Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
Everything seemed to be set up just right for the U.S. Davis Cup team last week. There was only one problem. No one told Croatia...specifically Ivan Ljubicic.
Captain Patrick McEnroe somehow talked Andre Agassi into coming out of Davis Cup retirement in order to play, ending a five-year Cup hiatus. World No. 3 Andy Roddick was already in the fold, and the Americans also boast one of the best doubles teams on the planet, the Bryan brothers, Bob and Mike.
Unfortunately for the U.S., it ran into a buzzsaw by the name of Ljubicic, who happens to be one of the hottest players on the circuit right now.
In Friday's opening singles, Agassi found out just how hot Ljubicic is, as the massive-serving Croat dismantled the legendary American in straight sets and the underdogs were off and running.
Roddick pulled the Americans even in the Day-1 nightcap, as he beat Mario Ancic in four sets in a rematch of their Wimbledon semifinal from last year, also won by "A-Rod."
A dejected Andy Roddick couldn't stop Ivan Ljubicic in opening-round Davis Cup action in Carson.
But things officially came apart for the U.S. on "Doubles Saturday," as Ljubicic and Ancic paired to stun the mighty Bryans in four sets, leaving the hosts in a 1-2 hole heading into Sunday's crucial reverse singles, where the high-flying Ljubicic loomed once again. The loss marked the first one in six Davis Cup doubles matches for the 26-year-old twins.
Roddick then needed to cool off Ljubicic to give Agassi a shot at redemption (against Ancic), but Ljubicic, who had to overcome leg cramps, stayed red hot and topped Roddick in a five-set marathon at the sprawling Home Depot Center in Carson, California. The third Ljubicic victory of the week took 3 hours, 58 minutes to complete and gave Croatia an insurmountable 3-1 lead in the best- of-five tie. The jubilant Croats, who locked arms and broke into a jig on the court following the tie-clinching victory, settled for a 3-2 decision after Bob Bryan (filling in for Agassi) topped Roko Karanusic (replacing Ancic) in the meaningless final rubber.
The American faithful were stunned by the opening-round loss, while Croatian fans exulted as their squad advanced to the quarterfinals via the huge upset. Croatia seemed to have almost as many fans in the stands as the hosts. Southern California is home to a large number of transplanted Croats.
So how did the Americans lose?
They fielded the best possible team they could. Roddick and Agassi are clearly their top singles players, while the Bryans are about as good as it gets in the world of doubles right now.
But instead of moving on to meet Romania in July, the once-mighty U.S. suffered its first-ever opening-round home loss. That's historic, considering the Davis Cup dates all the way back to 1900. The U.S. captured the first Davis Cup title 105 years ago.
The USA still holds the record with its 31 championships, but its title dry spell will now head into its 11th year, as the Americans haven't hoisted the coveted chalice since 1995. This marks their longest title drought in 68 years.
The U.S. fell to 0-2 all-time versus Croatia, which whipped the Americans 4-1 in a first-round tie in Zagreb in 2003, with Ljubicic also winning both of his singles rubbers and a doubles bout in that matchup. That weak U.S. team featured James Blake, Mardy Fish and Taylor Dent.
The powerful Ljubicic leads the tour with 22 wins this season (22-6) and he's already performed in four finals in 2005, losing all four, with three of the setbacks coming against world No. 1 superstar Roger Federer. The 6-foot-4 Croatian, who will turn 26 next week, headed to Carson fresh off his back-to- back finals losses against the awesome Federer, in Rotterdam and Dubai.
As for U.S. tennis, what's the current state of the game? The soon-to-be-35- year-old Agassi is perhaps knocking on the retirement door; Roddick doesn't seem to be improving; and those two guys are followed by a bevy of seemingly mid-range talent, i.e. Dent, Fish, Robby Ginepri and veteran Vince Spadea.
Yes, the U.S. accounts for two of the top nine players in the world (No. 3 Roddick and No. 9 Agassi) and has five men sprinkled throughout the top 50 (No. 21 Spadea, No. 32 Dent and No. 49 Fish). But outside of the plateauing Roddick, which guy's really a threat to win a major title at this point? Agassi now seems past his prime, and the Spadeas, Dents, Fishes and Ginepris of the world don't seem to be close to those types of runs. Heck, Kevin Kim (64th) is currently ranked higher than Ginepri (73rd), and whatever happened to Jan-Michael Gambill? Gambill entered the top 25 in 2001 and has basically been slowed by injuries and, of course, a lack of game ever since.
One other note: The Americans haven't captured a Grand Slam since Roddick turned the trick at the 2003 U.S. Open. That's six majors ago. Something that didn't happen too often in the last decade when Agassi and Pete Sampras were in their primes.
Back to the Davis Cup.
The U.S. is now relegated to zonal playoffs in order to get back into the 16- nation World Group. Ouch!
Is McEnroe's job safe here? Sure, he guided the underachieving Americans into last year's Davis Cup final, only to lose to the Spaniards on their beloved red clay in Seville, but with Agassi returning this year, his latest squad looked like one of the favorites to claim the title.
With all due respect to "P-Mac," it might be time for a new captain (Jim Courier), someone that had a winning record in their ATP playing days. The USTA has settled for McEnroe lite ever since Johnny Mac stepped down from the post earlier this decade.