ZAGREB, Croatia, Feb. 6 (UPI) -- With its best players sidelined or sitting out, the United States looks to the emerging James Blake to lead it past Croatia this weekend in the first round of the Davis Cup.
Since Grand Slam winners Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi made participating in Davis Cup a lower priority in recent years, 20-year-old Andy Roddick has taken up the cause. Last year, he and Blake led the Americans to the semifinals before losing to France.
But with Roddick sidelined with severe tendinitis in his right wrist, Blake becomes the United States' top player when it takes on Croatia for the first time in competition on the carpet courts at the Hall Dom Sportova.
"I have the same expectations that I have if I had Andy here," American captain Patrick McEnroe said. "We were expecting to play well and win the match.
"We know it's tough. We know that if Andy were here, it would be tough. The Croatians are playing well. Our guys know them and respect them. We feel good and confident. Nothing has really changed in the way we are preparing."
Blake is coming off his best showing at a Grand Slam, reaching the quarterfinals at the Australian Open. He appeared in his first final last March in Memphis and captured his first title in August in Washington.
A member of the Davis Cup team the last two years, the 23-year-old owns a 7-1 record. He is expected to play both singles and doubles this weekend.
"There's always pressure in Davis Cup and that's not going to change," Blake said. "I've never really looked a pressure as a bad thing. I've always thought that pressure is just an opportunity to be doing something that is worthwhile to you and others as well. I think there will be pressure, but no different than any other tie that I have been a part of."
Fish, Taylor Dent and Robby Ginepri -- none of them older than 21 -- comprise the rest of the squad. Fish is the only one with Davis Cup experience, having played doubles last year.
"I feel like we have a good chance," Blake said. "We are a young team and we are also pretty talented. I think we have a good chance.
"Mardy has been playing great singles leading up to this. Taylor plays very, very good singles, especially indoors if it's a really fast surface. His serve is one of the fastest in the game. I feel comfortable putting him out there in singles if he's healthy. And doubles, Mardy and I have had success in Davis Cups. We have a good chance."
In the 103-year history of the Davis Cup, the United States has 60 finals appearances and 32 championships, both records. But it has not won since 1995.
Croatia is taking part in the elite World Group for just the third time in 10 years of participation. The Croatian squad features the return of former Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanesivic, who has not played in more than a year due to elbow and shoulder problems.
Ivansevic has 47 Davis Cup victories, with 19 coming in doubles. He will play doubles only in this competition with Ljubicic.
Ljubicic, with 15 total victories, is Croatia's No. 1 singles player. Ancic, 19, takes the second singles spot. Ivan Vajda is the other team member.
Seven other first-round ties take place this weekend.
The first features an overwhelming mismatch as Australia takes on England on clay in Sydney. World No. 1 and reigning Wimbledon champion Lleyton Hewitt and former Grand Slam runner-up Mark Philippoussis highlight the Australian squad while Britain -- without injured stars Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski -- fields little-known Alan Mackin, Alex Bogdanovic, Arvind Parmar and Miles MacLagan.
On Friday, Philippoussis plays Mackin before Hewitt faces Bogdanovic.
Injuries also weigh heavily in Russia's defense of its first Davis Cup triumph when it plays on the road against the Czech Republic.
Marat Safin, who finished last year ranked No. 3, won both his singles matches in last year's final against France but remains sidelined with the wrist injury that forced him to withdraw from the Australian Open.
"We're definitely the underdogs in this tie," Russian captain Shamil Tarpishchev said. "We've been heavily handicapped by Safin's injury. It threw all our preparation off-track."
With Safin out, the Russians hope Mikhail Youzhny will be able to duplicate his triumph in last year's final. Playing his first live Davis Cup match, Youzhny battled from two sets down to win the decisive fifth match. He will be helped by former world No. 1 Yevgeny Kafelnikov, who is expected to play only doubles, and newcomers Nikolay Davydenko and Igor Andreyev.
Jiri Novak, Radek Stepanek, Martin Damm and Cyril Suk comprise the Czech team.
Also, last year's runner-up, France, visits Romania, Switzerland takes on the Netherlands, Sweden hosts Brazil, Spain welcomes Belgium and German travels to Argentina.