By Yeshayahu Ginsburg
Davis Cup is one of the most exciting tournaments in the tennis world. However, it is also one of the most enigmatic and frustrating. It does not even come close to the Slams in terms of importance of prestige. But for some fans, a Davis Cup match can be so much more meaningful than any Grand Slam match.
First of all, Davis Cup actually allows the fans to get involved. All of those fan-kept “rules” about etiquette and niceties go out the window in Davis Cup. You are the fans of the home team, and that means you do whatever you can to help your team win. An opponent makes an error, you cheer loudly. The opponent double-faults, you can clap. The opponent begins to argue with the umpire, you never allow him to live it down. It might be a competition of countries, but the basis of this tournament really is the fans.
And that, above all else, is why this tournament can be so incredibly frustrating for the fans. Often, the matches mean more to the fans than to the players themselves. We often don’t see the top players compete, whether due to fatigue (since Davis Cup always follows shortly after a big tournament) or due to an unwillingness to risk injury. Sometimes it just isn’t feasible for these top guys to play Davis Cup on top of the rest of their schedules.
This creates a curious case where Davis Cup doesn’t really represent the best countries in the world. We’ll leave aside, for now, the fact that one player can essentially win an entire tie by himself (by winning two singles matches and carrying his doubles team, as Bjorn Borg was famous for doing). But often, we just don’t get the best of a country actually being represented.
Take, for example, the first-round match of Spain vs. Canada from this year. On paper, this match is a blowout. Canada has three players in the top 100. Spain has 4 in the top 25 (3 if you don’t count a recovering Nadal). Now, this match could have been interesting anyway. Canada was the home country and chose a fast indoor court that suited their players much more than the Spanish. Milos Raonic’s massive serve can make any match close. Canada was the upstart country looking to pull off a massive upset against world power Spain. There were plenty of storylines and a good amount of intrigue to go with this match. Unfortunately, none of that is what we got.
Most of the top Spanish players in the world just couldn’t be troubled to play this tie. Spain brought in 3 singles players for this tie. They were, respectively, the #5, #8, and #11 ranked Spaniards at the moment. None of Spain’s current or former top 10 players (Nadal, David Ferrer, Nicolas Almagro, and Fernando Verdasco) could show up. I’m sure they all had good reasons and won’t go into individual ones here. That’s not the point. The point is that this is indicative of the lack of importance many top players give Davis Cup.
We were supposed to have a blowout here with some upset potential for Canada. Instead, what we got was a blowout by Canada. In the three live singles rubbers, the Spaniards won exactly one set—Albert Ramos took the first set off Raonic in a tiebreak. After that, it was all Canada. Frank Dancevic slaughtered Marcel Granollers, the top Spanish player competing, to the tune of only losing 5 games. And Raonic finished things off in the first rubber on Sunday, beating Guillermo Garcia-Lopez in straight sets as well.
Most of what comes out of this tie is the great story of an up-and-coming tennis country using home soil to beat the #1 seeded country. But let’s be fair and clear. The Spanish team that competed this past weekend was not the same team that earned that #1 ranking. And that, above all, is the enigma of Davis Cup. It means so much to the fans, but circumstances keep the players from being able to give it their all. Would better Spanish players have shown up had the tie been in Spain? Almost definitely. But now the Spanish fans won’t get to see their team in later rounds. Davis Cup is an incredible opportunity for the fans, but can only remain that way if the players have enough incentive to actually compete.
If the USA wins a hotly contested, live, fifth rubber against Brazil, and no one’s there to see it, did it still happen? This past weekend’s first round Davis Cup tie is a fine example of why you can never count on anything in tennis. On paper, the USA should’ve had no trouble dispatching the Brazilians. Not only did they have the privilege of choosing the venue and surface, Team USA has two Top 20 singles players and the best doubles team in the world. Surely it should’ve been no problem to win three matches against a team whose singles players were ranked 36 and 141 and are generally considered clay court specialists. But that’s the magic of Davis Cup.
While the United States rushed to an easy 2-0 lead on Friday, Saturday’s doubles rubber brought the drama. The Brazilian doubles team of Marcelo Melo and Bruno Soares played lights out in the five set match to keep their team alive. Suddenly Brazilian fans surfaced in the crowd and there was a real Davis Cup atmosphere going in the stadium, complete with drama between the two teams. Could the Brazilians maintain focus and possibly carry their winning momentum into Sunday’s reverse singles?
Sunday had a decidedly more reserved atmosphere, possibly due to the sparse crowd. It was Super Bowl Sunday after all… John Isner had the first chance to clinch the tie for the US and set up a second round tie against 2010 Davis Cup champions, Serbia. After winning the first set against Thomaz Bellucci 6-2, the momentum should’ve been securely with the Americans. They were just two sets away from victory. All of the sudden it looked as if the weight of the world was dropped on the American’s shoulders. He simply didn’t look like a man who intended to win a tennis match. Although, with John Isner that can mean anything. He’s spoken to the fact that his body language is often misconstrued as negative. That wasn’t quite the case here as Bellucci came back to take the second set. Rinse and repeat as the two once again exchanged sets and the match went to the decisive no tie break fifth set. As it would happen Bellucci wouldn’t have needed the tie break anyway, as he broke Isner to take the set 6-3. This was a devastating blow to the US team, who had once had a 2-0 lead in the tie and was now facing a live fifth rubber at 2-2.
John Isner did not mince words about his loss. He was quick to point out his not so stellar five set record, saying, “today was extremely disappointing for me. You know, can’t sugarcoat it with me. My five-set record is atrocious, it’s simple as that. It falls on me 100%. You know, I got to try to get better personally with that. I feel bad. I didn’t come through for the team today.” Isner was clearly pretty devastated by this loss, a match he was not only expected to win, a match that would’ve meant victory for his team. That’s what sets Davis Cup apart from regular tournament play. The players are dependent on each other. No one can win a Davis Cup tie on their own. At the end of his press conference, he was asked about his personal goals for the year and was quick to point out that his first responsibility was to his team in that moment, “I’m not thinking about my personal goals this year right now at all. Sam lost the first set, I don’t know if y’all know that. Got to try to pull him through. I didn’t do my part today, and that’s what’s tough about being on a team. It feels a lot worse than it does had this been a regular tournament.”
The good news was that the lost set Isner was referring to would be the team’s last. Sam Querrey came back to win the next three sets against Brazilian Thiago Alves, who made quite an impressive showing over the weekend. Post match, Querrey also wanted to point out the team effort that goes into Davis Cup, telling reporters, “I was thrilled I could help the guys out. It’s a team thing. We’re all moving on to the next round.” He’s absolutely right. Anyone can have a bad day and that’s what the other guys are there for. As captain Jim Courier put it, “That’s what these teams are all about, catching each other when we fall down, helping each other over the line.”
The Americans face a much tougher foe in their quarter final tie against Serbia, a team which will likely feature world No. 1, Novak Djokovic. The tie will be played April 5th-7th in Boise, Idaho.
Milos Raonic won both of his singles matches, including earning the winning point on Sunday, to send Canada into the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas World Group quarter-finals for the first time in the country’s history this weekend after defeating top-ranked Spain 3-2 at the Doug Mitchell Thunderbird Sports Centre in Vancouver.
With Canada entering the Sunday reverse singles with a 2-1 lead following a singles sweep of day one and a doubles loss on day two, Raonic clinched victory for his team with a 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 triumph over Guillermo Garcia-Lopez in the fourth rubber. The 22-year-old Canadian was in control from the outset, hitting 22 aces and 55 winners. He saved the one break point he faced and broke Garcia Lopez’s on four occasions, including twice in the final set.
“It’s amazing to do everything we’ve done,” Raonic said. “I’ve been a minor part of it for the past few years consistently and to be able to get the win and have this conversation for the first time, it’s pretty amazing. I’m very proud with how I managed everything and how we pulled through.”
Raonic may be grabbing all of the headlines for his clinching win, but Frank Dancevic is the Canadian hero in the eyes of many after he put forth one of the most impressive performances in the history of Davis Cup en route to dismantling Marcel Granollers 6-1, 6-2, 6-2 to give Canada a commanding 2-0 lead after day one. Dancevic was, to put it mildly, in the zone and put his immense natural talent on full display.
“Just walking out on to the court I had goose bumps, and you know that everyone is behind you and that helps you play through tough situations,” Dancevic said. “The crowd was unbelievable, there were certain times when the match was difficult, and they gave me an edge. They motivated me to refocus on the point and I felt like they also put a little pressure on Granollers because the crowd was so behind me today.”
Playing without their biggest stars, This marks the first time since 2006 that Spain, the Davis Cup runner up in 2012 and champion in 2011, has lost a first round tie in World Group. In their first World Group quarter-final appearance, Canada will face Italy in the quarter-finals at home from April 5-7. Italy defeated Croatia 3-2 in the opening round thanks to a win by Fabio Fognini in the decisive fifth rubber.
“It’s a long process when you’re in group one and you’ve got to battle it out in a lot of places and for a spell there we seemed to play on the road so much,” said team Canada captain Martin Laurendeau, speaking of Canada’s journey into the World Group quarter-finals that began years ago. “I think we had a bit of a window a couple of years ago but still we were down 2-0 to Ecuador in 2011, and from there we just turned it around. We play that tie and the next one away and since then we’ve been in Canada and we’ll do that again in April. We’re happy to be in the quarters but we feel like we can keep on going. We’re riding a good wave right now and we’ve got to make the most of it while it lasts.”
The final total attendance for all three days of the tie is 17, 796, which is a new Canadian Davis Cup record.
Tennis, at heart, is not the most complicated of human endeavours, and the number of things one can usefully say about it is limited. The trick (though sadly not always the goal) for those determined to talk about it at all is to say the same things in interesting ways.
Even so, there are limits. The most skilful and thoughtful commentators in the world will still inevitably repeat themselves from time to time, and most commentators by definition aren’t the best. This isn’t to say most commentators are wrong – some are, but tennis, broadly speaking, is a hard topic to misread – merely that they are endlessly right in the same way. The average commentator peddles repetition without relent. This is why, whenever Davis Cup comes round, we hear . . .
1. ‘Isn’t it great that doubles matters?’
Saturday was by broad consensus the greatest day of doubles in living memory. The centrepiece was of course the record-shattering match in Geneva between Switzerland and the Czech Republic, which ended 24-22 in the fifth set. That is the match destined to endure – breaking records tends to cement at least a temporary place in the annals – but there were others that were great in their own way.
Slovenia’s Blaž Kavčič and Grega Žemlja both suffered straightforward singles losses, then somehow backed up to defeat Poland’s mighty duo of Marcin Matkowski and Mariusz Fyrstenberg, 13-11 in the fifth. Marc López and Marcel Granollers kept Spanish hopes from guttering out entirely, defeating Daniel Nestor and Vasek Pospisil, again in five sets. Marcelo Melo and Bruno Soares commenced Brazil’s audacious recovery with a five set victory over the Bryan brothers.
There were others, and taken as a whole they guaranteed that the middle day was the key to a fine weekend. Over and over again, the doubles rubber proved pivotal, stopping momentum or confirming it, inspiring a comeback or clinching the tie. It is ever thus – that’s the beauty of the format – but this weekend showcased it more succinctly than ever. If ever the Davis Cup format is altered, the crucial function of the doubles must surely remain.
2. ‘How about that Davis Cup atmosphere?’
When Pete Sampras defeated Gustavo Kuerten in the final of the Miami Masters in 2000, the day was cloyingly warm, the crowd was rambunctious, and the air was dense with samba. Local players often struggle with the Miami crowd – think of Andy Roddick facing Pablo Cuevas a few of years ago – since the support for South American players is overwhelming. There is close harmony chanting. There are jeers on double-faults. It is, in the parlance of tennis commentary, ‘a Davis Cup atmosphere’.
For all that some would dearly wish it to be otherwise, tennis has few opportunities for blatant and macho patriotism in the normal run of events, at least beyond the early rounds where the wildcards and local hopefuls are weeded out. Davis Cup is all nationalism, all the time. Of course, local customs still prevail. The crowd in Ariake Stadium that watched Japan see off Indonesia was utterly unlike the one in Buenos Aires that witnessed Argentina dismantling Germany, but it was also more spirited than a usual Japanese audience. I’m not entirely sure why the USA chose to host Brazil in Florida this weekend, thus neatly ceding the crowd support to the visitors. After his loss to Thomaz Bellucci, John Isner professed not to appreciate the Brazilian supporters, although it probably wouldn’t have mattered so much had more than a handful of Americans turned up.
The atmosphere doesn’t merely inspire the players on to greater heroism, it alters the way they go about it. Would Bob Bryan have yelled ‘Come on’ so vehemently at Melo at a normal tournament? According to Bryan, no: ‘Davis Cup is an emotional atmosphere . . .There were some words said. You know, no hard feelings, no grudges. It’s Davis Cup. This sort of stuff happens all the time.’ Would Carlos Berlocq have shredded his shirt so exultantly upon achieving a win via retirement in any other situation?
Part of the function of Davis Cup is to provide a context in which overtly nationalistic behaviour is more or less tolerated, if not encouraged, so that the rest of the sport can relatively remain free of it. When such behaviour seeps across the other events – with exceptions – it tends to feel misplaced and leaden-handed. At best we indulgently chuckle and call it ‘a Davis Cup atmosphere’.
3. ‘Davis Cup allows lesser players to shine.’
Fabio Fognini clinched the tie for Italy. If he’d lost that crucial fifth rubber, then Ivan Dodig would have clinched it for Croatia. Frank Dancevic played a crucial role in seeing off Spain. Andrey Golubev, among the most gifted underachievers in the sport, won both his singles rubbers, including a four set defeat of Jurgen Melzer to seal the tie for Kazakhstan. Who honestly saw that coming? How many of you had heard of Thiago Alves before he nearly sent the mighty USA crashing out yesterday?
None of these fellows are household names, except perhaps in their own countries, and, one presumes, in their own homes. The point of Davis Cup isn’t that lower-profile players achieve wins. These guys regularly win matches at the levels at which they compete (the exception being Golubev, who’s been known to indulge in losing-sprees that rival Donald Young’s). The Davis Cup enables them to secure meaningful victories in a tournament of global importance. Winning a tie means a great deal. Winning the Cup itself means everything.
Last year the deciding rubber in the final was won by Radek Stepanek over Nicolas Almagro. There is no event in the sport of comparable stature in which that might happen. A reformatted biennial format (the most commonly proposed alternative) surely would work against such an outcome.
4. ‘It’s time to look at tiebreaks in fifth sets.’
Every Davis Cup weekend features at least one match whose heroic proportions compel most onlookers to shake their heads in wonderment, yet oblige others to resume their call for fifth set tiebreaks to be made universal, in order that so arresting a spectacle might never be repeated. This weekend it was the seven hour doubles match between Switzerland and the Czech Republic.
As far as I can make out, the most heated discussion around this issue occurs in the United States. Discussion elsewhere seems more measured and sporadic, and I can’t imagine the debate reaches any special incandescence in countries where cricket is popular. A test match has barely hit its stride by the seven hour mark. I’m also yet to hear many players vociferously calling for tiebreaks to be introduced in deciding sets, whether it be in Davis Cup, at the Majors (besides the US Open) or the Olympics.
If it all becomes too much, there is always a mechanism whereby any match can be shortened. It’s called losing. As it was, even the longest doubles match in history had little material impact on the tie.
5. ‘Davis Cup matters!’
Anyone who watched Alves huffing and heaving as he failed to contain his disappointment after losing in the live fifth rubber to Sam Querrey in Jacksonville was left in little doubt about what this match, and by extension the Davis Cup means to him. Ditto for Milos Raonic’s exuberant roar as he sealed the tie against Spain. Or Fognini collapsing triumphantly to the dirt in Turin. Or Stan Wawrinka prostrate on the hard Geneva surface. There were uncounted similar moments, twinkling and flaring across the entire weekend, pricks and gashes of light, all joining up to form a long archipelago across the doubting world, proving to us that for unnumbered players and fans, the Davis Cup matters as much as ever.
With an impeccable 22-2 record in Davis Cup doubles going into today’s match, most people had penned in a US victory for the Bryan brothers in yesterday’s doubles rubber against Brazil. But in tennis it’s never safe to count on the better team on paper. Marcelo Melo and Bruno Soares have had success playing the Bryans in the past, having beaten the brothers twice, although on clay. This was a whole new ballgame, playing to keep their country alive in the tie, on foreign soil, against the best doubles team in the world. It was almost inconceivable that Brazil could pull off such a victory under the circumstances.
Team Brazil came out to play from the first point, as Bruno Soares put in it the post match press conference, “to beat these guys, you have to be 110%. Today we showed we were 110%, most important for five sets. We didn’t drop for one second.” He was correct. Even when the team went down three set points in the first set tiebreak, they kept calm and were able to go on to win the breaker and take the first set. Things got more heated at the end of the second set tie break, won by the Americans, when their was some controversy over an exclamation by Bob Bryan, seemingly towards Marcelo Melo. The crowd made more of a fuss about the exchange than either team did.
Both teams played down the incident in their post match interviews. Bob Bryan cited the charged environment, saying, “Davis Cup is an emotional atmosphere. They got passionate after they thought they won the set. I got passionate to them. There were some words said. You know, no hard feelings, no grudges.” The sentiment was similar from the Brazilians. Marcelo Melo seemed a bit confused about what happened, saying, “Bob never did this before. We have really good relationship. I have him as a friend. In that moment I got in shock. How Bob did this, is not normal.” He mentioned he would have to review the footage later to see what really happened, but he seemed fairly certain that Bob meant no harm to him directly.
The overall atmosphere in the arena could not have been any more different from Day 1, where the crowd never seemed able to get into the singles matches. The crowd was firmly behind the home team, but there were a few Brazilian fans in the house which made for an even livelier air. The Americans on the Team USA bench were just as pumped up as the crowd, up on their feet as often as not. Ryan Harrison did a particularly good job getting the crowd cheering.
While Team USA would’ve been thrilled to capture the tie on Saturday, fans attending Sunday’s event somewhat benefit from Brazil’s doubles victory. What would’ve been dead rubbers will now be more exciting events. Sunday’s matches begin at 12PM EST and feature reverse singles John Isner v. Thomaz Bellucci followed directly by Sam Querrey v. Thiago Alves.
The USA Davis Cup squad got off to a quick start on Friday in their first round tie against Brazil. Sam Querrey easily overcame Brazil’s No. 1 player, Thomaz Bellucci, in straight sets. Sam Querrey served very well, but Bellucci definitely handed him a few games. He admitted to being a bit nervous in the first few games, but settled in after the first break.
This is the first home tie for both Querrey and Isner and this was Sam Querrey’s first victory in a live singles rubber. Unfortunately, the crowd for the first match was about as flat as Bellucci’s game. However, the sparse audience did a great job of supporting the home team. When asked about the crowd support, Querrey responded, “they got surprisingly loud there at the end for an arena that wasn’t full.” He also urged fans to come out tomorrow to watch the Bryan brothers, who he unequivocally deemed the greatest doubles team of all time.
The crowd had an easier time getting into the second match, which was surprisingly less one sided than the first. Where Thomaz Bellucci seemed resigned to lose, Thiago Alves maintained a very positive attitude against John Isner, a player ranked 125 spots higher than him. After losing the first set 6-3, Alves hung in there in the second and had plenty of chances against the American. All of the sudden the Brazilian bench was on its feet and Brazilian fans surfaced in the crowd, forcing the US fans to step up their game.
Based on the players’ body language, an onlooker would have easily mistaken the score of the match in favor of Brazil. Alves was fist pumping after every winning point, while Isner lumbered around the court, a point he was quick to address in his post match press conference, saying, ” I don’t realize it when I’m out there, but I guess I am pretty slow and pretty deliberate, especially in a three-out-of-five-set match.” The good news was that the attitude had nothing to do with the knee pain that sidelined Isner during the Australian Open. Regardless of Saturday’s outcome, John Isner stated that he plans to play the reverse singles rubber on Sunday.
Saturday’s schedule features Bob and Mike Bryan against Brazilian players Marcelo Melo and Bruno Soares. This match gives the brothers a chances to clinch the tie for the United States. The last time the Bryan brothers lost a Davis Cup match was 2008, but their not prepared to write in that “W” quite yet. In Thursday’s post-draw press conference, Bob Bryan said, “we have to go out there and play good tennis, have to execute. This is a team that has beaten us before. They beat us in a big match at the French. We really respect them. We know a lot about them, they know a lot about us.” It’s smart never to take the competition likely, but the Bryans have an impressive 22-2 record in Davis Cup doubles.
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
James Crabtree is currently in Melbourne Park covering the Australian Open for Tennis Grandstand and is giving you all the scoop directly from the grounds.
By James Crabtree
It is difficult to fathom how hard Nicholas Almagro strikes the ball.
He glares with the eyes of a temperamental bull, but hits with the flowing grace and control of a Matador. An interesting scenario, Almagro uses his racquet as a muleta to tease and finish a pesky ferret.
A method that was proving successful for the first time.
Ferrer has beaten Almagro all twelve times they have played, including 5 losses in finals, a matter that doesn’t sit well with Almagro. “I don’t want to think about that. He is the No. 4 of the world. He is the favourite. He beat me many times, but many matches were close.”
Still, this was only their second meeting at a grand slam, and surprisingly Almagro looked like the player with more experience.
Ferrer was coming up against a player who was in rhythm, a player who controlled the rallies with the crosscourt backhand, then owned it with a backhand down the line.
Only one break of serve separated them in the first and second set, proving how many matches are decided by just a few crucial points.
Still, Ferrer was being rushed and uncharacteristically antagonised, vocalising his disdain and even swiping his racquet down on the court.
Meanwhile Almagro had all but passed the finish line and banked a cheque of $500,000, the guaranteed sum for a grand slam semi-final and $250,000 more than the quarterfinal purse.
Obstinate to the last, Ferrer dug in with Almagro serving for the match two sets to love up and 5-4. Now the tension the favourite had felt was all gone. Subsequently Ferrer edged himself forward on the baseline whilst his opponent attempted to win by pushing the ball.
Suddenly Ferrer was playing his typical game, taking the set and reminding his opponent that he still had to finish the quarter final. Ferrer reflected, “Well, it’s very difficult to win [against]Nico [Almagro], no? I think he played better than me in the first set. There was a break. I play bad in myself in one break. In the second, I didn’t play good, no? In the third, I feel better with my game. I can play more aggressive.”
Ferrer had stolen the momentum that Almagro craved and now everyone expected that the match would go the distance.
Indeed, the fifth set came but only after an unbearably tense fourth set, where again Almagro squandered his chances, twice serving again for the match before losing in the tiebreak. “I think the tiebreak of the fourth set I played very good. And in the fifth, he was cramping, problems with his leg, so it was easier for me,” reflected Ferrer to reporters of his 4-6, 4-6, 7-5, 7-6, 6-2 victory.
Almagro, nursing a suspected injured groin and wearing an incredulous smile ran out of drive, reeling at the opportunity lost.
The two players hugged afterwards, their level of friendship striking after such destructive circumstances, with Ferrer humble of his achievement, “I try to fight every point, every game. I know all the players in important moments we are nervous. I know that. I try to do my best. Today I was close to lost, sure. But finally I come back, no?”
Ferrer progresses to the semi-final where he will face either Novak Djokovic or Tomas Berdych.
By Maud Watson
Party in Prague
When it comes to the elite team competition in tennis, 2012 will forever be remembered as the year of the Czechs. Tomas Berdych and Petra Kvitova got the ball rolling with their victory run at the Hopman Cup in January, and they played their parts in helping the Czech Republic to end the year in style as Fed and Davis Cup champions. It was the Czech Davis Cup team that completed the trio of championships, which was no small feat with power house Spain standing in their way to the title. It was a true team effort by the duo of Berdych and Radek Stepanek. Each won a point for singles and teamed up to secure a crucial point in the doubles to defeat Spain 3-2. As with other top players in the past, the victory will likely help Berdych continue his upward trend. He’ll be able to draw on the experience of coming through in a clutch five-set win in the second rubber to draw even with Spain on the opening day of the tie. But the bigger moment of the tie belongs to Stepanek. He’s never enjoyed near the same amount of success as game’s greats, so coming through in the decisive fifth rubber to seal the deal is likely to be the crowning moment of his career. It was a phenomenal effort by the Czechs, and going forward, they’re going to be a tough out for any nation.
Dissension in the Ranks
Spain’s loss in the Davis Cup final left a bad taste in the mouth, and it had nothing to do with the defeat that they’d been dealt at the hands of the Czech Republic. Instead, it came from within the team itself, and the bulk of the blame lies primarily on the shoulders of Feliciano Lopez. It was ultimately Nicolas Almagro that came up short in the singles, and his teammates did little console him after his two heartbreaking losses. But the fact that this team wouldn’t quite gel was made evident by F. Lopez’s comments before the tie even began – comments that may have played a part in Almagro’s nervous play as he likely felt the need to justify his place on the squad. All credit to Captain Corretja, who stood by Almagro and declared he’d pick the same four guys if he had it to do all over again. It was instead F. Lopez who was left with the most egg on his face, as he attempted to backtrack and smooth over his previous comments. This was an ugly loss for Spain, and Corretja is going to have a bit of work to do in order to mend fences and prepare a team for a 2013 Davis Cup run.
American tennis took another hit this past week when the Farmer’s Classic held at UCLA was discontinued, and its ATP sanction was sold to a group in Bogota, Colombia. It was tremendous loss as the historic event dated back to 1927 and saw many of tennis’ greats grace its courts, including Laver, Ashe, Sampras, and Agassi. But in recent years, the event struggled to find solid sponsors, the fields became less star-studded, which led to lower revenues, and therefore resulted in the difficult realization that the tournament needed to be sold. It’s a blow to tennis in that region, and it also means one less opportunity to expose young American sports enthusiasts to the game. It’s a worrying trend for American tennis, and one organizers at all levels of the game in the United States need to reverse, and reverse fast.
The brainchild of StarGames President Jerry Solomon and the ITF, World Tennis Day is set for March 4, and there’s some tantalizing tennis on offer. As has been the case the last few years, there will be some entertaining matches at New York’s Madison Square Garden, with Azarenka playing Serena Williams and Nadal facing del Potro. But also on that day, on the other side of the world in Asia, Li Na will compete against Wozniacki, and even Lendl and McEnroe will renew their rivalry. More star-studded matchups may be scheduled, as the hope is to hold several pro events around the world and tie them to grassroots programs in order to grow the game. They couldn’t have picked two better markets in which to stage the events, with the matches likely to continue the forward momentum of tennis in Asia and with any luck reverse the downward spiral the game is enduring in the United States. So here’s to hoping this initiative is not only a success, but the start of many more successes to come.
Arguably the biggest question in tennis for 2013 is what will happen with Rafael Nadal. Video footage surfaced earlier this week of the Spaniard practicing on hard courts, and you can be sure he’ll give everything he has to be ready to go when the season gets underway. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find a player with more grit, determination, and drive. Still, it’s hard to predict how he’ll fair. When we last saw Nadal, he’d suffered his worst defeat at a major when he was bounced out of the second round of Wimbledon. A rejuvenated Federer took back the No. 1 ranking and had a very successful summer. Andy Murray upped his level to claim Olympic and US Open glory. Guys like Ferrer, Berdych, and del Potro stepped up to the plate with statements of their own, with de Potro in particular looking like he might now finally be ready to crash into the Big Four. And then Nadal’s most troublesome nemesis, Djokovic, capped off a good year with a strong autumn and finished No. 1. Granted, some of these events were potentially helped by the absences of the Spaniard, but that won’t take away from the confidence these players have gained through those accomplishments. Nothing is impossible when it comes to Nadal, but on anything outside of clay, when you take stock of what has transpired in the second half of 2012 and add it to his extended layoff, it appears likely that Nadal will find it trickier to find his footing than he did when he returned from injury in 2009. But no matter what happens, we all look forward to seeing Nadal and the rest of the competitors duke it out for bragging rights in 2013.
by James A. Crabtree
David Ferrer has been an elite top ten player for a considerable amount of time. He has made four grand slam semi-finals and won three Davis Cup titles for Spain.
He has also won eighteen career titles and leads the 2012 tour with titles won in Paris, Valencia , Bastad , s-Hertogenbosch , Acapulco , Buenos Aires and Auckland . If you weren’t counting that is seven titles and on every surface.
Not bad for a guy who could have ended up on a building site.
“Once, as a teenager, when Ferrer did not practice hard enough, his coach, Javier Piles, locked him in a completely dark 2m x 2m ball closet for several hours, giving him only a piece of bread and a bit of water. After this incident he was fed up with tennis and went to work at a construction site, but after a week he returned to Piles and asked if he could remain at the club and play tennis. As of 2012, he is still coached by Piles and has said he considers him a second father.”
Simply put Ferrer is a player who has become a tennis master on the grandest of stages because of necessity. Not only does he have the talent, but also the determination needed to match it to become successful. It is obvious that he has found his resolve from hours and hours on the practice court then consistently polished it to a winning formula when the points have counted. Judgement and retort, dependability and dexterity. The guy’s feet never ever stop moving, even on a changeover.
But should David Ferrer be an elite player? Well, no, depending on whom you ask?
For a start experts believe an elite player should be 6’1 or taller and they should possess a dominant serve. The majority of technicians believe a player should hit the forehand with a circular ark. Fans believe a player should have one dominate stroke that strikes fear into any foe.
On the face of it David Ferrer has none of these attributes. For a start he is listed at the most popular actor height of 5’9, which puts him at eye level with Johnny Depp and Robert De Niro. He isn’t intimidating like Del Potro, flashy like Tsonga or powerful like Berdych. In fact of all men ranked within the top 10 some would argue that Ferrer is the least talked about. He doesn’t have a dominate stroke and he scurries around the court in between points like a man without a coat on a cold winters night.
However during point play the scurrying takes on a whole new form. His side stepping baseline coverage beggars belief. Most importantly he takes charge when returning serve. Statistically speaking in 2012 he ranked within the top five for points won on the first serve, second serve and return games won. He is fourth on the all-time list of career return games won, winning 35%. In layman’s terms the servers are under pressure. Once the ball comes back the pressure is compounded by the consistent grinding that has been the major characteristic of his career, and the success of his most recent win in Paris.
A career that could have been very different, it’s safe to say that this determined little Spaniard has made the right choice in pursuing a professional tennis career over that of a very different sort of grind.