Despite McEnroe's absence, U.S. team is ready

The U.S. Davis Cup team is very strong on paper. This weekend, two of the world's top-10 players and the No. 1 doubles tandem hope they're even more commanding on grass.

Updated: April 6, 2006, 2:26 PM ET
By Bonnie DeSimone | Special to ESPN.com

RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. -- The U.S. Davis Cup team is very strong on paper. This weekend, two of the world's top-10 players and the No. 1 doubles tandem hope they're even more commanding on grass.

Andy Roddick and James Blake, ranked fourth and eighth, respectively, and twin brothers Bob and Mike Bryan will aim to put the Chilean team out to pasture in the Davis Cup quarterfinals, which begin Friday at the Mission Hills Country Club.

Captain Patrick McEnroe polled his players on their preference last month and elected to go for the green stuff. This will mark only the fourth time since 1959 that the U.S. team has played host to a Davis Cup tie on grass, most recently in 2002, when the U.S. defeated Spain in the quarterfinals in Houston.

McEnroe's decision was based partly on his squad's prowess on the surface and partly because of the Chilean team's perceived weakness there.

James Blake
Todd Warshaw/Getty ImagesJames Blake is 8-3 in his career in Davis Cup singles.
Chile is likely to use just two players -- No. 18 Fernando Gonzalez and No. 37 Nicolas Massu -- for the one doubles and up to four singles matches. Both are baseline sluggers who seldom charge the net.

Although grass is the fastest surface in tennis, it tends to yield a lower bounce, which the U.S. team hopes will neutralize the Chileans' power game and give the Bryan brothers' volleys more punch in Saturday's crucial doubles match.

"The bounce is different, absolutely, and it's really tough to stop when you sprint," the 25-year-old Gonzalez said in Miami last month. He reached the quarterfinals at Wimbledon last year and is 7-5 lifetime in singles matches on grass.

As it turns out, McEnroe won't be around to watch what happens in person. He's home in New York City with his wife, actress Melissa Errico, who is expecting the couple's first child.

His understudy is Roddick's former coach, Dean Goldfine, who was an assistant Olympic coach and assistant captain throughout 2004 when the U.S. team advanced to the final before losing to Spain.

Roddick, 23, jettisoned Goldfine in February and now works with his own brother, John. That recent history might seem bound to create tension, but Roddick and Blake both pooh-poohed that at a press conference this week.

"Why is everybody looking at me?" Roddick said, playfully parrying the inevitable question. He prodded Blake to answer it first.

"(Goldfine) gets along with all of us very well, except I don't know about Andy," Blake joshed. "It's tough to get along with Andy. None of us really get along with him."

Roddick's answer moments later sounded sensibly devoid of drama. "(McEnroe) asked all of us individually who we thought would be a good stand-in to kind of run the week and be on the court with us," he said. "We all said, 'Dean.' It is something that we're all comfortable with."

The tie comes at an interesting and possibly fortuitous time for Roddick, who despite his high ranking is struggling to pull out of a slump that has seen him fail to make a tournament final this season.

Roddick has a 41-8 career record on grass, including three tournament titles. He's 32-3 in the last three years, and all three of those losses have come to No. 1 Roger Federer in the Wimbledon semifinals (2003) and final (2004 and 2005). Roddick was 11-1 on the surface last year.

After losing in the quarterfinals of the Nasdaq-100 Open last week, Roddick said he was "jonesing" for his natural habitat. He clearly could use a confidence boost from excelling in an event he relishes.

"This is the one time of the year where a lot of us can be completely selfless," he said.

By contrast, the 26-year-old Blake has been on an upward trajectory. He is playing the best tennis of his career and recently broke into the top 10 for the first time. His last two losses have come to Federer, the first a relative blowout in the final of the Pacific Life Open, the second a tighter quarterfinal match last week at the Nasdaq-100 Open. Blake has a 13-12 career record on grass.

"It's not a huge adjustment from the hard courts," he said this week. "It's still quicker. You have to change your game a little more, the movement's different."

The Bryans are 22-3 overall this season and won their third career Grand Slam event at the Australian Open in January. They have a 47-12 record on grass, have won six titles and are 2-1 lifetime against the Gonzalez-Massu duo -- although the loss was a stinger because it came in the quarterfinals of the 2004 Olympics.

The brothers have lost in the final of the last two tournaments in straight sets at Indian Wells and Key Biscayne. Still, Gonzalez said, "they're icons."

Chile cracked the Davis Cup world group -- the 16 teams eligible for the final -- last year for the first time since 1985, but lost in the first round. The team's first-round win over Slovakia this year was its first victory in 21 years.

"It would be great to beat the USA here," said Massu, 26, who is 6-8 in singles matches on grass. "They chose the court, the balls, the city, everything. To win here would be a really big memory in my career, not only for me but for the team. So to win here and make the semifinals would be something big for Chile."

No one on the U.S. team, which beat Romania in the first round in February, expects a romp in the meadow at Rancho Mirage. Gonzalez and Massu won the gold medal at the Athens Olympics, and Gonzalez beat Roddick there in singles in the round of 16.

"When we play for the country, for Chile, we play better," Massu said in Key Biscayne.

"Davis Cup is different," Gonzalez addded. "It's a different sport, almost."

The Chileans scouted the Mission Hills court when they played at nearby Indian Wells in March. Both lost early in the singles and doubles draws at the Nasdaq-100 Open and took advantage of their spare time to practice on grass courts at adjacent Fishers Island.

He and Massu said they expect to come to the net a little more -- "We're going to miss a little bit (at the net), but we'll do our best," Gonzalez said -- but they think the key to beating the U.S. team will be their serves and returns.

"As we saw from the Olympics a couple years ago, these guys, especially Massu, (are) capable of superhuman feats," Goldfine said. "I mean, in terms of being able to be out on the court a ridiculous amount of time and coming back the next day and playing great tennis."

Freelance writer Bonnie DeSimone is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.