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Isner Leads, Harrison to Debut in U.S. Davis Cup This Weekend

April 4, 2012 09:09 AM
by Rick Vach, www.ustaflorida.com

No one gave the U.S. much of a chance to begin the year in the 2012 Davis Cup opening round -- at Switzerland, on red clay -- against former French Open champ Roger Federer.

Now the talk is how the U.S. may have left their "red clay curse" behind them.

John Isner took some lessons away from a five-set loss on clay to Rafael Nadal in 2011, and the same to Novak Djokovic in 2010 -- that such tight matches on the slow red dirt were not beyond his grasp. Since then the U.S. has won away on clay at Colombia and Chile, and Isner himself has gone on a tear.

Last month in Indian Wells the big man defeated the world No. 1 Djokovic in the semifinals, rising into the Top 10 for the first time on the ATP Rankings. Whether on clay or hardcourts, Isner is showing he can get it done against the elite players in the men's game.

"I knew going into this year that I had the tools and I had the game to be able to at least compete with these guys," Isner said at Indian Wells. "I take the court no matter who I'm playing expecting to win and believing to win...For sure I do have confidence in my return game, and I have the utmost confidence in my service game."

Isner showed it weeks prior to Indian Wells in Switzerland when he beat Federer in the opening-day U.S.-Switzerland Davis Cup singles, leading to an eventual 3-0 sweep of the Swiss by Saturday.

Now as the upcoming April 6-8 tie approaches, Isner and his compatriots are preparing for another red clay adventure against the tough French team of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and company.

"They're playing in Monte Carlo, I think it's a slower-play court," Isner said. "Obviously, they don't want to put it in altitude because in Switzerland it was a bit in altitude, they don't want to put it indoors because they saw that we are a pretty tough team in those conditions. It's going to be challenging."

More challenging was the announcement five days before the tie that U.S. No. 1 Mardy Fish would miss the trip to Monte Carlo due to an illness related to fatigue.

Without a deep U.S. bench, Fish's absence means that Davis Cup neophyte Ryan Harrison will step in, making his first appearance in a live singles rubber. Against Switzerland earlier this year Harrison made his first appearance in singles, defeating Michael Lammer in a dead rubber match after the U.S. had already clinched victory in the tie.

Last year on red clay Harrison had a rough go of it, posting an 0-3 win-loss at tour-level events, but taking a set off former French Open finalist Robin Soderling in a first-round loss at Roland Garros.

It will be the resumption of one of the more storied Davis Cup country rivalries, dating to 1905. In the 15 times the two countries have met, the U.S. leads the series 8-7.

Isner says he looks for Tsonga to lead the charge for France, which boasts a handful of players to choose from in the Top 50 rankings, including Gilles Simon and Richard Gasquet. Simon will replace No. 2 singles player Gael Monfils, who dropped out of the tie on the same day as Fish, citing an abdominal injury. The athletic Tsonga, himself prone to injury, will set the tone for France.

"Tsonga can play on any surface because he's just very good, as simple as that so I would be a little bit surprised if one of us didn't see him on that first day," Isner said.

Tsonga and Isner have split two career meetings on hardcourts, both in three sets, so their match-up could be a coin toss. Isner has likewise split six career meetings with Monfils, all on hardcourts.

Harrison has never faced Tsonga or Gasquet, and is 0-1 versus Simon.

The Bryan brothers would get the nod as the favorites in doubles, but not by much, over the tough team of Llodra and probably Julien Benneteau of France with their home-crowd support.

Andy Roddick, who recorded a win over Roger Federer in Miami, told U.S. Davis Cup Captain Jim Courier that he would prefer to sit out the U.S.-France tie so that Isner and Fish could continue the roll they started on red clay after upsetting Switzerland.

"France has a deep and talented team and we know it will be a big challenge for our squad in Monte Carlo," said Courier, who added that the surface should not be a hindrance to Isner. "It doesn't matter what surface John is playing on, his serve is going to be a nightmare to deal with if he's having a reasonable day, a normal service day."

The U.S. won their previous meeting with France, in the 2008 Davis Cup quarterfinals at Winston-Salem, N.C., when Roddick, James Blake and the Bryan brothers recorded a 4-1 victory on indoor hardcourt. The U.S. hasn't won a match at France since the 1982 Davis Cup final when John McEnroe and Gene Mayer (and Peter Fleming in doubles) swept Yannick Noah and Henri Leconte 3-0.

Matches will be telecast live on Tennis Channel and streamed live for free on USTA.com starting at 6 a.m. ET on Friday, April 6, and 8 a.m. ET on Saturday, and 5 a.m. ET on Sunday.

This article appears in the April edition of Play Tennis Florida, the official magazine of USTA Florida.






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