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Some of the best men's tennis players in the world are gathered for the start of the Davis Cup finals today in Portland, Oregon. The three-day team event matches the United States against defending champion Russia. The U.S. has won 31 Davis Cups - more than any other country. But it's been a dozen years since the last title, and the drought has been accompanied by waning interest in tennis in the U.S. There is hope in Portland that all that will change starting with the home country win.

NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN: A few things you should know about Davis Cup. Yes, it's tennis, but you can forget the strawberries, cream and all those other genteel things about the sport.

(Soundbite of drums)

GOLDMAN: Genteel it was not, as primal drumbeats heralded the arrival of the U.S. and Russian Davis Cup teams in downtown Portland yesterday. The soundtrack was a hint of the general rowdiness that'll accompany this most nationalistic off all tennis events. Another image-busting aspect of Davis Cup: tennis mercenaries band together to become a team. Players hug, they profess their love for one another.

In Portland this week, American Andy Roddick made it sound as if he and Harvard-educated teammate James Blake had become two peas in a pod - kind of.

Mr. ANDY RODDICK (Professional Tennis Player): We both enjoy sports; we both enjoy cards. You know, he likes to rehash soliloquies he read at Harvard. And I like to brief him on "The Little Engine that Could."

(Soundbite of laughter)

GOLDMAN: That's actually a pretty good metaphor for this team when he considered the juggernaut U.S. men's tennis was 15, 20 years ago. At a press conference earlier this week, you could almost hear Blake saying: I think I can, I think I can.

Mr. JAMES BLAKE (Professional Tennis Player): I think we're doing our best to bring the landscape back to the positive atmosphere it had in the years of Sampras, Agassi, Courier.

But it is a difficult situation when we're dealing with following the greatest generation probably in the history of American tennis.

GOLDMAN: Pete Sampras, Andrei Agassi, Jim Courier, before them John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors - those players made tennis relevant. Americans flocked to courts all over the country - an estimated 35 million in the early 1980s. Last year, reportedly less than half that number. Prominent players at the elite levels help inspire, and for the past five years that U.S. player has been Andy Roddick.

Practicing this week at Portland's Memorial Coliseum, Roddick uncorked his sledgehammer serve. He holds the record at 155 miles per hour. Roddick is all power and electric energy on the court. His beady, dark eyes peer out from under a baseball cap pulled snug. He's smart, at times abrasive, and cursed - to be playing at the time of Switzerland's Roger Federer, who in all likelihood will retire as the greatest ever.

Roddick has played Federer 16 times and lost 15 of those matches. Roddick is rank number six in the world, but when was the last time you heard an American shouting we're number six? But what Roddick perhaps can't do himself, the U.S. team, along with Blake and world number one ranked doubles team Mike and Bob Bryan, hopes to do together.

Here is U.S. captain Patrick McEnroe.

Mr. PATRICK McENROE (Captain, United States Davis Cup Team): This match is bigger than just the U.S. against Russia. It's really, you know, sort of a quest that this team has been on for a long time.

GOLDMAN: Russia beat the U.S. last year in the Davis Cup semi-finals on clay courts in Moscow. This time, in America, on hard courts, the U.S. is favored to win for the first time since 1995.

Tom Goldman, NPR News, Portland.

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