Americans ready to win it all
UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- Andy Roddick, the toast of Houston, was fielding questions at a press conference back in November celebrating his recent ascension to the No. 1 ranking in the tennis world.
Mardy Fish, a fellow American rising star and once a yearlong housemate, crept into the room. With Roddick in mid-answer, Fish shook a bottle of champagne and, thumbs on the top, doused him with a frothy shower. Roddick politely excused himself, threw an impressive headlock on Fish, then turned the champagne back into the face of the would-be prankster.
Roddick returned to the microphone and, with champagne still trickling down his face, asked with a dead-pan expression, "What was your question?"
Ah, boys will be boys.
At Tuesday's press conference for the United States vs. Austria Davis Cup match, captain Patrick McEnroe was talking about Roddick when Fish muttered something under his breath.
"Would you shut up?" Roddick said with an exasperated tone, as this was not the first Fish aside up on the dais.
And then Fish and Roddick smiled like a couple of schoolboys.
Interruption aside, this is precisely the kind of camaraderie, the sort of chemistry McEnroe envisioned when he took the job three years ago. That Fish was even present at the Mohegan Sun Casino is a tribute to McEnroe's team-building expertise. For when the singles matches begin on Friday (ESPN2, 3 p.m. ET), Fish is expected to be applauding Roddick and Robby Ginepri as they play for the United States
"When I told him he wasn't playing, he wanted to come anyway," McEnroe said Wednesday from his hotel room. "I told him 'My plan is to play Robby, he deserves a shot.' The fact that he wasn't playing for a spot, that he's No. 21 in the world and he's willing to spend a week practicing with the team, well, that sums it up.
"That's what I've been trying to do. Luckily, I have a good group of guys, so I didn't have work that hard at it."
This is not completely true. In one of the most individual sports in the smorgasbord of athletics, McEnroe has managed to get seven young Americans to focus on the same target and pull for each other in the process.
Roddick, 21, was the world No. 1 until Roger Federer and Juan Carlos Ferrero passed him last week at the Australian Open. As McEnroe pointed out, Fish, 22, has reached No. 21. Ginepri, the youngest of the group, is only 21 but is ranked No. 25. Throw in Taylor Dent, at 22 he is ranked No. 23, 24-year-old James Blake, who is rising again at No. 37, and Bob and Mike Bryan, the 25-year-old identical twins who will play doubles, and you have a formidable core for the future.
That's five U.S. players -- including the venerable Andre Agassi -- in the top 25, something that hasn't happened in nearly seven years. Both Roddick and the Bryan brothers occupied the No. 1 spot in singles and doubles, marking the first time that has happened to Americans since 1983, when John McEnroe was ranked No. 1 in singles and he and Peter Fleming were No. 1 in doubles.
The United States has won more Davis Cup titles (31) and matches (195) than any other country since competition began in 1900, but the recent history has been dreary. Two of America's six first-round losses have come in the last three years, to Croatia in 2003 and Switzerland in 2001. McEnroe and Company were forced to play a relegation match in September -- they won at Slovakia -- to return to the 16-entry world group.
The good news is that the Americans have never, ever lost a first-round tie played in the United States, a streak that extends to 27. Austria counters Roddick and Ginepri with Jurgen Melzer and Stefan Koubek, ranked No. 76 and No. 94, respectively.
If, as expected, the U.S. team wins, the Americans would likely face reigning champion Australia in an April quarterfinal Down Under. For the first time in a while, that might not be a certain loss for the Americans, even if Lleyton Hewitt and Mark Philippoussis are healthy.
The United States hasn't won since 1995 and, frankly, it's starting to become a source of irritation.
"That plays on our mind a lot," McEnroe said. "All of our guys are very committed. And the one thing they have all said to me as we look forward to this year is that we want to win it this year. We're not satisfied with winning a couple of matches. We want to win this whole thing. That's the first time I've heard that from them.
"I really believe that we have a strong chance to win it."
Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier and Michael Chang all came up together in the late 1980s. They might not have been the best of friends, but they played well together as a team, winning the title in 1990, 1992 and 1995.
This group actually seems to like each other.
"This is just a couple of weeks of the year that we're not actually playing individual, and we're all good friends," Roddick said. "It's cool to be able to get together and trying to work together toward a common goal to be able to share this experience with guys that we actually get along with. That we're all buddies it makes it really fun and it's something that we all look forward to every year.
Roddick used to hit with the Bryans' father back when he was 8 years old. He and Ginepri have been on the same junior national teams since they were 11. And there was 1999, when Fish moved in with the Roddick family in Boca Raton, Fla.
"It's pretty cool to have a history with everybody here and be able to come together and work towards something," Roddick said.
It's quite possible that the competition between America's best and brightest has helped them raise the level of their individual games.
"That was always one of goals the goals when I took the job," said McEnroe, 37. "It was clear that Roddick was going to be the guy, but also clear that the other guys were pretty close and all relatively close in age.
"I always felt like this would help them overall. They're competing with each other and want to be part of it. I really believe that's what's happened. Mardy's top 20 and Taylor and Robby are right behind him. James played well in Australia, and I think he's going to have a much better year than last year. Hopefully, it will continue to happen.
"Let's hope we can keep it that way for a long time because that makes for a long-term success, and it helps the guys when they go out on the Tour. It's a tough business out there, but these guys are very competitive with each other. But being healthy and friendly with each other and sharing some of these experiences, it also helps when you're out on Tour."
McEnroe has been careful to cultivate all of the eligible young Americans. Fish has already played four ties, but Ginepri is a rookie this time out. His success in Australia -- he reached the round of 16 before losing to Sebastien Grosjean - vaulted him ahead of Fish, Dent and Blake, who also lost in the round of 16 -- to eventual finalist Marat Safin. When the Bryan brothers became a force last year, winning the French Open for their first Grand Slam title, McEnroe installed them as the doubles team for the match with Slovakia. They responded by winning their match and contributing to a 3-2 victory.
"There's always a familiar face out there," Bob Bryan said. "We like playing doubles because we're twins. You get to share the win with your brother, you get to go back to your room and talk about it. It just makes it more special."
McEnroe, who knew he'd have a few tough years ahead of him when he took the job in December 2000, likes what he sees.
"I strongly believe it's of high importance to these guys," he said. "I love that attitude. I think we're one of the teams for the next few years that every year people are going to say the U.S. can win. That's how we feel, that's how I feel."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.