stepped up to the plate. Teaming up with John Isner, he dominated the doubles contest and sent the visitors into the last day with a 2-1 advantage.
Fish carries USA to victory
This tie was quickly turning into the Mardy Fish Show. Only on Sunday morning, Santiago Giraldo was not watching. When he broke the American’s serve at 5 games all in the fifth set, to serve for the match, Colombians began chanting, “Yes, he can. Yes, he can.”
Now it was Fish’s time to change the channel. He quickly broke back and played two stellar games to clinch the tie for USA, becoming the first American since Pete Sampras in 1995 to win all three points. Mardy Fish played eleven hours of tennis and fourteen sets over three days.
“It came down to Mardy getting the ball in the court more than anyone else,” said Jay Berger, coach of the American team. “I thought it was remarkable how Mardy handled every lull and downturn in the match.
“Mardy brought a lot of commitment to the team without any ego. Before we had our first practice, he told us that he did not care if he does not play at all, or if he plays every match. He is here to do whatever it takes to the get the win and get back to World Group.”
“The key for Mardy all weekend was his mental toughness because he is so physically fit now that he has become mentally much stronger,” added McEnroe. “I am very proud of all the boys, especially Mardy.”
McEnroe signs off successfully
While the spotlight was on Mardy Fish, McEnroe made a successful exit from the Davis Cup scene and now will focus on his role as Director of Elite Development for the USTA.
For Colombia it is back to the drawing board. While they lost the tie, their excellent play and gritty competitiveness drew praise from the Americans.
“They played so well all weekend,” commented Mardy Fish. “We were really lucky to survive this tie. I am sure with this team they will challenge for the World Group next year.”
Both teams now await the draw to learn their next opponents in 2011. It’s taking place in Brussels on Wednesday.