By Erin Bruehl, USTA.com
U.S. Davis Cup Captain Jim Courier called it "the ultimate ask" of the competition.
Not that the United States is not used to coming in as the underdog, playing a team away on clay and responding. The U.S. team did it in February against 17-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer and Switzerland in February and then again in France in April in the quarterfinals, taking out world No. 6 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and No. 13 Gilles Simon.
But now the U.S. Davis Cup Team faces arguably its toughest test of the year: To play an extremely deep Spanish team away in Gijon, Spain, on outdoor clay in the semifinals. The U.S. team of world No. 10 John Isner, world No. 28 Sam Querrey and US Open men’s doubles champions Bob and Mike Bryan will not face 11-time Grand Slam champion Rafael Nadal, but the Spanish Davis Cup Team does still have world No. 5 and US Open semifinalist David Ferrer, world No. 12 Nicolas Almagro and another strong doubles team of Marcel Granollers and Marc Lopez.
The U.S. is looking to reach its first Davis Cup final since it won the title in 2007. Spain is the defending Davis Cup champion and was also the team that knocked the U.S. out of competition last year, beating the U.S. 4-1 on an indoor hard court in Austin, Texas, in the quarterfinals in what turned out to be the last chapter in Andy Roddick’s storied Davis Cup career. The American retired from pro tennis following his fourth-round loss at the US Open last week.
But these are two different teams, and none of the matches this weekend will feature the same match-ups as in Austin, with different singles players for the U.S. and a different doubles team for Spain. For the third tie this year, the U.S. will not be favored.
"We have had the toughest draw you can have in Davis Cup with the road matches we have faced, and this one is the ultimate ask in current Davis Cup tennis," Courier said. "Going into Spain, playing them on red clay, they haven't lost in a long, long time. We certainly feel like we're going to have a chance, but we also feel like we're not the favorites. We felt that way in the first two matches this year, too."
Isner has emerged as potentially the new team ‘closer’ this year, a role Roddick held for so many years, as he is undefeated in Davis Cup play, winning both his singles matches against Switzerland and France, including dominating Federer in four sets in February and clinching the quarterfinal victory with a win over Simon. He is 7-3 overall in his Davis Cup career, having played on clay for all five ties he has been on the team.
Playing Ferrer, Spain’s likely No. 1 singles player, will be another tough task, as the 30-year-old is a stellar 19-4 in his Davis Cup career and 14-0 on clay. Isner is just 1-3 against him lifetime, but the American defeated him last year at the Paris Masters, although the two have never met on dirt. He has faced Almagro just once -- a loss to him at Wimbledon in four tight sets last year.
Isner comes in after a disappointing US Open, which ended with a five-set, third-round loss to Philipp Kohlschrieber, certainly not fulfilling the high hopes the American had coming in fresh off a title win in Winston-Salem and on his preferred hard courts.
"John's fresh and focused. He's beaten some substantial players this year," Courier said. "He's going to have to be fresh and focused to stand a chance against Ferrer and Almagro. Those guys, you saw what I saw at the French Open. Those guys were playing some serious clay-court tennis. They'll be ready to defend their country's colors.
"He's overscheduled himself, and he'll learn from that," he added of Isner’s season. "He's been incredible in Davis Cup this year. He's incredibly excited about Gijon."
Querrey is making his first appearance on the U.S. team since the 2010 World Group Playoffs against Colombia, after missing time from the ATP Tour last year due to an elbow injury and watching his ranking fall outside the top 100 in the world. He has worked his way back up the rankings in 2012, playing tournaments on the ITF Circuit and ATP Tour, and recently has been displaying the form that helped him reach his career-high ranking of No. 17 in the world in January 2011, including winning the title in Los Angeles.
Querrey and Ferrer have not played since 2010 and have met just twice in their careers, but the American has faced Almagro two times in 2012, which were both wins for the Spaniard. They met in a three-set win for Almagro on hard courts in Indian Wells, and Almagro then won on clay in straight sets in Rome.
Besides Roddick, the stalwarts of the U.S. team have been the Bryans, who come to Spain fresh off their fourth US Open title, which gave them the Open Era record for most Grand Slam men’s doubles titles of all time at 12. The twins also won the Olympic gold medal in London to further cement their hall-of-fame resumes.
When playing for their country in Davis Cup, the Bryans are nothing short of clutch, going 19-2 as a team, including an undefeated record in away ties and on clay. Mike played without Bob in Switzerland, as Bob stayed home with his newborn daughter, Micaela. Mike played with Mardy Fish and defeated Federer and Stanislas Wawrinka to clinch the first-round tie for the U.S., and the two then teamed up to defeat Julien Benneteau and Michael Llodra in the quarters.
They know they will likely play Lopez, the world No. 10 in doubles, and Granollers, the doubles world No. 17 and singles No. 24, whom they beat to win Toronto this summer in a super tiebreaker. The Spaniards played doubles together at the US Open but missed playing the Bryans in the final when they retired in their semifinal match, as Lopez had a calf injury. He does still remain on the Davis Cup roster; however, the official lineup for the weekend will not be determined until the draw ceremony on Thursday.
"It is not going to be easy. I think we are the underdogs again. We are just looking to do our job. We are going to play Granollers and Lopez, who we have played before. They are a really tough clay-court team," Mike Bryan said. "We are going to have to put our hard hats on and get dirty again. We have had a great record on clay, but this might be our toughest doubles team we have played on the road. We are looking to put in a good performance, and we will be ready for them."