Davis Cup Portland: Day Three

Isner falls in 3. Sock falls in 4. Croatia wins.
I grew up a Celtics fan in the Larry Bird era. It was an amazing time. No matter how far behind, no matter how far ahead, it always felt like Boston would launch a miraculous comeback or protect the lead to deliver a win. In fact, for Celtics fans – it was an expectation.

Fans of Serena Williams know this feeling. Novak’s fan-base savors this confidence. Why?

Because the expectation is justified.

Larry Bird. Serena Williams. Novak Djokovic.
They’ve never had to play UP to fan expectation. They CREATED fan expectation, by finding ways to win when it mattered most. Success began with demanding self-expectation; an expectation that ultimately translated to a growing fan base who adopted that expectation as its own.

Croatia advances to the Semifinals
Croatia advances to the Semifinals

As American tennis fans, we crave this type of expectation from the U.S. Davis Cup Team. Our top players hunger to deliver on this type of expectation. After demonstrative wins from John and Jack on Friday, and the Bryans scheduled to play on Saturday – it truly felt like the beginning of “justified expectation” – just one guaranteed-win away.

Then Saturday happened.

Bob and Mike – Team USA stalwarts, automatic points for over a decade – were outplayed by a well-prepared pair of Croatians up-against the ropes. The veil of confidence became a haze of hope. Nagging doubt began to chew at the seams of sure victory.

Marin Cilic def. John Isner 7-6(9), 6-3, 6-4
John Isner has never defeated Marin Cilic. They’ve now played six times. Most of their matches have been insanely epic, including Marin’s 5th-set 12-10 victory in the 3rd-round of the 2015 Wimbledon Championships. Sunday’s match was not epic.

Cilic fell behind 0-30 twice on serve late in the first set, but Isner couldn’t piece together a break. After losing the set 9-11 in the tie-break – by sending a routine forehand long – John was undoubtedly distracted by his own frustration.

The first set was critical. Felt like I definitely was the better player in the first set. Didn’t get paid off, but that’s on me. He came up with the goods when he needed it. That gave him a lot of confidence, I think…I knew it was going to be a tough task. He was going to be feeling pretty confident because he played very well yesterday in the doubles. I felt like he carried that over today in the singles.

With key-breaks on unforced-errors from Isner in game-8 of the second-set and game-9 of the third, Cilic fist-pumped his way to the team bench, the Quarterfinal Tie very much still alive. Marin Cilic, after the rubber:

During the first set I din’t have any opportunities on his serve, and I felt that he played probably the best set in all of encounters from the past…but I stayed in there mentally. I was very, very focused. Luckily I managed to win that tight, tight tie-break.

Borna Coric def. Jack Sock 6-4, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4
Jack and Borna last met in the 3rd-Round of the 2015 French Open. Sock crushed Coric in three-sets. Borna was beyond-excited to get another shot, extremely confident he could play better – certainly better than the tentative performance he offered up against Isner on Friday.

He came out firing, broke Sock right out of the gate, then held the rest of the way to take the first set. While Jack woke the stadium with a break mid-way through the second, he still struggled on serve – often falling-behind early, then battling through deuce to earn the hold. Jack would take set-2, but suffer four more breaks, ultimately losing to Coric in the fourth-set.

It was Borna’s second consecutive deciding-rubber win for Croatia. He clinched their First-Round Tie over Belgium in the 5th and deciding rubber back in March. Borna, after the match:

I think I was much more relaxed [than Friday]…I was going for the points. I just wasn’t waiting for him to miss, because I knew I cannot play like that because he’s going to kill me with the forehand…That was my tactic basically, you know, just to maybe try and stay as close as I can on the line and make good tempo, which I was doing very well.

A Frustrating Stumble
This is a painful loss for both Team USA and the American tennis fan – not because the team fell to an inferior opponent – quite the opposite. It’s because the team solidly put itself in position to defeat what many would consider a “stronger opponent,” then failed to execute.

Instead of igniting confidence in the team’s ability to perform under pressure – fueling positive expectation from both players and fans – the weekend instead reinforces a pervasive nagging doubt when it’s all on the line.

Nagging doubt is Gorilla Glue. It requires a special solvent to remove. In tennis, that special solvent is winning when it matters…repeatedly.

That said – all credit to Croatia. Cilic, Coric and Dodig overcame remarkable odds to deliver the win. Simply put, they played smarter, more-determined tennis…and for the first time since 2009, have a shot at the Davis Cup Final.

Croatia has won the Davis Cup once before, 11-years-ago with Ivan Ljubicic and Mario Ancic. With a win at home over France this September, Croatia will compete to become Davis Cup Champions again.

  • This is the first time in 22-years the U.S. has lost a Davis Cup Tie with a 2-0 lead after Day-1. It last happened against Sweden in 1994, with Pete Sampras, Todd Martin, Jonathan Stark and Jared Palmer on the squad
  • It was a big day for Croatia on the East Coast, as well. Ivo Karlovic won the title in Newport – his 7th career ATP World Tour singles title. It was an insane effort: 7-6(2), 6-7(5), 7-6(12) over Gilles Muller.