by Kevin Craig
Dominic Thiem of Austria and David Goffin both reached their first major quarterfinal and have even higher stakes to play for when they meet up on Thursday.
In Wednesday’s fourth round action, Thiem dispatched Marcel Granollers in four sets, 6-2, 6-7(2), 6-1, 6-4, while Goffin upended Ernests Gulbis, also in four sets, 4-6, 6-2, 6-2, 6-3. Both matches were completions of matches that had begun on Tuesday.
Goffin, 25-years old, and Thiem, 22-years old, will now play with the winner reaching their first semifinal in a major, as well as reaching the Top 10 of the ATP World Tour rankings for the first time in their career.
Thiem, the No. 13 seed, resumed his match at the very beginning of the third set, so he was essentially playing a best-of-three set match with Granollers. Three sets were not needed, though, as Thiem, who has been in impressive form in 2016, was able to continue his great run of play.
With three clay court titles already in his pocket, as well as having the most wins of any player on the ATP World Tour this year, Thiem raced through his first set hitting winner after winner. The rain may have been a blessing in disguise for him, though, as it slowed down the roll of Granollers who was able to take advantage of an increased error count in the second set from Thiem and rattle off the set in a tiebreak to make things more interesting.
When play resumed on Wednesday, the Austrian raced out to win the third set in less than half an hour before going on to break late in the fourth set, accentuating the win with a hold at love to close out the match.
While Thiem has played well in recent months, even he is slightly surprised with the success that he has been able to have.
“Two years ago I was here with Gulbis and he played semifinals, and back then I couldn’t really imagine that I’d go this far myself one day…it feels really good,” said Thiem.
In Goffin’s fourth round match with Gulbis, who reached the French Open semifinals in 2014 but is now ranked No. 80 in the world, the Latvian was playing with house money to begin with, as he was only able to advance to the fourth round when his third round opponent, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, retired with an injury while leading in the first set.
That “nothing to lose” mentality helped the Gulbis in the early stages as he was able to spray winners all over the court and play confidently, as he always does in these big stages.
Goffin, though, had confidence in this matchup as he had won their two previous encounters, and used that to start his comeback journey when play resumed on Wednesday.
The winners turned into errors for Gulbis allowing Goffin to capitalize on his opportunity to take the third set before easily closing out the match in the fourth, thanks, in part to a double fault from Gulbis on match point.
“It’s not easy to wait for three days for your match…the stress level if pretty high for everybody. So it takes a lot of energy in the end. I think he dealt with it better,” said Gulbis of how Goffin was able to close out the match.
Goffin and Thiem will now meet up for the eighth time in their careers, with the Belgian currently holding a 5-2 record. That record on clay courts is an even 1-1, while Goffin won the only match they played in a major, beating Thiem in four sets at the Australian Open this year.
“We practice a lot together and hang around a little bit outside the court. I think it’s going to be a very nice match,” said Thiem of his relationship with Goffin.
“That’s going to be a tough match,” said Goffin. “He can play all types of shots from the baseline…He serves really well…Physically he can play many tournaments and the big matches. He has everything it takes to play well on clay, and mentally, I have the impression he feels good.”
by Kevin Craig
Andy Murray won the Davis Cup title for Great Britain on Sunday in Ghent, Belgium as he defeated David Goffin, 6-3, 7-5, 6-3 to clinch the 3-1 victory over the Belgians. The title is the first for Great Britain since 1936. Murray was able to lead his team to victory by going 11-0 in his Davis Cup matches this year.
Murray opened up the match confidently and controlled play with his serve, only losing seven points in the first set in his service games. The British No. 1 was also able to play a very steady game on the ground, only making six unforced errors and hitting 11 winners, leading five break chances total. On the other side of the court, Goffin was only able to earn one break point in the set, and was unsuccessful in converting. Combine that with a first serve percentage below 50 percent, and you have the recipe for an easy first set victory for Murray.
The second set was tighter, as the score line would suggest, as the only break came in the 11th game of the set. There were three other games in the set that went beyond deuce, including one that lasted 16 points. After being taken to deuce twice in his first service game of the set, Murray was able to hold at love three games in a row, and then only lose four points in his last two service games, allowing him to make his way to a comfortable two sets to love lead.
Goffin looked to have some life in the beginning of the third set, breaking Murray in his first service game. Unfortunately for the Belgian, though, Murray was able to break right back. The Brit went on to break twice later in the set, as well, leading to a comfortable third set victory. One of the breaks came at love, and the other came to close out the match for Murray. Match point was an amazing point between the two stars, and it ended with Murray turning some incredible defense into a backhand lob winner to give Great Britain the Davis Cup title.
This title for Great Britain is just another great achievement on the long list of Murray’s, going along with his Wimbledon and US Open titles, as well as his Olympic gold medal. Murray concludes his magical 2015 Davis Cup run after getting wins over John Isner, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Gilles Simon, and Bernard Tomic along the way.
This win also sees each of the members of the Big Four having Davis Cup titles, as Roger Federer won in 2014, Novak Djokovic in 2010, and Rafael Nadal in 2004, 2009, and 2011. Now the highest ranked player without a Davis Cup title is Kei Nishikori at No. 8 in the world. The 2016 edition of Davis Cup begins on March 4th, and will hopefully see as much excitement as the 2015 edition.
by Kevin Craig
Great Britain took a massive step towards securing their first Davis Cup title since 1936 by defeating Belgium in the doubles rubber on Saturday in Ghent. The British team of Andy and Jamie Murray were able to defeat the Belgian team of Steve Darcis and David Goffin in a tight four set match.
The Brits won the match by a 6-4, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 score line, fighting off a resilient performance from the home team. The first set was straightforward for the Murray brothers, only making four unforced errors and saving the only break point they faced. The Belgians kept it tight, though, as only three points separated the two sides in the first set.
Darcis and Goffin continued to play well into the second set, and were able to prolong the match by getting a break and winning the set. The Belgians controlled play with their serve, making 80 percent of their first serves and winning five out of the six points played on their second serve. This success on serve allowed them to apply pressure on the Great Britain service games, leading to three break point opportunities. Again, the set was very tight throughout, as this time only two points separated the teams.
The third set saw the momentum shift in the favor of the Brits as the overall quality of the match dropped. The third set saw five breaks total, but the advantage in that department went to the Murray brothers as they broke three times, compared to the Belgians’ two. Darcis and Goffin struggled on their first serve, only winning 29 percent of their first serve points, allowing the Brits to see four break chances. The Murray brothers didn’t perform at their highest level, either, but they were able to play the bigger points better, allowing them to take a two sets to one lead.
The fourth set was determined by which team was more efficient on break chances, and that was Great Britain. Belgium had a lot of opportunities, but succeeded on none of them, wasting seven break chances in the fourth set. On the other side of the net, the Murray brothers only had two break chances, but took advantage of both of them, allowing them to win the set, and the match, with a comfortable double break.
Many were surprised by the fact that Goffin was chosen to play the doubles over Ruben Bemelmans, a player with much more success in his doubles career. While Goffin may be a much better player all around, Bemelmans had been a successful part of Belgium’s doubles teams for the past few years. The decision to not play Bemelmans may not have ultimately changed the outcome of the match, but Great Britain is now able to head into Sunday knowing they only need one win to take home the Davis Cup title. With Murray playing the first match of the day, British tennis fans hope they will be celebrating early.
by Kevin Craig
The Davis Cup final being played between Belgium and Great Britain saw exciting action on Friday, as David Goffin was able to come back from two sets to love down to beat Kyle Edmund, while Andy Murray was able to level the tie with a straight sets win over Ruben Bemelmans. While the tie is being played on clay in Belgium, the Brits had an advantage coming into the tie as they have the No. 2 player in the world on their side, as well as a dominant doubles pairing. This advantage was not lost with the results on Friday, but was actually almost given a boost as Edmund was a set away from pulling off a major upset.
Goffin was able to outlast a blistering start from Edmund in the first match of the day, winning 3-6, 1-6, 6-2, 6-1, 6-0, to give Belgium the early lead. The incredible start from Edmund was a shock to the tennis world, as it was his first Davis Cup match and that the match was being played in Belgium, on clay, against a Top 20 player. Edmund had been in great form recently as he had just won a challenger tournament on clay in Bueons Aires. Despite the good form, no one expected Edmund to shoot out to a two sets to love lead, including everyone on the Belgium sideline. Edmund was able to take advantage of Goffin’s poor first service percentage, 44 percent in the first set and 38 percent in the second set, to apply pressure on the Belgian’s serve. Combine that with 13 unforced errors in the first two sets, compared to Edmund’s four, and you have a two sets to love lead for the Brit. That hot start was unable to last, though, as Goffin was quickly able to turn things around, getting a break early in the third. This was the clear momentum shift in the match, as everything started going Belgium’s way from this point forward. Goffin only lost 17 points on serve in the last three sets and was able to begin dominating play as Edmund’s legs appeared to disappear from beneath him. Edmund started the match brilliantly given the situation, but it was disappointing to see him barely able to move around the court in the last few games of the match. While the win for Goffin gave them a much needed point in the Davis Cup final, Edmund and the Brits can take a positive out of the fact the match was not as much of a must-win for them as it was for the Belgians, as the Brits have Murray to rely on in three of the five rubbers.
Murray was able to take care of business in his match and pick up Edmund, beating Bemelmans 6-3, 6-2, 7-5. Murray was able to take control of the match early and never lose his grip, breaking Bemelmans six times total and making 18 less unforced errors than his opponent. Bemelmans made a lot of new fans around the world on Friday as he was able to put up a fight with the World No. 2 and showcase his exciting style of play, littering the stat sheet with 34 winners. Bemelmans efforts in this tie are far from over, despite the loss, as he could possibly feature again in the doubles rubber and a potential live fifth rubber. Murray, on the other hand, knows for sure that he will be playing two more ties, and will be able to take the Davis Cup tie into his own hands as he has the potential to win all three points for Great Britain.
The end results of the matches from Friday finished as expected, but the tennis world is still buzzing about the performance put on by Edmund in his Davis Cup debut. While he was unable to get a pivotal win for his side, he instilled fear into the Belgian team and let the world know that he will be a force in the future. Murray’s win set up a very interesting doubles rubber on Saturday that could be viewed as a must-win for the Belgians. In a Davis Cup final match-up that no one would have predicted initially, fans around the world are being treated to as much excitement as they would from any other match-up.
Great Britain and Belgium go head-to-head in the Final of the Davis Cup next month, in one of the most unlikely match ups in Davis Cup history – Britain last reached the Final in 1978 and haven’t actually won it since 1936, whilst Belgian haven’t made it since 1904!
The current world number two, Andy Murray, will be leading the charge for the Brits, having beaten Australia’s Bernard Tomic in straight sets in the semis. His main opponent will be David Goffin, who is currently ranked 16th, but who lost to Murray in their last meeting at Wimbledon in straight sets.
Can Andy Murray Handle The Clay Surface?
Belgium, the hosts, have the advantage of being able to choose the surface for the Final, and have opted for an indoors clay court at the 13,000-capacity Flanders Expo in Ghent. Whilst using clay doesn’t particularly suit the Belgians, they will have calculated that playing on the game’s slowest surface is their best chance of beating Murray, who says it is his least favorite surface.
Murray tweeted after the decision was announced: “So Ghent on the clay for the Davis Cup final – very pumped! Think clay is a good surface for us”. However, this could be a bit of a bluff: notice he says good surface “for us”, and not “for me”.
Murray has, in fact, had quite a good season on clay so far (for example, he managed to beat Rafael Nadal to win the Madrid Masters), so he might be more concerned about adjusting to the slower surface, right after playing a run of games on hard courts at the World Tour Finals. He said in an interview: “If you reach the final and play on the Sunday you also need to take time off – you can’t just play five matches against the best players in the world and then not take any days off.”
Will Murray sacrifice his spot in the World Tour Finals for the Great Britain team though? It would be a historic occasion for the nation. However, Chris Kermode, executive president of the ATP, has categorically ruled out Murray missing the final, which therefore puts his Davis Cup Final in doubt. Murray would have to forfeit £570,000 or so in bonus-pool payments for the 2015 season, in order to bolster his chances in Belgium – certainly not a decision to take lightly.
Will The Belgian Team Rise to The Occasion?
A lot of Belgian hope rests on the narrow shoulders of David Goffin. At 24-years-old, Goffin is light, agile and certainly a dangerous opponent for Murray. This year he won all four of his Davis Cup singles matches to help take Belgium into their first final in 111 years.
But despite his excellence, the Belgium team lacks strength in depth. Their second singles player is likely to be Steve Darcis, ranked 81st in the world, with Ruben Bemelmans (86) and Kimmer Coppejans (116) expected to complete the line-up. But on the other side, Andy Murray, Jamie Murray and Dominic Inglot all make formidable options in the British doubles team.
Can the Belgian’s pull together for the occasion?
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Monday action at the Citi Open took place over five courts, with the last ball being played just before midnight, earning American Melanie Oudin a spot in the second round.
Players roamed, stretched, practice and played all over the grounds, including Angelique Kerber, David Goffin, Steve Johnson, Alexandr Dolgopolov, Dmitry Tursunov, Radek Stepanek, Juan Martin del Potro, Sloane Stephens, Magdalena Rybarikova, Alize Cornet, Bernard Tomic, Tim Smyczek, Eugenie Bouchard, and Taylor Townsend.
Gallery by Tennis Grandstand photographer Christopher Levy.
Here’s the breakdown of matches to watch as the first round concludes.
Novak Djokovic vs. David Goffin: The baby-faced Belgian spurred a flurry of headlines last year when he reached the second week of Roland Garros and took a set from Roger Federer there. Goffin has mustered barely any quality wins since then, losing to Grega Zemlja in Dusseldorf last week. An enigmatic Masters 1000 clay season behind him, Djokovic hopes to resemble the man who defeated Rafael Nadal in Monte Carlo more than the man who lost to Grigor Dimitrov in Madrid.
Nicolas Mahut vs. Janko Tipsarevic: Just about anyone has managed to knock off Tipsarevic this year, from Dmitry Tursunov to Guido Pella. Struggling for confidence and fitness, the Serb briefly slumped outside the top 10 before currently returning to its edge. Mahut has not won a main-draw match at the ATP level all season, losing to such unremarkable figures as Laime Ouahab and Romain Jouan. An ugly encounters on both sides could ensue, in which Mahut could gain strength from the vigorous show-court crowd. A second top-ten upset by a Frenchman in two days still seems like a long shot.
Stanislas Wawrinka vs. Thiemo De Bakker: An untimely muscle tear in Wawrinka’s thigh cast his participation here into doubt. The Madrid finalist has defeated four top-eight opponents on clay this spring, and his high volume of matches might have contributed to his injury. De Bakker should not challenge a healthy Wawrinka, so this match will offer a barometer for the Swiss No. 2’s health.
Jack Sock vs. Guillermo Garcia-Lopez: On Sock’s shoes are written the names of two friends who recently passed away, extra motivation for him this fortnight. He will look to extend the encouraging and unexpected trend of American success here against Bucharest finalist Garcia-Lopez, less of a clay threat than most Spaniards. Big servers also have fared well here in general from Querrey and Isner to Milos Raonic and Kevin Anderson.
Bernard Tomic vs. Victor Hanescu: Without his father to monitor him relentlessly, Tomic enjoys his first taste of independence. Off-court distractions should undermine his focus on his weakest surface, though, and he is still nowhere near the player outside Australia that he is on home soil.
Mikhail Youzhny vs. Pablo Andujar: On the heels of reaching the Madrid semifinals as a wildcard, Andujar reached the semifinals of Nice as well. He did not defeat anyone more notable than Gilles Simon at either tournament, but he will hold the surface advantage against Youzhny. The Russian did win a set from Djokovic in Monte Carlo before recording consecutive victories over clay specialists Fabio Fognini and Nicolas Almagro in Madrid.
Alejandro Falla vs. Grigor Dimitrov: Despite the increasing threat that he poses to the ATP elite, Dimitrov never has won more than one match at a major. Questionable fitness may cost him in the best-of-five format, or these events may expose his lack of experience more starkly. A duel with a Colombian dirt devil could test Dimitrov’s resilience two rounds ahead of a rematch with Djokovic.
Elena Vesnina vs. Victoria Azarenka: With the other top-four women’s seeds advancing so convincingly, Azarenka needs to keep pace with a statement of her own. After a 10-1 start to 2012, Vesnina has cooled off and lost in the first round at three of four clay tournaments. Azarenka started cooling her off by dismissing her in the fourth round of the Australian Open, where Vesnina lacked the weapons to threaten her. Never past the quarterfinals in Paris, Vika should conserve energy with some quick early wins in a weak section of the draw.
Petra Kvitova vs. Aravane Rezai: Three long years have passed since Rezai won the Premier Mandatory title in Madrid over Venus Williams. The fiery Frenchwoman with a fondness for flamboyant outfits has won just one main-draw match since last year’s clay season. Kvitova has made a habit of struggling at the most unexpected moments against the most anonymous opponents, so a three-setter would not surprise in this slugfest of wildly erratic shot-makers.
Jelena Jankovic vs. Daniela Hantuchova: This match struck me as the most interesting of the women’s first round, partly because of the history between them. Meeting more than once in the fraught environment of Fed Cup, the two have collaborated on several tight encounters and have played their last five matches on clay. Jankovic has regained traces of her vintage clay form by winning Bogota and upsetting Li to reach the Rome quarterfinals, while Hantuchova upset Kvitova in Madrid. Both lost to Simona Halep in the wake of those top-ten ambushes, though, showing how much they struggle to sustain momentum as they age.
Kristina Mladenovic vs. Lauren Davis: After American women posted a perfect record on Day 2, Davis hopes to continue that trend despite winning just two clay matches this year (one against Christina McHale). That task will prove difficult against a Frenchwoman who shone on home soil in February, reaching the semifinals of the Paris Indoors. Mladenovic has struggled almost as much on clay as Davis has, but she won sets from Maria Kirilenko and Dominika Cibulkova in difficult early-round draws.
Klara Zakopalova vs. Kaia Kanepi: A tireless counterpuncher with a vulnerable serve, Zakopalova has extended both Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova to final sets at Roland Garros. She came closer than anyone to threatening Sharapova’s surge to the career Slam, and her retrieving should test Kanepi’s patience as well. Returning impressively from injury last month, Kanepi won Brussels on Saturday after collecting six wins at her two previous tournaments. To continue defending her quarterfinal points, she will need to take control of rallies immediately with serve and return.
Jamie Hampton vs. Lucie Safarova: The small American won three consecutive three-setters over higher-ranked opponents, including Roberta Vinci, to earn a semifinal berth in Brussels. Limited in her clay experience, Hampton attracted international attention by severely testing Azarenka in the first week of the Australian Open. Flaky Czech lefty Safarova also arrives with momentum after winning her home challenger in Prague and taking a set from Sharapova in Stuttgart.
Grigor Dimitrov, Milos Raonic and Ryan and Christian Harrison lead the next generation of ATP players in a Men’s Journal feature entitled “Hit Squad” where they divulge what opponents fear most about their game. Though Twitter followers of Ryan Harrison may recall the photoshoot involving extravagant colors, photographer Theo Wenner opted to bring the shoot to life in black and white. Also featured are David Goffin, Ricardas Berankis and Bernard Tomic.
GRIGOR DIMITROV: “Called ‘little Federer’ for his fluid strokes, he’s a perpetual threat, particularly on hard court, with a dangerous topspin forehand and a creative, some say restless, style of play.”
RYAN HARRISON: “When he was 11, Harrison met his tennis-pro dad in the finals of the Shreveport City Tournament which his father won, and they knew Ryan needed more competition.”
MILOS RAONIC: “The son of engineers, the 6-foot-5 Raonic was college-bound until he persuaded his parents to let him go pro. They gave him a year to crack the top 100, and he did, rising from 150 to 37 in just six weeks.”
DAVID GOFFIN and RICARDAS BERANKIS: Berankis says of what opponents fear about him, “I never give up. I fight till the end.”
CHRISTIAN HARRISON: “When big brother Ryan was battling Dad in the Shreveport City Tournament, nine-year-old Christian was in the stands pouring Coke on his little sister. He’s since learned to pay the game some respect.”
BERNARD TOMIC: On his indulgence, “Cars. A lot of people say I’m being the bad boy, but who doesn’t love a nice car? I just did things that a normal teenager dreams of doing.”
DAVID GOFFIN: On the best compliment he’s received, “I saw John McEnroe in the locker room of the US Open after a match, and he said, ‘Hey, I love your game. Just work on your legs’ — because my legs were too thin.”
(Quotes and photos via ATP World Tour and Men’s Journal)
Eight first-round Davis Cup ties unfold around the world this weekend. We discuss the key players and themes that might emerge from each of them.
Canada vs. Spain: Without any of their top three men, Davis Cup Goliath Spain finds itself at a surprising disadvantage when it travels to the western coast of North America. Had either Nadal or Ferrer participated in this tie against Canada, the visitors would remain heavy favorites even against a squad spearheaded by Milos Raonic and aging doubles star Daniel Nestor. Instead, Canada now can rely on two victories from their singles #1 against the overmatched pair of Marcel Granollers and Albert Ramos, forcing Spain to sweep the remaining three matches. Among those is a doubles rubber that pits Nestor against World Tour Finals champions Granollers and Marc Lopez, who lost three of their four Davis Cup doubles rubbers last year. If the tie reaches a live fifth rubber, as seems plausible, Spanish champion Alex Corretja might consider substituting Guillermo Garcia-Lopez for Ramos against the net-rushing Frank Dancevic. Buoyed by their home crowd, though, Canada should find a way to snatch one of the three non-Raonic rubbers and send Spain to the playoff round for the first time in recent memory.
Italy vs. Croatia: This tie should hinge on home-court advantage and the choice of ground that it entails. On a fast hard court, the formidable serves of Marin Cilic and Ivan Dodig would stifle the less imposing firepower of the Italians. But Croatia faces Andreas Seppi and Fabio Fognini on the red clay of Turin, a slow surface where the superior consistency of the hosts should lead them to victory. The visitors will face the intriguing choice of whether to substitute their singles stars on Saturday for a doubles pairing almost certainly doomed to defeat. Three straight days of best-of-five matches for Cilic, Dodig, or both would leave them even more vulnerable to the Italian war of attrition, though. At any rate, the contrast of styles between the fearless first strikes of the Croats and the patient baseline rallying of the Italians should provide entertaining viewing.
Belgium vs. Serbia: One might see Djokovic’s name on the schedule and automatically checking off the “Serbia” box, but a few flickers of doubt persist. First, the Australian Open champion may have arrived physically and mentally drained from his recent exploits, and he has struggled against Friday opponent Olivier Rochus throughout his career. Breaking from a long history of Davis Cup participation, Serbian #2 Janko Tipsarevic cannot step into the breach if Djokovic falters. That duty lies in the suspect hands of Viktor Troicki, who endured a miserable 2012, and in the aging hands of Nenad Zimonjic, well past his prime despite his many accomplishments. Serbia thus might find itself in real trouble if they played a team with a notable talent, like Canada. With just the 32-year-old Rochus and the volatile but unreliable David Goffin barring their path, however, they should advance even if their stars underperform.
USA vs. Brazil: Tennis Grandstand will feature more detailed coverage of this tie over the weekend. For the moment, we will note that Team USA stands in promising position with two serving leviathans on an indoor hard court, complemented by the reigning Australian Open doubles champions. While Isner did not win a match in January as he struggled with a knee injury, and Querrey did not impress in Melbourne, both should steamroll the harmless Brazilian #2 Thiago Alves. In the best-case scenario for Brazil, which would feature two victories for their #1 Bellucci, their doubles duo of Marcelo Melo and Bruno Soares still should fall short against the Bryans. All of these Americans have played some of their best tennis on home soil and in Davis Cup, including on less friendly surfaces, whereas Brazil has accomplished little of note in this competition recently.
France vs. Israel: Across from one team that often proves less than the sum of its talents in Davis Cup stands a team that typically overperforms expectations at the national level. Whereas France will bring two members of the top 10 to this tie, Israel can claim no top-100 threat in singles. The fast indoor hard court should allow the offensive might of Tsonga to overwhelm Dudi Sela and Amir Weintraub, although the latter has developed into a more credible threat over the last several months. In a tantalizing doubles rubber, a battle of all-stars pits Jonathan Ehrlich and Andy Ram against Julien Benneteau and Michael Llodra. Underdogs in every singles rubber and arguably the doubles too, Israel can hope for an upset only if Gasquet crumbles under the pressure of playing for national pride on home soil as he has so infamously before. Otherwise, the talent gap simply looms too large.
Argentina vs. Germany: Perhaps the most tightly contested tie, this battle on outdoor red clay will unfold in the absence of Del Potro, who would have given the home squad a clear edge. While Argentina will field a squad of clay specialists, leading Germans Philipp Kohlschreiber and Florian Mayer have acquitted themselves well on the surafce and should not find themselves at a disadvantage parallel to Croatia in Italy. Much rests on the shoulders of Juan Monaco, tasked with avoiding the daunting 0-2 deficit after Kohlschreiber likely opens the tie by dismissing Carlos Berlocq. The top Argentine here enjoyed his best season to date last year but did not start 2013 especially well. Lurking in the shadows, as he so often does, is long-time Argentine Davis Cup hero David Nalbandian. Argentina will hope that Nalbandian’s contribution in doubles on Saturday will combine with two Monaco victories to give them the points that they need without reaching a live fifth rubber. There, one would favor Mayer to overcome both Berlocq and the Argentine crowd.
Pick: Er, Argentina?
Kazakhstan vs. Austria: In a tie without a singles star of note, the opportunity beckons for someone to seize the spotlight in a way that he could not at a major. The most likely candidate to do so would seem Austrian #1 Jurgen Melzer, the only top-100 singles player on either side. His opponents can produce better tennis than their current rankings suggest, though, and Andrey Golubev already has started the tie in promising fashion with a straight-sets victory over Andreas Haider-Maurer. The doubles edge probably belongs to Austria with the greater expertise of Alexander Peya and Julian Knowle, specialists who will allow the 31-year-old Melzer to rest for Sunday. Excluded from the initial lineup is top-ranked Kazakh Mikhail Kukushkin, whose absence will force #211 Evgeny Korolev to win a best-of-five match for the hosts to survive.
Switzerland vs. Czech Republic: While Tomas Berdych is the highest-ranked man in this clash between nearby nations, the most intriguing role goes to opposing #1 Stanislas Wawrinka. After he came far closer than anyone to toppling Djokovic at the Australian Open, the latter may suffer a hangover in a competition where he has struggled lately. Moreover, Switzerland leans on Wawrinka to win both of his singles matches and contribute to a doubles victory on the intervening day, an enormous challenge for the sternest of competitors when the last of those matches involves Berdych. The Czech Republic will not enlist the services of Radek Stepanek, a rare absentee this weekend like Tipsarevic, but singles #2 Lukas Rosol intimidates much more than anyone that Switzerland can throw at him. In the Federer/Wawrinka era, no Swiss team ever has presented the united front that the defending champions have behind Berdych. The medium-slow hard court should not trouble the broad-shouldered world #6 unduly.
Pick: Czech Republic
While some of the stars opening play in Melbourne should encounter little resistance, others might want to tread carefully. We look at some of the most notable matches on Day 1 from Rod Laver Arena to the outer courts.
Chang vs. Stosur (Rod Laver Arena): A flustered bundle of nerves on home soil, Stosur has lost six of her last seven matches in Australia and exited in the first round here last year to Sorana Cirstea. Despite her smooth game, Chang lacks Cirstea’s intimidating weapons and thus should pose a less severe test. But an 0-2 start to 2013 with losses to unheralded opponents in Brisbane and Sydney inspire little confidence in Stosur as she rebounds from an ankle injury.
Hewitt vs. Tipsarevic (RLA): Quite the contrast to Stosur, the greatest Aussie champion in recent memory typically thrives under the adoring gaze of his compatriots. In his 17th Australian Open appearance, Hewitt thoroughly deserves this showcase setting in the first night session on Rod Laver Arena. Recent years have seen him deliver upsets over opponents like Baghdatis, Safin, and Raonic on this court, so Tipsarevic cannot take this match lightly. The second-ranked Serb looked solid but mortal while winning Chennai, and he won’t overpower Hewitt like many opponents near his ranking.
Ivanovic vs. Czink (RLA): This match may start very late indeed in the aftermath of Hewitt-Tipsarevic, possibly a bad sign for Ivanovic. A morning person, the Serb can grow weary quickly when she plays late at night, and she has struggled against lefties sporadically in her career. That said, Czink has declined since she upset Ivanovic on the much faster court of Cincinnati in 2009, and the former finalist built confidence with three decisive wins at the Hopman Cup before Medina Garrigues outlasted her in the final. She should aim to avoid a third set whenever possible, and probably will here.
Goffin vs. Verdasco (Hisense Arena): Four years after he reached the semifinals (and nearly the final) here, Verdasco has regressed back to his former incarnation in which he can win or lose to anyone on any given day. Startlingly boyish in appearance, Goffin reached the second week of Roland Garros last year and recorded fall upsets over Troicki and Isner, among others. The 22-year-old must refine his game, especially his shot selection, to rise further into the top 50, although Verdasco can teach him little in that area.
Cibulkova vs. Barty (Hisense): The Slovak pocket rocket unleashes impressive power when on a hot streak and can collapse completely when she loses her range even a little. Last week in Sydney, Cibulkova showed her best and worst in defeating three top-eight opponents before eating a double bagel from Radwanska. Which memory lingers longer in her mind may define how far she goes here, while Aussie prodigy Barty will try to gain confidence from the Hopman Cup memory of upsetting Schiavone.
Bobusic vs. Radwanska (Margaret Court Arena): For winning the Australian Open wildcard playoff, Bobusic received a berth in the main draw—against the world #4. Radwanska also happens to have won both of her tournaments this year, so the challenge looms very large for the home hope. The Pole sometimes does need time to settle into an event, though, wobbling through uneasy three-setters in the first round here before.
Youzhny vs. Ebden (MCA): Yet another Aussie faces a Russian well into the twilight of his career. Still lovely to watch with its one-handed backhand and crisp volleys, his game matches up well to the net-rushing style of Ebden. Both men feel comfortable all over the court, which should create some variety in the ways that points unfold.
Dellacqua vs. Keys (MCA): After reaching the Sydney quarterfinals, the 17-year-old American should have soared in self-belief by proving that she could compete with much more experience and accomplished opponents. She eyes a winnable match against an Aussie returning from injury, not for the first time, but with a memorable run here five years ago to inspire her.
Medina Garrigues vs. Bartoli (Show Court 3): The Spaniard enters on a somewhat hot streak from winning the Hopman Cup with Verdasco, although she defeated no notable opponent other than Ivanovic. Bartoli has dominated their head-to-head on hard courts but has suffered a series of early upsets at the Australian Open in recent years. The match will rest on her racket, for better or for worse.
Harrison vs. Giraldo (Court 8): From their last meeting at the Olympics came the regrettable temper tantrum that led to Harrison’s equally regrettable apology. He still lets his competitive fire burn too brightly at times, although a victory over Isner in Sydney may bode well for this fortnight. Not averse to emitting some sparks himself, Giraldo will fancy his chances in the best-of-five format if he can claim an early lead.
Bolelli vs. Janowicz (Court 8): The toast of Paris last fall when he reached the Bercy final, Janowicz reverted to ordinary toast this month in a sloppy loss to Brian Baker. The moribund game of Bolelli, an Italian with much more flair than power, should not trouble the huge-serving Pole as long as he stays out of his own way better than he did in Auckland.
Barthel vs. Pervak (Court 11): Reaching the fourth round here last year, Barthel recalled her strong start to 2012 when she finished runner-up in Hobart (becoming the first woman ever to lose a final to Vesnina in the process). The gawky German owns a formidable but fickle serve and can climb into double digits in aces and double faults during the same match. Russian by birth and Kazakh by passport, the lefty gunslinger Pervak upset Wozniacki in Brisbane by showing more fortitude than usual.
Benneteau vs. Dimitrov (Court 13): At Wimbledon last year, the French doubles specialist came within two points of upsetting Federer as he proved again how lethal his game can become when all of its parts coalesce. A strong server with a penetrating two-hander and excellent net skills, Benneteau held match points in the Sydney semifinal last week before his habit of losing close matches resurfaced. The bad news for him is that he faces a man who served for the first set in the Brisbane final the previous week. The good news is that Dimitrov never has brought his best game to any major, nor has he developed a habit of stringing together solid results.
Makarova vs. Larcher de Brito (Court 19): Once at the vortex of the shrieking controversy, Larcher de Brito plunged into the tennis wilderness shortly after her uniquely piercing yodels had alienated fans. She returns to the main draw of a major for the first time in years. Is she ready for her comeback? Perhaps more to the point, are we?
Bogomolov vs. Baker (Court 20): From an American perspective, this match presents a good guy vs. bad guy narrative. Fans around the world warmed to Baker when he completed an odyssey through several injury absences to rejoin the ATP with a bang last year by reaching the final at his first tournament. His results faded a little afterwards, as one would expect, so his confidence probably rose when he defeated Janowicz in Auckland. Whatever one thinks of Bogomolov’s shifting national allegiances, they did nothing to disturb his reputation as one of the players least likely to induce empathy in the ATP.
Hradecka vs. Bertens (Court 22): Half of the world’s second-ranked doubles team, the Czech with an explosive serve faces one of last spring’s most surprising headlines. Bertens became the first Dutchwoman to win a title since 2006 when she took home the hardware from Casablanca as a qualifier who never had played a main-draw match at the WTA level. Summer upsets over Safarova and Petrova consolidated that breakthrough, so she will look to take the next step forward in 2013.
Excited about these matches and others on Day 1? Join our live chat at newyorkobservertennis.com, which extends from the start of play through the Rod Laver Arena night session.