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Armed with a perfect record in Davis Cup live rubbers this year, the French team now leaves its homeland for the first time this season.  Entering Novak’s lair, Monfils and his supporting cast must target victories in the three matches not contested by the world #3.  The task looms somewhat less large than it seems at first glance, however, for the visitors hold modest advantages in each of those encounters.  But will the notoriously flaky French buckle under the pressure of the vociferous Belgrade multitudes?  As Monfils noted, Djokovic and his compatriots face the perhaps more intimidating mission of capturing their nation’s first Davis Cup amidst the lofty expectations swirling around them, both inside and outside Serbia.  We unfold a potential weekend narrative below.

Day 1:  After an uncharacteristically consistent fall, Monfils must overcome Tipsarevic in order to prevent this final from becoming The Novak Show with Guest Appearances from Gael and Gilles.  Despite the disparity in their rankings, the world #49 has proved a difficult test in national team competition, toppling both Berdych and Stepanek in the semifinals this year.  A quirky, intelligent player who never shrinks from the spotlight, Tipsarevic has split his four previous meetings with Monfils and clearly thrives upon the electrified atmosphere unique to Davis Cup.  On the other hand, the top-ranked Frenchman has showcased some of the best tennis of his career over a fall that has featured a US open quarterfinal, three finals, and just one loss to a player outside the top 10 (Gasquet).  At the US Open, in fact, Monfils outlasted Tipsarevic just a round after the Serb upset Roddick.  He opened a crucial quarterfinal tie against Spain with a victory over Ferrer that became more adventurous than it should have, though, so stay alert for drama.  France leads 1-0.

Encountering Simon in a best-of-five format for the first time, Djokovic has won their last five matches but surrendered sets in three of them.  A history of regularly defeating the Frenchman in close matches should serve the Serb well, as will the recent memory of a resounding victory in Beijing from which Gilles extracted only games.  Either mediocre or indifferent in his previous Davis Cup appearances, Simon principally functions as a means to preserve Llodra for what might become a title-deciding fifth rubber.  While he probably can’t win this battle, he might aid France in winning the war if he can collect a set or deplete Djokovic’s physical and mental reserves prior to a more demanding clash with Monfils.  Tied 1-1.

Day 2:  With the tie delicately poised, we expect former Wimbledon champions Clement and Llodra to seize center stage on Saturday.  A regular Davis Cup partnership that defeated the Bryans in the United States during this competition, they likely will overcome a Serbian team comprised of one doubles player and a singles player who has played just two Davis Cup doubles rubbers.  Seemingly fragile in tense situations, Troicki generally has represented the most vulnerable component of an otherwise sturdy squad.  Will Serbian captain Bogdan Obradovic replace him with Djokovic in order to avoid a probable 1-2 deficit?  Even if he partners the world #3 with Zimonjic, such a tactic failed markedly in the semifinals against the Czech Republic, so we would advise Obradovic to spare his superstar and rely upon winning the two Sunday matches.  Offering a ray of hope for the home team is Zimonjic’s recent triumph at the World Tour Finals, which concluded his memorable collaboration with Nestor.  Moreover, a debut title at the Kremlin Cup this fall may allow Troicki to settle his nerves.  Exhorting him relentlessly, the crowd ironically won’t benefit him.  France leads 2-1.

Day 3: Just as in the semifinals, Serbia probably will face the challenge of winning the last two matches.  Entrusted with ensuring survival for the second straight tie, Djokovic will hope to prolong his mastery over Monfils, who never has won a match against him and has lost all three of their tiebreaks.  Two rounds after defeated Tipsarevic at the US Open, curiously, the Frenchman mustered just nine games from the Serb in an unfocused, listless effort.  While Monfils has reached three finals since September, so has Djokovic.  Revitalized with his victory over Federer at the US Open, the world #3 rode that momentum to the Beijing title and the Basel final before faltering in Paris.  While his loss to Llodra there raised eyebrows, the medium-speed hard courts in Belgrade align much more closely with Djokovic’s game than the lightning-fast courts in Bercy, although he won the title there last year.  Initially tentative when seeking to preserve a tie against Berdych in the Davis Cup semifinal, Djokovic recovered before the match slipped too far out of his grasp; he also profited from untimely errors by his opponent and likely will do so again.  During their only indoors meeting, though, Monfils dragged the Serb deep into a third-set tiebreak before surrendering, so this match should offer the highest-quality tennis of the weekend, mingling formidable serving with explosive forehands and lithe defense.  Tied 2-2.

Eyeing the hero’s mantle for the second straight Davis Cup tie, Tipsarevic probably won’t know until shortly before the match whether he will face Simon or Llodra.  Since the two Frenchmen display almost diametrically opposite styles, Guy Forget might want to delay his announcement as long as possible in order to diminish the Serb’s preparation time.  In addition to Llodra’s greater Davis Cup experience, his outstanding performance in Paris should compel his captain to select him for the championship-deciding match, yet an eye-opening effort from Simon could cause Forget to ponder carefully.  Among further variables to consider are the length of Llodra’s doubles match, the more Simon-friendly surface, and Tipsarevic’s dominance over the Llodra-like Stepanek in the decisive fifth rubber of the semifinals.  Unless a significant talent gap yawns between the two competitors, an impassioned audience beating thundersticks, blowing horns, and chanting national slogans should play a vital role in the outcome of this decisive rubber.  After a fiercely contested series of matches, a scarred, long-beleaguered nation should fling itself into cathartic celebration.  Serbia wins the Davis Cup, 3-2.

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We now regret to announce a week-long interval before our next article.  Next Friday, we open a series of reflections on the season that has just concluded.

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Just days removed from the US Open’s climax, several of its notable performers descend upon Europe for a weekend of intriguing Davis Cup semifinals, saturated with intense personalities and stylistic variety.  We discuss the key players and matchups in the two ties, unfolding the most plausible narratives that might unfold in Lyon and Belgrade:

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Argentina at France:

Without lanky superstar Del Potro for its entire 2010 campaign, the Argentine team may in fact be stronger in his absence, which cloaks the temperamental Nalbandian in the hero’s mantle.  Relishing this role, the infamously “grouchy gaucho” splendidly rose to the occasion during the Davis Cup quarterfinals in Russia, when he defeated Davydenko and Youzhny in a weekend that signaled his summer resurgence.  Buttressed by the momentum of his recent exploits on the American hard courts, the former Wimbledon finalist also may suffer from fatigue after the US Open.  Although captain Tito Vazquez will want to conserve Nalbandian’s energy for the singles, he will be tempted to enlist his team’s only hard-court threat for doubles if the tie stays tense; thus, a difficult choice may loom on Saturday.  Cast as supporting actors, the trio of Monaco, Schwank, and Zeballos has accumulated respectable clay-court credentials but should struggle against the French shotmakers on the fast, indoor surface.

Not usually celebrated for teamwork and Davis Cup camaraderie, les bleus countered their reputation during their stunning whitewash of defending champion Spain in the quarterfinals, to which almost the entire squad contributed.  Even Gilles Simon, who didn’t play a live rubber that weekend, enthusiastically supported his compatriots and (tastefully) exhorted the spectators on their behalf.  In the often vital doubles rubber, France enjoys a significant edge with former Wimbledon titlists Clement and Llodra.  Yet captain Guy Forget has gambled by asking Llodra to play three rubbers, including the potentially decisive fifth rubber against Nalbandian.  If Argentina remains in contention until that stage, they would be favored to upset their hosts and advance to their second Davis Cup final in three years.  In order to split the first four rubbers, however, the visitors will need either the doubles rubber or a win from their clay specialists over Monfils or Llodra, both of whom have excelled on fast surfaces and recorded impressive results this summer.  Buoyed by a vociferous home crowd, Monfils might even defeat Nalbandian on Friday and effectively clinch the tie for France.  While the Argentine veteran probably wants a Davis Cup title more than anyone else in Lyon this weekend, the much superior depth and fast-surface talent of the French squad should comprise an insurmountable advantage.

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Czech Republic at Serbia:

Fresh (or not) from his sparkling New York performance, Djokovic opens this tie against a player whom he defeated in two of the last three US Opens.  Extending the Serb to the brink of defeat on the first of those occasions, Stepanek offered little resistance in their second meeting there and has faded dramatically this year.  Reliant on agility and timing, the idiosyncratic Czech has enjoyed extensive Davis Cup success but will struggle to cope with Djokovic’s superior consistency, versatility, and technique.  In the midst of a breakthrough season, Berdych will seek to level the tie against the unpredictable, ever-dangerous Tipsarevic.  Probably invigorated by a first-rubber victory, the Belgrade crowd will seek to fluster the Czech, who hasn’t entirely shed his reputation for mental fragility.  Although Tipsarevic hopes to recapitulate his scintillating upset over Roddick in New York, Berdych should control most rallies with his superior first-strike weaponry and pin the Serb behind the baseline.

Currently listing the unprepossessing duo of Hajek and Minar as his doubles team, Czech captain Jaroslav Navratil almost certainly will substitute Berdych and Stepanek once Saturday arrives.  Superb together in Davis Cup doubles, these singles specialists will confront the slightly odd pairing of Troicki and the perceptibly aging Zimonjic.  While the visitors might well win this battle, they probably will lose the war, for both of Serbia’s singles players will rest on Saturday as the Czech singles players continue their exertions without respite.  Reprising his Wimbledon semifinal with Berdych in the fourth rubber, Djokovic may face the task not of clinching the tie but of ensuring his nation’s survival into a decisive fifth rubber.  Despite his disappointingly passive loss to the world #7 a few months ago, one suspects that the new world #2 would outlast his weary opponent in an encounter of ferocious ball-striking and scintillating shot-making.  Ranked only two slots apart, Stepanek and Tipsarevic have split their two previous encounters and share a propensity for alternating the ridiculous with the sublime.  When so little separates two opponents in a Davis Cup fifth rubber, though, home-court advantage can play a pivotal role.

Davis Cup Final:  France at Serbia

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Over the weekend, we will return with an article on leading Slam performers in 2010. Who were the top five men and top five women at the year’s four most important tournaments?  As you will find out, we take an extremely objective approach…