Agassi's return brings hope for '05 Davis Cup
After a long two weeks working as an ESPN analyst at the Australian Open, Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe took a detour through Las Vegas on his way home to New York.
McEnroe sat down with Andre Agassi and his coach Darren Cahill at a restaurant in the Bellagio Hotel and Casino. And they talked for hours about Davis Cup.
When McEnroe left, he still didn't know if he'd talked Agassi, who quit playing Davis Cup in 2000, into returning. But Agassi talked to current team members Andy Roddick, the Bryan brothers and Taylor Dent and last year's No. 2 player behind Roddick, Mardy Fish, about the possibility. Agassi must have been reassured because he agreed to return at least for the United States meeting with Croatia in Carson, Calif., to be aired on ESPN2 on March 4-6.
"They all expressed encouragement, which is very much appreciated," Agassi said in a statement Monday.
Agassi's return should prove to be a winner for American tennis in multiple ways as well as helpful to Agassi, McEnroe said in a conference call Monday.
To start off with, of course, Agassi sells tickets. In the Davis Cup ties the United States played at home last year the biggest turnout was in Charleston with an average of 9,317 per day. Their final against Spain in Seville sold out -- a record 27,000 strong. Tennis competes with so many other sports for attention in the United States and Agassi can draw some of that focus.
"It certainly brings more of a buzz to Davis Cup," McEnroe said. "I certainly think that some of our players can learn from Andre, and I think that's important to him, as well."
Roddick indicated as much at the Australian Open.
"I think we would all welcome him with open arms," Roddick said. "I think that can do nothing but positive things. Selfishly, I'd love to get in there and learn a lot more from him."
Roddick also helped with the lobbying.
"I kind of just wanted to let him know that we would like it (he) has the support of our team," Roddick said. "That's kind of where I wanted to just get that point across."
McEnroe said that just because Agassi committed to play doesn't mean he will.
"It may not necessarily be Roddick, Agassi and the Bryans, whether it comes down to who is playing best, whether it comes down to surface, whether it comes down to injuries, et cetera," McEnroe said. "We're still going to need some other players I think to step in."
Yes, but surely captain, you wouldn't pull Agassi if he's not playing his best -- the way Spain did with former No. 1 Juan Carlos Ferrero in last year's final?
"We'll cross that bridge when we get to it," McEnroe said. "If I'm going to pull Andre Agassi from a Davis Cup match, that means that -- that must mean we've got some players playing darn well, OK? So far that wouldn't have been an option at this point.
"If it gets to that, then I've got a good problem on my hands."
His current problem is Croatia, which defeated the United States 4-1 in the first round of 2003. But the only player returning from that team is Dent. With Roddick and Agassi on this team, the prospects are good.
Roddick has never lost a Davis Cup match on home soil, and Agassi just plain wins. In his 10 years of play in Davis Cup between 1988-2000, Agassi is 30-5 -- all in singles. Agassi's the second-winningest American in Davis Cup play. Still, McEnroe's not guaranteeing a win.
"I think it gives us a better chance to win," McEnroe said. "To be honest, I think we all know that."
Here's the catch, though. Agassi is 10-2 on clay -- the surface the United States lost the final on last year. The only problem is that those types of matches won't be played at home, where Agassi most likely will prefer to participate.
One reason Agassi chose to come back is that McEnroe assured Agassi he wouldn't be pressured to show up for every tie.
"Certainly home matches, I think is a better shot," McEnroe said. "He's going to make decisions based on how his body's feeling, how much work he's put in on the court, how well he does at the majors."
The first tie the team could face overseas might be Belarus in the second round. That would be after the double-whammy of the French Open and Wimbledon. It might be more than Agassi at 34 would want to play.
"I understand where he is in his career, personally, professionally, all the different things on his plate," McEnroe said. "We will take it one step at a time."
McEnroe hopes one of the first steps is for the players to learn more than just tips on how to play from Agassi.
"When he goes out on the court to practice, he doesn't waste any time," McEnroe said. "He takes care of his business, and he takes care of his other responsibilities, which are big. Come up with another player that's had more sort of off-the-court stuff and sort of responsibilities to deal with in tennis than Andre. There aren't that many of them. He handles it all with a lot of class and professionalism."
As for Agassi, he gets to be part of a special brotherhood the younger players have built and a chance for one more Davis Cup title to add to his collection of three.
"I think Andre saw that from a distance," McEnroe said. "I think he thought, 'Hey, this is something that I'd like to be involved in.'"
McEnroe also feels pretty strongly that this is a way for Agassi to remind people of everything he's done for Davis Cup.
"The fact that people say, 'Hey, how come Agassi doesn't play Davis Cup' is to me a crime," McEnroe said. "I think with him coming back and playing under the right conditions, his legacy should be written in a positive way."
The United States last won the Davis Cup in 1995 when Agassi was playing. In 2001, McEnroe inherited a team full of untried youngsters whose senior players refused to participate.
"One of the big frustrations for me always as a captain was to feel like, 'Wouldn't it be great if we could play everybody with our best team,'" McEnroe said. "Now we're going to have the possibility this year to do that."
Cynthia Faulkner is the tennis editor for ESPN.com.
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