WASHINGTON, February 2, 2018 (by Michael Dickens)
While the U.S. Davis Cup team has set a standard of excellence for other countries to aspire to for more than a century with 32 titles – only one other nation has won the Davis Cup more than 10 times – it has struggled in recent years to regain its footing in this most worldly of tennis competitions.
On Friday in Nis, Serbia, a city of 186,000 located 150 miles southeast of Belgrade, playing on an indoor red clay surface that was better suited to the Serbians than the Americans, the U.S. jumped out to a 2-0 lead with a sweep of the opening-day singles rubbers played in Sportski Centar Cair.
World No. 12 Sam Querrey, an eight-year Davis Cup veteran, put the U.S. ahead by coming from behind to beat No. 88 Laslo Djere, 6-7 (4), 6-2, 7-5, 6-4, in the opening rubber that lasted 3 hours and 2 minutes in front of a very spirited pro-Serbian crowd.
In the second rubber, No. 18 John Isner fought off the challenge of No. 84 Dusan Lajovic, the top-ranked Serbian in its lineup with No. 13 Novak Djokovic, No. 38 Filip Krajinovic and No. 67 Viktor Troicki all sidelined. Their rubber went the distance before Isner won a fifth-set tie-break by capturing the final three points very convincingly. He triumphed 6-4, 6-7 (7), 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (4) in 3 hours and 15 minutes. It was the first time Isner had won a five-setter on clay in four tries.
In two previous ties – the 2010 first round and the 2013 quarterfinals – Serbia prevailed both times on the strength of two singles victories in each tie from Djokovic, and it was the 2010 Serbian team which captured the Davis Cup trophy. Now, if Serbia is going to advance in 2018, it will have to win all three of the remaining rubbers against the U.S. starting with Saturday’s doubles rubber that matches Serbians Nikola Milojevic and Miljan Zekic against the American duo of Ryan Harrison and Steve Johnson.
“All of their players are very capable players,” said Isner prior to the beginning of Friday’s tie. “Maybe on paper, because of the rankings, we might be favored, but these guys are at home. They’re playing on a surface that they chose, so we expect a very, very tough tie, and I think we all believe that they expect a tough tie, as well. We know we have our hands full.”
Querrey put together a solid effort that put the U.S. out front by serving 20 aces and winning 73 of 80 (91%) first-serve points. The American hit 40 winners, controlled net points by winning 16 of 19 chances, and saved all three of the break points he faced. Querrey, who evened his Davis Cup singles win-loss record to 9-9, outpointed Djere 146-132.
“Davis Cup is a different kind on animal,” Querry said during an on-court interview after his win. “It’s not like a tournament. Closing a match can be difficult, but I hit some good shots when I need to.
“You’re always nervous when you come out here, but I’m happy now.”
With a 1-0 U.S. lead, Isner’s game plan against Lajovic was to go for high risks that yielded high rewards. He came up with a lot of big first serves – he fired 24 aces – and won 80 of 94 first-serve points (85%). While Isner hit 50 winners – 42 of them from the forehand side – out of the 152 points he won, he also committed 49 unforced errors.
“This match could have gone either way,” Isner said, interviewed on-court just after his match ended. “I just tried to stay calm. I just kept plugging away. Captain Courier on the sideline was a huge help to me today. Whenever I got a little rattled, he calmed me down. It helped a lot.
“I’m looking forward to tomorrow and we’ll see if we can put this thing away.”
U.S. Captain Jim Courier said before the start of the tie that when it comes to the Davis Cup, “people get really inspired or people can get really intimidated and nervous depending on how they view the pressure. They can live up to the moment or play down to it.”
As it happened, the Americans put together two very impressive wins on Friday for different reasons. Querrey, who has struggled in the past with his confidence in Davis Cup competition, came through some tough moments and Isner played aggressive in a fifth-set tie-break with the outcome on the line. It added up to two big points for the U.S., who need just one more during the final three rubbers to advance to the quarterfinal round against the winner of Belgium versus Hungary.
About the author
Michael Dickens is a Washington, D.C.-area freelance journalist who writes and blogs about tennis.