U.S. Davis Cup captain Jim Courier (center) made a late roster adjustment as Mike Bryan (left) and Mardy Fish swept the Swiss 3-0. (Sebastien Feval/AFP)
The U.S. Davis Cup team finished off the improbable on Saturday.
A day after Mardy Fish and John Isner notched career-defining wins, the Americans clinched the first-round match against heavily favored Switzerland as Fish and Mike Bryan rallied to defeat Roger Federer and Stanislas Wawrinka 4-6, 6-3, 6-3, 6-3. With the doubles victory, the United States swept the Swiss in Fribourg, Switzerland, and advanced to the Davis Cup quarterfinals, where it will face France or Canada in April.
"It feels pretty good to win those [Davis Cup rubbers]," Fish said after the match. "I certainly know what it's like to lose, and it's not a great a feeling."
There were plenty of reasons why the Americans weren't supposed to win. They were on foreign soil, both literally and figuratively, playing in front of a boisterous, capacity crowd in Switzerland on red European clay, a surface that has long been considered American kryptonite. On top of that, Andy Roddick was out with an injury and Bob Bryan was home in Florida with his newborn daughter.
Oh, yeah, and then there was this Federer guy, who was playing in his first World Group tie since 2004. Federer and Wawrinka are the 2008 Olympics doubles gold medalists and Federer had never lost a best-of-five singles match to anyone on the American bench.
But if Fish's five-set win over Wawrinka in Friday's first match signaled anything, it was that this was an American team that saw its history not as a trend, but a challenge. The last time Fish played a five-set Davis Cup match was last July, when the newly minted American No. 1 fell to Spain's Feliciano Lopez 6-4, 3-6, 6-3, 6-7 (2), 8-6. When Fish was unable to serve out the match in the fifth set against Wawrinka on Friday, squandering a match point at 5-4, it was beginning to feel like déjà vu all over again.
But instead of letting the nerves get to him this time, Fish kept swinging, eventually wearing down the Swiss No. 2 and prevailing 6-2, 4-6, 4-6, 6-1, 9-7. You can't underestimate the butterfly effect of Fish's clutch performance. The win was critical not only for Fish, who said his loss to Lopez was one of the most heartbreaking defeats of his career, but it also took the pressure off Isner and validated captain Jim Courier's aggressive tactics.
Before Friday, Federer had lost only once to a player not named Rafael Nadal in a best-of-five match on clay since 2004 (Robin Soderling beat him at Roland Garros in 2010). Much like Soderling, Isner took his big game right at Federer, and as the match wore on, the Swiss team's decision to play the tie on clay in hopes of neutralizing the Americans' pace was backfiring. Federer struggled with the uneven bounces coming off the court, and the high altitude made Isner's serve jump in a way that looked like it was defying physics.
Isner's serve is one of his biggest weapons, but it was the consistency of his forehand that carried him. Anytime he got a good look at the ball, Isner jumped on it. He stepped in and ripped forehand winners, showing the world why he's well on his way to being the next American No. 1. Isner capped the upset by breaking Federer (on a backhand return, no less) to win 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-2.
"It’s one of the greatest wins of my life," Isner said after the match. "No, that’s wrong, it’s the greatest win of my life."
A 2-0 deficit was hardly insurmountable for the Swiss, who were still more than capable of winning the reverse singles on Sunday. Knowing that, Courier altered his doubles lineup, inserting Fish for the previously nominated Ryan Harrison, thus effectively going "all in " to try to close the deal on Saturday.
The decision didn't look great early. Fish threw in a couple of double faults to get broken in the first game of the match and the Swiss were holding comfortably. Federer was in full flight, putting his creativity, imagination and instinctive shot-making on display. Fish and Bryan had played together only once before, and the two needed time to find their way into their partnership and the match.
They got there, and Mike Bryan even saw a little of his brother in his new teammate. "He played like Bob," Mike said, laughing. "It's a lot of fun playing with Mardy. He's a clutch player. [Friday] he showed it, and then to come out here and back it up in the doubles was unbelievable."
They kept attacking and stuck with the overarching theme of the weekend: Don't let Roger Federer play tennis. "The mission was to go out there and not allow an artist a canvas to work with," Courier said Friday after Isner's victory. The Americans did just that, keeping Federer at bay during the course of the tie.
After dropping that first service game, the U.S. team did not lose serve again and broke down its opposition by picking on Wawrinka at every opportunity. The Americans were supposed to be allergic to the red clay, yet after three matches it was the Swiss team that looked unsure of itself. A bad bounce caused Federer to whiff on a backhand, giving the Americans match point, and a few points later a missed Wawrinka return gave the Americans the stunning win.
While the players are the ones who have to execute, credit Courier's efforts in preparing his team, both tactically and psychologically. The Americans often play the underdog role well, but few would have thought they would sweep a Federer-led Swiss team in an away tie on clay, particularly when Fish and Isner haven't started 2012 in the best form.
But the Americans came to Fribourg focused. Perhaps taking a cue from its captain's decision to forgo the standard-issue track suit in favor of a well-tailored suit, the team was all business. Look no further than Isner to see the confidence that the Americans brought with them.
When he beat David Nalbandian in five sets last month at the Australian Open, Isner celebrated by mimicking Cam Newton's "Superman" move. When he outlasted Nicolas Mahut in that famous Wimbledon match, he fell to the grass and almost ended up in a handstand. So how did Isner celebrate the biggest win of his career on Friday? He quietly fist-pumped.