julian knowle

Up for the Cup! First-Round Davis Cup World Group Preview

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.

Pick:  Canada

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.

Pick:  Italy

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.

Pick:  Serbia

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.

Pick:  USA

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.

Pick:  France

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.

Pick:  Austria

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

Tennis In The Commonwealth

By Leigh Sanders

The following is Leigh Sanders’ weekly look at tennis headlines in “The Commonwealth” or the traditional tennis powerhouses that were former members of the British Empire, most notably Australia, South Africa, India, Canada and, of course, Great Britain.

The final line-up for the ATP World Tour Finals in London continues to take shape with only three places remaining for the elite eight-man tournament. Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic and Juan Martin del Potro have already qualified and France’s Jo-Wilfried Tsonga took his third title of the season by winning the Japan Open on Sunday to move a step closer to being there. Andy Roddick looks set to be there also, providing the injury that has forced him to withdraw from the Shanghai Masters isn’t serious, but the final two places are fiercely being fought over. Any two of Tsonga, Nikolay Davydenko, Fernando Verdasco, Gilles Simon, Robin Soderling and Fernando Gonzalez could qualify depending on results between now and then. The tournament will be held at London’s O2 Arena from Sunday 22 to Sunday 29 November 2009.

Britain’s Ross Hutchins missed out on the second doubles title of his career at the Japan Open in Tokyo when, paired with Australia’s Jordan Kerr, they lost the final to Austrian pair Jurgen Melzer and Julian Knowle 6-2, 5-7, 10-8.

Australian star Lleyton Hewitt is out of the Shanghai Masters after losing to eleventh seed Gael Monfils of France, coached by Hewitt’s former mentor Roger Rasheed. After taking the first set Hewitt went down 4-6, 6-4, 6-2. Hewitt did, though, climb three places to 23rd in this week’s ATP rankings, published October 12th. Compatriot Peter Luczak also climbed two places to 64th this week while another Australian, Chris Guccione, also jumped two places to 107th.

Canadian Daniel Nestor remained top of the doubles rankings (October 12) although he is tied on 10,760 points with Serbia’s Nenad Zimonjic. He has played two tournaments less, however, which gives him the top berth. Australia’s Jordan Kerr climbs three places to 32nd following his finals appearance at the Japan Open but his compatriot Paul Hanley drops a place as a result to 34th. Another Australian, Stephen Huss, dropped twelve places to 46th.

Former world number one on the women’s side Justine Henin has been granted a wildcard for the 2010 Australian Open following her announcement she was returning to the professional tour. Will she repeat Kim Clijsters’ successful return to this year’s US Open? Her first competitive tournament will be the Brisbane International, which begins January 3, 2010.

Novak Djokovic will overtake Britain’s Andy Murray in the ATP rankings on October 19 following his 6-2, 7-6 (7-4) win over Croatia’s Marin Cilic in the final of the China Open on Sunday.

Australian Samantha Stosur is through to the second round of the HP Open in Osaka, Japan. She is looking to improve on recent results that have seen her slip a place to 15th in this week’s WTA rankings, published October 12. Canada’s Aleksandra Wozniak climbed four places to 31st while another Aussie, Jelena Dokic, also slipped one place to 69th.

In the doubles rankings (October 12th), Canadian Marie-Eve Pelletier climbed a place to 68th in the world while Natalie Grandin of South Africa rose from 83rd to 79th. Brit Sarah Borwell fell from 77th to 81st and another one to drop in the rankings was Sharon Fichman of Canada who now finds herself ranked 99th in the world.

British number three Katie O’Brien faces US Open finalist Caroline Wozniacki in the second round of the Japan Open after her first round victory over American Alexa Glatch on Monday. O’Brien is celebrating her career-high 94 on the rankings which has allowed her to enter some WTA tournaments alongside those on the second-tier of the ITF circuit.

Other British players with victories under their belts this week include Alex Bogdanovic, Sarah Borwell and Emily Webley-Smith. Bogdanovic is through to the second round of the ATP Challenger in Denmark while Borwell is through in the $220,000 event in Linz, Austria. Webley-Smith and partner Danielle Brown are through to the quarterfinals of the doubles at the $25k event at Port Pirie, Australia.

Guernsey-born 2009 US Junior Open winner Heather Watson says she is ready to turn professional. The 17-year-old has been in Britain battling it out in the Aegon Pro Series in Barnstaple but has now been eliminated from both singles and doubles play. Now living and training in Florida she says she aims to turn professional on her return there.