davis cup ties

Sloane Stephens Gets a Wake Up Call as Richard Gasquet Re-emerges — The Friday Five

By Maud Watson

Wake-Up Call

It seems like only yesterday Sloane Stephens was being anointed the next “big thing” in American tennis. After an impressive run in Melbourne, she looked ready to compete with the big girls. In the three months since that run, however, she’s gone a dismal 2-5. Some of those losses have been tight – matches where she put herself in a position to win only to fall short. But more recently, she’s gone through patches where she has struggled to win games. Her latest loss in Charleston, where she won only two games against Mattek-Sands, is a prime example. It was a match that left her on the verge of tears, which frankly, was good to see. She needed an attitude adjustment after her loss in Miami where she insinuated she could ride the coattails of her Aussie Open success and brush off frequent first-round losses. Her attempt to try and keep things in perspective was admirable, but it was a faulty line of thinking. Based on her reaction in Charleston though, it seems to have hit home that even if her ranking won’t drastically suffer, for a player of her potential, strings of early-round losses are unacceptable. Hopefully playing in Europe, where she won’t be so under the microscope, will help her right the ship. It’s certainly not time to panic, but there is cause for some concern in the Stephens’ camp.

Turning the Page

Before he was even a teenager, the world was told that Richard Gasquet was destined for great things. Now in his mid-20s, things haven’t exactly panned out the way many, especially the Frenchman, would have hoped. But in 2013, we’re starting to see a different Gasquet. He has quietly put together a good start to the season. He’s already secured two titles, had a good run in Indian Wells, and played some spectacular ball against Murray before bowing out in the semis of Miami. But the biggest change we’re seeing in Gasquet was on display in that loss to Murray. Though it was clear to anyone watching that Gasquet was in pain, Gasquet competed all the way until the end. The old Gasquet would have tanked or pulled the plug. It seems his increased coaching from former pro Sebastian Grosjean is paying dividends. If he can continue to improve in consistency and the mental department, the business end of the men’s premiere events is going to get even more interesting.

Does It Matter?

For the first time in nearly a decade, neither Federer nor Nadal is ranked in the top 2. Those spots are presently occupied by Djokovic and Murray. The question is, does it really matter? On one hand, provided Nadal is able to once again take the No. 4 ranking away from Ferrer, the Big 4 will still be guaranteed of meeting one another no sooner than the semis. There’s also no getting around that Murray’s ranking rise was aided by the absence of Federer and Nadal in Miami (as well as Nadal’s lengthy layoff). But on the other hand, to write off the change in rankings as insignificant – particularly Murray’s rise to No. 2 – would be a mistake. Djokovic sits atop the mountain, and despite recent losses at Indian Wells and Miami, is still generally considered the man to beat. For his own part, Murray may have benefited from his opposition sitting out some big tournaments, but he’s also steadily become a better player than he was even twelve months ago. He earned the No. 2 ranking by virtue of his play in 2012, and his rankings rise should translate into an increased sense of self-belief. So while it would come as no shock if Federer or Nadal were to upend the two men ranked ahead of them on a big stage, from a psychological standpoint, it’s now Federer and Nadal playing from behind the eight ball, which is just the slight shakeup men’s tennis needs.

Evening the Odds

Just before the Davis Cup quarterfinals got underway, the countries of Kazakhstan and Argentina both received a boost to their chances of advancing to the semis. Kazakhstan had already caught a break going into its quarterfinal clash with the Czech Republic, as Czech No. 1 Berdych had announced earlier that he would be sitting out the tie to nurse a shoulder injury. Now Czech No. 2, Stepanek, won’t be competing in the singles on the tie’s opening day. Stepanek will be playing his first event since neck surgery and will be eased into the competition by starting in the doubles on Saturday. It is unknown whether Stepanek will play the reverse singles on Sunday if the tie still hangs in the balance, but either way, it’s a break for the host nation. Similar to Kazakhstan, Argentina is also benefiting from the withdrawal of a player from the opposing squad, though its effect isn’t as great. Gasquet was forced to forfeit his place on Team France due to the ankle injury that plagued him in March. He’s been replaced, however, by the very talented Simon. Simon hasn’t had quite the hot hand that Gasquet has enjoyed of late, but he’s no slouch and capable of playing big-time tennis anywhere, any time. In short, these ties are too close to call.

Rotten Luck

Poor Andrea Petkovic. The affable German just can’t seem to catch a break when it comes to injuries. Her litany of injuries is well documented, and after this week, you can add one more to the list. Petkovic, who was finally starting to notch some wins and was scheduled to meet fellow wildcard Wozniacki in the Round of 16 in Charleston, was forced to withdraw due to a right calf injury. Petkovic explained that the calf had been giving her trouble since Miami and indicated she may have hurt it through relying on that calf muscle too much in order to protect her troubled knee. Petkovic was upbeat despite the disappointment, stating at this stage, she’d rather take precaution than risk yet another serious and lengthy injury layoff. Smart move on her part. Hopefully she’ll recover quickly and once again be giving fans plenty to cheer in the near future.

Preview: Spain set to host epic Davis Cup clash with Argentina – Live Coverage

by Stephanie Neppl

Seville is set for what should be an epic Davis Cup final between two of the most likeable teams in tennis: Spain and Argentina. Take a look at pics of the teams interacting this week and you’ll see smiling faces between the players and endearing moments. It’s clear there’s mutual respect and friendship between many of the teams’ top players.

Spain is the favorite, without question. The team is the host and has won four titles in the past 10 years, with the slow clay certainly helping them.  And yes, it boasts Rafael Nadal, arguably the best clay court player ever as well as #5 David Ferrer who’s had a career best year.

This Davis Cup final yields so many storylines and so many questions. Will the Argentineans be healthy enough to be competitive , particularly with Davis Cup veteran David Nalbandian still battling injuries? Will Nadal, mentally exhausted from a topsy-turvy year on tour, find the strength to lead his team to another title? Will Fernando Verdasco and  Feliciano Lopez redeem themselves after losing badly in Spain’s narrow victory over the US in the semifinals? Will Juan Monaco, Argentina’s most in-form player of late, step up against his good friend Nadal in the opening match of the tie?

The emotional tugs for tennis fans may mostly surround Nalbandian. He’s never been part of a winning Davis Cup team, and most feel 2012 will be his last year  on tour. Nalbandian has always been fiercely passionate about Davis Cup and most tennis fans would be pretty ecstatic should he finally win one.

And then, there’s the crowd. Having been to all four grand slams and the Beijing Olympics, I’ve seen my share of partisan crowds. Davis Cup ties are legendary for being noisy and full of very patriotic fans. Will the crowd be fair to both teams or are all bets off? At the Beijing Olympics, the partisan crowd lost all touch with good fan behaviour while its own were playing. Will the Seville crowd behave?

Thus far, the atmosphere in Seville has been fantastic. Somehow the tennis gods smiled down on me as my accommodation is directly across the road from the Spanish team’s hotel. I’ve already been within hand shaking distance from Nadal twice, and have seen the entire team. Last night, I saw Verdasco and David Ferrer quickly race into their hotel from their courtesy van while Nadal and Lopez lingered to bring their bags into the hotel. The number of fans outside the hotel has been rather small, and Nadal has been welcoming to his fans and has posed with a fair few (this professional tennis fan was not quick or assertive enough to ask for a photo either time).

Local shops have also gotten into the Davis Cup spirit with tennis signs and displays (a butchery near Team Spain’s hotel has even crafted a tennis court in its window using  huge pieces of jamon as rackets). A Davis Cup museum has been set up in the city centre showing off programmes and signed memorabilia from past ties while a big screen plays highlights of classic matches.

Today, the draw was held at the  beautiful Teatro Lope de Vega. Sadly, only media were allowed inside and a noisy rally by striking workers (apparently over a migrant worker issues) created a huge distraction from the joy of the Davis Cup draw. My group saw all the teams pull up in cars but that was as close to the draw as we could get since it was not open to the public.

Practices inside Estadio Olímpico de Sevilla have also been closed to the public, though the team’s practice times have been published online. So the excitement and anticipation builds and builds for the many fans who’ve been in town waiting for the tie to begin. The long wait is over at 1pm Friday to see the teams and the stadium. A ceremony will kick off at 1pm, followed by Nadal versus Monaco then Ferrer versus Del Potro.

May the best team win! Vamos!

Stephanie Neppl is in Seville, Spain covering the Davis Cup Finals as a guest contributor for Tennis Grandstand. She is the author of the website I Have a Tennis Addiction and you can follow her on twitter @StephInNZ for further updates.