As he sat alongside Italy’s Filippo Volandri and Alejandro Falla of Colombia ahead of the first Davis Cup by Rakuten ties in Turin, USA captain Mardy Fish admitted there was hint of nostalgia in the air.
“Alejandro is one of the nicest people I’ve come across in the sport,” said Fish, who with two years in the job is the most experienced captain in Group E. “He’s always got that [smile], that right there on his face.
“We’ve played a lot of matches – I certainly remember the one in Colombia that I beat him at in his home city,” he added with a cheeky glance in Falla’s direction. “Filippo too – I remember him in junior tennis. He was unbelievable, to the point where you didn’t want to see him on a clay court.”
Of the three, it is debutant Volandri who is the least experienced in the role, but in his favour are a home crowd at the Pala Alpitour in Turin and a squad brimming with world-class potential, not least the electric Jannik Sinner.
“He’s growing up very fast,” Volandri said. “He’s 20, and like many 20-year-old guys he’s emotional, but he’s great at managing that. He’s a really special guy; he doesn’t care about the victory, he wants to improve himself. I think this is a good stage to grow up and raise his level.
“We are at the end of the season – it’s like this for everybody, but especially for a guy who is 20 and who made this special year. But he’s in great shape. If he’s going to play it’s going to be his debut, and he will be ready.”
Asked how he planned to approach his new role as captain, Volandri said: “I wanted to give them the goal to make a group. We are all young, me as a captain and same for the players – even if I have two players who have played Davis Cup for many years. This is a new team and a young team. Playing at home is going to be different, and I think the crowd is going to help us.”
It's a privilege to be here for the second time in a row. This is pretty big for us, and also for the Colombian federation – they’re going to get some money to help grow tennis
For Fish, the best bit of advice on captaincy he received was to focus less on his players’ games and more on the situations they found themselves in – something he learnt from his predecessor, Jim Courier.
“It was great for me to understand that there was no scenario that I could be in on the court that he hadn’t been in as a player,” Fish explained. “He had been there and done that, and he understood how I felt at that moment.”
That, he said, is of far greater use than falling into the trap of over-coaching. “I’m not with them every single week. I’m not their personal coach, so I’m not going to try and change their game styles. I lean the other way – I make sure everyone is in a good mood, having fun and happy.”
As for Falla, his Davis Cup compatriots helped him embrace the unique pressures of representing your country, a feeling he now wants Nicolas Mejia and Cristian Rodriguez to understand as they join Daniel Elahi Galan and renowned doubles duo Juan Sebastian Cabal and Robert Farah, survivors from Colombia’s Finals appearance in 2019.
“It's a privilege to be here for the second time in a row,” Falla said. “It’s not easy to be here, playing the best event in team tennis. It’s an honour, and I think that the players are excited. For Colombia, tennis is not as big as in other countries. This is pretty big for us, and also for the federation – they’re going to get some money to help grow tennis and help young players.
Every match, every game, every set is so important. Everything counts – it could come down to games, honestly.
“Clearly we’re the underdogs here,” he added. “But Dani Galan can play a very high level. He’s already played some of the Italians and Americans – he lost to Opelka in a tough match in Washington this year. And he loves Davis Cup. We will lean on him, and hopefully he can play his best level so we can win a tie here.”
Fish makes Italy the favourites for the group, but knows his squad can match up to anyone at the Finals: the returning John Isner and Jack Sock, late arrival Frances Tiafoe, “USA’s oldest Davis Cup rookie” Rajeev Ram, and Reilly Opelka – or ‘Bot Jr’ as Isner refers to him.
“Every match, every game, every set is so important,” Fish said. “Understanding not only how important every match is, but to come out as one of the two ‘wild-card’ countries it matters even how many sets you win. Everything counts – it could come down to games, honestly.”
So, can the captains’ camaraderie survive the Group Stage in Turin?
“It’s fun,” Fish insists. “It’s not as stressful as playing, per se, but it’s out of our control so it’s maybe a little uncomfortable at the same time.”
“It’s more relaxed, as Mardy said,” Falla added. “We were talking a couple of days ago about life, our family and kids. It’s always nice to find your fellow tennis players you shared the Tour with a few years ago. Whatever happens on court is going to stay there, we’ll keep being friends.”