Young U.S. team hopes to capitalize on Davis Cup changes

U.S. captain Mardy Fish believes doubles specialist Jack Sock (pictured) will give the Americans the edge in the Davis Cup. RvS.Media/Robert Hradil/Getty Images

Mardy Fish, the veteran of some epic Davis Cup clashes and now captain of the U.S. team, didn't have to think when he was asked for the sagest piece of advice he could give the young team he has assembled to vie for the Davis Cup this week in Madrid.

"I'd say, any scenario you've been in on the [ATP] tour, you can just throw it out the window," Fish said. "All the [head-to-head] records, I can't beat this guy on this surface, et cetera. You have the flag on your shirt and teammates on the sideline. Feeling like you would let those guys down with a loss is a different kind of pressure. It's also something you will never forget."

This is the first Davis Cup taking place under a new format that, among other things, turned the competition into a one-week, single-venue event. This is not Davis Cup as we came to know it over the past 119 years. But some things -- some of the most crucial, defining elements of Davis Cup -- might not be so different after all.

"A couple years down the road, we'll think of Davis Cup as this," Todd Martin, also a Davis Cup veteran and currently CEO of the International Tennis Hall of Fame, said in an interview. "This isn't the first time the Davis Cup format has changed. We have evidence, most recently from Laver Cup, that when you bring most of the best players in the world together, you get a pretty compelling, competitive energy."

The competition now features 18 national teams, each consisting of up to five players and a captain, playing in six round-robin groups. The top-performing nations advance to the single-elimination quarterfinals. Each tie (the Davis Cup term for matchups) consists of three best-of-three matches, two singles and one doubles.

The U.S. squad is seeded No. 6 (based on Davis Cup proficiency) and will play its round-robin matches against Canada and Italy on Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively. Fish's team consists of Taylor Fritz, highest ranked among the American participants at No. 32, Reilly Opelka (No. 33), Sam Querrey (No. 44), Frances Tiafoe (No. 47) and Jack Sock, who has emerged in recent years as a worthy heir to Bob and Mike Bryan as a doubles expert.

In the old format, doubles was the third of five matches (all four others were singles) or the "swing" match. A team could sweep the series with a doubles win or, just as likely, win the doubles to stay alive in or even win a tie. Doubles became more critical in the three-match template. The doubles is still the third match, but now it has the potential to be the tie-breaking match. Fish thinks that gives the U.S. a significant advantage.

"We feel that if we win one of the two singles, we'll be in good shape because our team has the Novak Djokovic of doubles in Sock," Fish said. "He can help our team as much as Novak Djokovic helps Serbia."

Sock is most likely to be paired in doubles with Querrey, who is 3-0 in Davis Cup doubles and a two-time Grand Slam doubles semifinalist. But Fish could also call upon Opelka, the 6-foot-11 22-year-old following in the footsteps of that other towering power server, John Isner. Still the highest ranking American at No. 19, Isner is 34 and in career management mode. He skipped this Davis Cup to enjoy a longer offseason.

"Jack is comfortable playing with Isner, so I don't see why it wouldn't be similar with Opelka," Fish said. "You've got to remember the conditions in Madrid [the altitude will ensure that the balls move faster and bounce higher than they did last week at the ATP World Tour Finals]. They will help our guys because they serve huge. You don't want anything to do with those kinds of games in Madrid."

Canada and Italy also have power servers, none more fierce than Italy's Matteo Berrettini, a 23-year-old who unexpectedly zoomed to the No. 8 ranking this year. The U.S. caught a break when Canada's Milos Raonic withdrew from the competition because of a sore back, but No. 15 Denis Shapovalov and No. 21 Felix Auger-Aliassime are young and gifted.

The most significant change might prove to be the least conspicuous one -- the addition of a fifth roster spot. In years past, four men had to combine to play five matches. Team captains had limited wiggle room to change the lineup. Captains face a different -- and potentially thornier -- problem now.

"Three matches per tie and having five guys available to play, that's really interesting," Martin said. "You wonder if a captain now has too many options from a singles perspective. As captain, you're not just managing the options. You're also managing the hopes of the players, who desire to contribute -- to be the man."

The enthusiasm younger players bring to the competition will magnify those delicate choices.

"Our three youngsters [Fritz, Opelka and Tiafoe] are as excited as anyone I ever talked to about playing in this competition," Fish said. "Remember, they're young. They don't really know any other way."

Only two of the U.S. trio will get to play singles on any given day, which leaves Fish with an interesting problem. Although Tiafoe is the lowest ranked, he has also been the best performer among the three at major events.

"The captains will be in a position to either enhance or get in the way of their teams' performances," Martin said.

Young players with Next Gen credentials watched plenty of Davis Cup growing up. They're aware of Davis Cup's celebrated, hothouse atmosphere. The vocal, sometimes rowdy home crowd traditionally helped mix a potent cocktail for the players, one consisting of equal measures of opportunity and pressure. Skeptics worry that the makeover will result in a Davis Cup-lite event.

Ticket sales, according to a recent report in Great Britain's The Guardian newspaper, have been slow. Sparse attendance at a Davis Cup final would be more than heresy; it would threaten the viability of the event. Even if the event sells out, Martin estimated that the crowd will be more like a regular tournament cohort. Instead of being as much as 80% (or more) partisan, the support for any given team (but Spain) in Madrid's La Caja Magica will probably be as little as 30 or 40% of the house.

Martin expects to see more upsets than ever in the event, which has been renowned for coughing up underdog heroes while favorites go weak in the knees. The three-set template will level the playing field, even if the passionate crowds fail to materialize.

"I hope that there is the same amount of anxiety felt walking onto the court as has always been the case with Davis Cup," Martin said. "I expect that will be similar, if not the same."

The teams in this inaugural event are strong, as good as the International Tennis Federation (ITF) hoped when it took the reform plunge. Six of the men's world top 10, including Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray, are signed up to play in Madrid. The only top player who elected to miss the trip is Germany's Alexander Zverev. Stefanos Tsitsipas will not be there because Greece did not qualify. All told, 20 of the top 30 players will participate.

The "group of death" appears to be the one including Spain, Russia and Croatia. The talents fighting out that round robin include Nadal, Daniil Medvedev, Marin Cilic, Roberto Bautista Agut, Karen Khachanov, Borna Coric, Andrey Rublev, Pablo Carreno Busta and doubles standout Feliciano Lopez.

The chances for the U.S. looked sunny when the draw was made in February. The Canadians were better on paper but no more experienced or accomplished than the U.S., especially without Raonic. Italy had tricky Fabio Fognini but nothing more menacing. The emergence of Berrettini has changed all that; the U.S. team now appears to have its work cut out for it.

Martin had his own piece of advice to impart to the U.S. team.

"No matter what the format is, it's always been crucial in Davis Cup to play really well after [a] loss," he said. "That's not really in a tennis player's nature. He loses in the third round and thinks, 'I have four days off until I have to play again.' It's OK to sulk a little bit, then start working my way into a mindset to compete again next week. This is different. In Davis Cup, you have to reload right away."

In some ways, this will be a dramatically different Davis Cup, But in others, it will be the same old, splendid thing.