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
Looking for a jumbo preview of the Australian Open men’s draw that breaks down each section of the brackets? Look no further. We take one quarter at a time in tracing the route of each leading contender, locating the most intriguing matches, projecting the semifinalists, and identifying one notable player to watch in each section.
First quarter: Seeking the first men’s three-peat Down Under of the Open era, Djokovic will want to conserve his energy during the first week and probably will. Although rising American star Ryan Harrison could threaten briefly in the second round, he lacks the experience to test the Serb in a best-of-five format, while potential third-round opponent Stepanek lacks the consistency to do so as his career wanes. Among the other figures of note in this vicinity are two resurgent Americans in Querrey and Baker, destined to meet in the second round. The winner may fancy his chances against Wawrinka, more comfortable on clay, and Querrey in particular could bring confidence from his upset of Djokovic in Paris to another clash with the Serb when the second week starts.
The quarter’s lower section features several men who share Wawrinka’s affinity for clay, such as Monaco and Verdasco. While the Spaniard’s career has sagged over the past year or two, the Argentine enjoyed his best season to date in 2012 as he reached the top ten for the first time. His reward lies in a clear route to the second week and an appointment with the enigmatic Berdych. Always susceptible to ebbs and flows, the world #6 ended last season optimistically with a semifinal at the US Open, where he upset Federer. But then Berdych started this season miserably by falling in Chennai to an opponent outside the top 50. He has won just one of his twelve career meetings with Djokovic, although the only victory came in one of their most important matches: a Wimbledon semifinal. While Berdych’s route to the quarterfinals looks comfortable, then, only a superb serving performance can shield him from the Serb’s more balanced array of weapons when he arrives there.
Player to watch: Querrey
Second quarter: The only section without a clear favorite proliferates with question marks but also with talent and intriguing narratives. In the draw’s most notable first-round match, Hewitt will open his 17th Australian Open campaign against the eighth-seeded Tipsarevic. A mismatch on paper, this encounter could develop into one of the late-night thrillers that have become a Melbourne tradition, and the home crowd might lift their Aussie to an improbable victory over an opponent less untouchable than those ranked above him. Other storylines include the apparent emergence of Grigor Dimitrov, previously familiar only for his facsimile of Federer’s playing style but now a Brisbane finalist. While the Bulgarian never has reached the third round of a major, his recent accomplishments and his desire to impress romantic interest Maria Sharapova might inspire him. He faces a challenging initial test against Benneteau, who fell just short of his second straight Sydney final.
Awarded his first seed in the main draw of a major, Jerzy Janowicz looks to continue his momentum from last fall when he reached the final at the Paris Masters 1000 tournament. Unlike Dimitrov, his route through the first round or two looks clear, and projected third-round opponent Almagro does not pose an insurmountable obstacle. Unless Janowicz improves upon his January efforts so far, however, Almagro can look ahead to the second week and perhaps even a quarterfinal against compatriot Ferrer. The highest seed in this section, the latter Spaniard will reach the top four after the tournament no matter his result. His fitness should carry him past erratic opponents like Baghdatis or Youzhny, although the titanic serve of Karlovic has troubled him before and merits watching in their second-round match. Having recorded multiple victories over Ferrer on marquee stages, Nishikori poses his most convincing pre-quarterfinal threat. But he has struggled with injury recently and may prove no better able to grind past the Spaniard in the heat than Almagro, who never has defeated him. If Tipsarevic reaches the quarterfinals, on the other hand, he will aim to reverse the outcome of their US Open quarterfinal last year, which he lost to Ferrer in a fifth-set tiebreak.
Player to watch: Dimitrov
Third quarter: Never has a man won his second major immediately after winning his first. Never, however, in the Open era had a British man won any major at all, so this bit of history should not intimidate the reigning US Open champion. Murray will start his campaign by reprising an odd encounter with Robin Haase at the 2011 US Open, which he rallied to win in five sets after losing the first two. The lanky Dutchman behind him, he will face nobody over the next few rounds with the firepower to discomfit him over this extended format. Throughout his section lie counterpunchers like Simon or Robredo or tactically limited players like Mayer and Stakhovsky. The two exceptions who could threaten Murray will meet in the first round. Reviving his career with solid results in Doha and Auckland, Monfils will pit his momentum against fellow showman Dolgopolov in a match likely to showcase plenty of electrifying shot-making.
Perhaps of more interest is the route traced by Del Potro, the most likely title contender outside the top three seeds. In the second round, the Tower of Tandil could meet surprising Slovakian Aljaz Bedene, who reached the Chennai semifinals to start the year and nearly upset Tipsarevic there. Owning more than enough weapons to dispatch the passive baseliner Granollers afterwards, Del Potro would open the second week against Marin Cilic. The Croat developed around the same time as the Argentine and honed a similar playing style to complement his similar physique. But Cilic has disappointed those who anointed him a future major champion and top-10 fixture, appearing to content himself with a lesser level of accomplishment. He must brace himself for an opening battle against home hope Marinko Matosevic, who took him to five sets in New York last fall. If Del Potro can reverse his 2009 loss to Cilic in that projected fourth-round encounter, he also must halt his winless hard-court record against Murray. The task does not loom as large as it might appear, for he has won sets in all four of those matches.
Player to watch: Del Potro
Fourth quarter: What a pity that leading Aussie hope Bernard Tomic can play only two rounds before descending into the maw of the GOAT, as he did in the fourth round here last year. All the same, Tomic will have the opportunity to knock off a seeded opponent in Martin Klizan while praying for a miracle from Federer’s second-round opponent, Nikolay Davydenko. (Those who saw their match at the 2010 Australian Open will remember how impressive the Russian looked against the Swiss—for a set and a half, after which he utterly collapsed.) Perhaps more formidable than the momentum of Tomic is the mighty serve of Milos Raonic, which nearly toppled Federer three times last year. In each of their matches, Federer managed to win the crucial handful of points late in final sets, but can he continue to escape so narrowly? The younger man cannot look too far ahead too soon, however, for a second-round match against Lukas Rosol lurks, and everyone knows what Rosol has done in the second round of majors.
Winless against top-eight opponents in 2012, former finalist Tsonga hopes to turn over a new leaf in 2013. To snap that streak, though, he must survive the early stages of the tournament against dangerous lurkers like Llodra and Bellucci. Tsonga has struggled at times against compatriots and has a losing career record against Gasquet, his projected fourth-round opponent. Fresh from his title in Doha, the world #10 never has plowed deep into the Australian draw and may not benefit this time from the weak first-week slates that he received at majors last year. Eyeing a possible upset is Haas, another artist of the one-handed backhand who has collaborated with Gasquet on memorable matches before. But the question remains whether any of these men currently can compete with Federer across a best-of-five match, and the answer seems clear.
Player to watch: Tomic
Final: Djokovic vs. Murray
Champion: Novak Djokovic
Come back tomorrow for the women’s preview, designed with the same level of detail!
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.
Things are heating up in Indian Wells—at least for those players that are still healthy. Nikolay Davydenko pulled out this morning, paving the way for Thomasz Belluci to make it into the round of 16.
Fernando Verdasco and Juan Martin Del Potro started things off on center court. Del Potro began well, taking the first set 6-2. Clearly, Verdasco’s neon yellow and orange outfit wasn’t too distracting for him. Verdasco turned on his forehand in the second set and took the match to a tiebreak, but Del Potro managed to eke out a win. Both players did well. Unfortunately, it just came too late for Verdasco.
In the doubles world, John Isner and Sam Querry faced Robert Lindstedt and Horia Tecau. The trouble for the fourth-seeded doubles team started on Lindstedt’s serve as a mix of errors and strong play from Quisner forced a break much to the delight of the very pro-American crowd. Lindstedt and Tecau fought back for a super breaker but ultimately failed to do much with it, losing 10-5.
On center court, Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova both pulled out convincing wins. I’m hoping for a replay of the Australian Open final this weekend at the BNP Paribas Open.
My favorite match of the day was Jo Wilfried Tsonga and Radek Stepanek. Stepanek fought hard in the first set and managed to win the tiebreaker with surprising ease. The second set was a different story, though. Stepanek played well, but Tsonga came back strong in the second and third and proved to be too tough for the Czech.
Alexandr Dolgopolov and Marcos Baghdatis were up next and continued the theme of neon orange. It’s great to see the Cypriot back in action. He gave Dolgopolov some trouble, but in the end, Baghdatis couldn’t do enough.
Center court was packed again when Rafael Nadal took on countryman, Marcel Granollers. Granollers wasn’t able to throw too much at Nadal, who got through the match quite comfortably. He made very few errors in the first set, but Nadal tightened up in the second and looked a bit shaky, making several mistakes. He did enough, though, to see off Granollers.
The night session started on time tonight with Roger Federer playing Milos Raonic, which proved to be an interesting match. Check out Andrea Lubinsky’s article for analysis of the match. It certainly set a great atmosphere for Caroline Wozniacki and Ana Ivanovic.
On the outside courts, men’s doubles with the Murray brother against Max Mirnyi and Daniel Nestor as well as Richard Gasquet and Paul Hanley facing Oliver Marach and Alexander Peya while Marion Bartoli closed out the night by winning against Lucie Safarova on court two.
Check in with us tomorrow for more coverage!
There’s always a point of no return.
For Brad, it was seeing Steffi Graf’s ponytail fly up and hit her in the face when she hit her forehand in a 1990 match against Jennifer Capriati. For Chris, it was watching a teenage Andy Murray at the 2005 Wimbledon stand up to then 14th seed Radek Stepanek by mocking his lucky net-cord kiss. For Kelly Padgett, it was stumbling upon one of Andrea Petkovic’s infamous videos on youtube, and laughing as Petkovic pretended to pay Novak Djokovic for an interview.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the psyche of tennis fans lately. What is about this sport and the people that play it that makes us rearrange our schedules, worry for days on end, and get up at all hours of the night to watch a fuzzy yellow ball be hit back and forth from one side of the court to the other? Why do we care so much? Why does it matter?
To try and make sense of it all, I asked for volunteers to answer some questions for me about their experience being a tennis fan. Overall, I received thirty-one completed “fandom surveys” from fans of twenty-one different players. I laughed and cried as I scoured through them for days, re-reading the candid stories and over-analyzing the similarities and differences between them. I was overwhelmed by the honesty and poignancy. At the end of the day, I’m not sure if I solved any great mysteries, but I did come away with a deeper understanding of the power of our sport.
Melissa has been a Xavier Malisse fan since 1998- fourteen long years of ups and downs. “I just started following him, and never stopped,” she said. “Once I start following a player, I support him through good and bad times, even if that is sometimes hard. I don’t abandon a player because of negative results.”
Ruby, a Marcel Granollers fan, feels the same way. “Pathetically enough,” she told me, “I almost see it as my ‘job’ to stick by him.”
Melissa and Ruby are far from the only loyal tennis fans out there. Thirty of the fans I surveyed said that there was nothing they could imagine (besides a flippant mention of manslaughter) that would make them stop being a fan of their favorite player. Y. Jones, a Kei Nishikori fan, was the lone exception. She told me that she’d have to re-think her commitment to Nishikori if he ever got his ear pierced. “I just cannot stand a male figure wearing (an earring) in general,” she confessed.
Of course, a loyal tennis fan usually endures more lows than highs. Linda started following Flavia Pennetta in 2006, and became a die-hard fan when she saw an injured Pennetta enthusiastically cheering on her teammates in the Fed Cup Final that year. She couldn’t have picked a worst time to start being a fan. Between “the wrist injury, the struggle to come back, the breakup with Carlos Moya, and the struggle to recover from that,” Linda describes the events of 2006-2007 as “twelve months of horror” for Pennetta. But Linda stuck by the fiery Italian, and her loyalty paid off. She got to experience the joys of Pennetta’s two wins over Venus Williams, and her incredible run in the summer of 2009 when Pennetta won Palmero and L.A. back to back and became the first Italian woman to enter the Top-10. Linda describes the entire summer as “magical”.
As an Andy Murray fan, Hannah has been on a roller-coaster ride, but it’s how Murray has reacted during the low points that has secured her as a fan for life. She started following him during the 2010 Hopman Cup, but after his 2010 Australian Open Final loss to Roger Federer, there was no looking back. It wasn’t necessarily his play on-the-court that she admired, but rather his heartfelt display on the podium afterwards that made an impression. “Oh that speech.”
Similarly, Hannah was deeply impacted by how Murray acted after withdrawing from the World Tour Finals in London last November. “I was waiting for him (after his press conference announcing his withdrawal), just wanting to wish him luck for the next season and a fast recovery from that groin injury. As he walked out the venue, he was clearly very disappointed with not being able to play. However, he was still kind enough to give fans his autographs and thank everyone there for waiting and cheering him on.”
“His decentness as a guy is just admirable,” she concludes.
Curtis, an Ana Ivanovic fan, can relate. He recalls being “on cloud nine for an entire month” after (Ivanovic’s) 2008 French Open win, and has stuck by her through all the tough times since. “I have always considered myself a bigger fan of Ana Ivanovic the person, than Ana Ivanovic the tennis player,” he said. “While her results on court have changed over the years, she hasn’t changed as a person, which I really admire. She never let her fame or her struggles change the person who she was. That’s not easy to do. That’s why I keep coming back.”
In order to “keep coming back”, even in the rough times, most tennis fans maintain a delicate balance between their hopes and expectations. Charlotte, an Andy Roddick fan since 2003, realistically expects him to just win a few more minor tournaments, but deep down lets herself hope that he will “win many slams and beat Roger Federer as many times as he damn well likes.” Linda says that she’s learned the hard way to “never really have high expectations for (her) favorite players. The lower your expectations, the smaller you chance is of being disappointed!”
There are rare occasions when hopes and expectations merge together. For fans of players such as Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic, this happens more often then not.
Freelance sportswriter Matt Zemek became a Federer fan in 2004. “(Federer) played a brand of tennis that was more eye-pleasing and stylish than anything I had seen before.” He vividly recalled the first breakthrough moment he witnessed as a fan, Federer’s 2004 U.S. Open Quarterfinal against Andre Agassi. “When Agassi forced a fifth set in very windy conditions on that Thursday afternoon – the second day of the match – the American had the advantage. Federer somehow found a way to turn the tide in the fifth set and play particularly focused tennis. When he won, he let out a particularly primal roar and tore at his shirt. (He’s not Djokovic, so he didn’t succeed in tearing the shirt!) Federer seemed to know right then that he had conquered New York and all of its distractions. Sure enough, he didn’t lose another U.S. Open match until 2009.”
After such an immediate and long-term payoff, it’s no surprise that Zemek calls becoming a fan of Federer, “the most rewarding fan investment of (his) life.”
Zemek’s experience is unique. Most of the time becoming a fan, even of the greatest players, isn’t instantly rewarding. Aleksa became a fan of Novak Djokovic in 2005. “I first saw him play Marat Safin that year in the first round of the Australian Open,” she remembered. “He was crushed, of course. He was just a baby with porcupine hair. Six years and six months later he won Wimbledon.”
Anna became a Novak Djokovic fan a little later- in 2010 to be exact. She hoped that he would win another Grand Slam or two, but she never saw the 2011 season coming. “I felt constant surprise, joy, and elation. Never in my wildest dreams did I think he’d pull off all of that,” she said. While Anna admits that she does “hope that (Djokovic) wins all the Grand Slams from now on”, she realizes that is unrealistic. She is going to have to start managing her expectations again, keeping her hopes in check. Angela, a Rafael Nadal fan, is having a hard time doing just that. “Though (Nadal) has accomplished so much already, I would like him to have even greater successes,” she admitted. Angela does, however, realize that he may never reach the same heights he did in 2010, and says she will “deal with it as it comes.”
That’s the thing about reaching the top of the tennis world, whether as a player or as a fan- eventually, there will be a decline.
Siva, a Federer fan since 2001, is trying to come to terms with this. “Decline is the one constant in the game. I am fairly certain that Federer is declining. I am not sure I am prepared to deal with it.” Zemek disagrees. “Watching Federer handle tennis mortality is something to relish, not cringe at (for now),” he says.
Lawrence, another Federer fan, sides more with Zemek. “If (Federer) doesn’t become number 1 in his professional career again the Earth will still twirl around the Sun. Yes. It doesn’t matter.”
Aisha has been an Ana Ivanovic fan since 2005 when she was a ball-girl during her match against Nicole Vaidasova in Miami. Throughout the match Aisha recalls that Ivanovic “was an absolute sweetheart.” Aisha has stuck by the Serbian through the thick and the thin past seven years, but sometimes the losses are hard to take. When Ivanovic lost to Petra Cetkovska at Wimbledon last year, Aisha momentarily lost control and smashed her iPhone to bits. (Luckily she works at Best Buy and was able to get a replacement one quickly.)
Romi Castagnino promised herself that if her favorite player, Bethanie Mattek-Sands, ever won a Major that she would go sky-diving. Mattek-Sands won the Australian Open Mixed Doubles Championship with Horacia Tecau last month. Castagnino is rapidly trying to overcome her fear of heights.
Though the above examples are extreme, it was clear after reading through the surveys just how strong of an affect tennis players have on their fans. I was expecting to read about the loss of sleep, the occasional (or not-so-occasional) skipped class, and the general emotional highs and lows of fandom, but it became apparent that the influence runs deeper than that.
Many fans have drawn messages of hope and fortitude through their relationships with their favorite players. Maureen has learned about toughness by watching Maria Sharapova battle through matches and injuries. “I’ve learned not to give up easily,” she reflected. Christy has taken similar lessons from David Ferrer. “He has shown me that perseverance can overcome almost anything,” she told me. “Just because you’re ‘too short’ or whatever, doesn’t mean you can’t reach (your goals).” Karen Williams added, “Becoming a fan of Venus (Williams) has made me realize personally that through times of adversity you can accomplish much.” Suman has tried to adopt Roddick’s “never-say-no attitude”.
For Hannah, being a Murray fan has made her a much more independent person. She has traveled, often alone, all around the United Kingdom (and beyond) to see him play. For Lawrence, the impact Fed has had on his life is simple. “Be yourself. Stay cool.”
For some, the connection runs even deeper than that. Besides being pushed to face her fear of heights, Castagino has been inspired by Bethanie Mattek-Sands comeback from injury. “This was extra inspirational for me because around the same time she had her injury I broke my psoas muscles and it was pretty serious thing. I am still in rehab but seeing Bethanie come through her injury gives me extra motivation to push harder and keep my mind positive.” Similarly, a Rafael Nadal fan (who chose to remain anonymous), also found inspiration in Nadal’s transition from knee problems in 2009 to three-time Grand Slam Champion in 2010 . While struggling with personal matters during the time of his Wimbledon and U.S. Open triumphs she reflects that, “it was Rafa who got me through the bad days, the ones where I felt there was no hope.”
Most of the time in sports, you become a fan by default. You root for a team because you were born in a certain state, or went to a certain school, or were brought up a certain way. Being a tennis fan is different. It’s a relationship. It’s personal. It’s intimate. We don’t become fans of groups of people, states, or organizations- we become fans of human beings.
Sometimes we choose the players we are going to be fans of. Other times, the players choose us. Whether there’s something about them that we relate to, or something about them that we aspire to become, once the connection is made it’s virtually unbreakable. It’s why we get worked up when our favorite player is insulted. It’s why we get anxious for the matches, sad for the defeats, and exuberant over the victories. It’s why we do care. It’s why it does matter.
If I’ve learned nothing else from reading the stories of thirty-one passionate tennis fans, it’s that our favorite players aren’t just an extension of us, they’re an integral part of us. Most of the time, that’s a good thing.
(Eternal thanks to all those who took the time to fill out a survey and help me with this article: Curtis @curtos07, Charlotte @crystaleyesd, @eternal_elenea, Angela @4allsurfaces, Rhian @rosso_neri, Kelly Padgett, Siva, Lawrence, Chris @scoobschris, Matt Zemek @mzemek, Kelly @mikomonstr, Jane @jb10is, Géraldine, Suman, Karen Williams, Christy @triplebagel, @thriding, Melissa, Sarah @thetennisstorm, Aisha @Isha312, Brad @bradhunter, Maureen @drewsmama, Dianne @champingthebit, Anna @anna_tennisfan, Romi Castagnino, Ruby @ficcanasa, Y. Jones, Brooke, Hannah, Linda, and Aleksa.)
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.
Last year’s semifinalist Marcos Baghdatis has been struggling with injuries throughout the season and retired due to pain in his lower back in the first round match against Sam Querrey. Baghdatis won 2nd set despite 0:3 down in the tie-break (with two mini-breaks) but was forced to retire immediately after dropping his serve in the 5th game of the final set. “I felt a sharp pain and I didn’t want to take any risks,” Baghdatis said. “I felt that if I continued, I would have had problems afterward. So I preferred to stop.”
Three-time Paris champion (2000, 2002, 2004) Marat Safin began his match against qualifier Juan Monaco losing 8 games in a row! The Russian broke back to 2:2 but lost second set in the tie-break on 1st match point for the opponent. Safin said after the match that he considers an end of the career. “I need to sit down and relax and just enjoy my life without any tennis for a couple of months and then I will see,” Safin said.
First round was unsuccessful for the local players. Five out of six French players lost in the first round, including three “wild cards”: Chardy, Mannarino and Ouanna – none of them won a set. This year French organizers decided not to give a “wild card” for any of more experienced French players like Grosjean, Clement, Santoro or Benneteau. Another Frenchman, Richard Gasquet pulled out because of injuried right elbow. He has been replaced in the draw by a qualifier Marcel Granollers.
Paris – First round
(LL)Florent Serra (FRA) d. (LL)Guillermo Canas (ARG) 4-6 7-5 6-3
(q)Juan Monaco (ARG) d. Marat Safin (RUS) 6-0 7-6(4)
Tomas Berdych (CZE) d. (q)Robby Ginepri (USA) 6-4 7-5
(q)Ivan Ljubicic (CRO) vs (q)Viktor Troicki (SRB) 6-3 6-4
Samuel Querrey (USA) d. Marcos Baghdatis (CYP) 7-5 6-7(5) 3-2 ret.
Tommy Robredo (ESP) d. (WC)Jeremy Chardy (FRA) 7-6(4) 7-6(5)
Mario Ancic (CRO) d. Rainer Schuettler (GER) 6-4 3-6 6-1
Nicolas Kiefer (GER) d. Ivo Karlovic (CRO) 6-4 7-5
Feliciano Lopez (ESP) d. Janko Tipsarevic (SRB) 6-3 6-4
Igor Andreev (RUS) d. Paul-Henri Mathieu (FRA) 7-6(6) 6-3
Radek Stepanek (CZE) vs Marc Gicquel (FRA) 6-4 3-6 6-4
Dmitry Tursunov (RUS) d. (WC)Adrian Mannarino (FRA) 6-3 6-2
Philipp Kohlschreiber (GER) vs Mikhail Youzhny (RUS)
(q)Simone Bolelli (ITA) d. Jarkko Nieminen (FIN) 7-5 6-4
Marin Cilic (CRO) d. Andreas Seppi (ITA) 7-6(5) 6-2
Robin Soderling (SWE) vs (WC)Josselyn Ouanna (FRA) 6-3 6-4
Top 10 players, Nikolay Davydenko, David Ferrer and James Blake were ousted in the second round at the Mutua Madrilena Madrid. Each of them will have to fight in the next two weeks to secure spot at Masters Cup in Shanghai. Davydenko who has still the best position to take 5th spot, lost to qualifier Robby Ginepri 6-4 4-6 4-6. The Russian had advantage of a break in the 2nd set (4:3) but couldn’t hold his serve and lost the match after double fault at Ginepri’s first match point.
James Blake won two previous meetings against Gilles Simon (twice this year) without any problems but this time lost 6-3 1-6 4-6. Blake hasn’t won a match at Madrid Masters in 5 appearances.
Djokovic had been struggling with Victor Hanescu before won the match 6-7(8) 7-6(6) 3-1 ret. In the first tie-break Djokovic wasted 4:2 lead and set point (8:7). The Serb had also lost his leading (4:1) in the second tie-break but leveled up the match converting 4th set point with beautiful cross-court bekhend. At the beginning of the final set Hanescu was forced to retie due to injuried left thigh. “He used his biggest weapon, which was his serve,” Djokovic said. “I coudn’t find any rhythm in return, so he used that wisely.”
Also two points away from defeat were Stanislas Wawrinka and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Wawrinka beat Philipp Kohlschreiber 3-6 7-5 7-6(5) despite 1:4 down in the deciding tie-break. Tsonga was 3:5 (30-30) down in the final set against Marcel Granollers but played two great overheads to back into the match and win 3-6 6-3 7-6(5). “I maybe played exactly the same tennis (as in Australia),” said Tsonga. “I won a tournament two weeks ago. I played well, like at the start of the year.”
Madrid – Second Round
(1)Rafael Nadal (ESP) d. Ernests Gulbis (LAT) 7-5 3-6 6-3
(15)Richard Gasquet (FRA) d. Mardy Fish (USA) 6-7(3) 6-4 6-3
(10)Stanislas Wawrinka (SUI) d. Philipp Kohlschreiber (GER) 3-6 7-5 7-6(5)
Feliciano Lopez (ESP) d. (6)David Ferrer (ESP) 6-4 7-6(4)
(3)Novak Djokovic (SRB) d. (q)Victor Hanescu (ROU) 6-7(8) 7-6(6) 3-1 ret.
(14)Ivo Karlovic (CRO) d. Robin Soderling (SWE) 7-6(7) 7-6(8)
Gilles Simon (FRA) d. (11)James Blake (USA) 3-6 6-1 6-4
(q)Robby Ginepri (USA) d. (5)Nikolay Davydenko (RUS) 4-6 6-4 6-4
(8)Andy Roddick (USA) d. Tommy Robredo (ESP)
Gael Monfils (FRA) d. (12)Fernando Gonzalez (CHI) 6-3 6-4
Marin Cilic (CRO) d. (13)Fernando Verdasco (ESP) 6-2 6-3
(4)Andy Murray (GBR) d. (LL)Simone Bolelli (ITA) 6-0 2-1 ret.
(7)David Nalbandian (ARG) d. Tomas Berdych (CZE) 6-2 6-7(5) 6-1
(9)Juan Martin del Potro (ARG) d. Jarkko Nieminen (FIN) 6-2 4-2 ret.
(16)Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (FRA) d. (q)Marcel Granollers (ESP) 3-6 6-3 7-6(5)
(2)Roger Federer (SUI) d. Radek Stepanek (CZE) 6-3 7-6(6)
Igor Andreev has noticed a second defeat in two weeks time after wasting match point. The Russian was leading on return 5:4 (40-0) in the third set against Gilles Simon, who also saved another, fourth match point after very long rally. Andreev had advantage in the tie-break too (5:3) but finally more patient Simon won the match on his third chance 4-6 6-1 7-6(7). Simon has won second match this year saving triple match point, previously in Rome against compatriot Tsonga.
Newly-married Mardy Fish beat Steve Darcis 6-1 6-4 in his first singles match since US Open. The American fired 13 aces despite only 46 % 1st serve in.
In the first half of the season Nicolas Almagro had been a serious contender of reaching Masters Cup in Shanghai, but since Wimbledon, the Spaniard has lost 7 out of last 11 matches and practially lost in Madrid his chances for Masters spot. Almagro was defeated 6-7(4) 1-6 by “lucky loser” Simone Bolelli who replaced “wild card” Marat Safin.
First Masters Series match in career won Marcel Granollers. The qualifier from Spain surprised Paul-Henri Mathieu 6-4 6-4. The 22 year-old Spaniard before the Madrid’s 1st round encounter, lost last 5 matches, 2 of them on Challenger circuit. He sets up clash with another Frenchman – Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. “It’s definitely going to be a tough match,” said Granollers. “He is very strong, he has great drive and he hits the ball very hard. I’ll try to play my game and do my best.”
Madrid – First round
Ernests Gulbis (LAT) d. Nicolas Kiefer (GER) 5-7 6-4 7-5
Mardy Fish (USA) d. (q)Steve Darcis (BEL) 6-1 6-4
Philipp Kohlschreiber (GER) d. Carlos Moya (ESP) 6-2 6-2
Feliciano Lopez (ESP) d. (WC)Albert Montanes (ESP) 7-6(4) 6-3
(q)Victor Hanescu (ROU) d. Dmitry Tursunov (RUS) 4-6 6-2 6-3
Robin Soderling (SWE) d. (q)Florent Serra (FRA) 6-3 6-4
Gilles Simon (FRA) d. Igor Andreev (RUS) 4-6 6-1 7-6(7) – 4 M.P.
(q)Robby Ginepri (USA) d. Michael Llodra (FRA) 6-4 6-4
Tommy Robredo (ESP) d. Andreas Seppi (ITA) 7-6(5) 3-6 6-3
Gael Monfils (FRA) d. (WC)Fabio Fognini (ITA) 6-2 6-4
Marin Cilic (CRO) d. (q)Olivier Rochus (BEL) 6-3 7-5
(LL)Simone Bolelli (ITA) d. Nicolas Almagro (ESP) 7-6(4) 6-1
Tomas Berdych (CZE) d. Rainer Schuettler (GER) 6-1 6-2
Jarkko Nieminen (FIN) d. Mikhail Youzhny (RUS) 7-5 3-6 6-2
(q)Marcel Granollers (ESP) d. Paul-Henri Mathieu 6-4 6-4
Radek Stepanek (CZE) d. Juan Monaco (ARG) 6-1 6-1
The challengers circuit was graced with the presence of a top 50 player on the men’s side who hoped to get an early start to the clay court season, while several women followed up their victories on the challenger circuit last week with repeats this week.
The clay court season is about to get underway next week, but two players have already shown their intentions to leave a mark on it this season. At the $100,000 event in Napoli, Italy, Potito Starace won a nail-biting final in front of his local fans by beating Marcos Daniel of Brazil 6-4 4-6 7-6. Daniel was coming of a win at the $125,000 tournament in Bogota, Colombia last month, and came within two points of the biggest win of his career against the 36th ranked Starace. However, Starace fought back from 5-6 down in the final set and won the last three points of the tiebreak to win his first title of the year. Two other prominent players, French Open finalist Gullermo Coria and Olympic gold medalist Nicolas Massu, took part in the tournament, but failed to get past the first round.
At the $35,000 tournament in St. Brieuc, France, Christophe Rochus of Belgium took the title with a 6-2 4-6 6-1 over Marcel Granollers of Spain. Granollers has had a fine start on the clay this year by winning a challenger event in Morocco and reaching the quarterfinals at the ATP event in Acapulco, Mexico, but ran out of gas in the end against the experienced Belgian. Rochus is a long way from his career high ranking of #38, but winning his first title in three years is certainly a step back in the right direction.
There inevitably comes a time for any good player to graduate from the futures circuit, and it seems that Rui Machado of Portugal has more than worn out his welcome at this level. His win at the $15,000 event in Loja, Spain, is his fifth futures title of 2008.
On the women’s side, British tennis has been in dire straits for almost two decades now. The last woman to be in the top 100 was Samantha Smith in 1999. However, Elena Baltacha demonstrated this week that she might be ready to finally break through at the level. She won her second challenger title in a row, and the biggest of her career, at the $75,000 event in Torhout, Belgium, with a 6-7 6-1 6-4 over Iveta Benesova of the Czech Republic. Benesova has also been a hot streak as of late, having won the $50,000 event in Latina, Italy last week. Her characteristically fragile nerves got the better of her though as she was broken in the final set at 4-4, allowing Baltacha to serve out the win.
Magdalena Rybarikova also won her second title in a row at the $50,000 tournament in Patras, Greece, defeating Great Britain’s Anne Keothavong 6-3 7-5 in the final. The win puts her inside of the top 150 for the first time in her career, and with minimal points to defend until late this fall, she looks poised to break through into the top 100 by then.
After struggling with injuries and poor form through 2007, Kristina Barrois of Germany has finally turned her game around. She won her second title in a row at the $25,000 event in Hamburg, Germany, taking the title when Ana Vrljic of Croatia retired with a leg injury after losing the first set 6-2. The win puts Barrois back in the top 200 and guarantees her spot in the qualifying for Roland Garros this spring.
In other challenger news, Betima Jozami of Argentina won the $25,000 event in Civatechia, Italy, and Raquel Kops-Jones of the United States won the $25,000 event in Pelham, Alabama.
The spotlight turns over to the women at the $75,000 event in Monzon, Spain, where American Lilia Osterloh is the top seed. Martina Muller of Germany is the top seed at the $25,000 tournament in Biarritz, France, while Aleksandra Wozniak of Canada hopes to continue her strong form as the top seed at the $25,000 event in Jackson, Mississippi. On the men’s side, professional tennis finally returns to Puerto Rico with former Australian Open finalist Rainer Schuttler playing top seed at the $50,000 event in Humacao. Albert Montanes of Spain is also the top seed at the $35,000 event in Monza, Italy.