Like last week, the upcoming ATP slate features two European tournaments on indoor hard courts and a South American tournament on outdoor red clay. Only one of the Big Four participated in last week’s action, but this week his archrival returns to the spotlight as well.
Rotterdam: Back in action for the first time since those consecutive five-setters in Melbourne, Federer prepares for a title defense closer to home soil. He often has produced his crispest tennis on indoor hard courts late in his career, and he finds himself near familiar victim Youzhny. Tested by rising star Raonic last year, Federer could meet another rising star in Jerzy Janowicz at the quarterfinal stage. Massive servers trouble him more than they once did, although Janowicz has looked less intimidating in the early events of 2013 than he did while reaching the Paris Indoors final last fall. Of further interest in this section is the first-round clash between doubles partners Benneteau and Llodra, both of whom should shine on this surface.
Continuing the French theme from Benneteau-Llodra, the second quarter lies in the shadow of two top-20 Frenchmen: the third-seeded Tsonga and the fifth-seeded Simon. No player of note would bar their routes to a quarterfinal, which their recently solid form suggests that they should reach. Both Frenchmen charted a course to the second week at the Australian Open, and Tsonga in particular excelled by extending Federer to a final set in their quarterfinal. His meeting with Simon should present a compelling contrast of styles, in which one would fancy the third seed’s chances on a surface that favors aggression.
Although both men enter the tournament unseeded, Tomic and Dimitrov offer the most notable storyline of the third quarter with the looming first-round clash between these two phenoms. Greatly celebrated for reaching the Brisbane final in January, the latter has not built upon that breakthrough but instead slipped back into the inconsistency that has slowed his progress. A hero on home soil again, Tomic recaptured much of the reputation that he lost with his 2012 antics by showing a more professional attitude to start 2013. Meanwhile, a strong week in Montpellier continued Gasquet’s strong start to the season and leaves him the favorite to reach the semifinal here. The fourth seed could repeat the Montpellier final against compatriot Benoit Paire in the second round.
Leaping from the lowest part of the draw is the first-round match between wildcard Gael Monfils and second seed Del Potro. While the former left Melbourne in mildly promising fashion, the latter fell well short of expectations in suffering a third-round exit to Jeremy Chardy. Del Potro can waste little time in recapturing his rhythm at a tournament where he finished runner-up to Federer last year, for Monfils’ two finals at the Paris Indoors prove his ability to succeed on this surface. Less likely to shine is the sixth-seeded Seppi, a player who prefers slow courts and lacks the firepower of either projected quarterfinal opponent.
Final: Tsonga vs. Del Potro
San Jose: In the last edition of this tournament, long a mainstay of Bay Area sports, Milos Raonic attempts to complete a title three-peat on the scene of his first trophy. Among the faster indoor hard courts on the calendar, San Jose will showcase a serve nearly unanswerable at its best. In the last two years, opponents struggled even to earn a break point against Raonic. Fresh from his Davis Cup heroics, last year’s top seed could repeat the 2012 final against Denis Istomin in the quarterfinals, or he might meet home hope Ryan Harrison in a rematch of a 2012 semifinal. Both of those men struggled to match Raonic hold for hold last year with their modest serves, and neither has taken a significant step forward since then.
Someone who can match the Canadian hold for hold, the third-seeded Sam Querrey seeks to continue building on his recent upward trend in the rankings. Returning to relevance midway through last year, Querrey plays his best on American soil and mirrored Raonic’s contributions last weekend by lifting Team USA past Brazil with two singles victories. He faces the possibility of consecutive matches against Australians, first the fading Lleyton Hewitt and then the surging Marinko Matosevic. Near his career-high ranking, the latter man will meet the teenage sensation Jack Sock, still in the process of refining his explosive serve and forehand.
If North Americans dominate the top half of the San Jose draw, a more European flavor emerges from the third quarter. Following his best season since his prime in the mid-2000s, Tommy Haas lurks near the edge of the top 20 after starting 2012 outside the top 200. Injuries and recurrences of his volatile temper hampered him in January, but expect his forecourt skills to flourish on a court where he can shorten points. Female fans would enjoy a quarterfinal between Haas and Fernando Verdasco, two slots below him in the rankings. Unfortunately for them, former finalist Ivo Karlovic might topple the Spanish lefty in the second round, although he lost to him here two years ago. Can wildcard Steve Johnson, who took Almagro to a fifth set at the Australian Open, build on that momentum to upset Dr. Ivo?
The only man in the ATP shorter than Karlovic, the second-seeded Isner needs to build momentum much more urgently than Johnson, for he defends finalist points at Indian Wells. Still the top-ranked American man by a small margin over Querrey, Isner withdrew from the Australian Open with a knee injury and looked unimpressive in Davis Cup last weekend. No player in his vicinity looks like a convincing dark horse, however, with the most notable resistance coming from Xavier Malisse. Otherwise, this section features a handful of promising-but-not-quite-there-yet figures like Vasek Pospisil and Evgeny Donskoy, the latter of whom defeated Youzhny in Melbourne.
Final: Querrey vs. Verdasco
Sao Paulo: In a draw that greatly resembles Vina del Mar last week, Nadal again shares a half with Jeremy Chardy amid a collection of players from South America and southern Europe. Few Spaniards have shown the determination to challenge Rafa on his favored red clay, and Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo should prove no exception. One of the few Spanish journeymen to defeat him on any surface, Guillermo Garcia-Lopez could meet the man whom he defeated in Bangkok at the quarterfinal stage, although Vina del Mar semifinalist Carlos Berlocq seems more plausible. Yet another Spaniard, the eighth-seeded Albert Ramos, opens against Garcia-Lopez.
Splitting his two Davis Cup rubbers in the United States, Thomaz Bellucci transitions back to his homeland and a friendlier surface for his traditional lefty game. The fifth-seeded Brazilian would meet Chardy in the quarterfinals with no legitimate threat between them. Fellow Brazilian Ricardo Mello, known better for his doubles success, received not only a wildcard but a winnable opening match as a reward for his victory over the Bryans in Davis Cup. Facing aging Federer-killer Volandri is Vina del Mar quarterfinalist Daniel Gimeno-Traver, who mustered some decent resistance to Rafa last week.
World #15 Monaco looked nearly certain to meet Nadal in the Vina del Mar final until the unheralded Guillaume Rufin upset him, only to issue a walkover a round later. At least the Argentine enjoyed accompanying Nadal through the doubles draw, which gave him plenty of opportunities to refine his clay skills before this second opportunity. A former top-10 player, Spanish veteran Tommy Robredo could become Monaco’s first opponent in a grinding match of counterpunchers who rarely miss. Cast from a similar mold is Robredo’s compatriot Albert Montanes, situated near the seventh-seeded Pablo Andujar. The latter must start the tournament on a high note to escape Santiago Giraldo, a Colombian who has upset much more notable players on clay before.
The key difference between the draws in Vina del Mar and Sao Paulo, Nicolas Almagro hopes to rebound from a memorable fortnight in Melbourne. While he reached an Australian Open quarterfinal, he may need time to forget his repeated inability to finish off Ferrer there and perhaps also to recover from a leg injury. Like Nadal, though, Almagro will find the clay accommodating to his ailing body, and he has won a set from Rafa on the surface before. Opening against surprise Vina del Mar champion Horacio Zeballos, he finds himself near the most dangerous unseeded player in the draw, David Nalbandian. The grouchy gaucho languishes in a semi-retirement from which he emerges just often enough to remain relevant, and a player lacking in fitness, confidence, or both would seem plausible prey. Nalbandian has tested Nadal severely before, even during his decline, but can he string together the solid efforts necessary to produce that tantalizing final?
Final: Nadal vs. Almagro
Check out the companion preview of the WTA Premier Five tournament in Doha, and return on Friday for the next entry in my column.
By Maud Watson
Rafael Nadal’s comeback officially commenced earlier this week in Chile, and it’s already been a success with the Spaniard winning both his opening doubles and single matches by identical score lines of 6-3 and 6-2. There were a few anxious moments at the start of his singles match. Nadal had to shake off rust and nerves to bounce back after falling down an early break, but he quickly found his footing. It wasn’t his most dominant outing, but after seven months out of the game, only a fool would have expected him to put on a clinic. The important thing is that he got the win, and he’s moving beautifully. The only negative for Nadal this week is his own insistence, and even more so his Uncle Toni’s, on discussing the knees in too much detail. The narrative changed from the knees being 100% before the Aussie Open to now being a potential liability through the end of February. It’s the classic strategy of the Nadal camp to downplay his chances and lay the groundwork to explain away a loss, and it’s getting old and completely unnecessary. Few will be surprised if he suffers an odd loss in the initial stages of his comeback. Just once it would be nice if they would let Nadal’s tennis do the talking. He’s too talented and accomplished of a player to continually use such tactics.
Leading the Charge
Murray probably didn’t make too many friends in the locker room, but you have to applaud his willingness to take the helm regarding tennis and PEDs. The Scot has been very outspoken about keeping the sport clean and recently suggested players should consider donating some of their prize money to help the cause. Presumably he was referring to having the prize purses reduced in order to allow the ATP to provide additional funding to cover more frequent and various types of testing. Though it’s easy for a top player like Murray to make such a suggestion, it’s unlikely his line of thinking will be popular with his peers, especially the lower-ranked players who don’t rake in the big bucks. But Murray is right to keep the issue in the spotlight and demand greater efforts be made to keep the sport clean. The fallout from the Lance Armstrong scandal cannot be ignored, it’s naïve to think that such a thing could never happen (or isn’t ongoing?) in tennis.
For the first time in its history, Canada has reached the quarterfinals of the Davis Cup, and the Raonic-led Canadian squad did so by knocking out powerhouse Spain. The win is much bigger on paper than in reality. Spain was missing many of its top players, but as the saying goes, you can only beat who’s in front of you. It’s a tremendous accomplishment for the boys from Canada. They’ll face Italy in the quarterfinals, which means they’re in with a real opportunity to keep the momentum going. Davis Cup also has a history of acting as a springboard for young talents, so perhaps the success from last weekend will help Raonic begin to realize his full potential and post better results.
John Isner continues to endure woes in 2013, with his latest coming in the form of a five-set loss to Belucci in the Davis Cup this past weekend. Querrey stepped in to save the US from embarrassment by coming through in the fifth and deciding rubber, but the victory must have felt a little hollow to teammate Isner. Not only did he fail to close out the tie, but his loss to Belucci marked his six consecutive five-set loss. Isner only made his situation worse when he complained about the Brazilian fans. He’s entitled to his opinion, and it’s refreshing when a player is honest. But really? It’s Davis Cup for crying out loud. There were undoubtedly plenty of American fans yelling and disrupting the Brazilian players, and even Bob Bryan got a little overzealous and upset the Brazilian bench. Isner’s complaints came off as nothing more than sour grapes. His issue is between the ears and lack of a return game. Until he addresses those two liabilities, it’s going to be an uphill battle.
The Indian Wells event and ATP are once again butting heads over a potential prize money increase, and this time, the folks at Indian Wells have issued an ultimatum – if the ATP doesn’t approve the desert tournament’s proposed increase, it will revert back to 2011 levels. The issue was previously voted on last December by the ATP Board of Directors, and it resulted in a deadlock 3-3 with ATP CEO Drewett opting to abstain. Not surprisingly, it’s the three tournament directors who voted against the increase, and Indian Wells Tournament CEO Raymond Moore has had less than kind words to say about those directors. In defense of the tournament directors, however, you can see where they’re coming from. Some tournaments could definitely afford to be more generous with the prize purses, but many don’t have access to the same kind of money that’s backing Indian Wells and never will. It’s only natural to want to avoid seeing one event substantially outdistance the rest of the non-majors. But if the players want it, Indian Wells is willing to pay, and the WTA Board also approved the increase, the ATP Board of Directors should seriously consider falling in line. They’re apt to have a bigger mess on their hands if prize money at the year’s first Masters event reverts to prize money levels lower than in 2012. We haven’t heard the last of this, and it’s likely to only get uglier before it’s resolved.
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.
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.
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
By Maud Watson
Pair of Threes
Brisbane was the first stop of the Aussie summer hard court season, and it was also a very lucrative location for the third-ranked players of the WTA and ATP. Serena Williams continued her dominance from 2012 by sailing to the Brisbane title. Even while acknowledging that Serena benefited from a draw that fell apart between the number of withdrawals and early upsets, it’s still a very promising sign for her that she was the last woman standing. She’s already stated her goal is to win the Grand Slam, and based on what we saw in Brisbane in comparison to the competition, she’s in with a solid chance. Andy Murray was slightly more tested in his run to the title, but like the American, he fought his way into the winner’s circle where he gave a very emotional victory speech dedicated to his “sick friend” (later revealed to be fellow British pro Ross Hutchins). The win was also important for the Scot in that he successfully defended his 2012 Brisbane title and looks perfectly poised and confident as he heads into Melbourne as a Grand Slam champion for the first time in his professional career.
Off And Running
Last week saw four other Top Ten players get their seasons off to the best start possible with title runs. The most consistent of the four was Radwanska. The Pole opted to stay away from the big guns in Brisbane and compete in Auckland, which paid off handsomely with her picking up the 11th singles title of her career. Equally, and surprisingly impressive, was Li Na. She was one of the bigger underachievers and disappointments of the WTA last season, so for her to not only start off with a win, but to do so under the pressure of playing in her home nation bodes well for her 2013 chances. On the men’s side, it was second time lucky for Tipsarevic. The Serb narrowly lost to Raonic in Chennai last year, so he was undoubtedly most pleased that he was able to seal the deal at the second time of asking. Finally, Frenchman Gasquet took the title in Doha against a resurgent Davydenko. A tournament title run to kick off his 2013 hopefully means he’ll be in the right frame of mind to finally start delivering on his boatload of talent and go deep in Melbourne.
Bad to Worse
John Isner’s run of bad luck has continued with the American being forced to withdraw from the Aussie Open due to bone bruising on his right knee. Isner previously withdrew from the Hopman Cup with what he thought was knee tendinitis. He also attempted to play Sydney but lost his opening match to compatriot Ryan Harrison. Isner then revealed he was suffering from bone bruising of his right knee, and after consulting with doctors, came to the appropriate conclusion that he’d be best to skip the 2013 Aussie Open so as to avoid a more serious injury. It’s disappointing to both Isner and American tennis, but with any luck, he’ll recover quickly and return in better form.
Every draw has at least one. Typically the term is applied to an established player still relatively in his or her prime that’s coming back from a semi-lengthy layoff, hence the low ranking. It may apply to a talented up-and-comer who’s on the way to breaking through to the upper echelons of the game. Or it may simply refer to that handful of players that just missed the cutoff for being seeded. It doesn’t frequently apply to a veteran player that is past his or her prime, especially if that veteran has battled a litany of injuries and surgeries. But despite all of that, Lleyton Hewitt is building a case to be labeled a dangerous floater after his performance at Kooyong. The Aussie bowed out in the Brisbane Round of 16 to Istomin in a tight two-setter before heading to the exhibition event where he has defeated No. 15 Raonic and No. 6 Berdych. Hewitt has drawn confidence from the wins and stated that after hitting with Federer, he feels like he can hit with anyone. Between his current form, competitive drive, and the home crowd support he should enjoy, Hewitt looks to be a tough out for most anyone in the field in Melbourne.
We always hear the phrase, “it’s just a game,” yet it can be so easy to lose sight of that. For professional tennis players, that “game” is their livelihood. It’s their goal to be the best and collect the most prestigious hardware the sport has to offer. The fans become absorbed with the highs and lows of their favorite players, hanging on with each swing of that player’s racquet. Yet, inevitably, something always comes along that reminds us once again that “it’s just a game.” Tennis received that reminder in the opening week of the 2013 season when Ross Hutchins revealed that he’d recently been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma and would be taking some time away from the game. Despite being shocked by the news, Hutchins sounded both positive and confident that he would overcome this devastating challenge. The Brit looks forward to returning the ATP and “full steam ahead” with his career. His remarks and attitude should serve as an inspiration to everyone. Here’s to hoping he experiences a complete and speedy recovery and that he always be a reminder that tennis is, after all, just a game.
Wow, Christmas has only just passed and already the Australian Open is on our doorstep. The players may wish they had a little more time to shake off the ring rust before the first slam of the year but I love the unpredictability it brings. Everyone’s struggling a little for form and trying to adjust to the conditions and so often we see the rankings list turned upside down as a result.
So after week 1, who’s looking sharp and who badly needs a good week of match practise before things kick off on the 14th?
Serena’s ride to the Brisbane title was made a little easier by Victoria Azarenka’s withdrawal ahead of their semi-final (Azarenka complained she had a toe infection following a dodgy pedicure) but the American still showed why she’s the player to beat in Melbourne. A notoriously slow starter to the year, when Serena’s winning titles in the first two weeks then everyone else should be worried. She’s won the Australian Open five times in the past and after her 6-2, 6-1 final demolition of Russia’s Anastasia Pavyluchenkova earlier today, she’ll take some stopping.
Davydenko was one of the favourites for the Australian Open title three years ago before sinking without trace following a wrist fracture. However having watched his run to the final in Doha this week, I can honestly say I haven’t seen the Russian strike the ball this well since he was top three in the world. He made David Ferrer look extremely ordinary in their semi-final and he knows what it takes to reach the latter stages of the slams.
Tomic still has plenty of fans down under despite his petulant displays on tour over the past year. The former child prodigy always rises to the occasion during the Australian swing and he won all three of his matches at the Hopman Cup, stunning Novak Djokovic in straight sets. Tomic got Melbourne rocking with his fourth round run last year and he’ll be one of the most dangerous floaters in the draw once again.
Kerber enjoyed another fabulous season in 2012, making the Wimbledon semis and securing her place in the world’s top ten. A superb mover and very physically strong, conditions in Australia should be to her liking but she has work to do after a straight sets loss to Pavyluchenkova in Brisbane followed by an ousting in Sydney to Dominika Cibulkova.
The Australian Open is unequivocally Berdych’s weakest slam and he’s never been past the quarters down under. Doesn’t seem to be much likelihood of him bettering that after a shock quarter-final loss to the little known Spaniard Roberto Bautista-Agut in Chennai and a straight set loss to Lleyton Hewitt in Kooyong.
Isner is determined to make an impact at the slams this year but he has now been ruled out of the Australian Open due to a nagging knee injury that forced him to pull out of the Hopman Cup. It wasn’t looking particularly great for the American after straight sets losses to Kevin Anderson and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in Perth and now he’s lost the time to recover for the year’s first Slam.
David Cox writes for Live-Tennis.com, an award-winning tennis, news and live stream website.
January 9, 2013 — Top ranked American and world No. 13 John Isner has officially withdrawn from the 2013 Australian Open due to a bone bruise in his knee.
On Wednesday, top-seeded at the Sydney tournament, Isner went out to qualifier Ryan Harrison, 6-4 6-4, hinting at continued issues with his knee.
“I have been feeling some discomfort in my knee and have recently learned that I have a bone bruise,” Isner said. “Doctors have told me that continuing to play on the knee could result in a more serious injury.”
Isner also pulled out of last week’s Hopman Cup exhibition tournament in Perth after losing both of his matches against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Kevin Anderson in order to be ready for Sydney. Via Twitter, Isner’s manager stated that the American “gave it a weeks rest before the match and wanted to test it.” But it was not meant to be.
Fellow American Mardy Fish withdrew last month due to continued recovery from his heart troubles, leaving No. 22 Sam Querrey as the highest-ranked American left in the main draw of the year’s first Slam.
By Maud Watson
The 2013 tennis season got underway this week, but unfortunately for Nadal, his season didn’t start with it. Citing a stomach bug, the Spaniard pulled out of the Abu Dhabi exhibition event in late December and then shocked everyone when he named that same bug as his reason for not only withdrawing from Doha, but the Australian Open as well. His decision left even his most ardent fans scratching their heads and had others spinning conspiracy theories. Wild conspiracy theories aside, he does seem to be taking an exceptionally long time to recover from this stomach bug considering it had to have hit him at least a few days before Abu Dhabi for him to have not made the trip there. And while everyone understands Nadal’s need for caution and recognizes that a major isn’t the most ideal event for his return, making a comeback at the Australian Open might not have been such a bad thing. At best, he was always going be the fourth favorite to win it. The same won’t likely be true if he returns on the clay in February. With his track record on the dirt, fans will have high expectations for him irrespective of how long he has sat out of the game. Couple that with the natural pressure that comes from returning from an extended layoff, and it could be an even bigger ask for Nadal to deliver when he finally does return to competition. A potential poor return on the clay would also likely be more damaging to his mental game than an early loss on hard courts. So who knows how it will all shake out? The only thing for certain is that Nadal has managed to kick off 2013 with more questions than he ended with last season.
Cruel Twist of Fate
The player who arguably suffered the biggest disappointment in the opening week of the 2013 season was Andrea Petkovic. The affable German, who had more than her share of injury woes in 2012, was to play the Hopman Cup alongside her compatriot, the resurgent Tommy Haas. But in her opening match against young Aussie Ashleigh Barty, she suffered a knee injury that sadly left her in tears. She’s since had to pull out of the year’s first major with a rupture of the medial meniscus. She will be out another one to three months, depending on whether the rupture can be treated via a simple trimming or will need to once again be sewn. Hopefully it will be the speedier option. With a jovial disposition, hers is a personality from which the WTA could greatly benefit, and after all she went through last year, she’s due a good run of form in 2013.
It seems officials aren’t wasting any time in implementing the ATP’s new measures to better enforce the 25-second rule between points. They’ve handed out more than a few warnings and violations this week, and with the mini-meltdowns of Monfils and F. Lopez, it’s apparent that it’s going to take some adjustments from the players. Wrinkles like determining when the umpire should start the clock, show some leeway with the rule, and what constitutes a player being ready to serve all need to be ironed out, but the actions of officials this week do provide hope that this will properly up the tempo of the sport. It was particularly rewarding to see one official give Lopez a warning when he was triple set point down. After all, if the rules aren’t adhered to in the most crucial moments of a match, why have them in the first place? It remains to be seen if umpires will have the courage to apply the rules in equal measure against the megastars and on the bigger stages, but their actions this week certainly show promise.
Rumbles Down Under
I wouldn’t go so far as to call it thunder Down Under, but Bernard Tomic is making some noise in Perth. The young Aussie is paired with the even younger Ashleigh Barty in the Hopman Cup, and he’s delighted the home fans with a solid win over Tommy Haas and a very impressive victory over Novak Djokovic. Granted, there isn’t a lot on the line at the team competition. It’s a fun time that allows the competitors the opportunity to get a few matches under their belts before the Australian Open, so no one, including Tomic, is operating under the assumption that someone like Djokovic was giving the same kind of effort he will in Melbourne. But the Serb, and Haas for that matter, didn’t tank their matches against Tomic either. Based on his comments, the Aussie is also taking confidence from the victories and interpreting them as his hard work paying off. But the most crucial point of all is, that for a guy who generated a lot of negative press at the end of 2012, these were the kind of positive headlines he needed to boost his image. In short, Tomic couldn’t have asked for a better start to his 2013.
Don’t Kneed This
American tennis hopes took a hit earlier this week when John Isner was forced to pull out of the Hopman Cup with a right knee injury. It capped off a forgettable week for the American, who lost both of his singles matches to South Africa’s Kevin Anderson and France’s Jo-Wilfried Tsonga respectively. Isner remained upbeat about his situation however, stating that even though he was unsure if he was suffering from tendinitis or something more serious, he’s always experienced speedy recoveries and plans on being ready to go for the Australian Open. Hopefully the towering American’s self-assessment is correct. Between the majority of the points he has to defend coming at the front of the season and a string of lackluster results dating back to the second half of 2012, Isner is in dire need of a strong showing in Melbourne.