Americans ready for red-hot Nadal
The U.S. has two players ranked in the top eight and the No. 1 doubles team. So why is there a queasiness in the air for the Davis Cup quarterfinal tie with Spain? Greg Garber explains.
The seats -- each and every one of 43,500 in the Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Winston-Salem, N.C. -- are sold out. The U.S. Davis Cup team features two singles players ranked among the top eight in the world, not to mention the No. 1 doubles team. The surface is Latex-ite and will be hard and fast, which should play to America's strengths.
Why, then, is there a queasiness in the air as the tennis community awaits the keenly anticipated April 6-8 Davis Cup quarterfinal tie between Spain and the United States?
Two words: Rafael Nadal.
It was Nadal, the 20-year-old Spaniard, who dusted Andy Roddick 6-4, 6-3 in last week's semifinals at Indian Wells, Calif., in a match that wasn't as close as the score suggests. Nadal, who pulled out of Spain's first-round victory in Geneva, Switzerland, back in February with a thigh strain suffered in training, is expected to play in Winston-Salem.
"I'm certainly hopeful he's going to play," said U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe on a Wednesday conference call. "I like to see all the best guys playing Davis Cup. He made a statement playing in Indian Wells.
"[But] he's not a one-man team."
McEnroe made the expected announcement that Roddick, James Blake and the Bryan brothers -- the reigning Australian Open champions -- would again make up the U.S. team. Mardy Fish and Donald Young will serve as practice partners.
Spain beat Switzerland in the first round with a roster that included David Ferrer, Fernando Verdasco and Feliciano Lopez, but may well employ Tommy Robredo, a formidable hard-court player, as the second singles player.
The Spanish team will be announced Monday at the Sony Ericsson Open, but McEnroe said he expects Verdasco and Lopez to play doubles. The identity of Spain's second singles player, McEnroe said, might not be known until just before the match.
The United States, which has won more Davis Cup titles than any other nation (31), hasn't won since 1995 -- its longest drought since the competition began in 1900. Todd Martin was part of the winning team that defeated Russia 3-2 in Moscow. Martin played doubles with Pete Sampras and clinched a critical point.
"I was really impressed with the way Nadal played," Martin said Tuesday from his Florida home. "He looked awfully good. But indoors is a different story, a different scenario, one I would expect Andy to benefit from. When you get to see somebody twice in a few weeks, it's the advantage to the one who doesn't win.
"From that standpoint, I think there's a lot to build on for Andy. I would expect Andy to give Nadal a much better match, to the point where I would see him almost being the favorite in that match."
Not only would Roddick have his hands full with Nadal but Blake, who has lost four of his last seven matches, is no guarantee against Spain's second player, whoever that turns out to be.
"Look, obviously, I've been concerned about James' play for the last couple of weeks," McEnroe said. "Certainly, we'd love to see him get his confidence going and play well. It's no huge cause for concern. [Recent form] is not necessarily a predictor in how you're going to play in a Davis Cup match."
McEnroe said he has been "tinkering" with different surfaces in the past week.
"Hopefully," McEnroe said, "it won't be bouncing as high as it was at Indian Wells."
Even if the U.S. manages to win the quarterfinal tie, it won't get any easier. The winner advances to the September semifinals, where the winner of Argentina-Sweden will await. The U.S., which beat the Czech Republic 4-1 on clay in Ostrava to reach the quarterfinals, would hit the road in either case and, quite likely, would face another tie on clay.
"Honestly, I don't know if there's ever been as much parity as I see right now," Martin said. "There are a few nations that are extremely strong. But if you take some of the countries that aren't seemingly powerhouses and put them at home it changes the dynamic quite a bit. It's really difficult to predict.
"Still, I'd put the U.S. right up there at the top of the list of teams with a good chance."
For McEnroe and his singles players, the quarterfinals represent a homecoming of sorts. In October 2001, McEnroe served as captain in Winston-Salem for his first home Davis Cup match, and Roddick and Blake were also first-timers in a 4-1 win over India.
Then there are the memories the U.S. squad has of the 2004 Davis Cup final. Before a raucous crowd of 27,000-plus, the team suffered a haunting 3-2 loss in Seville, Spain.
"All of us who were there remember it vividly," McEnroe said. "I remember walking out on the court with Andy for his first match, and he said, 'Man, wouldn't it be awesome if we could get a crowd like this at home?'
"We're not at 27,000, but for us, 14 and-a-half thousand [per day] is pretty darn awesome. The guys are pretty pumped up. We remember what happened in Spain in the final, and we're looking forward to playing them at our place."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.