Americans still learning -- especially on clay

Updated: December 13, 2004, 3:38 PM ET
By Matthew Cronin | Special to ESPN.com

SEVILLE, Spain -- Sometimes a captain's steadfast belief and support just isn't enough.

On Sunday, Carlos Moya achieved his lifelong dream, leading Spain to a 3-2 final round Davis Cup victory via his magical 6-2, 7-6 (1), 7-6 (5) victory against the American No. 1 player Andy Roddick.

Just don't tell U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe that his clay-challenged team couldn't have taken the whole shebang.

"We could have won," McEnroe said. "They outplayed us, but if Andy would have won his third set tiebreaker against [Rafael] Nadal on Friday and we would have gone into his match against Moya today up 2-1, it could have been a different result. It's a lot different to play tiebreakers when your team is down. We could have won it this year, but at least we are making progress to our ultimate goal."

McEnroe did all he could to prepare his team for the raucous tie on slow red clay, but his twentysomething team just couldn't grow up fast enough. He sure could have used the steady hands of eight-time Grand Slam champion Andre Agassi, but the legend declined. Now 22, Roddick's game has matured in the past year, but he still gets tight on big points on clay, which is why Sunday he committed three straight unforced errors to lose the second set tiebreaker and five unforced errors to lose the third-set tiebreaker and the match.

"Andy seems to serve really well in tiebreaks," McEnroe said. "And on clay, obviously it's more difficult to win those cheap points solely on your serve. You've got to be able to use some different combinations. I thought he did a much better job today of mixing his serve and using better combinations with the serve as opposed to just trying to hit aces. But I think it's just the pressure of it not being your best surface and not being able to go to your strength at the crunch time, and that's the tiebreak."

Former Roland Garros champion Moya and super-star-in-the-making Nadal are flat out better clay-court players than Roddick and Mardy Fish. Roddick and McEnroe tried multiple change of strategies - but it wasn't enough. Roddick's love of the battle in front of a record-setting crowd of 27,200 red and yellow flag waving fans just wasn't enough. All their hard work preparing for this tie simply wasn't enough to get it done on a foreign surface in a foreign land.

As Roddick and McEnroe said, the U.S. team has improved this year. They won three ties on home soil to reach the final, the first time the United States has reached the last round since 1997. But in their first away tie of the year off hard courts, Roddick and Fish frequently spun their wheels. Roddick played inspired and aggressive tennis in attacking Nadal on Friday but failed to capitalize on a set point in the third set tiebreaker and consequently fell in four sets. Fish never really challenged Moya on Friday and was consistently out-slugged from the backcourt. Roddick never stopped churning against Moya, going for his shots even when the roars of the crowd were deafening, but though he fought like champ, he didn't win a set.

The doubles duo of Bob and Mike Bryan were outstanding in trouncing Juan Carlos Ferrero and Tommy Robredo in doubles and Fish did manage to win the dead rubber over Robredo on Sunday, but the fact is, the Americans only won one set in three live singles matches. On clay, this team still has a lot of learning to do about mixing up shots, playing better defense and being patient.

"You can say whatever you want, but they came out, they took care of business," Roddick said. " They beat us. It's as simple as that ... We just have to improve [on clay]. It's not like we can do anything to prevent it. Bottom line is, we're responsible for it, and we have to get better. There's really no miracle answer. We just have to deal with it, accept it and improve."

Roddick is not a wise old veteran with nerves of steel and has a long way to go before he reaches his true potential. Every part of his game has improved this year, but he's just not closing out matches like he should. Perhaps it's because he's doubting himself when he gets close to victory. He fights hard enough to reach the 15th round, but in 2004, he was TKO-ed on numerous occasions in big matches. He'll end the year as the world's No. 2 ranked player, but he reached only one Grand Slam final, hasn't won a tournament since July, and this weekend dropped two contests as his team's No. 1.

Since Agassi likely will never return to Davis Cup play (even though McEnroe is keeping the door open), it's up to Roddick to step up another level in 2005. Otherwise, the United States -- which last won the crown in 1995 -- faces going a decade without a Davis Cup title, which would tie it's longest drought since its slide between 1927 and 1936. For the nation with the most Cup wins in history (31), that's a mark it wants to avoid.

"I've been at the finish line a couple times this year and haven't crossed it first," Roddick said. "It's disappointing, but at the same time you have to look at what it took to get there. Last year was almost too easy. I didn't get there that often, but when I did, I made it happen. This year I felt like I got there more often, and it didn't happen for me. I'll just work harder."

McEnroe isn't that concerned about the Americans' dry spell because men's tennis has become deeper over the past 15 years, with the likes of Spain and Argentina producing powerful baseliners by the dozens. He knows his team has an excellent shot at the Cup next year. Because of a favorable draw, the United States has a decent chance at playing all their matches at home, where they can choose the surface.

"It has been too long." McEnroe said of the drought. "I think this group can do it next year and we're setting the stage to compete for the title every year."

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