Droll Ceremony

Thursday, November 29, 2007 /by

2007_11_30_davis “Portland, who would have thought?”

These were the words of a British TV producer waiting with me in a very slow-moving press-credential line this morning inside Memorial Coliseum. I confess that I had a similar thought when my plane floated in under the ever-present low-hanging clouds here at 11:30 last night. Unlike the east coast, where the lights of the suburbs thread out for hundreds of miles around any city, flying into Portland you get nothing but blackness below, until you come over a hill and discover the town nestled in a valley all by itself. If you were a Russian player, you could be forgiven for wondering how the USTA ever found this place.

In part it’s a marriage of convenience. Davis Cup is a tough thing to plan for. The organization can’t book a site until it’s sure the team is going to make it to the next round, and it has to find an arena with nothing scheduled for a full week, because Davis Cup rules stipulate that each team must have that much time to practice on the surface. Hence: the Memorial Coliseum in Portland, former home of the NBA’s Trailblazers, who sold out every game there for 10 straight years (their current arena is across the street).

By the time I walked out of the Coliseum this morning, I felt like this somewhat-remote location made sense in the end, at least for my conception of Davis Cup. Part of the appeal of DC for me is that it’s a prestigious event followed avidly by tennis fans but virtually unknown to the rest of the sporting world. Have you ever tried to explain how it works to someone? No wonder it’s off everyone’s radar. I’ve had ESPN on in the background for an hour now while writing this, and I haven’t heard one word about the fact that the U.S. is trying to win its first men’s team tennis title in 12 years. Good! Let’s keep Davis Cup in the family. We know what it means. Isn't that enough?

The Coliseum has an innovative design. All the support structures are on the outside, so there are no beams obstructing any part of the view inside. It was famous for being an intimate venue for basketball, and there’s no reason it won’t be for tennis. The 12,000 tickets offered for DC were gone in 20 minutes.

The court looks pretty quick. I caught the tail end of a James Blake hit; he was pretty sharp and all business. On the other hand, according to Chris Clarey of the NY Times, Igor Andreev was having trouble adjusting his long strokes to it.

All of which brings us to the player selections made today at the draw ceremony, which was held in the Portland Performing Arts Center at high noon. In reality, the dreary skies made it impossible to tell what time it was, but there was a stab at festive promotional fanfare nonetheless. Fans, press, and assorted tennis quasi-VIPs—“holy sh--, is that Cliff Richey?”—gathered in the lobby of the Arts Center to await the arrival of the two teams, who were supposed to walk through the front doors and down a red carpet to the accompaniment of a marching drum corps.

We duly gathered and waited. A live guitar-and-violin combo calmed us with Scottish ballads. Then the drums began and the cameras started clicking. The Russians were here: Andreev, taller in person and totally impassive with his hands in his pockets; Tursunov, even taller and somewhat thinner in person; Youzhny, stone-faced; Tarpischev, smaller than you might think and looking like an actor who I can’t place (Joel Drucker says it’s Gary Shandling, but I’m not sure about that); and finally Davydenko, who, after all the press attention of the last few months, suddenly has starpower. All five hesitate at the front door, then walk down the carpet, shake hands with Bud Collins (they're happy to see Bud; even Youzhny gives him a big smile), and head for a bank of elevators. There they stop, unsure of whether to get into one. Bringing up the rear in their crew is Yevgeny Kafelnikov, who has . . . well, let’s just say he’s a little heavier now.

In the meantime, the Americans have arrived. There’s no hesitation here. Andy Roddick puts his head down and leads the team straight to the elevators, where they get on the first one available. The Russians are left to fidget until the next one comes.

Upstairs, the draw ceremony, or “droll ceremony,” as ITF chairman Francisco Ricci Bitti pronounces it, begins with the teams standing for a long time on either side of a theater stage, listening to speeches. Davydenko is loose, jumpy, and all smiles; he and Tarpischev seem to be making fun of someone’s shoes. On the other side, the Americans stare at the floor and give away nothing. Roddick finally claps when the speeches are over and the referee is announced. It’s time to get down to business and find out who, after weeks of speculation, he’s going to be playing this weekend.

Is this why Davydenko is so loose? The referee announces that Russia’s top-ranked player has been left off the singles roster in favor of Youzhny at No. 1 and Tursunov at No. 2. The move by Tarpischev makes sense, as Davydenko has never beaten either Roddick or James Blake, and both Tursunov and Youzhny are comfortable on faster surfaces. The Russian doubles, however, looks like a joke—Tarpischev has gone with two baseliners, Andreev and Davydenko. Patrick McEnroe was quick to say in the press conference afterward that he didn’t expect that team to be the one facing the Bryan brothers on Saturday.

What else did we learn in this big-stage presser? First, that there’s not much left to learn at this late date. Both teams as ready as they’re going to be. The U.S. seems happy with the court, say they’ve been practicing well, and by all appearances are calm and set for business, as you would expect from a group of guys who have been pointing relentlessly toward this moment for five years. I didn’t get any sense of nervousness from them. That’s a positive for Roddick and the Bryans, but Blake, who said more than once that he has prepared as well as he possibly could, struck me as perhaps a little too peaceful. “Let the chips fall where they may” seems to be his approach to this pressure-cooker situation. Understandable, but I’d like hear a little more hunger in his voice. You can certainly hear it when Roddick and the Bros talk.

Oh, we were also reminded of Roddick’s sense of humor. When asked how he and Blake were different, he said that while Blake recited him soliloquies he learned at Harvard, Roddick “briefed James on ‘The Little Engine that Could.’”

The Russians? They're enjoying their underdog status and have come in with nothing to lose. (Tarpischev has said they have a 35-percent chance to win; not only is the guy the tennis version of Bill Belichek, he’s starting to sound like Lou Holtz as well.) Davydenko was not the only one who was loose up there. At times, they all looked ready to break down in giggles. When Tursunov, who has lived in California for years, was asked if he'd be bothered when U.S fans rooted against him, he said he wouldn't care because he didn't have “ties in Oregon.” Dmitry had his teammates close to tears when he asked the interpreter on stage to translate an English question for him into Russian, then took the mike and answered the reporter directly, in English.

Tarpischev giggled along with his boys, but he also showed a politician’s knack for smiling, nodding, and crafting a perfectly useless answer. Asked to give his assessments of Roddick and Blake, his responses slowly circled further and further away from the questions.

The key question for the Russian captain, of course, is whether his selections for Friday’s singles will once again make him look like the smartest guy in the room. Let’s take a look at what might happen tomorrow (I’m not going to speculate about anything after that, considering the high likelihood of Russian substitutions.)

First rubber: Andy Roddick vs. Dmitry Tursunov
On desire alone, you have to like Roddick. He’s less likely to wilt if things don’t go his way early. Other than that, there isn’t much between these guys. Roddick won their hard-court match in Indy two years ago in a third-set tiebreaker; Tursunov won on clay in DC last year 17-15 in the fifth; Roddick won again in straight sets on grass at Queens this year, in a match where Tursunov looked less than motivated. But this should be a good situation for Tursunov—he’s got nothing to lose, but he’ll be more focused than usual by the team concept (the same way Youzhny and Marat Safin often are in DC). It’s hard to imagine him packing it in at any point. Still, this is Roddick’s career-in-a-day, and I don’t think he’s going to let it slip away.
Winner: Roddick

Second rubber: Mikhail Youzhny vs. James Blake
They’ve only played once, on clay in Davis Cup last fall, and Youzhny won in four sets. The Russian seems like a bad matchup for Blake. Youzhny can do a lot of different things—sneak in, crack the down-the-line backhand, slice the ball out of his opponent’s strike zone—to keep Blake off balance. Chris Clarey said today that in his opinion Blake had never won a big match in his career, and I couldn’t come up with one to counter him. In other words, it will take an unprecedented effort from Blake. He'll have the fans to help him: Will the tennis nuts of sleepy Portland, who know what Davis Cup is all about, be up to the task?
Winner: Youzhny

Finally, after the ceremony and a lingering press lunch, I walked downstairs and back into the Arts Center lobby. The place was deserted, all the players gone. But there was our star, Nikolay Davydenko, still answering questions with a small group of Russian reporters. God knows how many answers he's had to come up with in the last few months. He says now he'll hand over his phone records to the ATP. It's a good move, and he was surprisingly cheerful all day—Tarpischev praised his handling of the whole situation—but I don't get the feeling the guy is going to get any peace anytime soon.

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