Where does the United States go from here?

Updated: March 7, 2005, 2:01 AM ET
By Matthew Cronin | Special to ESPN.com

U.S. fans know all about the multiple basketball Dream Teams. Some found Olympic glory; others went down to ignominious defeats.

Ivan Ljubicic
APWhen it counted, Ivan Ljubicic came up with the big plays.

But U.S tennis dream teams -- like the 1992 squad of John McEnroe, Pete Sampras, Jim Courier and Andre Agassi -- have been few and far between in the Open Era (1968) and when they have appeared, they've put up resounding victories.

Not so with 2005 Davis Cup dream team of Agassi, Andy Roddick and Bob and Mike Bryan that went to Carson, Calif., and was stunned 3-2 by the irrepressible Ivan Ljubicic and Croatia. It was the first time in the 105 years of U.S. Davis Cup history that the Americans have lost a first-round home tie.

For all intents and purposes, they fell to one man, the once unremarkable and now very accomplished Ljubicic, who shocked Roddick 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (11), 6-7 (7), 6-2 in the clincher, and in two previous days work, had buried eight-time Grand Slam champion Agassi and teamed with Mario Ancic to hand the Bryans their first Davis Cup defeat.

All that pre-tie talk about the U.S. dream team traveling to Russia in September and Argentina in December to chop down the other big boys became forgotten idle chatter.

All the U.S. team was left with was a lot of hurt and what ifs.

"There's no worse feeling than losing a match in Davis Cup in our sport, especially when your teammates are counting on you," Roddick said. "I wouldn't have put money on [Ljubicic winning all three matches]," Roddick said. "But I knew coming in we probably had one of the toughest first-round draws. We definitely did not take these guys lightly and knew that we had our work cut out for us."

McEnroe liked his team's fight but clearly seemed shaken about being unable to take this squad further.

"It hurts a lot," McEnroe said. "After getting in the final last year, starting off at home with our best team, it's disappointing. I certainly didn't expect it. But in saying that, you've got to tip your hat to them, especially to Ljubicic."

Ljubicic was better than good, he was flat-out great when it counted, fighting off numerous set and break points all weekend long, coming up with big serves, backhand passing shots and unreachable forehands when he needed it. The tall, quiet, yet totally lethal Croat has won six straight matches against the United States, including when he won all three of his matches in 2003 when Croatia defeated the Americans in Zagreb.

But 2005 was a much more impressive feat.

"It's a huge difference," Ljubicic said. "With all respect [I beat] James Blake and Mardy Fish in 2003. That's nothing compared with Agassi, Roddick and the Bryans in L.A. It's incredible."

That was supposed to be Roddick out there being the stopper for his team, the guy who would push the tie until the fifth and final match and allow Agassi a shot at redemption after Friday's disaster.

But just like in Seville, Spain, when Roddick fell in two hard-fought contests to Rafael Nadal and Carlos Moya, Roddick won a lot of small points and not enough big ones. As good as Roddick has been at times over the past three months, he showed a lot of vulnerability in big matches, losing three out of four Davis Cup matches and a tight defeat to Lleyton Hewitt in the Australian Open semifinals.

As Agassi said on Friday, Roddick, 22, is the United States' main guy. If Roddick can't get it done at home with the best group he has ever had surrounding him, the United States is going to have little chance of winning its first Cup since 1995 next year.

"Andy's still learning and I really like the improvements he's making," McEnroe said. "But you can see with a guy like Ljubicic who's 25 and coming into his own that's he's playing smart shots on the big points. Andy needs to learn to do more of that."

Agassi will be 35 years old next month and with his back and hip constantly bothering him (he recently took a shot of cortisone to be able to get back on court) it's doubtful he'll play at all next year, much less the United States' next Davis Cup match, a World Group play-off in September.

"We have to wait a pretty long time to go at it again, which is disappointing," Roddick said. "We felt like we had a pretty good opportunity, and we were so excited. [That it might be Agassi's last Cup appearance] is definitely sad."

Sad, too, that they potentially lose the benefit of Agassi helping mentor the younger players. So where does the U.S. team go from here without the legendary Agassi, who turned out not to be much of a help anyway? It's back to the drawing board for McEnroe, who has signed as captain through 2006. He has a legitimate yet struggling world top-three player in Roddick. A fairly young top-three doubles team in the Bryans except they haven't won a Grand Slam title in nearly two years and Mike is dealing with a sore hip. With Taylor Dent, Mardy Fish, James Blake and Robby Ginepri yet to break through, McEnroe doesn't have a slam dunk No. 2 singles player. That's been his teams' biggest problem since he took over in 2001.

On Sunday, after the loss to Croatia, there didn't appear to be a clear answer.

"That's a big question," McEnroe said. "There's quite a bit of time between now and the relegation match to see what sort of things shake out. It's the same old story. If you take Andre out of that part of the equation, James will have a full year, see what he can do. Taylor has made some improvements. Maybe he can keep going. Mardy, he's struggled so far this year. Robby has had some decent results.

"But there's not one guy who has stepped up. I'm sure we would all love to see more than one step up to that next level. But the jury's out."

Matthew Cronin, the managing editor of Inside Tennis Magazine, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

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