We’ve always liked the things Jim Courier has had to say, first as a commentator on USA Network, and now as Davis Cup Captain. Starting with his first major remarks, way back to last year, when he captained his 1st tie in a suit and tie on a horribly kept clay court in Chile. When asked why he didn’t cheer much, and why he wore the real suit over the warmup suit, Courier said that his guys didn’t need a towel waver, a cheerleader. What they needed was strategy, and that was why he was there.
Courier is more than strategy though. He is a winner, a rock for our squad. Recall in his first ever tie against Chile when Isner was robbed of a point in a return game in the 5th set of a rubber that would have given him 2 break points, when he had none previously. But 15-40 became 30 all and within minutes, Capdeville had the break and Chile had the rubber.
Courier showed no emotion at all afterward, and did not so much as question the call that could have spelled out America’s demise. What he would say was that in a 5 set match, Isner has to return serve much better. No one, he said, could expect to win a match without earning a break point, calls or no calls.
That has been the difference between the McEnroe and Courier squads. Courier is honest. He doesn’t play the buddy game with guys who might need a kick in the ass. Like Isner, who, on a worse clay court than in Chile, and against a better opponent in Roger Federer, managed 3 breaks of serve on an impressive 12 opportunities on Friday. Isner is that much better, yes, and his Davis Cup experience has furthered his development. Hard to imagine Courier’s affect on him in any but a positive light. For that matter, we think it little coincidence that Mardy Fish has played so well since Jim Courier became captain, making his first ever YEC last year. Courier was emotionless after Isner’s epic win. He was almost stoic. Courier was the person in that horrid muck bandbox who believed in Isner’s ability to win most. And why would he celebrate any win in a tie that was still in its first day, far from over?
Courier knows winning and understands the urgency. So when he inserted proven doubles player Mardy Fish, after Fish’s 4 hour and 20 plus minute rubber on Friday, to play with Mike Bryan, the move smacked of USA’s realization of the immense importance of that doubles match. Very un P-Mac like. We were never big fans of little brother, ever, whether as a player, a coach, broadcaster or what have you. We will say that it wasn’t a question of work ethic. And that P-Mac stepping in to coach Andy Roddick after he and John Roddick split, was also very good of him. Though, with Roddick’s importance to DC, he didn’t have any real choice.
We think substituting Fish for Harrison was the right move and suggested it here on Friday. Well, Fish or Isner, for that matter, since the last time Fish played tired doubles he left Bethanie Mattek-Sands hanging out to dry at Hopman Cup. We also think Courier is the type to have less of a problem making that call than buddy buddy Patrick McEnroe, and that if he thought Fish tired, he’d have used Isner instead. McEnroe was always very proud of the fact that players played for him, a big problem in DC and Fed Cup. Part of the reason they played for him, he felt, was because he didn’t really ask them to do too much. We see that point, knowing full well some top players have shied away from the international team competitions. Others have played and then thrown their country under the bus.
But if we are to closely examine this, the players want to play and they want to win. So if Courier facilitates that, then he is a good captain who will keep guys interested. Let’s be real. Fish and Isner both just had career weekends playing for country. And if the Williams sisters were able to be whole last weekend and had it been a hotly contested tie, Venus, Serena, and all of the nation would have wanted them to take part in the doubles, they being the all time team they are.
Obviously this weekend was not a banner one for Federer, whose abilities were limited by the poor quality of the surface. If you saw the doubles Saturday, you may have seen an absolute rarity: Federer swinging and completely missing on a ball (backhand). We’ve always maintained and always will that clay is strictly low rent, and tends to work better for lesser talents. That said, Federer needed to adjust to the court. The player who did was Isner. Isner played big man tennis and was prepared to do so from the start. He stuck with it even after going down a set.
Was Roger unprepared? We think so. It seemed like he thought he could roll out of bed and win. Last year we began to criticize Roger for his lack of participation in DC, and noted that Tsonga and Berdych, who defeated the great man at Wimbledon in successive years, both play a lot of DC and may have been better prepared because of it in a 5 set format. This year, players who do not participate may find themselves without Olympic eligibility. Federer, who has never won a DC, should be amply motivated to add the distinction to his otherwise stellar resume. But he looked listless over the weekend at Fribourg, which might suggest that he was only there to satisfy Olympic eligibility requirements. In fact, we thought it an extremely poor showing by the entire Swiss Tennis Federation, from planning to execution. Why would they choose to play this tie on indoor clay? Surface selection is the responsibility of the home team’s captain. Severin Luthi, captain and Federer co-coach, put his team at a disadvantage by choosing a surface so incompatible with its best player. We do not espouse the logic that Federer would excel on that clay because he is Federer, likely the 2nd best clay courter of this era.
What is fact is that Federer had not played on clay since early June, some 9 months. Federer went deep at Melbourne, and has been resting. He hasn’t been practicing on bad clay as Isner and Fish have been, since their early Australian ousters. Courier knows a thing or two about success on clay, and is the first American in the modern era to win 2 French Open titles, doing so in back to back years. He is vocal about America and its lack of success on clay in recent years, and has confronted head on the perception that America doesn’t practice on clay enough to be successful, by practicing his guys hard on dirt. If Federer looked unprepared, then Isner looked completely prepared, hitting several kick serves that bounced up over Federer’s head. He knew the court and he liked the surface, and said so after the match, citing how slow courts actually work to his advantage because he has more time, tennis’s most precious commodity.
Luthi is a very poor DC captain. He failed to enlist Federer in DC for so long, and now that he has him, has failed to get anything out of him. Next to Courier, Luthi looks out of place in his Yonex tennis reds, but that is not the only reason he is looking bad next to Courier. This tie should have been played in Federer’s home town, Basel, on hard courts where Federer has prevailed as champion 6 times, including last fall.
On a bad court, it takes more than just cursory practice to adjust, especially when switching surfaces. While Federer has proven in his peak prime that he can go clay to grass without much warmup, he is no longer peak prime Federer and he wasn’t switching over to grass, where he has 6 Wimbledon titles.
Luthi seems to have benefitted much from his association with Federer, but has Switzerland benefitted that much from the association? Luthi has kept his captaincy we feel, ironically, due to his friendship with Roger, while not even getting Federer out for Davis Cup. The buddy buddy approach is not one you will see from Courier, and had it really worked best with Roger, we doubt he’d have hired Paul Annacone to do the heavy lifting.
America will play France in the quarter-finals on the first weekend in April. While Roland Garros may be the venue, we expect the French to choose an indoor hard court.