For starters, let's exonerate those who are largely free from blame on this one:
- Andy Roddick. Some people might rush to blame Andy Roddick for missing this tie, sitting out with injury after seemingly appearing healthy at the end of his Wimbledon final just a week ago. Those people are, of course, delusional. Roddick's Davis Cup record of loyalty is beyond repute, and for him to take a week off after the most devastating loss of his career with what is almost certainly a legitimate injury is more than fair. Had he been able to keep up his Wimbledon form, Roddick still might not have been able to beat Marin Cilic (though he would have handled Karlovic pretty well).
- Mardy Fish. Sure he lost his only match of the tie, but for Mardy Fish to push the much higher ranked Marin Cilic to an extremely tight fifth set on his least favorite surface in front of a "hostile" (James Blake's word) crowd was an extremely impressive showing.
- The Bryan Brothers. Practically a guaranteed point, hard to fault the Bryans for this loss as they won their doubles rubber in just over an hour of abusive tennis. But more on them later...
And now the more fun part. The ones who do deserve the blame. Or at the very least a couple whacks with Dunlop's shame stick.
- James Blake. Though he was an integral part of the US winning the Davis Cup in 2007, a lot can change in two years. Blake has been declining more and more rapidly, mentally more than physically. And he didn't have a lot of mental strength to start with. I can't say that I had any confidence that Blake would win either of his singles matches at any point, including when he led Karlovic 2 sets to 0. Blake said after the tie that he didn't realize how much he had been taking Andy Roddick's presence on the team for granted until he had to go out and be the top player on the team himself. Blake is such a class guy, but I think this needs to have been his last time playing for the US Davis Cup team unless his tennis drastically turns around.
- Patrick McEnroe. PMac soaked up plenty of praise for guiding his team to the 2007 Davis Cup title, when all he did on paper was pick the two highest ranked singles players and the highest ranked doubles team. Nothing too remarkable there. It's tough to get a gauge on how effective he is as an on-court coach, but judging on the way both Mardy Fish and James Blake withered on Friday, I'm guessing it's not extraordinary. McEnroe's main problem, from an outsider's point of view, is a complete and utter lack of creativity or foresight in picking his line up, almost always going with the Roddick-Blake-Bryan-Bryan foursome no matter the surface or location. Putting in stronger clay court players like Wayne Odesnik or Jesse Levine should be an option worth considering, as well as giving more opportunities to players like Levine and Sam Querrey who likely represent the future of the American team in the long run. Exposing them to Davis Cup atmospheres and pressure can only be good for the future of the team years down the road.
- The Bryan Brothers. (This is mostly rirected at McEnroe again) Yes, their Davis Cup record is unassailable. But they take up so much room. Having both Bryans on the team completely locks the Americans into playing the same two players in all four singles matches. The lack of options the Bryans cause can prove disastrous if the player plays poorly in a crushing defeat like James Blake did, and then is forced to return Sunday, and would be even worse if one of the singles players suffered an injury that forced a Bryan brother into a live, decisive fifth rubber. Certainly having a "guaranteed" point from the Bryans is nice, but it's hardly to say that they're the only pairing that could win for the US team. Mardy Fish won the doubles rubber in the 2008 Davis Cup semifinals with Mike Bryan. Mardy Fish and Andy Roddick won the 2009 Indian Wells doubles title, and Fish teamed with Blake to make it all the way to the semifinals of Wimbledon just recently. When Ivo Minar and Tommy Robredo looked shaky in their opening singles matches during this weekend's Davis Cup play, their respective captains had the flexibility to replace them. As long as both Bryans are on the team, the US has no such option.
Easy to pass around blame (especially to the guy in all four photos), but I have a couple possible solutions, too. My line up for the American Davis Cup team would be Roddick, Fish, Querrey, and Bob Bryan. If Roddick were out like he was this time, only then would I add Blake to the roster, to serve as an emotional, veteran presence more than anything, and definitely not playing him on the first Friday of the tie.
After several years of doing the same thing and getting results, it's time for Patrick McEnroe (or his replacement) to make some changes. The team is broken, and it needs fixing before 2010 if the US wants any shot at competing for the title.