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Roddick Loses, but Fish Keeps a Light on for U.S.

Davis Cup rookie beats Slovakia's No. 1 to give Americans a split after Open champ's defeat.

September 20, 2003|Bud Collins | Special to The Times

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — Where was Mardy Fish when the lights went out? Sitting in the dark, trying to figure out a way to ward off a blackout of the U.S. Davis Cup team, which was in big trouble.

"It was not pleasant, the thought of being behind, 2-0," said Patrick McEnroe, the U.S. captain.

Certainly not when the Americans were in a best-of-five-match series that began Friday amid the din of drums, horns and boisterous voices of the home crowd. Most certainly not when the toast of tennis 12 days before -- U.S. Open champion Andy Roddick -- had been burned by a guy with a No. 60 ranking, Dominik Hrbaty, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4. And Fish, a 21-year-old rookie, was wobbling behind the No. 1 Slovakian, Karol Kucera, down a set and not looking wonderful.

Lose the first two matches in this series, and you're headed for Davis Cup limbo. Only once has the United States ever reversed an 0-2 start, against Australia in 1934. And only once, in 1987, have the Americans fallen out of the big league, the 16-country World Group, by losing in the first round and the second-chance relegation round, which this is.

A loss to Croatia seven months ago put the Americans in this scratchy situation, candidates for demotion again.

But when everything looked darkest and the sellout crowd of 4,200 was crowing confidently in the new, retractable-roofed Slovak National Tennis Center, the house went black. Power failure. After a half-hour sit-down, Fish returned and dug into the sluggish clay where Roddick had been mired helplessly. Somehow he transferred the power to himself for an impressive 4-6, 7-5, 7-5, 6-1 victory over Kucera, who had beaten him at the U.S. Open in straight sets.

A deadlock, 1-1, feels considerably better to the visitors, especially with the French Open champs, Camarillo's Bryan twins -- Bob and Mike -- eager to make their Cup debut today against whatever combo Slovakia captain Miloslav Mecir throws at them. It could be Kucera and Hrbaty, or Karol Beck inserted for one of them.

Who could have predicted such a turnabout, with Fish taking Roddick and the team off the hook after losing five of the first six games, and the bizarre blackout?

"I was edgy, in shock over what happened to Andy," Fish says. "But it was a must-win and I went after it."

Roddick tried to overpower the clay and a clay master, Hrbaty, and his approach didn't work as it had on the hard courts of New York.

"I thought I was mentally ready, but I wasn't," Roddick said. "The crowd inspired him. They were rowdy, but that's the way it's supposed to be in Davis Cup. I put undue pressure on Mardy."

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