Roddick, Fish Lead U.S. Davis Cup Team

Friday, September 19th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia (AP) _ Mardy Fish is getting his chance in the Davis Cup at the expense of good friend James Blake.

Fish was selected Thursday as the United States' No. 2 singles player ahead of Blake for this weekend's playoff with Slovakia.

``I'm disappointed for James because he's one of my best friends, but I'm excited to play,'' Fish said.

Fish said his friend couldn't have been more gracious.

``He said: `Congratulations, you earned it and you'll do great,''' Fish said.

Led by U.S. Open champion Andy Roddick, the Americans must beat Slovakia or be demoted to the Davis Cup's second tier. That hasn't happened in 15 years.

However, a victory in the World Group playoff would keep the Americans in the 16-team top division with hopes for 2004 and a record 32nd title.

In Thursday's draw, Roddick was pitted against Dominik Hrbaty in Friday's first singles, with Fish against Slovakia's top player, Karol Kucera, in the second match.

Twins Bob and Mike Bryan, making their Davis Cup debut, face Karol Beck and Michal Mertinak in Saturday doubles. On Sunday, Roddick plays Kucera, with Fish playing Hrbaty.

Kucera defeated Fish 6-4, 7-6 (7), 6-4 last month in the second round of the U.S. Open _ their only meeting. Roddick is 2-0 against both Kucera and Hrbaty. Fish and Hrbaty have never played.

``I just felt like Mardy was playing too well for me not to give him the chance to play,'' U.S. captain Patrick McEnroe said. ``That really made the decision for me.''

``It wasn't that James wasn't playing well, I just felt that Mardy was playing so well and has a lot of confidence.''

Though Blake is probably better known, Fish has the higher ranking at No. 23. Blake is ranked No. 35 with Roddick at No. 2. Kucera is ranked 31st and Hrbaty 60th.

Fish, defeated Blake in a head-to-head practice match this week, which helped McEnroe decide.

``I've been hitting the ball great all week,'' Fish said. ``I felt like if I was hitting the ball well it would be a tough decision for him (McEnroe).''

Kucera was expecting Blake.

``I was a little surprised,'' he said. ``I thought Blake is a little bit better player on clay than Mardy.''

The Americans defeated Slovakia 5-0 in 2002 in Oklahoma City. Both Kucera and Hrbaty were injured and didn't play.

The first singles matches on Friday and Sunday _ and doubles on Saturday _ will be under a closed retractable roof, blocking out shadows from the midday sun. The roof at the new National Tennis Center will be open for the late singles matches at the 4,200-seat arena.

The Americans have lost their last two Cup matches _ one short of the record of three straight in 1986-87. The last loss was in Croatia in February.

The United States has also lost three straight matches on the road since McEnroe took over as captain in 2001 _ and four straight overall. His brother John McEnroe was captain for the other away loss.

The most consecutive road losses for a U.S. team is five.

McEnroe acknowledges the pressure, but says he's close to having a contender.

``We certainly don't want to be in the relegation for a year,'' he said. ``Especially with how well we can do next year. I really think we can win it next year. We have the potential now with the team we have.''

The Slovaks are betting on the tricky clay, where the Americans are always suspect.

Roddick is 7-2 in Davis Cup, but both losses were on clay last year against France. However, the Bryan twins won this year's French Open doubles title on the same surface.

``I think I'm a different player than the last time I played a Davis Cup match on clay,'' said Roddick, who has won 19 straight matches on hard courts.

``The way I see it, this is the start of our run to try to win this thing and we have to get through this match first. This is obviously not where we want to be. We'd love to be playing for a Cup this year, but it's not going to happen.''