U.S. faces obstacles in defending Davis Cup championship

The U.S. is going to have to put this image behind it as the 2008 Davis Cup season is already here. Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images

Ten weeks have elapsed since the United States Davis Cup team won its first title in 12 years -- barely time for dry cleaners to lift the Champagne and cigar smoke from the players' laundry. Yet they're back at it again.

The relentless, year-round, no-breaks-for-victors Davis Cup carousel has spun the defending champions off to Vienna for the Feb. 8-10 first round, where they'll face Austria on soft indoor clay, the least favorable surface for the U.S. team.

It's a situation ripe for upset, as history bears out. No country has earned back-to-back Davis Cup titles since Sweden did it in 1997-98. Since then, three winners did make it all the way back to the final, but another four lost in the first round and suddenly found themselves required to win a playoff to avoid dropping out of the elite 16-team World Group.

The U.S. team does have an encouraging precedent, having kicked off its 2007 title campaign by defeating the Czech Republic away on clay. And player attendance isn't a problem. Captain Patrick McEnroe will have the same quartet on the bench for a U.S.-record ninth straight time with No. 6 Andy Roddick, No. 12 James Blake and the world's top-ranked doubles team, Bob and Mike Bryan.

Their presence was practically assumed, though never taken for granted, by McEnroe, despite the tight turnaround and a calendar crowded by the Beijing Olympics later this year. "I did not have to do any extra asking [or] convincing in any way at all," he said. "These guys are unbelievable in their commitment."

Roddick confirmed that it never crossed his mind to bail. "I'd be the first to tell you that I think the two teams in the final from the year before should get a bye into the second round," he said during a recent conference call with reporters to promote his upcoming appearance in the SAP Open in San Jose. "It's just not long enough in between.

"But that being said, you play the hand you're dealt. Davis Cup is a priority. We've won it, but that doesn't mean we're in the clear. It's going to be with us forever. But you just can't abandon what you're passionate about just because there's been a little bit of success."

Austria constitutes a somewhat quirky opponent, a veteran team that in recent years has played just well enough to stay in the World Group, but isn't strong enough to make much headway in the draw. The Austrians have lost four straight first-round encounters, including one in the United States in 2004, but avoided demotion by winning their playoff tie each time.

Three of its four players -- stubble-faced, mountain-man No. 55 Stefan Koubek, No. 58 Werner Eschauer and doubles specialist Julian Knowle -- are over 30. They're joined by No. 57 Jurgen Melzer, who's 26.

Koubek showed particular tenacity at the Australian Open, toppling Carlos Moya and taking Paul-Henri Mathieu to an 8-6 fifth set before capitulating in the third round. But the head-to-head matchups in singles tilt heavily toward the United States. Koubek and Melzer are a combined 0-10 to Roddick and 1-2 to Blake, while Eschauer has never played either one.

The Austrians are hoping that clay helps neutralize that advantage, although they're not stellar on the surface themselves. None of the team's three singles players had a winning record on clay last season. But, as Melzer noted in Australia, "It would be suicide to pick anything else. & It's going to be as wet and heavy as it can get."

Bob and Mike Bryan bring a formidable 13-1 Davis Cup record and a good comfort level on clay to the mix. They're almost certain to oppose Knowle and Melzer, who have played together for their country frequently.

Knowle, not to be confused with the inconveniently-named Mark Knowles of the Bahamas, another distinguished doubles specialist, is currently ranked sixth in the world. He and regular partner Simon Aspelin of Sweden won their first career Grand Slam title at the U.S. Open last year, breaking the Bryans' hearts in the quarterfinals along the way.

No discussion of Davis Cup is complete these days, it seems, without questioning its structure. Is it sporting for the defending champion to have to start from less than scratch, away on a treacherous surface, as the U.S. will this year?

McEnroe has grown so weary of that line of inquiry that he won't respond to it, saying it's better for him to simply focus on the schedule as it exists. His fatalism may be realistic, given that International Tennis Federation president Francesco Ricci Bitti has repeatedly said he thinks the format is fine the way it is.

"We believe that each solution has its pros and cons," Ricci Bitti said after the U.S. team clinched against Russia in Portland, Ore., last December. "But the solution that we have now, first is a traditional one, and second has much more pros for the majority of the countries. We have to listen to the majority of the countries, because we are an organization of 205 countries, about 140 taking part in the Davis Cup every year."

Blake took issue with that when he spoke to reporters after losing to Roger Federer in the Australian Open quarterfinals. "I understand [the ITF's] position that the smaller countries need this for revenue," he said. "It just doesn't seem to be gaining any momentum. & I don't know if we're looking at the big picture: the fact that if we fix the system, maybe the small countries can benefit more from the whole system benefitting in the long run."

He agreed with Roddick that first-round byes would be a way to reward finalists without tweaking the system too much. "My coach, my friends can't believe that I'm already getting ready to go to Davis Cup again, because they feel I should still be celebrating the fact that we just won," Blake said. "With how exciting, how much drama there is involved, how much emotion we spend on that, to be going back and playing again is just insane."

Yet this Davis Cup tie arguably falls at an auspicious time for the U.S. players to ramp up from recent disappointments. Blake wasn't able to solve Federer. Roddick has played sparingly since last fall -- nine matches total since late September -- and didn't get the workout he wanted in Australia after losing to Philipp Kohlschreiber in the third round. The Bryans, two-time defending Australian Open champions, were upset in the quarterfinals in Melbourne.

"I'm sure once we get there, it's amazing what playing in front of a hostile crowd can do for your competitive juices," Roddick said. "It's just a matter of trying to get in good practices and then hope adrenaline takes over, which it always does in Davis Cup."

If the U.S. wins and favored France beats Romania in its first-round tie, the U.S. would host France in the quarterfinals in Winston-Salem, N.C., in April.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com.