Beginning on Friday, the U.S. and Spain face off in Gijon in the Davis Cup Semifinals. And while John Isner has not had a great year in tournaments, he has been incredible in Davis Cup play. He will have to be even better for the U.S. to have a chance.
Honestly, it is almost surprising that Andy Roddick didn't retire a couple of weeks later. For all he accomplished in his career, his contributions to the United States' Davis Cup cause were near the top of the list. But in 2012, the U.S. has advanced to the Cup semifinals not because of Roddick, but because of John Isner and the Bryan brothers. Isner has struggled in slams this year, but he has been indomitable when representing his country. And if the U.S. wants to make the finals against either Argentina or the Czech Republic, he will have to play even better.
On Friday, the semifinal matchup between Spain and the U.S. will take place on clay courts in Gijon. Spain holds the overall rankings advantage anyway, but on clay that advantage increases considerably, even with Spain's best player, Rafael Nadal (a candidate for "Best clay court player of all-time") sitting out with injury.
How significant is Spain's edge in this battle? I got desperate enough for positives that I looked up their coaches' head-to-head record -- U.S. coach Jim Courier versus Spanish coach Alex Corretja -- and came up empty: Corretja beat Courier in all four of their head-to-head battles when they were pros. On a hard court, you could talk yourself into the Americans having a chance. On clay, it will take three full days of miraculous play.
David Ferrer (Singles Ranking: No. 5)
Nicolas Almagro (Singles Ranking: No. 10)
Marc Lopez (Doubles Ranking: No. 8)
Marcel Granollers (Doubles Ranking: No. 13)
John Isner (Singles Ranking: No. 11)
Sam Querrey (Singles Ranking: No. 22)
Bob Bryan (Doubles Ranking: No. 1)
Mike Bryan (Doubles Ranking: No. 1)
Friday: Ferrer vs. Querrey, Almagro vs. Isner
Saturday: Granollers/Lopez vs. Bryan/Bryan
Sunday: Ferrer vs. Isner, Almagro vs. Querrey
Ferrer vs. Querrey. Ferrer, a U.S. Open semifinalist, owns an obvious advantage over Querrey, though it bears mentioning that the two have split two lifetime meetings. Still, Querrey is not much of a clay court player; in 2012, he has won 52 percent of his points on hard courts but only 50 percent on clay. That doesn't sound like much of a difference, but it is enormous. Win 54 percent of your points, and you are probably a Top 5-10 player; win 50 percent, and you're Top 30-50. Advantage: Spain.
Almagro vs. Isner. Almagro has won the only meeting between the two, a four-setter at Wimbledon in 2011. That is quite obviously disconcerting, as Almagro is slightly better on clay (in 2012 he has won 52 percent of his points on grass, 53 percent on clay) and the big-serving, defense-optional Isner is quite a bit worse (53 on grass, 50 percent on clay). Advantage: Spain.
Lopez/Granollers vs. Bryan/Bryan. It is rather difficult to go against the Bryans, the No. 1 doubles team in the world, winners of 12 slam titles and finalists in three of four 2012 slams. The beat Granollers and Lopez on the Toronto hard courts in August, albeit in a dramatically tight third set. The Bryans have the history, but Lopez and Granollers will be incredibly tough to beat at home. Advantage: U.S.
Ferrer vs. Isner. The two have played four times, all on hard courts. Ferrer leads the series, 3-1 (sets: 7-4 Ferrer), though Isner did win the last meeting (at least year's ATP Masters) in three sets. Once again, though, clay gives Ferrer the edge. Advantage: Spain.
Almagro vs. Querrey. This is a pretty fascinating matchup. Almagro has won all four sets these two have played on clay, and he has won the last three matches in the series overall; but Querrey's 2-1 record versus Almagro on hard courts suggests he could at least have a chance. This one features two pure-hitting baseliners, which could be fun. But still, the edge is clear. Advantage: Spain.
John Isner. The United States is in the semifinals because of Isner. He powered the U.S. to a first-round win over Switzerland because of his four-set upset of Roger Federer, on clay no less. On clay again against France, he swept No. 17 Gilles Simon in straight sets, then took out No. 8 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in four. Isner has had a rough year at the grand slams -- he was eliminated in the first round at Wimbledon, the second round at the French Open and the third round of the two hard-court slams -- but he has been masterful in Davis Cup. If he can find that level of play again, he can go at least 1-1 against Ferrer and Almagro. But depending on which Sam Querrey shows up, he might need to go 2-0.
Almagro vs. Querrey. First of all, if the U.S. wins, it will almost certainly be by a 3-2 margin, and in that scenario, this would be the deciding match. Beyond that, though, this will be an intense, offense-heavy match, and on clay, the momentum swings could be significant. In all, Querrey probably has a better chance of beating Almagro than Ferrer, and unless you think Isner can go 2-0, it is obviously vital that Querrey steal a match somewhere.
Spain holds a rather clear edge in four of five matches, and they are probably as close to winning 5-0 as the U.S. is to winning 3-2. The Americans face a steep climb, though if Isner unleashes Top 5 form again, he will give them a fighting chance. Spain, 4-1.