- Bonnie D. Ford, ESPN Senior Writer
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MADRID -- Sam Querrey politely declined an invitation to be a hitting partner at the Davis Cup finals last November. He'd been there and done that a couple times already and, as a young pro still feeling his way along, he felt his game would be better served by sticking to his offseason workout plan.
Next time I come, Querrey told U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe, I'd like to start -- whether that's in a few months or a few years.
There were no hard feelings. Even as McEnroe benefited from a remarkably stable lineup over the past three years, he kept other players in the mix and kept in touch, cultivating an atmosphere in which everyone in the pool felt he'd have a fair shot on merit.
Now Querrey's be-careful-what-you-wish-for wish has been granted by a genie with an interesting sense of humor.
Querrey willingly slid down the fire pole when a fatigued James Blake opted out of this weekend's semifinals against Spain, even though it might appear to be the tennis equivalent of rushing into a burning building armed with a water pistol. As the U.S. team's second singles player behind Andy Roddick, Querrey knew he was destined to face world No. 1 Rafael Nadal at home on the surface Nadal has ruled for the past few seasons.
Their match was designated as the opener in Thursday's draw, so the amiable Southern Californian will be the first to contend with the throaty surround sound of 20,000 people in the Plaza de Toros de las Ventas rooting for his slaughter.
The nearly 80-year-old bullfighting venue is intimidating enough when it's empty, as the players discovered during practice sessions on the temporary clay court there. It's equipped with a skinning room, a chapel and an emergency medical area, none of which, hopefully, will be necessary this weekend. It's almost impossible to imagine what the decibel level will be like when the arena is packed. In quiet moments, the acoustics are said to be so good that spectators can hear the bull's breath in the ring.
Querrey joked Thursday that he might make faces at Nadal to try to perturb him, since little else seems to work on clay. But the big-serving, 39th-ranked Querrey aspires to make Nadal breathe hard, at least, and in many ways he is well-suited to the task. He is not immune to anxiety, and a couple weeks ago admitted to early nerves against Nadal in their memorable four-set tussle in the U.S. Open round of 16 -- Querrey's first appearance on stadium court. Yet Querrey, who will turn 21 next month, is basically even-keeled and pragmatic, with the kind of temperament that bends but doesn't splinter under adverse circumstances. He's getting better at putting the previous point behind him and staying in the present.
As both McEnroe and Roddick observed, it's not the worst thing in the world for Querrey to do battle with the beast right away, instead of sitting on the bench or in the dressing room for a couple of hours thinking about it. "Andy's heard that many times before,'' McEnroe said of the deafening reception that awaits his players. At the 2004 Davis Cup finals before 27,000 animated partisans in Seville, Spain, Roddick played Nadal in the second match of the first day and weathered the wait well enough to take Nadal to two tiebreaks in a four-set loss.
Roddick's current nine-match Davis Cup win streak will be on the line against the indefatigable David Ferrer, who has won three of their five career matches, none on clay. "David has improved as much as anybody in tennis over the last couple of years," Roddick said. "I'm going to be up against it, that's for sure." And another formidable U.S. streak is already over, as Mike Bryan will play doubles with someone other than his twin for the first time in six years and the first time ever in Davis Cup.
The Bryans managed to win an Olympic bronze medal and the U.S. Open championship this summer despite the ticking time bomb in Bob Bryan's inflamed shoulder. "The first day of the Olympics, he said he didn't know how he was going to play," Mike Bryan said Thursday, waiting his turn for a television interview at Madrid's City Hall. "He got through it on adrenaline and anti-inflammatories." But the joint blew up last week -- the first major injury of Bob's career -- and the lefty whose thunderous serve is one of the chief reasons for the pair's success had to bail. Bob is rehabbing furiously at home in Florida and will be fortunate to play at full strength again this fall.
McEnroe originally talked to both No. 23 Mardy Fish and Querrey about replacing Blake. Only a few days after choosing Querrey, the captain found himself in the potentially delicate position of calling Fish back and asking him to play doubles, oh by the way, a week before Fish's wedding in Los Angeles. Some players might have pitched a hissy fit, but it's a tribute to the relationships McEnroe has built (and to Fish's fiancée) that Fish's response was, "Whatever you need."
The Bryans have excelled on clay, winning two titles this season alone, and were thought to have the best chance to prevent a Spanish sweep. Bereft of his usual telepathic partner, Mike Bryan knows the odds have shifted. "You just have to do a lot more thinking and communicating between points," he said. Fish's backhand, his strong suit, will stand in for Bob Bryan's forehand down the middle, and he's a good volleyer, all the more so when he has less court to cover.
It's been a strange trip for the Americans after a prolonged period of smooth sailing. Even the detail-oriented McEnroe had a glitch when he briefly misplaced his passport and had to delay his arrival in Spain by a day.
His team is trying to make the best of its scrambled situation, just as the Spanish players had to cope with the fact that their input on site selection was completely disregarded. The choice of Madrid -- in all likelihood driven by that city's pending 2016 Olympic bid and its tourist bureau's new and lucrative sponsorship of the Davis Cup -- has driven a wedge between the athletes and the head of their federation, and could wind up costing the latter his job. The discomfort among the parties was palpable at official functions this week.
Commentator Jim Courier, for one, was appalled that the matches aren't being played "in a coastal city, at sea level" instead of Madrid's half-mile-high altitude. The ball travels through the air slightly faster here, and although the Spanish team arrived early to acclimate, who knows how much that has bored into the imaginations of the hosts. Meanwhile, the Americans "should be able to swing freely,'' Courier said. The defending champions enter this tie minus the burden of expectations for the first time in a while.
"We want to make sure we do things the right way so we don't get caught off guard, which in Spanish is 'get caught by the bull,' which is never better said than in this situation," said Spanish captain Emilio Sanchez, who underscored the importance of respect for the visitors.
There's been a lot of banter about the Spaniards being the matadors in this matchup, and they obliged by doing a photo shoot in costume. But when they wave the red capes, don't expect the U.S. team to put up a white flag.
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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