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Wednesday, December 5, 2007
Kudos to the captain of America


It's unequivocally true that the U.S. Davis Cup squad that beat Russia in the final this weekend to end a 12-year U.S. drought is Andy Roddick's team. But by the end of the final, it seemed equally true that this was U.S. captain Pat McEnroe's Davis Cup -- his Tom Landry or Phil Jackson moment.

The circumstances going into this final were deceptive. The U.S. was a clear favorite, but every advantage it enjoyed was counter-balanced and, to some degree, mitigated by the well-rounded Russians. We had the highly ranked players, but they had the mercurial, unpredictable ones (Roddick is No. 6, James Blake No. 13; Russians Mikhail Youzhny and Dmitry Tursunov are 19th and 34th, respectively). We chose to play on an indoor hard court best suited to U.S. players, but their two singles players happen to like hard courts as well. We had host nation advantage -- but they rolled into Portland with no pressure whatsoever.

Some might have scoffed at the analysis, but the Russians were perfectly positioned to deliver an "Emperor's new clothes" moment, and they surely noted the starry-eyed enthusiasm with which U.S. fans looked forward to winning the first Davis Cup title since 1995. That passion underscored another sobering reality in play here, which is that the U.S. is no longer the Big Dog of Davis Cup. Presently, we are just another Croatia, or Spain -- and that's on a good day. The intensity and ardor of the U.S. squad going into this tie was just as likely to make you think, "uh-oh" as to scream, "Boo-yeah!" Underneath it all, this team was less Lombardi's Packers than 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team.

If you didn't appreciate those nuances, this looked like a simple, predictable, preordained rout, But I believe the U.S. performance was exceptional. The men played with great discipline, patience and focus. Emotionally, the U.S. guys were pitch perfect -- their passion burned with smokeless and nearly colorless flame. Their familiarity with each other was conspicuous, and their ease with their captain so profound that you could have watched the entire tie without ever realizing that McEnroe was the guy in charge.

I understood halfway through the first singles match that I was watching an extremely well-prepared and cohesive team. And that's not just always a joy, it's always a comment on the coach. Coaches imprint their personalities on their teams, and the best of them create a secure (if not indulgent) atmosphere. This was a U.S. squad that exuded poise and comfort.

Pat, as all the world knows, is the youngest brother of tennis icon John McEnroe. He was a surprisingly strong and diligent -- if undemonstrative -- personality right from the get-go. Pat has the ideal temperament for a Davis Cup coach, and he has patiently and lovingly shaped this squad since 2001 (Roddick and Blake played in that first tie of the Pat McEnroe era). He won their confidence, provided them with a comfort zone and good reasons to remain loyal through years of frustration.

The longevity McEnroe has enjoyed (hat tip to the USTA) is unusual these days, and its effects are easily overlooked. But we saw them on full display these past few days in Portland. John McEnroe played on numerous, great Davis Cup teams, but he never did something that his kid brother just accomplished in creating one.