Staring at the floor of the Mohegan Sun Arena while facing a two-set deficit, Robby Ginepri wore the expression of a man who had nearly blown the bankroll at the casino, but was still willing to wager what was left on a long shot.
"Have you ever come back from two sets down?" U.S. captain Patrick McEnroe asked Ginepri, who shook his head slowly in response. "Today’s going to be the day," McEnroe replied.
I’ve been to Davis Cup finals and seen some stars hardened and glazed while others cracked and burned within the white-hot cauldron of the competition. But the 2004 first-round tie between the United States and Austria staged inside a casino remains memorable for a spirited comeback before a sparse crowd.
A snow storm struck the New York City area on the opening Friday of play, which delayed some fans and discouraged others from taking the trip up I-95 to Uncasville, Conn. So when former Davis Cup ball boy Ginepri took the court to make his Davis Cup debut against former Wimbledon junior champ Jurgen Melzer, there were more people stuffing the slots with quarters than occupying seats in the arena—allowing me to snatch a second-row seat.
The Americans arrived with about as much chance of losing as the house has of going under. The U.S. had never lost an opening-round tie on its home soil in Davis Cup history, and it was facing an Austrian squad whose highest-ranked player, Melzer, was ranked a hardly-intimidating No. 76. Reigning U.S. Open champ Andy Roddick, who would play Stefan Koubek in the second match, was the lone star in the tie. But I had covered the entertaining Ginepri-Melzer final in Newport seven months earlier and was looking forward to the rematch (I’ve always had an affinity for lefty shotmakers, from McEnroe to Vilas to Rios to Arazi to the injury-plagued Andreas Vinciguerra).
Ginepri was in command up 5-2, only to see Melzer, caressing half volleys like a masseuse manipulating a muscle, roar back and build a two-set lead. The final three sets were more high drama than high quality, but even in front of a half-empty arena, it was engaging to see elite players so emotionally exposed in wrestling with the same anxiety, nerves, angst, and anger us hackers cope. Because it was so quiet between points, you could hear both teammates and captains throwing life-lines of encouragement to the players.
Playing the percentages, Ginepri became the first American rookie to rally from a two-set hole in scoring a 6-7 (6), 4-6, 6-4, 6-4, 6-2 triumph, and later credited McEnroe’s counsel and recalled his pre-match viewing of the Will Ferrell movie Elf for calming his nerve. Roddick ripped a then-record 150 M.P.H. serve in his second-match sweep of Koubek (as well as a serve that registered 0 M.P.H., raising questions about the legitimacy of the suspected juiced-speed gun).
Ginepri never played a Davis Cup match again after that weekend in Connecticut, but was on hand, along with Mardy Fish, to douse his teammates with celebratory beer when the core of that 2004 team—Roddick and the Bryan brothers, along with James Blake—beat Russia to capture the Cup in the 2007 final in Portland.