By James A. Crabtree
So it’s April and that means two things. The first quarter of the year is over and the European clay court season is about to begin.
So what have we learned?
Well, rather a lot.
The beginning of the tennis year started in December 2012. With this the whole of Australia became hysterical after Bernard Tomic went nuts at the Hopman Cup and beat both Tommy Haas and Novak Djokovic. After that young Bernie continued the streak and won his first title in Sydney prompting some to feel, including probably Bernie himself, that the second coming of Rod Laver was upon us. He did of course become unstuck at The Australian Open, after much hoopla, in a one sided loss to a certain Mr Federer. Bernie hasn’t done much since and it’s doubtful the European clay will help his cause.
During the same period Janko Tipsarevic quietly won in Chennai, Gasquet in Doha and Andy Murray in Brisbane. More fuss was made of the emergence of Baby Fed Grigor Dimitrov who made the Brisbane final, and the fact Tomas Berdych lost in the quarters and was wearing unbranded clothing – the poor darling. He has since signed with Swedish fashion brand H&M.
A week later and David Ferrer was up to his usual tricks – cleaning up at ATP 250 events, this time in Auckland. As a matter of fact Ferrer should be banned from 250 events or at least given some sort of handicap like favoured racehorses. He has won 20 career tournaments 12 of which have been ATP 250 events. Not bad for a labourer from Spain.
Two weeks into 2013 and it was already the Australian Open, which went very boringly to Novak’s script. Highlights included Federer in pink shoes and Stan Wawrinka’s battle where he managed to scare Novak in his silver shoes, in the fourth round.
Davis Cup followed the first slam of the year with the surprise elimination of understrength Spain at the hands of Canada and a certain Mr Milos Raonic.
By February Frenchman Richard Gasquet was proving he is still a force, beating the rising Benoit Paire who has severe difficulty against his countrymen.
Down in Zagreb Marin Cilic won his first tournament since Umag in July last year. We bet he wishes the entire tour was played in Croatia as he would surely be the world’s number one player, having won 5 of his 9 tournaments on home soil.
The week, however, belonged to Rafael Nadal who made his comeback to the tour in Chile after what felt like a ten year absence. Nadal lost to Argentinian Horacio Zeballos in the final who was on fire for the week, prompting many to say that Nadal was indeed finished and would never return to his best.
Over in Rotterdam Juan Martin del Potro beat Julian Benneteau, who had taken care of childhood rival Roger Federer earlier in the tournament. Sadly for Benneteau he lost his eighth successive ATP final, a streak he would surely like to break.
In Brazil Rafael Nadal seemed unfazed by his previous loss and romped to victory over taking out the ever moody David Nalbandian in the final. Nadal as usual bit the trophy he won and expressed how the win was dreamlike.
San Jose played out at the same time and for the last time with Milos taking out old and temperamental Renaissance man Tommy Haas, who may have found the secret of eternal youth.
Memphis indoors provided for Kei Nishikori his third title and hopefully some suede shoes. The Japanese star didn’t drop a set.
‘Allez’ in Marseille for Jo-Wilfred Tsonga where he ousted Tomas Berdych winning his tenth career title and fifth on home soil. Interestingly a player of Berdych’s stature has a pretty mediocre collection of titles with only eight since 2004.
In Buenos Aires David Ferrer picked up his second title of the year and probably breathed a sigh of relief that a certain Mr Nadal didn’t make the trip. A dream for him no doubt.
A week later and Berdych, after beating Federer in the semi’s, lost in another final this time in Dubai. This title went to Novak Djokovic, who was playing his first tournament since winning in Australia. Two out of two for the super Serb.
At Delray Beach the enigmatic Latvian Ernie Gulbis showed another glimpse of talent downing Edouard Roger-Vasselan in the final to win his second title there.
Meanwhile in Acapulco Nadal was playing havoc with Ferrer’s schedule and duly destroyed his fellow countryman in the final 6-0 6-2. Ouch.
The onset of March brought two big tournaments and the end of the big hard court tournaments until after Wimbledon.
First was Indian Wells where Nadal was back to dreaming. Here he made it official he was back and could beat anyone after adding to Federer’s horrible 2013 with a quarterfinal win. He then outlasted Del Potro in the final. More than dream dream.
Over in Miami Andy Murray won his second tournament of the year and seemed more genuinely pleased than when he won the U.S. Open (insert Sean Connery accent – “where’s my watch”). Although it was a great win, the field was depleted with injuries and no-shows. One notable was Tommy Haas making his first 1000 event semi final since 1952 or something. The tournament should also be remembered for the first round squabble between Llodra and Paire that makes “Days of our Lives” look harmonious. And no, they won’t be on each other’s Christmas card list.
The Sum Up
The first three months has seen the emergence of new talent in Tomic, Dimitrov and Paire, and the revival of old in Haas and Gasquet. Most notably for the first time since 2004 Federer and Nadal are both ranked outside the top 3.
Only time will tell what the next quarter will bring.
The anticipation had been building for months following the announcement that Vancouver would host its first Davis Cup tie in 20 years. It also just so happened to be the biggest non-Rogers Cup tennis event to be held on Canadian soil in the last decade.
In the end, the Canada-France first round World Group tie lived up to the hype and delivered on expectations despite Milos Raonic being forced to withdraw from the much-anticipated reverse singles match up with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga because of pain in his knee.
Raonic played and won his singles match on Friday, defeating Julien Benneteau in straight sets, putting forth a virtually flawless performance to give Canada it’s only point of the weekend in a 4-1 defeat. Level at 1-1 after Friday’s singles, Canadian captain Martin Laurendeau substituted the in-form Raonic for Vasek Pospisil to play with Daniel Nestor for the crucial doubles point. In the end, the French pair of Benneteau and Michael Llodra played subliminal doubles to secure the second point for France and Canada was dealt a major blow when it was discovered that Raonic had tweaked his knee during the first set which would ultimately keep him out of Sunday’s reverse singles.
Frank Dancevic replaced Raonic against Tsonga in the first match on Sunday and acquitted himself more than admirably, playing inspired tennis that ignited the boisterous crowd at the Doug Mitchell Thunderbird Sports Centre. Dancevic’s performance, perhaps his best since the former world no. 65 made a surprise run to the quarter-finals o f the Rogers Cup presented by National Bank in Montreal in 2007, just wasn’t enough against Tsonga who was also at the top of his game, hitting winners from seemingly everywhere on the court. The World no. 6 posted an impressive 6-4, 6-4, 6-1 win to propel France into the Davis Cup quarter-finals where they will play the United States on home soil. Tsonga said he was disappointed to miss out on the chance to play Raonic in this setting.
“For us it was a good surprise,” said Tsonga. “Milos (Raonic) is a good player, talented, and I was a bit sad to play against another guy, because I think it (would have been) a good confrontation with Milos.”
For his part, Dancevic thrived in his return to the Canadian Davis Cup squad and enjoyed every minute of playing in front of vocal, supportive fans.
“I felt the energy out there and I felt like I had a lot of momentum on my side,” Dancevic said. “I felt like anything could happen … and it came down to just a few important shots by him, especially in the second set. He painted the lines on a few forehands, hit some unbelievable down-line and cross-court one-hand backhands.”
Gael Monfils, who did not play Friday’s singles match against Raonic as originally anticipated, and Vasek Pospisil concluded the tie with an entertaining match that wowed the crowd featured more than one highlight reel shot from the always flamboyant Monfils. The Frenchman defeated Pospisil, Canada’s Davis Cup hero in 2011, 6-4, 6-4.
A total of 15,233 spectators attended the tie over the three days and certainly made themselves heard throughout the weekend and showed why Vancouver is the fastest growing tennis city in Canada. The Canadian team left with many lessons learned as they look ahead to their World Group playoff tie in September, but also proved they belonged among the top 16 Davis Cup countries in the world.
The time has come! While Andrea has done a great job breaking down the World Group match-ups, I thought I’d spell out for you the specific reasons why you should set your alarm for 5AM, skip work, cancel all of your social plans, and dedicate your entire Friday, Saturday, and Sunday to the wonder that is Davis Cup.
10. The Newcomers
It’s been 8 years since Canada has been in the World Group. For Japan it’s been 27. In both cases the newcomers, led by youngsters Milos Raonic and Kei Nishikori respectively, will be looking to prove that they belong with the big guns. Both teams have uphill battles- Japan hosts Croatia and Canada hosts France, but there’s nothing quite as exciting as fresh blood.
In a giant reversal of storylines, Federer is the only one of the “Big 4″ playing in Davis Cup this weekend. To top it off, he’s playing in Switzerland, against a depleted but still fun-to-beat American squad, and with good buddy Stanislas Wawrinka by his side. Love him or not, it will be fun to see the Legend soak in the well-deserved adoration and play in a team atmosphere on his home turf.
8. Russian Roulette
The Russian Davis Cup Team has undergone a bit of a makeover. Alex Bogomolov, Jr. is not only making his Russian debut, but he’s the team’s #1 player. Dmitry Tursnov and Igor Andreev, team mainstays, are absent while the struggling Nikolay Davydenko and the wildcard Igor Kunitsyn take their place. Mikhail Youzhny is coming off singles and doubles victories in Zagreb, but has been complaining to the press about an injured shoulder. All in all, there’s absolutely no telling what to expect from Team Russia as they travel to Jurgen Melzer’s Austria this weekend, and as always- that’s part of the fun.
7. Veterans Day
Some players have proven time and time again that they adapt to the Davis Cup atmosphere better than others. Whether it’s Melzer leading his Austrian team, Tomas Berdych and Radek Stepanek becoming mental giants for the Czech Republic, or David Nalbandian discovering the game (and legs) of his youth, there’s nothing quite as exhilarating as seeing the veteran guys play their hearts out for their country.
6. The Battle of the Misfits
One of the ties I’m most looking forward to is Spain/Kazakhstan. The Spanish Davis Cup stalwarts (Rafael Nadal, David Ferrer, Feliciano Lopez, and Fernando Verdasco) who have dominated the team competition for the past few years are sitting out this year, paving the way for their less heralded countrymen (Nicolas Almagro, Marcel Granollers, Legend and Former #1 Juan Carlos Ferrero, and Marc Lopez). Meanwhile Kazakhstan’s team is full of former Russians (Mikhail Kukushkin, Andrey Golubev, Yuri Schukin, and Evgeny Korolev) who migrated over to the neighboring country for a chance to shine. It will be fun to see all of these former “back-ups” take the stage and fight for Davis Cup glory.
5. Tommy Haas
Do I really need to explain this one? The often injured but forever adored German (when he’s not American) is back in Davis Cup action for the first time in five years! How lucky are we? Let’s just sit back and enjoy.
4. The Other Groups
Believe it or not, the World Group Playoffs aren’t the only Davis Cup action happening this weekend. There are some pretty crucial ties happening in “Group I” and “Group II” (don’t you dare ask me to explain what that means). Teams in action that you might be interested in are: Ukraine (Sergiy Stakhovsky! Sergei Bubka- yes, Vika’s boyfriend!) vs. Monaco, Uzbekistan (Denis Istomin- am I the only one interested in him?) vs. New Zealand, Australia (Hewitt! Tomic! You know them!) vs. China, P.R., Great Britain (Murray-less) vs. Slovak Republic (starring recent ATP Zagreb finalist Lukas Lacko). You’d be amiss if you didn’t scavenge for some (surely static) streams for the lesser-known teams this weekend too.
3. The New Heroes
Every year Davis Cup weekend, especially the first round, breeds unheralded heroes. Something about the five-set format, the team unity, and the pressure/invigoration of playing for one’s country brings out the best in some unsuspecting players. Who will it be this weekend? Could Milos lead the Canadians past the accomplished French team? Could the upstart Japanese make Davis Cup history against Croatia? Could the Swedish team find a miracle and cause the Serbian team to sweat? As cliche as it sounds, expect a new Davis Cup legend to be born.
2. Double Trouble
Davis Cup is the time for Doubles to shine, and this weekend is no different. This weekend we have spectacular Doubles storylines: the reunions of fan favorites Fedrinka (Federer and Wawrinka) and Bendra (Julien Benneteau and Michael Llodra), the eternal mystery of who the other Bryan Brother will be (Bob Bryan is home playing father duty, so either Mardy Fish, John Isner, or Ryan Harrison will take his place alongside Mike Bryan in Switzerland), and the always delightful Davis Cup return of BerdWorm (Berdych and Stepanek). Whether you’re a fan of doubles, awkwardness, hysteria, or just misplaced volleys, Saturday will be a special day for you.
1. The Cheerleaders
Let’s be honest- Davis Cup really isn’t about the tennis. It’s about seeing the bromance on the benches as the fellow team members watch and frazzle along with us. Nothing is as great as seeing a good cheerleader- whether it be Roger Federer on his feet urging on Stanislas Wawrinka, Juan Carlos Ferrero fist-pumping a Nicolas Almagro winner, or John Isner and Ryan Harrison embracing when Mardy Fish gets to set point, there is no better reason to watch Davis Cup than to inspect the camaraderie on the benches.
There’s always a tennis lull for a week or two after a Grand Slam. How many of you were really paying attention to what happened in Zagreb or Montpellier or Viña del Mar? Tell the truth, do you even know where Viña del Mar is? Well, perk up, Davis Cup weekend is coming up. It’s an excellent way to ease back in to watching tennis. There are ties in watchable time zones for almost any part of the world and there are only three days to keep track of. Sounds too easy? Well, it kind of is. There are eight ties to keep track of, spanning three continents. Here’s a short guide to this weekend’s action.
Spain vs. Kazakhstan
Venue: Oviedo, Spain
Spain’s been the team to beat for the last several years, led by the nearly invincible Rafael Nadal. They’re the defending champions, and it would be embarrassing if they were to lose to Kazakhstan in the first round. Kazakhstan has exactly one player in the Top 100. Spain has thirteen, a veritable smorgasbord of options to compile a four man team. Spain’s top guys, Rafael Nadal and David Ferrer, have chosen to sit out, so the team will be led by No. 11, Nicolas Almagro. Throw in Marcel Granollers, Juan Carlos Ferrero, and Marc Lopez for the doubles, and the home advantage and I’m pretty sure they will be able to conquer Team Kazakhstan.
Austria vs. Russia
Venue: Wiener Neustadt, Austria
This tie is notable because Alex Bogomolov, Jr. will be making his debut on the Russian Davis Cup team, as the top ranked player no less. Mikhail Youzhny will be second in command and coming in strong off both a singles title and a doubles title in Zagreb last week. Nikolay Davydenko and Igor Kunitsyn round off the Russian team. Team Austria has the hometown advantage but their star, Jurgen Melzer, has been struggling lately and they don’t have much in the way of depth.
Canada vs. France
Venue: Vancouver, Canada
Canada is kind of like the little engine that could. Not known for a strong tennis tradition, they put in a very impressive performance to beat Israel in the playoffs. But, France is no Israel. France is a Davis Cup power house. Much like Spain, their options for Top 100 players number in the double digits. They will also be bringing their two strongest players to Vancouver, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Gael Monfils. Versatile players Julien Benneteau and Michael Lloda will also make the trip. Either player can be called up for singles or doubles. Vasek Pospisil stepped up as the hero of the Israel tie, but it will take some serious team work to get past France. Canada will likely need a great performance from Milos Raonic.
Switzerland vs. USA
Venue: Fribourg, Switzerland
I’m not one of the believers that US tennis is dead, but I don’t give them great odds when it comes to beating Roger Federer and Stanislas Wawrinka, on indoor clay, in Switzerland. Mardy Fish and John Isner are reasonable clay players, but neither is up to Federer’s level on any surface. The US can usually count on a doubles win by Bob and Mike Bryan, but Bob has chosen to sit out the tie to spend some time with his newborn daughter so Mike will be making the trip solo. He could play with either Fish or Isner, as both are fair doubles players, but they almost certainly won’t have the magic that Bob and Mike create. Switzerland might as well be a two man team. Federer and Wawrinka will play until the tie is won and the doubles will be good practice as they will be looking to defend their Olympic title this summer.
Czech Republic vs. Italy
Venue: Ostrava, Czech Republic
Tomas Berdych was triumphant last week in Montpellier and Radek Stepanek is fresh off a doubles title at the Australian Open. Much like Federer and Wawrinka, they will likely make up a two man team that should easily conquer the crafty Italians.
Serbia vs. Sweden
Venue: Nis, Serbia
Both of these teams will be missing their best players this weekend. Novak Djokovic is sitting out the tie and Robin Soderling has been sidelined since Wimbledon. Lucky for Serbia, they have two singles players in the Top 25 and Sweden doesn’t have a singles player in the Top 300. It’s going to be a tough ask for Michael Ryderstedt and Carl Bergman.
Japan vs. Croatia
Venue: Hyogo, Japan
Kei Nishikori is the high ranked Japanese player in history and the first to make it to the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam. He leads a reasonably strong team on home turf. I’m calling upset potential on this one. Croatia is a tough opponent, but if Nishikori can win his first singles match and Japan can swing the doubles, I would give them a strong chance.
Germany vs. Argentina
Venue: Bamberg, Germany
This is possibly the most interesting tie on the schedule for this weekend. Argentina had a rather gut wrenching loss to Spain in last year’s final and is still in search of their first Davis Cup crown. If Juan Martin del Potro was participating, I would give Argentina the strong edge. Even without their best player, Argentina has a very good team. Juan Monaco won his first title in five years last week and David Nalbandian always brings his best in Davis Cup. I honestly can’t reason out why Germany chose indoor clay. The Argentines love clay. Why not go for a hard court? Either way, the German team is also pretty strong this time around. There’s not really a weak link among Mayer, Kohlschreiber, Petzschner, and Haas.
Two years removed from hosting the 2010 Winter Olympic Games, the city of Vancouver will be all about tennis this week as many of the sport world’s eyes will be focused on the Doug Mitchell Thunderbird Sports Centre, which will host Canada’s biggest Davis Cup tie in the last decade beginning Friday.
Canada will host a powerhouse team from France, which includes Gael Monfils and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, in their first World Group tie since 2004. This also marks the first time since 1992 that Vancouver will host a Davis Cup tie.
Led by their two young guns, Milos Raonic and Vasek Pospisil, who played the role of Davis Cup hero last year to give his country this opportunity, Canada will attempt to pull off a huge upset in their first home tie since 2009. For the occasion, Tennis Canada has selected a fast indoor hard court that should help produce a few more aces and winners from the heavy-hitting Canadian racquets.
Not only did the event sell out within an hour, but the organizing committee has pulled out all of the stops to give their squad every advantage as they go after this monumental victory. “Operation Red and White” is encouraging fans to wear their country’s colours regardless of where they will be watching the matches and reinforces that France won’t win, at least “Not On Our Court”. In addition, the Cactus Club Café in Vancouver is the official Team Canada Headquarters to watch the tie for fans who don’t have a ticket.
The one and only meeting between Canada and France in Davis Cup came way back in 1966 on the clay courts of Roland-Garros with the home side coming away with a dominant 5-0 win. The home team this time around is hoping for a much different result and Raonic and Pospisil will have to play the matches of their lives to make it happen. Not only will France be tough in singles, but they have also brought Julien Benneteau and Michael Llodra, two of their doubles specialists to counter Canadian legend Daniel Nestor, who usually guarantees a point when he suits up for the crucial doubles rubber.
“It’s a short time frame compared to the other years, usually we have play in March so we have an extra month to get the match count high enough to feel really good about anybody’s game,” said Team Canada captain Martin Laurendeau. “But, the fact that it’s following a Grand Slam and it’s early in the season has forced the guys to be sharp early in the year and we are playing some good tennis right now.”
The task at hand may be a very difficult one, but there is a reason they play the game and the Canadian underdogs plan on showing their home fans why.