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
Novak Djokovic's impressive year; Davis Cup drama — The Friday Five
By Maud Watson
No. 1 and Done
Novak Djokovic may have come into London with the No. 1 ranking all sewn up, but he proved he was truly deserving of the honor when he capped off his 2012 season by defeating Roger Federer in the championship match of the ATP World Tour Finals. It was both a workman-like and spectacular week for the Serb. He didn’t always play his best, frequently finding himself down early against the likes of Murray, del Potro, and Federer, but on each of those occasions, he lived up to his seeding, showing great grit and determination to find a way to secure the win and ultimately go undefeated in the British capital. Furthermore, with his victory in London, Djokovic has arguably presented the best case for being named the ATP’s Player of the Year. In addition to the ATP World Tour Finals, he claimed the Aussie Open, three Masters shields, and reached the finals of an additional two majors and three Masters. He was by far the most consistent performer beginning to end, so while his 2012 wasn’t near the knock-out punch of 2011, it’s quite impressive in its own right.
Roger Federer may have come up short at the ATP World Tour Finals, but his performance there should still be seen as a positive. In the semifinals, he managed to turn the tables and claim victory against Murray in a match where the Scott clearly outclassed him straight out of the gates. Unfortunately for the Swiss, he wasn’t quite able to pull off the upset against Djokovic, but it’s worth noting that it was Federer who got up the early break in both sets. The stats from that match also reveal that it was only a handful of points that determined the outcome. All in all, it was a good week for Federer, as was his 2012 season as a whole. What we saw in London, as we did throughout the course of the season, is that Federer is going to now have more peaks and valleys over the course of a match. He’s going to feel the pressure to red line his game more than he once did against this younger crop of rivals. But he also proved last week that he’s more than capable of holding his own. He’s still firmly rooted in the Big 4, and there’s no reason to think he can’t still win majors.
Double the Pleasure
What a week for the duo of Marc Lopez and Marcel Granollers, who became the first Spanish pair to ever win the season-ending championships. It was wonderful to finally see them have their moment to shine. Lopez has historically been better known as the hitting partner and sometimes-double partner of Rafael Nadal, while Granollers, who has continued to make strides in singles, was perhaps better known for partnering his more accomplished countryman Tommy Robredo. In the injury absences of both Nadal and Robredo, however, Lopez and Granollers began to partner up with greater frequency, and their partnership has paid dividends. They got a big win over the Bryans in round robin play in what was one of the best matches of the tournament, and they were equally as impressive against the Indian team of Bhupathi and Bopanna in the title match. Their accomplishments in London have earned them the chance to add 2012 Davis Cup champions to their résumé, as Captain Alex Correjta has opted to use the pair for doubles duty in Davis Cup this weekend. It’s an opportunity well deserved, and here’s to hoping they continue to ride the wave of momentum.
He’s self-deprecating, as shown by his comments that the semifinals consisted of “three big names and one big guy,” but his performance in London backs up the notion that Juan Martin del Potro is most certainly looking like he’s back. Just like he did in the championship match in Basel, Delpo handed Federer another three-set defeat in Round Robin play to earn a spot in the semis. Even if one entertains the possibility that Federer, who was already assured of a spot in the WTF semifinals, didn’t go all out in his match against del Potro, you need look no further than the Argentine’s performance against Djokovic to suggest that he’s essentially ready to challenge for majors once again. The big man was up a set and a break on Djokovic, and though he lost it in three, his willingness to mix it up and recognize that he could mix it up and hang with the game’s elite are a positive sign of things to come. He’s without a doubt the guy most likely to break up the Big 4, which is why even though the odds are still stacked against him, it shouldn’t come as a shock either if he should win a major in 2013.
Davis Cup Drama
As Davis Cup is set to get underway, already one Spaniard is not a happy camper. Feliciano Lopez made known that while he respects Captain Corretja’s decision, he was upset at being left off the Spanish Davis Cup Team that’s taking on the Czech Republic in the Czech’s home country this weekend. Feli Lopez found himself odd man out when Correjta opted to field the doubles duo of M. Lopez/Granollers and Alamgro as the second singles player alongside Ferrer. It’s understandable his frustration, especially since he historically plays best on faster courts and possesses the better record against Czech No. 1 Tomas Berdych. That said, with M. Lopez and Granollers having the momentum, it would have been wrong to cut them, and at No. 11 vs. F. Lopez’s No. 40 ranking, you have to feel that Almagro has also earned his spot as well. Hopefully the drama won’t impact the team, as they will have their hands full enough taking on an inspired Czech squad.
Thursday at Indian Wells
It seemed oddly empty at the tournament today compared with the past five days in terms of fans. Of course, the smaller player field made for a less hectic scene at the practice courts. Still, I managed to get a lot of photos.
The practice courts featured a few players who had been knocked out. David Ferrer, John Isner, Caroline Wozniacki, Jurgen Melzer, Iveta Benesova, Richard Gasquet, and Julien Benneteau were all getting some training in this morning. The afternoon saw the second half of Quisner–Sam Querrey–practicing as well as Milos Raonic, Rafael Nadal, and Marc Lopez.
Ana Ivanovic started off the morning on stadium 1. She played a strong match against an ailing Marion Bartoli, who apparently came down with the Indian Wells illness. Ivanovic will take on Maria Sharapova, who fought hard in the battle of Maria’s against Maria Kirilenko.
When Kirilenko took the first set and broke in the second, it seemed that Sharapova had a big hill to climb. The former world number one broke back, and it seemed the second set would be won by whoever could hold her serve. Sharapova managed to do so eventually and went on to win the set and ultimately the match.
On the men’s side, Novak Djokovic had little trouble with Nicolas Almagro. Djokovic made more errors than usual today, but Almagro couldn’t capitalize and seemed to fade away. When John Isner began his match against Gilles Simon, Isner couldn’t seem to stay focused either, making a plethora of mistakes. Simon took advantage of the situation and secured a break in Isner’s first service game. Despite this early disadvantage, Isner fought back and won the first set. The match took three sets, but the American was able to see it through.
Men’s doubles also took center stage tonight with Rafael Nadal and Marc Lopez facing Mariusz Fyrstenberg and Marcin Matkowski. Fyrstenberg and Matkowski are strong doubles players; however, they never seemed to find a rhythm as Nadal and Lopez cruised to a victory.
Tomorrow will be my last day of live coverage, so check back tomorrow night for more photos!
10 Reasons to be Excited for Davis Cup Weekend
The time has come! While Andrea has done a great job breaking down the World Group match-ups, I thought I’d spell out for you the specific reasons why you should set your alarm for 5AM, skip work, cancel all of your social plans, and dedicate your entire Friday, Saturday, and Sunday to the wonder that is Davis Cup.
10. The Newcomers
It’s been 8 years since Canada has been in the World Group. For Japan it’s been 27. In both cases the newcomers, led by youngsters Milos Raonic and Kei Nishikori respectively, will be looking to prove that they belong with the big guns. Both teams have uphill battles- Japan hosts Croatia and Canada hosts France, but there’s nothing quite as exciting as fresh blood.
In a giant reversal of storylines, Federer is the only one of the “Big 4” playing in Davis Cup this weekend. To top it off, he’s playing in Switzerland, against a depleted but still fun-to-beat American squad, and with good buddy Stanislas Wawrinka by his side. Love him or not, it will be fun to see the Legend soak in the well-deserved adoration and play in a team atmosphere on his home turf.
8. Russian Roulette
The Russian Davis Cup Team has undergone a bit of a makeover. Alex Bogomolov, Jr. is not only making his Russian debut, but he’s the team’s #1 player. Dmitry Tursnov and Igor Andreev, team mainstays, are absent while the struggling Nikolay Davydenko and the wildcard Igor Kunitsyn take their place. Mikhail Youzhny is coming off singles and doubles victories in Zagreb, but has been complaining to the press about an injured shoulder. All in all, there’s absolutely no telling what to expect from Team Russia as they travel to Jurgen Melzer’s Austria this weekend, and as always- that’s part of the fun.
7. Veterans Day
Some players have proven time and time again that they adapt to the Davis Cup atmosphere better than others. Whether it’s Melzer leading his Austrian team, Tomas Berdych and Radek Stepanek becoming mental giants for the Czech Republic, or David Nalbandian discovering the game (and legs) of his youth, there’s nothing quite as exhilarating as seeing the veteran guys play their hearts out for their country.
6. The Battle of the Misfits
One of the ties I’m most looking forward to is Spain/Kazakhstan. The Spanish Davis Cup stalwarts (Rafael Nadal, David Ferrer, Feliciano Lopez, and Fernando Verdasco) who have dominated the team competition for the past few years are sitting out this year, paving the way for their less heralded countrymen (Nicolas Almagro, Marcel Granollers, Legend and Former #1 Juan Carlos Ferrero, and Marc Lopez). Meanwhile Kazakhstan’s team is full of former Russians (Mikhail Kukushkin, Andrey Golubev, Yuri Schukin, and Evgeny Korolev) who migrated over to the neighboring country for a chance to shine. It will be fun to see all of these former “back-ups” take the stage and fight for Davis Cup glory.
5. Tommy Haas
Do I really need to explain this one? The often injured but forever adored German (when he’s not American) is back in Davis Cup action for the first time in five years! How lucky are we? Let’s just sit back and enjoy.
4. The Other Groups
Believe it or not, the World Group Playoffs aren’t the only Davis Cup action happening this weekend. There are some pretty crucial ties happening in “Group I” and “Group II” (don’t you dare ask me to explain what that means). Teams in action that you might be interested in are: Ukraine (Sergiy Stakhovsky! Sergei Bubka- yes, Vika’s boyfriend!) vs. Monaco, Uzbekistan (Denis Istomin- am I the only one interested in him?) vs. New Zealand, Australia (Hewitt! Tomic! You know them!) vs. China, P.R., Great Britain (Murray-less) vs. Slovak Republic (starring recent ATP Zagreb finalist Lukas Lacko). You’d be amiss if you didn’t scavenge for some (surely static) streams for the lesser-known teams this weekend too.
3. The New Heroes
Every year Davis Cup weekend, especially the first round, breeds unheralded heroes. Something about the five-set format, the team unity, and the pressure/invigoration of playing for one’s country brings out the best in some unsuspecting players. Who will it be this weekend? Could Milos lead the Canadians past the accomplished French team? Could the upstart Japanese make Davis Cup history against Croatia? Could the Swedish team find a miracle and cause the Serbian team to sweat? As cliche as it sounds, expect a new Davis Cup legend to be born.
2. Double Trouble
Davis Cup is the time for Doubles to shine, and this weekend is no different. This weekend we have spectacular Doubles storylines: the reunions of fan favorites Fedrinka (Federer and Wawrinka) and Bendra (Julien Benneteau and Michael Llodra), the eternal mystery of who the other Bryan Brother will be (Bob Bryan is home playing father duty, so either Mardy Fish, John Isner, or Ryan Harrison will take his place alongside Mike Bryan in Switzerland), and the always delightful Davis Cup return of BerdWorm (Berdych and Stepanek). Whether you’re a fan of doubles, awkwardness, hysteria, or just misplaced volleys, Saturday will be a special day for you.
1. The Cheerleaders
Let’s be honest- Davis Cup really isn’t about the tennis. It’s about seeing the bromance on the benches as the fellow team members watch and frazzle along with us. Nothing is as great as seeing a good cheerleader- whether it be Roger Federer on his feet urging on Stanislas Wawrinka, Juan Carlos Ferrero fist-pumping a Nicolas Almagro winner, or John Isner and Ryan Harrison embracing when Mardy Fish gets to set point, there is no better reason to watch Davis Cup than to inspect the camaraderie on the benches.