By Richard Pagliaro
(September 6, 2010) Red, white and blue confetti fluttered over his head in a patriotic Portland shower when U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe led the United States to its record-extending 32nd Davis Cup championship in 2007. The end of the USA Davis Cup season this month marks the end of an era. McEnroe announced today he will resign as captain immediately following the Davis Cup World Group Playoff against Colombia in Bogota, September 17-19th.
The 44-year-old McEnroe said his responsibilities as General Manager of USTA Player Development, husband, father and ESPN and CBS analyst require so much of his time and effort he could not devote the necessary attention to Davis Cup.
"It is with a heavy heart that I am resigning as Davis Cup captain, but it is a decision I felt was best for the team and myself right now,” McEnroe said. “Davis Cup is a significant time commitment and this decision will allow me to focus more energy on my family and to the USTA Player Development program."
Now in his 10th year as captain, McEnroe is the longest-tenured captain in U.S. Davis Cup history. He led the U.S. to its record 32nd Davis Cup title in 2007, its first title since 1995 — ending the longest drought in U.S. Davis Cup history. He has compiled a 16-9 record thus far; his 16 victories are second all-time in U.S. Davis Cup history behind Tom Gorman’s 18 wins.
"Patrick is the one the finest and most decorated captains in U.S. Davis Cup history," said Lucy S. Garvin, Chairman of the Board and President, USTA. "He leaves an indelible mark on the Davis Cup, and has always handled his captaincy with class and distinction. Patrick is and will remain a tremendous asset to U.S. tennis as he continues to lead our player development efforts."
McEnroe said today he does not know who will be named the next captain, but you can bet he'll have input into the selection of his successor.
"I don't know. Do you?" McEnroe said when asked to predict his successor. "I don't think now is the time for that. But I'm going to, No. 1, try to get through this match in Colombia because it's not going to be easy. That's my big priority right now, is to get the guys down there and get ready for that match and keep us in the World Group."
Two former Davis Cup players who may well receive consideration are former World No. 1 Jim Courier and former US Open finalist Todd Martin. Both men have expressed interest in the Davis Cup captaincy in the past, both remain close to the game and both are respected by the current group of players. U.S. Davis Cup coach Jay Berger may also receive consideration. Courier's serve-forehand based game is somewhat similar to Sam Querrey and John Isner, who are expected to serve as the cornerstones of the American squad in the coming years and Martin coached Mardy Fish, who joins Isner, Querrey and Ryan Harrison on the American squad that will take on Colombia.
Mike Bryan, who partnered brother Bob to clinch the 2007 Davis Cup for the USA, said he will miss McEnroe and said Berger, Courier and Martin are capable candidates.
"Patrick's one of our greatest friends and we've been through so many highs and lows together so we're sad he's leaving," Mike Bryan said. "Jay Berger has been in the trenches the last five years with the team. Courier and maybe Todd Martin (would be candidates). I'm just throwing names out there because we all know them well, but I haven't heard anythin."
Following his straight-sets loss to Novak Djokovic at the US Open today, Fish praised McEnroe for engaging his players in his evolution as a captain.
"I saw him evolve from, you know, a rookie Davis Cup captain to a great Davis Cup captain, which is what he was now," Fish said. "I saw, you know, him handle players the way he handled players in the beginning of his captaincy and sort of the way he handles players now. He was extremely open to, not really criticism but, you know, handling players specific ways, not handling everybody the same way. I think he did an amazing job with that."
A member of the United States teams that lost to a Spanish squad led by a charismatic young teenager named Rafael Nadal in the 2004 final in Seville, Fish said he always respected McEnroe's candor as captain.
"It's a tough job in a sense that you've got to let a lot of people down, as well. Sometimes I was on that end of it," Fish said. "I felt like maybe sometimes I, you know, could have played certain ties or could have been that second singles guy sometimes. He always was really straightforward. You know, sometimes brutally straightforward as far as where I stood, and I also respected that, as well. So we had a great time."
When Patrick McEnroe succeeded brother John as captain in the autumn of 2000 he told us at a Manhattan press conference his goal was to reclaim the Cup and develop a core group of young players who would be committed to the Cup cause.
He achieved those two aims as Andy Roddick, James Blake and twins Bob and Mike Bryan formed the long-term foundation for an American team that would go on to beat Russia, 4-1, in the 2007 final in Portland.
The Bryan brothers clinched the Cup on a Saturday afternoon and as the confetti swirled in the air, McEnroe raised his young daughter to get a closer look at the Davis Cup. The smile plastered across his face at that moment revealed more than even he could in the celebratory post-match press conference as a beer-soaked American team reveled in a moment that was 12 years in the making.
"The guys, the camaraderie of the team; representing the country has been a source of pride," McEnroe said. "From when the USTA first hired me with the team that was in place till now, it's been just an amazing journey. There has been incredible support for me and the team and I have been very appreciative of it. I'll miss the team, the guys, but obviously I'll still be around them with this job."
Interestingly, McEnroe left the Bryan twins off this team in his farewell. He told Tennis Now the high altitude of Colombia contributed to that decision and said the Bryan brothers are fine with it.
"Basically, what happened is the conditions, the high altitude in Colombia caused concerns about breathing," McEnroe said. "I felt I need another singles player and Fish is one of the best doubles players in the world."
Asked if the Bryan brothers agree with his decision, McEnroe replied: "They were okay with that and having more singles players gives us more flexibility. John has had some physical issues as well."
Mike Bryan said the team convened in Washington DC and Cincinnati to discuss the tie and collectively agreed with McEnroe's decision to go with four singles players.
"We kind of all got in a room and just talked about it," Mike Bryan said. "It's a unique situation. Patrick wants to bring down an extra horse because of the altitude and thoese guys are tough. If a guy goes down (because of the altitude) it might wipe him out...We're a little disappointed. We wanted to play one more match with P-Mac — he did great things — but this is a unique situation and we understand."
McEnroe's tenure as captain was filled with major success and some significant mis-steps along the way as well. He took the rap for selecting a hard court surface that was a bit too fast as a USA dream team of Andre Agassi, Roddick and the Bryan twins lost to an Ivan Ljubicic-led Croatian squad, 3-2, in the 2005 Davis Cup first round.
That tie prompted the Tennis Week cover line "Ljubicic 3, USA 2" as Ljubicic accounted for all three points in the tie. It was a bitter loss for McEnroe and the team as Croatia ran the table and captured the Cup that year. McEnroe later revealed in his book that Agassi's moaning and groaning about the speed of the surface, as well as his insistent needling of Mike Bryan's dating an actress (Agassi apparently was anti-actress following his failed marriage to Brooke Shields) did not exactly help the American cause.
His tactical acumen, his ability to put his own ego aside and successfully walk a challenging tight rope as captain and as a television analyst where he would sometimes criticize the very players he recruited to play Davis Cup were among his biggest assets. It is why Patrick succeeded in winning the Cup when his higher-profile, more assertive and more controversial older brother John, did not.
"Patrick's a better politician than I am," John McEnroe once told me when asked how his brother survived so long as captain.
Indeed, the fact that Patrick McEnroe has grown into the most influential figures in the USTA's professional and player development program while others, like John and former USTA Chief Executive Professional Tennis Arlen Kantarian, have come and gone is due in part to his political navigational skills.
The U.S. will face Colombia in the World Group Playoff next week. It is the first time since 2005, and just the fifth time since the World Group was instituted in 1981, that the U.S. has had to compete in the play-off round. The U.S. is 3-1 in World Group Playoffs, having defeated Belgium on red clay in its last appearance in the World Group Playoff.
“Patrick changed the culture of Davis Cup in the United States, creating a true team environment and a sense of camaraderie that the U.S. has never before seen,” said Jim Curley, Chief Professional Tournaments Officer, USTA. “He has been a champion of the competition in every sense of the word, and elevated the stature of the event in this country.”
The World Group Play-off against Belgium in 2005 was the first of 10 consecutive U.S. Davis Cup ties that featured the lineup of Andy Roddick, James Blake and the doubles team of Bob and Mike Bryan, shattering the previous U.S. record for most consecutive ties with the same lineup. The previous record was three consecutive ties by eight different combinations.