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
Unless you are a true die-hard tennis fan, you have not been pondering the aforementioned question until today. Little-known German Philipp Petzschner is in the final of both the singles and doubles tournaments at the Bank Austria Tennis Trophy in Vienna. On Saturday he stunned Feliciano Lopez 3-6, 6-3, 6-3 in the semifinals, and hours later he delighted the crowd by teaming with Austrian favorite Alexander Peya to overcome Lopez and fellow Spaniard Fernando Verdasco in a super-tiebreaker for the third set.
Petzschner will now face Max Mirnyi and Andy Ram in the doubles final, and Gael Monfils in the singles title match. The temporary team of Mirnyi and Ram ousted Mahesh Bhupathi and Mark Knowles 2-6, 6-3, 10-8 (super-tiebreaker). Monfils outlasted Philipp Kohlschreiber 6-4, 5-7, 7-6(2) in the semifinals after blowing three match points at 6-5, 40-0 in the final set. It took Monfils two hours and 51 minutes to get the job done.
No such suspense took place at the IF Stockholm Open on Saturday. Not long into the second semifinal of the afternoon, the question was not who would win, but whether or not Robin Soderling would finish even faster than David Nalbandian had just one hour earlier. Nalbandian crushed Jarkko Nieminen 6-2, 6-1 in only one hour and four minutes, but he was one-upped by Soderling, who destroyed Kei Nishikori 6-1, 6-0 in a mere 44 minutes.
The Swedish fans will be treated to an intriguing final Sunday. Before their man Soderling takes on Nalbandian, veteran Swede Jonas Bjorkman-along with partner Kevin Ullyett-will battle countrymen Johan Brunstrom and Michael Ryderstedt.
The Russian crowd also could not ask more much more on the penultimate day in Moscow. Russians Marat Safin and Igor Kunitsyn will clash for the Kremlin Cup title. Safin got a free pass into the final when Mischa Zverev pulled out due to illness, while Kunitsyn eased past soon-to-be retired Fabrice Santoro 6-4, 6-3.
Regardless of the outcome, the men’s final should be more fun for the fans than Saturday’s women’s title match. Russian Elena Dementieva steamrolled Jelena Jankovic 6-0 in the first set, but the Serb stormed back to win the final two sets 6-1, 6-0.
This week, the challengers and futures circuit saw a mixture of both young and old taking center stage. One Russian player continued her impressive run on the ITF circuit, a French veteran continues to play his best tennis at the age of 30, and Britain’s #1 female player continues to fly the flag this week under the weight of her nation’s shoulders.
In Bensacon, Frenchman Marc Gicquel delighted the local crowd by winning the $125,000 event 7-6 6-4 over Alexander Peya of Austria. At an age where many of his contemporaries have retired, the 30 year old is playing some of the best tennis of his career. He reached the final at the ATP event in Lyon last November and has now picked up the biggest title of his career. While the final loss was disappointing for Peya, it was still his best result in quite some time. The 27 year old struggled to find his form throughout all of last year and found himself sitting at #249 in the rankings heading into Bensacon; this was his lowest ranking since mid-2006. The result propels Peya to a spot just outside of the top 200 this week and he’ll look to continue playing with the form that saw him reach a career high of #97 in the rankings.
Onto the women’s side, where, in Capriolo, top ranked British player Anne Keothavong lived up to her billing as the number one seed at this $25,000 event by winning the final 6-1 2-6 6-3 over Vesna Manasieva of Russia. The 24 year old Keothavong, who broke through on the WTA Tour last fall by reaching her first ever semifinal in Kolkata, has now fully recovered from a rib injury which hampered her at the end of last year and is setting her sights on becoming the first British woman to crack the top 100 since Sam Smith in 1999. Manasieva, who was searching for her first challenger title this week, has still had an impressive start to 2008 by reaching the quarterfinals of the WTA event in Pattaya City and qualifying for the WTA event in Auckland. With only a handful of points to defend until this summer, the teenager can only continue to climb up the rankings and may be a regular fixture on the WTA tour by the end of the year.
The city of Clearwater hosted the first of two $25,000 events in Florida this month. Regina Kulikova of Russia continued her dominance on the ITF circuit with a 6-4 6-4 victory in the final over qualifier Yevheniia Savranska of Ukraine. Kulikova, who broke out last summer by reaching the finals of six consecutive $25,000 events in Asia and winning three of them, swept through the tournament this week without losing a set. The nineteen year old rises to a new career high ranking this week and will be the favorite to win the $25,000 event in Fort Walton Beach this week. This tournament was also home to Venezuelan Milagros Sequera’s comeback. Sequera, who won the WTA event in Fes last year, was arguably playing the best tennis of her career before she sustained a left foot injury in August that took her off the tour for over six months. The effects may not have fully gone away either; she bowed out in the second round of the singles event and then withdrew from the doubles event.
On the men’s side, the futures circuit belonged to the top seeds this week; four out of eight top seeds this week hoisted up the winners’ trophies. Pavel Snobel of the Czech Republic won the event in Zagreb this week, Michael Quintero of Colombia prevailed in La Habana, Alexander Satschko of Germany double-bageled his Korean opponent in the final to win in Kolkata, and Paolo Lorenzi of Italy satisfied the local crowd by prevailing in Trenton. Jamie Baker of Great Britain also won in Brownsville this week, but it was his first round match up against 15 year old Ryan Harrison of Texas that was the most hyped of the tournament. Harrison reached the semifinals of the boys’ event at the Australian Open this year and many predicted him to score an upset over the affable Brit. However, Baker provided little for the pro-Harrison crowd to cheer for, easily prevailing 6-3 6-2 before sweeping through the tournament without losing a set.
Ukranian teenagers dominated the futures events on the women’s side this week with both Anastasia Kharchenko and Tetyana Arefyeva picking up titles. Unranked going into Benin City this week, Kharchenko stormed through qualifying and then breezed through the tournament without losing a set. With the title, the 18 year old will enter the rankings for the first time next week. Arefveya also picked up the first title of her career this week by winning the event in Melilla.
Next week will only feature smaller challenger events for both the men and the women, which will allow the chance for some new faces to break through. Thierry Ascione of France will lead the way as the top seed at the $50,000 event in Cherbourg, Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo is the top seed at the $35,000 event in Santiago, and Philipp Petzschner of Germany will look to build on his good form he showed at the event in Belgrade this month when he plays as the top seed at the $35,000 event in Wolfsburg. On the women’s side, top seeded Shuai Zhang of China is looking for her first title of the year while Kulikova hopes to make it two tournament wins in a row at the $25,000 event in Fort Walton Beach, the only challenger event for the ladies this week.