Commentary

Roddick blows Mathieu off the court to clinch Davis Cup tie

Despite the unexpected pullout of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Richard Gasquet's confounding proposal, the French squad played a spirited tie. However, it just wasn't meant to be as Andy Roddick and the Americans advanced to the Davis Cup semifinals and took a step closer to a title repeat.

Originally Published: April 14, 2008
By Bonnie D. Ford | ESPN.com

Bob Bryan, James Blake, Andy Roddick and Mike Bryan Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty ImagesThe Americans have won six straight Davis Cup ties dating back to last season.
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- To paraphrase a famous French philosopher, the heart of a tennis player has its own internal reasoning that isn't always reasonable. That's particularly true in Davis Cup tennis, where some great players founder, some mediocre players excel, and most players try to be reliable.

Let's be real -- the way Andy Roddick attacked Sunday's decisive fourth match of the Davis Cup quarterfinals, it wouldn't have made much difference whom the French put on the firing line. But the revelation that Richard Gasquet, France's top singles player, opted to take a pass on the elimination match could reverberate around the sport for a while.

Down 2-1 in the best-of-five series after the doubles team of Arnaud Clement and Michael Llodra had upset the Bryan brothers with admirable verve, French captain Guy Forget approached both Gasquet and Paul-Henri Mathieu on Saturday night to ask who was ready to play Roddick in the first match the next day.

Mathieu, though still psychologically and physically depleted from Friday's five-set loss to James Blake in which he saw two match points sift through his strings like sand in an egg timer, gave an automatic Oui.

Gasquet said Non, merci. His knee hurt, he hadn't played in two weeks, and most interestingly, he assessed Mathieu's chances against Roddick as better than his own. Yet Gasquet also told Forget he was willing to play the fifth match, whether it was pressure-packed and live or meaningless and dead.

"When you play against Roddick, you have to be ready," Gasquet said. "I wasn't really ready. But at 2-2, I could try something for sure. I wanted to go on the court. But I am a little bit injured, so it's not good to play Roddick."

Pragmatic act or wimpy calculation? Given the questions posed by the French media afterwards, it seems clear that the judgment in Gasquet's native country will be somewhat harsh. His own teammates were puzzled, to say the least.

After Roddick blew Mathieu off the court, Mathieu was asked if he felt he'd had a choice about playing. The emotional 26-year-old paused for an unusually long time before answering.

"No," he said. "I felt that Guy had confidence in me. Apparently, Guy didn't have a choice."

Mathieu appeared taken aback when reporters told him that Gasquet had turned down the Roddick match but offered himself up for the later match. He shrugged incredulously.

"He makes his decisions, and I make mine,'' Mathieu said. "I would have liked him to come to me and say why. It was as if I was tired, so I got sent to the slaughterhouse and he didn't.

"I hope he'll come see me and explain. If he had valid reasons, then there's no problem."

The U.S. team advanced to the semifinals for the third straight year and will play Spain in September. While the Bryan brothers' winning streak was stopped at nine, Roddick extended his to nine and is now 10-0 in clinch situations.

Roddick didn't have much to say about Gasquet's virtual default. "I'm not going to sit here and pretend to know the ins and outs of the French locker room," he said. "I mean, I guess it would seem logical that if you're healthy enough to play a fifth match, then you're healthy enough to play a match two hours earlier."

[+] EnlargePaul-Henri Mathieu
Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty ImagesAn exhausted Paul-Henri Mathieu couldn't handle Andy Roddick's power and determination Sunday.
This round, enlivened by l'affaire Gasquet, ended the way most people thought it would after a week that unfolded in a way no one could have foreseen.

The French lost their most dynamic character -- the singles player with arguably the best chance at an upset -- when Jo-Wilfried Tsonga went home early after he was diagnosed with a knee injury. Forget's options dwindled, and it seemed inevitable that Gasquet would be tapped to play a match that counted.

Instead, Forget threw a tactical curveball, inserting Michael Llodra to play Roddick on Friday.

It marked the second time in the past three ties that the opposing captain has benched his top-ranked singles player against the Americans. Russian captain Shamil Tarpishchev's rationale in last year's final was more obvious -- Nikolay Davydenko was burned out from months of dealing with gambling innuendo and was winless against Roddick and Blake at the time.

Forget's choice, as he said in a remarkably candid series of interviews, was based on his players' desire level. "I'm disappointed that he was not fit to play, that he was not mentally confident," he said of Gasquet. "He had no will to go out, even though he was not in the best possible shape."

The guys who did play didn't let Forget down.

Llodra refused to play the role of sacrificial lamb, having won two singles titles already this year, and his big lefty serve enabled him to hang in there gamely against a not-to-be-denied Roddick.

Mathieu, who had been all but dismissed as a threat because of the extreme speed of the surface, adjusted surprisingly well. He crowded the baseline and met Blake's high-risk game with some fire of his own.

The two men played five sets and nearly five hours. In a scintillating conclusion viewers missed seeing live -- the Versus network cut away because of its previous commitment to the National Hockey League playoffs -- Blake cracked a couple of brilliant returns to turn match points against him into a service break and an eventual win. Mathieu estimated the straws that broke his back at 120 mph, turbocharged by the surface.

The edge granted by the fast court gave Friday evaporated Saturday, as the Bryans lost their first Davis Cup match in three years. The brothers' best habitat is a medium-fast court, rather than the pancake griddle they played on here. But the conditions didn't so much hurt their game as they helped mighty mite Clement -- the guy whose serve is normally the easier one of the two to pounce on.

Clement and Llodra played an aggressive, spirited, relentless match. More significantly, as the Bryans admitted afterwards, the French pair managed to top the Bryans' energy level from the moment they broke Mike Bryan's serve to win the second set and Llodra exuberantly hurdled the net.

But there was no striptease celebration of the kind the pair performed at Wimbledon after beating the Bryans in last year's championship match -- antics Bob Bryan had labeled "cheeseball" in an interview earlier in the week.

With the French, though, it's always either fromage or vin. Tied at 3-3 in the second set, having lost the first in a tiebreak, Clement said Llodra comforted him by saying, "We're going to drink Chateaux Margaux even if we lose."

As the action proceeded, Gasquet indulged in frequent bouts of text messaging, which more cynical French writers theorized might have aggravated the nagging blister on his hand. He spent long interludes away from the team bench and in general seemed less attentive to the event than Roddick's fiancee Brooklyn Decker, who didn't miss a point.

Sunday, Roddick played with the brisk air of a man with a train to catch (or perhaps a man who didn't want to be pre-empted by the NHL playoffs). He served fiercely, swung freely and graciously engaged in a few backhand rallies, more for the workout than anything else. The celebratory flag lap afterwards wasn't exactly routine, but it felt professional. The team expects to get this far now.

The defending champions now enter the unpaved portion of their itinerary. After a five-month break -- a schedule that will change next year under the terms of a new five-year agreement with the International Tennis Federation -- the Americans will meet the Spanish on the road on their national surface, red clay.

Should the U.S. manage to win there against a team that will be led by Rafael Nadal, the world's best clay-court player, captain Patrick McEnroe's foursome would be away on clay again for the final against either Russia or Argentina.

The circumstances will not favor the U.S. team, but at least McEnroe won't have to worry about talking anyone into making the trips, or playing once they're there. Ever the diplomat, he dodged any direct comment about Gasquet. "I'm not going to speculate on something that has never happened to me as a captain," he said.

And that may be the most statistically significant streak of all.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.

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