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
Debra Rose covered the Pacific Life Open in Indian Wells for TennisGrandStand. In this first part in a three-part series of her reports from the tournament, Debra shares her experience at this tournament.
As I have always done in years past on my trips to the Pacific Life Open in Indian Wells, California, when I enter the grounds each day, I make my initial perusal around the practice courts, partially to see who’s there and partially to reacquaint myself, especially on my first day. Grassy field where players warm up and relaxFriday, my first day around live tennis in about a year, was especially exciting. In a bit of a rut due to my inability to land my dream job and toiling away in a boring, windowless office in front of a computer all day for almost two months, I needed this break to go to Indian Wells more than I had in the past. And while I was representing TennisGrandStand at the event as a member of the media, it was important to me to experience the event “on the ground” so that I could relay the best possible accounting of my time at the tournament. I wanted to experience it just like a fan would, so that my reports would be accurate and authentic.
Walking around Friday morning, the intoxicating smell of the plentiful flowers enveloped me; they are everywhere and in perfect full bloom. Marat Safin wandered past me; Carlos Moya, playing a little pre-practice soccer on the big grassy field where the players often warm up ran out of the fenced area to recover the ball that had fallen out, and he nearly fell on his face. And I knew I was back at a tennis tournament, finally. After acquainting myself with the media surroundings (to be discussed in Part Two of this Series), I sat in this beautiful covered area outside the media/player cafeteria to write these notes about my initial reactions. Snow-capped Mountains on Sunday morningIt was mostly empty, as many players and the media don’t come around until later in the day. I sat back, and thought to myself. Somehow, in the midst of the beauty of the snow-capped mountains surrounding the Indian Wells Tennis Garden in all directions, and the bright beating desert sun clamoring in around me from every direction, I realized that for the next four days, I could forget how much it all was costing me; it didn’t seem to matter how much money I was missing out on by missing three days of work. Somehow, being there and soaking it all in was just allowing me to forget it all, live in the moment, and just have a great time for four days. And what a better place to do it than at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, which must be one of the most beautiful tennis venues in the world.
In addition to the stunning natural beauty surrounding th grounds, Indian Wells is an easy tournament to enjoy. The practice courts – of which there must be about ten – stretch around Stadium 3 and behind Courts 7 and 8 in an L-shaped fashion (peek at the tournament grounds here). The main front gate empties the throngs of fans right at the end of the practice courts. When I enter through that way, I enjoy breaking away from the path most of the fans take; instead of walking straight through to the main center, I like to take a left and walk along the practice courts. When I go to any tournament, but particularly Indian Wells, I really love watching practices. So every day when I entered the grounds, I swung around the practice courts.
So on a picture-perfect if slightly breezy Friday, the first match I went into was the 11am first round match between Nicolas Massu and Janko Tipsarevic. Considering that both Chilean and Serbian fan groups are vociferous and plentiful, this was an inevitably boisterous encounter. But Stadium 3 seemed to have an even bigger buzz than normal. In years’ past, the courts have been empty for the 11am matches, especially on Friday, when people are less likely to be able to get off of work or away from school. As you can see in the picture, it may look kind of empty, but from what I remember of the past couple years, this was actually a big crowd. And after the first three games took a long time to finish, I had a feeling this would end up being a long one (and I was right, it ended up taking over three hours to complete). And my premonition about the crowd size turned out to be spot on – the tournament set a new all-time record of over 330,000 spectators throughout the event.
The thing with going to a tennis tournament – especially one as big as the Pacific Life Open – is that there is so much going on around the grounds at any one time that for someone like me who wants to single-handedly try to see it all, it’s nearly impossible to stay in the same place for more than a little while at a time. I love tennis, and I love tennis matches. But sitting down on hard uncomfortable bleachers and under the beating desert sun for three hours or even just one hour to see a whole match from start to finish is exceedingly more difficult than sitting at home watching a match from start to finish. Maybe it’s just my personality, but I just cannot sit through a complete tennis match live when I know that there are lots of other matches and interesting practices to see at the same time.
Adding to my inability to stay in one place for too long is the fact that at the Pacific Life Open, almost like clockwork, new players come out to the practice courts every hour on the hour. Because the Pacific Life Open is a two-week event, players get days off and practice together for the full hour. For me, this is more interesting than seeing matches. I can get up close and personal, observe how players interact with their coaches, how players interact with their fans, and which players practice with each other. I’m an observer, so for me one of the interesting differences between the men’s and women’s tours is the player interaction. On the women’s tour, at least at Indian Wells, the players practice much less with each other and much more with their (usually male) coaches and (almost always male) hitting partners. The men, on the other hand, practice with each other. So for me, watching men’s practices is fascinating because there’s that added dimension of seeing how these players interact with each other. Invariably, I always see a few combinations that I find surprising. This year, surprises included: Andy Roddick and Nikolay Davydenko, John Isner and Richard Gasquet, and Roger Federer and Carlos Berlocq.
One of the most remarkable things about Indian Wells is how the practice courts are so fan-accessible. Roger Federer, Andy Roddick, Rafael Nadal, and Maria Sharapova attract the most crowds by far. This year, add Novak Djokovic to that. Roddick could have gone onto that empty grassy field…For them, the sell-out weekend crowds are somewhat of a nightmare. But the way the practice courts are set up help a bit; there are four “main” practice courts where a lot of the top players practice. It’s a little easier for them, because they can hop across one sidewalk from their safe grassy field and avoid the masses. Behind that, there is a stretch of about six practice courts, almost all of which have plenty of viewing space in between them. Something interesting for me to observe is how each player deals with the crowds of fans who want pictures and autographs. Even for those more exposed practice courts, the tournament makes it easy for players to avoid the hordes by setting up golf cart transportation that runs behind all of the courts. So it’s interesting to see which players take advantage and which don’t.
He’s taken an awful lot of bad press lately, but Andy Roddick signs the most autographs of any of the top stars – by far. Instead of crossing the sidewalk and taking refuge in the grassy area like his peers, he actually chooses to walk around – on the public sidewalks – signing and joking with fans the whole way. They may seem like small gestures, but you can hear and feel the buzz when a player treats his or her fans really well; it adds to the tournament experience. And when players pass by without signing – as the case with Jo-WilfriedTsonga (who, as the Australian Open “Player of the Moment,” had a lot of fans watching his practices), who did not sign at all, the disappointment among the younger children he rejected is palpable.
You can to go the rest of TennisGrandStand or a number of other sites to read about the matches I saw, so I won’t bore you with those. Instead, I’d rather talk about some of the more interesting things I saw:
- They were filming the annual US Open Series commercials. Apparently Justin Gimelstob is going to be some sort of emcee and may have been wearing some cheesy drawn-on makeup… regardless, it made quite a pretty background and I hope that some of the scenery will be used (in the past couple years, the commercials have been exclusively inside the bus pretty much).US Open Series Bus
- The grounds at Indian Wells are huge, and thousands (as many as 21,000 on Saturday, in fact) of people fill every inch of them each day. Yet somehow, when a big star comes out, that court is packed within 30 seconds. The same thing happened any time there was an upset or a close exciting match. It’s uncanny how fast word travels around the grounds!
- The first round doubles match between Arnaud Clement and Michael Llodra and Marcelo Melo and Andre Sa was held on Court 5, one of the smallest courts. It was an 11am match, and the court was packed. I mean standing room only behind the three rows of seats on each side of the court. All around me, people were talking about how much they love doubles. The guy next to me is asking me about the philosophical differences between Llodra playing with Clement or Julien Benneteau (who he won the Las Vegas title with the week before). The Indian Wells crowd is a knowledgeable and passionate tennis crowd. They want to see doubles, and the tournament makes it so hard for them to do so (but more on this in Part 3 of my series).
- Also interesting to me from this doubles match: Clement and Llodra won the toss, but actually deferred choice. I’d never seen that before. These little things like paying attention to the coin toss and observing the smaller details are the things we miss on TV and the things that to me, make the sport a more interesting one.
- One of the funniest moments for me all weekend was watching Luis Horna and Juan Monaco during their “practice.” While a lot of the European and South American players warm up and down on the grassy firled playing soccer, Horna and Monaco did it on the tennis court, and it made for a rather amusing scene. Check out a short video of it here.
- Shortly after Andy Roddick was upset by Tommy Haas in the second round match, he was outside reuniting with Haas’s new coach, Dean Goldfine’s, family. Yes, Roddick is my favorite player so perhaps this was of more interst to me than it might be to others, but seeing him so soon after his loss laughing and having fun with Goldfine’s young children gave an interesting insight into what he and these other players go through on a daily basis. I suppose Roddick might be better at getting over losses than other players, but it was still interesting to see how quickly he seemed to get over what should have been a fairly disappointing loss.
- On Sunday, Djokovic and Sharapova practiced at the same time on adjoining courts. Whose bright idea was this?!?!
- Against Igor Andreev, Mardy Fish won the toss and chose to receive. For a guy with a huge serve that is the cornerstone of his game, I was surprised. Perhaps it was just my fault for not noticing it, but later in the week Fish said he actually prefers to get his feet under him and start off returning where he can. I found this interesting.
- Although this is a combined event, I think it is a great one for fans of both the ATP and WTA tours. They don’t get in the way of each other. There are enough practice courts so that there are always some men and some women players practicing at any one time and the organization does an excellent job of putting an even number of men’s and women’s matches on each court so it’s easy to focus on one or the other, or both.Guga practicing the backhand
- I find it interesting that certain players seem to almost never be on the grounds. A few players I almost never saw: Lleyton Hewitt, Maria Sharapova, and Bob and Mike Bryan. I think it’s a shame for the fans that these players aren’t on the grounds more, especially the Bryans since they are pretty much the face of doubles in the US.
- Gustavo Kuerten practiced several times on the grounds. This was a wonderful surprise as he wasn’t even playing the tournament. He drew very sizable crowds and it was a joy to see backhand up close.
For me, running around between bits and pieces of matches and practices and seeing these interesting tidbits is the best way to see a tournament, and the Pacific Life Open at Indian Wells is a great place to see world-class tennis and learn a lot about the game at the same time. To sit and watch matches in the stadium all the way through is doing a disservice to the other great players in the draw and to those spectators who do it. Had I done that, I’m sure I would have seen some great tennis, but I would have missed an awful lot of special things, too. Over my four days at the Pacific Life Open I tried to soak in as much as possible. It was tiring and frenetic at times, but also reinvigorating, fun, and exciting. Stay tuned for two more parts of my reports, which will give a more behind-the-scenes view of how this event runs.
Please take a look at all of the pictures I took:
Also, I took a few short videos, check those out here