Team USA

From Canucks to Kazakhs: Previewing the Davis Cup World Group Quarterfinals

Balanced among four continents, the Davis Cup World Group quarterfinals illustrate the diversity of excellence in this sport.  From Vancouver, Canada to Astana, Kazakhstan, each of the ties contains multiple storylines that we discuss in a preview.

Canada vs. Italy:  Choice of surface often plays a crucial role in handing the home team a Davis Cup advantage, and such may prove the case again when a nation of fast-court players hosts a nation of clay specialists.  While Andreas Seppi and Fabio Fognini excel on the prevailing surface of Europe, the edge swings to the massive serves of Milos Raonic and the similarly aggressive style of Vasek Pospisil on the indoor hard court that Canada has laid in Vancouver.  Thumping Davis Cup superpower Spain in this arena to start 2013 World Group play, Raonic and his compatriots should have gained a valuable boost of confidence, albeit a little mitigated by the Canadian No. 1’s recent illness.  If Pospisil’s youth undoes him against the more experienced Italians, doubles specialist Daniel Nestor might suffice to supplement Raonic’s effort in propelling Canada through.  He has accumulated more renown in that area than any of the Italians, although Pospisil may be the weakest link of the four on the court.  The Canadians certainly will hope to win in three or four rubbers, for nobody wants to gamble on what Italian No. 2 Fognini can produce when inspiration strikes him.

Winner:  Canada

USA vs. Serbia:  With world No. 1 Novak Djokovic towering ominously above this tie, Team USA must rest its hopes on winning the three rubbers that he does not play.  Or must they?  Both of the American singles players, Sam Querrey and John Isner, defeated Djokovic on hard courts last season.  Querrey’s victory came on fast indoor courts in Paris, perhaps similar to those in Boise, while Isner’s triumph came on the marquee stage of Indian Wells, illustrating his tendency to excel on home soil.  Appearing to nurse an abdominal strain in Miami, Djokovic produced one of his least impressive performances on the spring hard courts in years and can fluster under the pressure of overpowering serves.  Much less impressive all season are the two American giants, however, so sustaining a Djokovic-stifling level of play in a best-of-five format seems beyond their grasp.  Instead, they will hope to win the doubles behind Bob and Mike Bryan and pounce on Serbian #2 Viktor Troicki.  Despite a first-round setback against Brazil, the Bryans almost always deliver for Team USA.  But Troicki holds a 5-2 edge over Querrey and Isner, so they will need all of the assistance that the home crowd can give them to make it 5-4.

Winner:  Serbia

Argentina vs. France:  Arguably the best Davis Cup team on paper, France enjoys the rare balance of star power and depth not only two top-15 singles players but an elite doubles squad in Julien Benneteau and Michael Llodra.  Still, all of the Frenchmen will confront the challenge of playing on their worst surface against a team playing on its best.  Hoping that home-court advantage will narrow the talent gap, Argentina welcomes them to the Parque Roca with clay specialists Juan Monaco and Carlos Berlocq.  The former man has watched his ranking skid this year as he has not won a match outside Davis Cup, but he did sweep his two first-round rubbers against Germany.  Playing above his usual level in that tie, Berlocq defeated French No. 2 Simon twice in three clay meetings last year, which could offer the Argentines an edge if the tie reaches a fifth rubber.  To do so, and circumvent French No. 1 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, they likely would have to win the doubles match with their seasoned pair of Horacio Zeballos and David Nalbandian.  Those two have played many a Davis Cup thriller before and usually rise to the occasion, but Benneteau and Llodra usually do too, so the doubles could be the highlight of the weekend.

Winner:  France

Kazakhstan vs. Czech Republic:  If this regularly overachieving group of Kazakhs stunned a Czech team in their native Ostrava two years ago, they must feel sanguine about their chances against the Czechs in Kazakhstan. More important than the location of the tie, moreover, is the absence of Czech #1 Tomas Berdych, which leaves a massive void in the visitors’ singles lineup.  Stepping into the gap, Lukas Rosol hopes to recapture the magic that he found on a single day at Wimbledon but that has eluded him since then.  Neither Rosol nor the other Czech singles entrant, Jan Hajek, boasts much experience of success in Davis Cup.  In contrast, this same Kazakh team has delivered surprise after surprise against favored opponents in this competition.  Lurking in the doubles and perhaps in the Sunday reverse singles, Radek Stepanek must fill the leadership role for the defending champions, but the 34-year-old’s energy is limited and skills fading.  Without a single man in the top 150, the home team should reach the World Group semifinals for the first time.  Whether this reflects poorly or well on Davis Cup is open to debate.

Winner:  Kazakhstan

Christina McHale Ready to Continue Ascent in 2012

Christina McHale chooses not to think about being the next American tennis champion. The 19-year-old also tries not to set specific ranking or tournament goals for herself.

But whatever McHale is doing, it seems to be working.

In just her first full year as a professional on the WTA Tour, McHale has a resume most young tennis players dream about. She upset world No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki in Cincinnati, reached the third round of the 2011 U.S. Open and brought home a bronze medal while representing Team USA at the Pan American Games.

“I’ve gotten a lot more experience this year, playing a lot more matches at the bigger level consistently,” said McHale about her successful season. “I improved my fitness too. I think the big part of it was a lot more experience playing with the top players and playing the full year schedule.”

McHale finished the 2011 season as the second ranked American at No. 43, behind only Serena Williams’ No. 12 ranking. McHale, with her powerful strokes and movement she labels as her “biggest weapon,” leads the contingent of young Americans talents.

Despite the growing accolades, McHale is not letting the success get to her head.

“I really try not to think about [being the next top American player] or put pressure on myself,” she said.  “What I’ve been doing this past year, I haven’t been thinking about things like that. I’ve just been focusing on my game and practicing and things like that. I just want to keep that same mentality.”

McHale grew up in Teaneck, NJ, only a short drive away from the USTA National Training Center in Flushing Meadows, NY – home of the U.S. Open. But her tennis journey began in Hong Kong, where her father, John, was stationed for work. McHale first picked up a racquet at four-years-old, following in the footsteps of her older sister Lauren, who is currently a junior on the University of North Carolina tennis team.

Upon leaving Hong Kong at the age of eight and moving to Englewood Cliffs, NJ, where she resides now, McHale and Lauren shot up the junior ranks. The sisters, who idolized Serena and Venus Williams, both won national titles and set a record for being the first siblings since 1996 (Bob and Mike Bryan) to be in the top 10 year-end rankings in the same age division in 2007.

Three years later, McHale was faced with the decision to turn pro or play in college like her sister. Even with the mounting success and trophies, the choice was not easy.

“I only turned pro last year when I graduated high school [in 2010],” she said. “I was definitely weighing both options. Eventually I knew this is what I wanted to do, and I wanted to take advantage of a time like now. It was definitely a big decision for me.”

The decision has paid dividends, and McHale, with her quiet confidence, is poised for a strong 2012 season. McHale took 10 days off to relax after the Pan American Games but is already in her third week of full training, proving that there is no rest for the weary.

When asked if she was ready to take it to the next level and attention that comes with it, the easy-going McHale responded with wisdom beyond her years.

“I think if I continue to do what I’ve been doing this past year and not get too anxious from results, and if I just let it happen when it’s ready to happen, then I think I’ll be ready.”

(Photos via Getty Images)

Ask Bill – Enjoy Roger Federer While He Lasts!

The USTA made a great move in hiring Patrick McEnroe to serve in the newly created General Manager position; he will be responsible for player development in the country. It would be nearly impossible to have found a candidate with as much universal respect as McEnroe. He embodies the highest standard of character and is no pushover. The players respect him, coaches admire him, administrators can relate to him (or, at least, he to them!), and the media realizes that he has become “one of them” as well.

A few years ago when I was serving as the President of the US Professional Tennis Association’s Eastern Division, I asked Patrick to speak at a coaches’ conference. His wife had a performance the same evening, and getting from Manhattan out to the USTA National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows and back to the city for her show was going to be challenging due to traffic. He never wavered. He charmed and challenged all the attendees and set a strong tone of expectations for American teaching professionals. Knowing that the event had a limited budget, Patrick donated his time. Everyone in tennis seems to have similarly positive experiences with Patrick. With this appointment, he continues his ascendancy as one of the true leaders of our sport. I can attest that he “thinks globally, but acts locally.”

I have been thinking of Patrick’s oldest brother, John, lately as his career relates to the constant Federer Debates. By the end of 1984, John McEnroe was being referred to as the greatest player ever by former champions such as Rod Laver, Jack Kramer, and Don Budge. That season, he lost a mere three matches, and, like Federer in 2006, seemed in a class of his own. By then, McEnroe had eclipsed Bjorn Borg, and proved to be a superior talent to Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl. At 25 years old, he won his eighth major title at the 1984 US Open. Recall that in that era, the top ranking players did not enter the Australian Open as a matter of course, so McEnroe was generally competing in three majors each year (the Masters and WCT Finals would have been considered “bigger” tournaments to win from 1978-85, at least).

By almost any measure, McEnroe’s 1985 season was also brilliant. He won 72 matches and lost just nine. He took eight singles titles. However, he tweaked his hamstring, which slowed him down by perhaps a half-step. He had begun an intense relationship with his future wife Tatum O’Neal. He no longer seemed to be the best mover in the sport. His focus was less myopic. He lost in the second week of each of the four majors that season.

After that season, John McEnroe stayed at the top echelon of the sport but he was never again a serious contender for the major crowns, and his efforts to regain his #1 ranking through the years were frustratingly futile. Others had caught up to him, and they would soon sprint past him. The hunter became the hunted, and the hunted certainly resented that role. The moral of that story: enjoy Roger Federer while he lasts. It might be a minor injury that compromises his sublime movement. It might be an off-court situation that divides his attention. It might be that the next generation simply improves sufficiently to displace the mighty Federer. In sports, these changes can happen pretty quickly.

If Serena Williams is fully engaged with her tennis, and is feeling healthy, can Justine Henin beat her? Maybe on clay. The quarterfinal result from Key Biscayne was a pretty wicked taming of the world’s #1 ranked woman. They are the two best players of their generation, so their matches are fascinating.

There are still some single-session tickets available for the juicy Davis Cup quarterfinal between the US and France in Winston-Salem, NC. The French team is deep and a threat to win any of the five rubbers. Team USA is, of course, looking to become the first back-to-back champions in a decade.

Enjoy the business end of the Sony Ericsson down in Key Biscayne…

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Davis Cup Roundup: First Round Day 2 Doubles Action, February 9

Russia vs. Serbia

The doubles was a must-win match for the Serbians to stay alive, so despite neither player being 100%, Serbia fielded its best possible team in Novak Djokovic and top doubles player Nenad Zimonjic. On the Russian side, Mikhail Youzhny replaced Marat Safin and paired up with Dmitry Tursunov. For the first two sets, the Serbians were in control of the match, but it got much tougher in the third set as the affects of their virus caught up to Djokovic and Zimonjic – after the match Zimonjic would say they were just trying to “survive” during the third set. In fact, the Russian served for that set at 6*-5, but they didn’t and the Serbians went on to win the tiebreaker, allowing their team to try to fight back on Sunday. After the match, Djokovic said he did feel somewhat better but not 100% and did not know if he would be able to come out on Sunday to play Davydenko.

Russia vs Serbia

Czech Republic vs Belgium

With their top two singles players, Tomas Berdych and Radek Stepanek , back on court today for doubles, the Czech Republic clinched its spot in the World Group Quarterfinals with a marathon 5-set win that spanned almost 4 and a half hours. In a see-saw affair, the Czechs served for the first set but ultimately lost it in a tiebreaker. It was an interesting move by the Czechs to stick with their singles players instead of Dlouhy and Vizner, two excellent doubles players on the team. Down a set and a break to the Belgians Kristof Vliegen and Olivier Rochus, the Czechs made a fine comeback, taking the second set also in a tiebreaker. The match continued this back and forth progression through the fifth set, where the Belgians let slip an early break point only to lose it 6-4 in the end, sending the Czechs through to the Quarters.

Argentina vs Great Britain

The only real news we have here is that Great Britain finally made a set close, really close! The British team of Ross Hutchins and doubles specialist Jamie Murray were able to push David Nalbandian and Jose Acasuso to a 13-11 second set tiebreaker. They even had at least one set point in that tiebreaker to give themselves their first set of the whole tie but were unable to convert. Of course then they were bageled in the third, but at least Britain made one set close… So, the Argentines breeze through to the quarterfinals

Israel vs Sweden

Coming off their historical first Grand Slam title, it was up to Israelis Erlich and Ram to give Israel an all-important advantage going into Sunday’s singles tie, and they did not disappoint their home crowd. Starting off well and getting out to an early 3-0 lead, the Israelis were in control from the start. Excellent doubles in their own right, Sweden’s Aspelin and Lindstedt were able to keep the match close despite the straight-sets score. So Israel will head into tomorrow’s reverse singles with a 2-1 advantage and two very interesting matches on Sunday with Sela facing Thomas Johansson first up.

Germany vs Korea

Not a whole lot to say here as Korea interestingly did not play its top player Hyung-Taik Lee and instead played two relative unknowns in Jun and An. The German pairing of Philipps – Kohlschreiber and Petzschner – easily dispatched the Korean team, giving the Germans a 2-1 lead going into tomorrow. The first reverse singles match will pit Kohlschreiber against Lee, which should be an interesting encounter.

Peru vs Spain

After pulling out of yesterday’s opening singles match with an injury, Peru’s only notable player, Luis Horna, managed to suit up for the doubles. Playing with Ivan Miranda, however, the team was still outclassed by a stronger Spanish team – Fernando Verdasco and Feliciano Lopez – two singles players who still have excellent doubles prowess. Although the match was a straight-setter for the Spaniards, the third set was tight and went to a tiebreaker, which the Spaniards ultimately won. With the win, Spain wrapped up its victory and sails through to the quarterfinals. Meanwhile, Peru can still be satisfied that it got to play in the World Group at all in the first place, and it now will look to a World Group Playoff match in September, where it will have to play for the right to be in the World Group next year.

Romania vs France

Hoping to keep themselves alive and also hoping to repeat their surprise upset of the same French team – Arnaud Clement and Michael Llodra – in the same round in Davis Cup play, Mergea and Tecau started slowly, losing serve in the opening game and blowing a 30-0 lead at 4*-5 in the second to lose the first two sets. but fought bravely to come back and win the next two to send the match to a deciding fifth set. In the third set, the Romanians were able to save some crucial break points to force a tiebreaker. And at 5all in the tiebreaker, Llodra, who was the better player of the two throughout the match, gave his partner the chances to end the match on his serve but he missed a volley and allowed the Romanians back into it. Looking like they had all the momentum, the R0manians had a chance to break early in the fifth but were unable to convert and from then on the French eased to victory and to a 3-0 sweep to the Quarterfinals where they will play away in the US.

Austria vs USA

And to the bottom of the draw, which actually provided the first team to move through to the quarterfinals after the Bryan twins put on a dazzling display of doubles tennis to easily win what was, on paper, a difficult matchup for them, to sen the US team to the quarterfinals. Getting off to a flawless start, the Bryans took the opening set 6-1 behind some incredible volleying and returning. As the match wore on, it became more and more apparent that Melzer was still feeling the effects of his marathon against Roddick yesterday; the Bryans noticed this and started targeting him more and more to the point where, by the end of the second set, he could barely make a volley. After the match, the Austrians fully admitted they were simply beaten by two guys playing amazing tennis. And so, what more is there to say?

So, like they have done so many other times, the Bryans wrapped up their match easily in the third set and assured the defending champion Americans a place in the Quarterfinals, which will be held at home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The fact that the US wrapped up the tie today brings extra good news. Word from fans at the tie is that Roddick tweaked his knee at least once on the holey clay surface yesterday and that he was limping today on the sidelines; apparently, Blake was experiencing some back trouble as well. Luckily with the tie wrapped up, both of the Bryans can come out and play in their place tomorrow for the best-of-three set dead rubbers. And of course, hopefully Roddick and Blake aren’t hurt too badly.

Davis Cup Draw Ceremony Roundup: February 7

All around the world today, the First Round Davis Cup draw ceremonies were held. Here’s all the important news and photos from around the globe! We won’t bore you with the “who plays whom first” stuff that you can get easily at the Davis Cup website. Instead, here are a few things that we think are noteworthy or that give a particular team a strategic advantage.

 Novak 2

Russia vs. Serbia

In what could turn out to be a pivotal blow to Serbia’s chances, rising Serb star Janko Tipsarevic is out of the first-round tie with Russia in Moscow because of a severe stomach bug and will be replaced by Davis Cup rookie Viktor Troicki. Fresh off his Australian Open win, Novak Djokovic will open the tie against Russia’s #2 player Mikhail Youzhny.

For Saturday’s doubles Marat Safin, amid rumors that he would pull out because some kind of serious injury, has been named to play alongside Dmitry Tursunov, apparently because next-in-line choice Igor Andreev was unavailable and Tarpischev felt any youngster he could call up would be unable to compete with the Serb team. Interesting. On the Serbian side, Djokovic was named to play doubles alongside doubles specialist Nenad Zimonjic in an unsurprising move that would make Djokovic an absolutely crucial factor in his team’s success. In Sunday’s reverse singles matches, Davydenko is slated to take on Djokovic and Troicki would meet Youzhny.

In what would surely be a tie-altering revelation, it seems that Djokovic has also contracted this “viral infection” that has plagued teammate Janko Tipsarevic. After all the Haas Hoopla last fall, it’s hard not to think of this as some kind of bizarre coincidence. Hopefully at least this time, these guys can be tested ASAP to put the conspiracy theories to rest! However, he has not officially withdrawn as of the time we are publishing this, so we’ll have to wait and see what the story is when we wake up!

Israel vs. Sweden

Perhaps not as high-profile or more lacking in top players than some of the other ties this weekend, Sweden vs. Israel might actually prove to be the most interesting tie of the World Group first round. The tie was made even more intriguing after today’s draw, which has the more interesting singles match of the two – Jonas Bjorkman versus Dudi Sela – first up. This makes the first match even more critical than it might have been because if Sela can put in a solid performance and give Israel a 1-0 lead, it will set the Israeli team up nicely for the doubles, allowing top team Erlich and Ram to play knowing they will have at worst a 1-1 tie. Had the tie worked out the other way, Sweden would likely have been up 1-0, thus putting more pressure on Sela and in our opinion, making a 2-0 sweep for Sweden on Friday more likely.
A couple of other interesting things from this tie. Before the tie, Andy Ram apparently said that Israel is the weakest team in the world group and that they should not be considered favorites against anyone. Whether that’s true humility or some kind of mind game, we cannot be sure, but with one solid singles player in Sela and a top doubles team, it’s hard to call this Israeli team “weak.” Also interesting is that Jonas Bjorkman, one of the best doubles players of all time, has been left off the Swedish doubles squad in favor of Robert Lindstedt, a younger doubles specialist, so that Bjorkman can focus on his singles matches. A very interesting strategy for Sweden that, if Sunday’s matches are live, could prove to be a very important decision.

Peru vs. Spain

Not that this is shocking, but Nicolas Almagro – slightly lower-ranked than Fernando Verdasco but probably a better clay-courter and perhaps tougher mentally – has been chosen as a singles starter for Spain. He will open against Luis Horna in a match that is absolutely critical to Peru’s chances. It is a must-win match for Horna; there’s no other way to put it. This match actually has quite the potential to be a marathon. Although Horna himself expected to play Almagro, others were surprised. Robredo acknowledged that although Spain is the favorite in the tie, they still have to go out there and win. Horna on the other hand, hopes that the rowdy Peruvian crowd might help lift his teammates to surprising heights.

Austria vs. USA

Perennial American #1 Andy Roddick will lay his 6-0 head-to-head record (with no sets lost) on the line as he suits up to face Austrian Jurgen Melzer in Friday’s first opening singles rubber, which will be followed by James Blake and Stefan Koubek on an indoor red clay surface at Ferry Dusika Hallenstadion in Vienna. Despite Roddick’s one-sided head-to-head, he admits this match will be a difficult one, considering it is on clay and in front of a hostile Austrian crowd. Saturday’s doubles match will pit American twins and World #1 Bob and Mike Bryan against Melzer and Julian Knowle. On Sunday’s reverse singles matches, we’re scheduled to see Roddick vs Koubek and Blake vs Melzer if the matches are live.

The US Team has to be pleased that Roddick will open the tie, considering his impatient personality and impressive record against Melzer; plus, one would think (or hope?) that Roddick to show the world that his game is still on track after his befuddling Australian Open exit. Despite some concerns about the surface being rough around the playing area, US Captain Patrick McEnroe is optimistic that the surface will be fine for play tomorrow. Additionally, Roddick flatly denied having a problem with the court, asking where the reporter heard him say he was unhappy with it and that whoever told him Roddick didn’t like the court “doesn’t know anything.” Ouch. But of course, Roddick has to expect to have much of the pressure, considering Blake has never won a live Davis Cup singles rubber on clay. Double ouch.

It’s not that the other ties are unimportant or don’t deserve attention, it’s just that we don’t really feel there’s anything too important about the draw ceremony to make you read. So instead, enjoy the pictures from the draw ceremonies and come back tomorrow for reports of all the matches from around the globe!