Hail, Isner!

Friday, April 06, 2012 /by

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by Pete Bodo

Let's put it this way: if Jim Courier, the team USA Davis Cup captain, were offered a "take it or leave it" 1-1 score at sundown on Friday of the USA v. France World Group Davis Cup tie, is there any doubt that he'd jump up and shout, "done deal!" And now the order-of-play for the rest of this quarterfinal clash on French soil in Monte Carlo is as favorable to the Americans as the draw seemed unkind.

Tomorrow, Bob and Mike Bryan will face Michael Llodra and Julien Benneteau in the pivotal doubles match that could put the USA one win from clinching — unless Guy Forget has an unexpected surprise in store by way of substitution.

The good news for the USA is that the Bryans are salty veterans whose 18-2 record as a team is one of the best in Davis Cup history. In fact, John McEnroe himself — perhaps the greatest doubles player of all-time — amassed an identical 18-2 record, albeit with four different partner (Peter Fleming was his main man; they were 14-1). Mike Bryan, btw, has an even better record than McEnroe. The right-handed half of the Bryan brothers is 20-2, partnering Mardy Fish in a win over Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka in February on the red clay of Fribourg and in a five-set victory over Feliciano Lopez and Fernando Verdasco in the 2008 semifinals on dirt in Madrid.

But there's no call for the U.S. player or fans to feel smug. Llodra and Benneteau are 3-1 in Davis Cup play. Llodra is one of the best doubles players on the tour, and Llodra and Arnaud Clement were responsible for one of those two Davis Cup double losses incurred by the Bryans. It was a surprisingly one-sided match, with the Frenchmen winning in four sets, only the first decided by a tiebreaker. And it was fairly recent — in the 2008 World Group quarterfinals, at the USA's beloved venue, the Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Winston-Salem,

Hmmmm. . .  

But there's one last twist that ought to bring that smile back to American faces: the Bryans are 9-0 on clay. While Llodra, a formidable 18-6 in doubles overall, is just 6-4 on clay. Also, the Bryans have been excellent when the team has really needed them to be, which is almost all the time. These days, those 2-0 leads going into Saturday are rare indeed for the USA.

As always for a favored team playing at home, what pressure is allowed to develop will probably be a bigger influence on the French. There was some indication of just that kind of mental anxiety in French No. 1 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga today, although his win over America's No. 2,  Ryan Harrison, was in a relatively easy four sets. Tsonga started somewhat slowly in each of the sets today, and Harrison — playing in the first live rubber of his career — was unable to take advantage of the implied opportunity. On the whole, Harrison had a woeful day at the service notch, delivering 10 double faults. He won just 42 percent of his second serves, on a day when he served 63 percent. 

It wasn't the worst learning experience for a rookie playing to affect the outcome for the first time, but the racquet Harrison busted in anger after hitting two consecutive double faults that more or less handed Tsonga the second set on a platter (see Steve Tignor's Racquet Reaction) provided a pretty good indication of his frustration. It's been said before but it's always worth repeating — nothing, but nothing, really prepares a player for his first Davis Cup match. And there's no way to predict how any given player will react to the unique pressure of that situation.

The French will really have their backs against a wall with their fans howling for a reversal should the Bryan brothers come through. Long John Isner, the American No. 1, ensured that would be the case by winning that key second singles match today — no mean feat, given that the French No. 2, Gilles Simon, is ranked just two places below Isner, and had to feel considerably relieved when Tsonga closed out Harrison in the first match.

Isner once again showed that the punch is mightier than the counter-punch, turning in another wonderful match in which the role his atomic serve played was, if not exactly minimal, then extremely subtle (see Richard Pagliaro's Racquet Reaction).

Isner belted 53 winner, compared to a paltry 15 for Simon, and he even though he put just 51 percent of his serves into play, he dominated Simon all the way, winning 6-3, 6-2, 7-5. It was a another proof that the brand of tennis in which you're looking to end points a little more quickly and readily than a typical, successful clay player can still pay off. The interesting thing, come Sunday, will be that both No. 1 players, Tsonga and Isner, are among the aggressive players who work that territory.

Tsonga plays more by feel and mood of the day, while Isner relies on some tried and true combinations, most of them including an inside-out forehand hit from inside the baseline, intended to open up the court. Knowing that Tsonga is not the kind of guy who's particularly interested in wearing an opponent down ought to please Isner, even if Tsonga's creativity and versatility can be downright scary.

Whichever way things go, Harrison will be asked to either go through the motions in another dead rubber (should the Bryans and Isner win)  — or play that nerve-wracking sudden-death fifth rubber to decide who advances to the semifinals. Knowing what I do about Harrison, I think he'd be chomping at the bit for a chance not just to exonerate himself, but to undergo a metamorphisis from green, slightly overwhelmed rookie to to Davis Cup hero.

And, as is so often the case, Simon may also end up with a unique opportunity at redemption.

That's the beauty of the Davis Cup format — its ability to churn out a surprisingly diverse number of potential story lines, challenges, and — ultimately — surprises.

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