Excitement, suspense starts early at Davis Cup final

11/30/2007 - Tennis

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Suspense is usually the last word associated with a Davis Cup draw, but Thursday's ritual actually held some intrigue.

The week's most spurious rumor -- that Marat Safin would skydive onto the Willamette River waterfront in front of the Russian team's hotel, dust himself off and charge into battle -- proved unfounded. Russian captain Shamil Tarpischev will dance with the four guys he brought.

Another open question was answered by the revelation of Tarpischev's choices for singles. He bypassed both his top-ranked player, No. 4 Nikolay Davydenko, and the player who has won the lion's share of important Davis Cup matches this year, 34th-ranked Igor Andreev.

Instead, No. 35 Dmitry Tursunov and No. 19 Mikhail Youzhny will take on No. 6 Andy Roddick and No. 13 James Blake on Friday, in that order. It was a typical take-no-prisoners move from Tarpischev, who is not someone to lose sleep over hurting someone's feelings.

Davydenko's 0-11 career record against Roddick and Blake was certainly one factor. U.S. captain Patrick McEnroe suggested the slight 26-year-old, who played one of the most demanding schedules on the men's tour this year, still may be nursing a sore foot as he was at the year-end championships in Shanghai.

The question hovering but left unasked at the post-draw press conference was whether Davydenko's mere presence on court is more of a distraction than a competitive asset these days.

Ever since one of his matches became the focus of an ATP investigation into irregular betting patterns last August, Davydenko's every move, shrug and facial expression has been minutely dissected for what it may or may not say about his motivation.

One referee in St. Petersburg went so far as to slap him with an official code violation for "lack of effort." Davydenko was subsequently fined $2,000, an over-reaction reversed shortly afterwards. The issue will continue to dog him, fairly or not, and it's possible the Russians weren't pleased at the thought of having commentators worldwide continue to expound on it Friday.

In slotting Tursunov and Youzhny in at singles, is Tarpischev completely conceding the pivotal doubles point Saturday? He can substitute a player up to an hour before the match, but if either man gets into an attenuated, strength-sapping singles match Friday afternoon, it's hard to imagine the captain throwing them to the wolves at 12:30 p.m. local time the next day. They probably represent Russia's best tandem, but then again, Bob and Mike Bryan handled them in lopsided straight sets last year on clay in the semis in Moscow.

The ostensible doubles duo of Davydenko and Andreev "would be a team that would stay back a little more," Bob Bryan said politely of the baseline bashers. "I could see them serving, maybe on a first serve and second serve staying in, just ripping forehands, playing more of a singles type of game against us."

Lest we discount them too much, Davydenko and Andreev did knock off the accomplished French team of Sebastien Grosjean and Michael Llodra, winners of three titles this season including Wimbledon, in last spring's Davis Cup quarterfinals.

But that was on dirt. Andreev's array of disguised, junkball forehands are less of a menace on fast hard court, and the Bryans' proclivity for quick points would work against the two runnin' Russians. McEnroe said he doesn't expect to see Davydenko and Andreev play together, but didn't venture a guess as to who would.

"I don't think they probably even know who their doubles team will be," he said. "That will probably depend somewhat on what happens on Friday."

The most significant consequence of Davydenko's absence from the lineup Friday is that it takes a solidly known quantity out of the equation and puts Roddick and Blake up against less familiar opponents.

Roddick has played Tursunov just three times, and only once on hard court, two years ago; their most memorable clash, much-referenced Thursday, was Tursunov's tie-clincher in the Davis Cup semis last year that ended with a 17-15 fifth set.

That was then. That was clay. Roddick would want Friday's match just as badly if it had never happened.

"I don't need any added hunger, I promise you that," said Roddick, who dispatched Tursunov with relative ease on grass at Queen's Club this summer. "I don't see a lot of relevance between the two just because of how different the court surfaces are. I think people will be talking about it a lot more than I'm thinking about it. I'm just going out and looking to try to get us the lead."

Blake and Youzhny have met just once, in last year's Davis Cup semis.

"This time I feel like I won't need to leave my comfort zone as much as I do on clay and I'll be able to hopefully go after my shots, be aggressive and still play the way I want to play on a surface that suits me much better," Blake said. "But that being said, I know he's an excellent player and he's not going to make that very easy for me. He's going to try to do everything he can to get me out of my comfort zone. He has unbelievable timing, great returns, is a great competitor, so I know it won't be easy."

Blake's appetite is also considerable, for slightly different reasons. He's 1-2 in "live," or meaningful Davis Cup matches this year.

The mantra among this close-knit foursome is that it doesn't matter how they win as long as they get three points. But if you dosed them with truth serum, we suspect they would say that nothing would be better or more fitting than a sweep.

Roddick and Blake, comfortable as brothers, poked fun at each other during Thursday's press conference, comparing imaginary reading material. Blake was said to pore over classical soliloquies while Roddick chews on Dr. Seuss. All that did was make it apparent they're on the same page, along with the Bryans, and nothing could mean more than making equal contributions to a victory they've collectively craved for a long, long time.

Bonnie D. Ford is a frequent contributor who is covering the Davis Cup for ESPN.com.