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US Players

Readers familiar with this blog will know that we do not beat the tribal drum to proclaim the wonders of American tennis when few such wonders exist.  By contrast, we save praise of our compatriots for the moments that genuinely matter, a category that definitely includes this weekend’s victory over a heavily favored Swiss squad.  From the outset, virtually every imaginable card seemed stacked against the Americans, mired in the hostile clay without the services of their most prolific singles star (Andy Roddick) and half of their legendary doubles team (Mike Bryan) as they confronted the greatest player ever (need you ask?) and a very capable clay threat (Stanislas Wawrinka).  Only heightening the odds were the unimpressive Australian performances of both Fish and Isner, gone before the second week.

In one of the most stunning upsets during the last decade of Davis Cup, however, the Americans registered victories for every member of their team as they shut out their hosts.  Most stunning was Isner’s four-set victory over Federer that grew more emphatic as it progressed, but his teammate Fish deserves equal honors.  With the GOAT looming in the second rubber, the top-ranked American knew that he needed to secure the first rubber against Wawrinka for his team to harbor legitimate hopes of surviving the tie.  Trailing by two sets to one, Fish must have struggled to dispel memories of his demoralizing Davis Cup losses to Spain last year, when he spent eight hours on court with nothing to show for it.  Finishing the nail-biting fifth set with a burst of confident, assertive play, he set an optimistic tone crucial to his team’s success that weekend.  After Isner lost the first set to Federer, his comeback mirrored the spirited effort of his compatriot, unwilling to concede a grain of dirt to a Swiss team far superior in talent but far inferior in resolve.

Tennis sprawled well beyond Switzerland last week, though, so we discuss the rest of the best and worst from Davis Cup and two small WTA events.

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Team Argentina:  Another visiting team to sweep their hosts, Argentina arrived in Germany without their best player in Del Potro and yet still ravaged their higher-ranked foes with merciless efficiency.  As he has so often, Nalbandian seized center stage by winning both of his live rubbers, including a demolition of German #1 Florian Mayer.  The Argentines impressed even more because they had sustained a potentially devastating loss to Spain in yet another Davis Cup final last fall, so the psychological burden of starting their quest anew must have loomed large.  Somewhat lightening that burden, to be sure, was Germany’s uninspired decision to host this tie on clay, an unexpected courtesy to South American dirt devils like Monaco.  In the April quarterfinals, the Argentines should show less courtesy when they lay as slow a court as possible to frustrate one particular Croat.

Ivo Karlovic:  Defending his flag far from home, the tallest man in the ATP almost single-handedly thrust aside Japan by winning three rubbers for Croatia.  Like Germany, Japan may rue their choice of surface in retrospect, but Karlovic has proven himself dangerous even on slower courts.  Sweeping aside Nishikori in straight sets on Friday, he never lost his serve in either of his singles matches, including a decisive fifth rubber during which he seemed to feel neither pressure from the situation nor fatigue from his previous matches.  Perhaps most notable from the weekend was Karlovic’s ability to break serve; he needed only one tiebreak in six singles sets and won two sets by double-break margins.  Inside the top 50 as he prepares to turn 33, the Croat has grown more rather than less consistent with age.

Angelique Kerber:  While more often than not the player makes the results, sometimes the results make the player.  After bouncing around the second and third tiers of the WTA for years, Kerber astonished virtually everyone by racing within a set of the US Open final last fall.  That glimpse of what she could accomplish catalyzed her motivation and encouraged her to improve her fitness during the off-season.  Dismissed initially as an accident all too common in the parity of women’s tennis, she has begun to prove otherwise by compiling a 14-3 record in early 2012.  The German lefty reached semifinals in Auckland and Hobart before breaking through to claim her first career title in Paris with victories over two top-eight opponents.  Despite her lack of experience in finals, Kerber held her ground against multiple comebacks from Bartoli and continued creating opportunities to deliver the coup de grace.  When she did, one wondered whether the German trio of Petkovic, Lisicki, and Goerges might have become a quartet.

Pattaya City finalists:  Among players outside the top 20 when the year began, Hantuchova has surpassed all but Kerber in her achievements.  In addition to spearheading Slovakia’s victory over France in Fed Cup, she reached the Brisbane final and knocked off Schiavone in Sydney. Although she defeated no prominent name in the Thai beach city, her first career title defense represents a significant accomplishment for a player considered unreliable and emotionally frail.  Further undercutting that reputation, Hantuchova has rallied from losing the first set in seven of her fourteen victories this year, showing greater capacity for endurance than she has for most of her career.

Despite its insignificant position near the base of the WTA’s tournament hierarchy, Pattaya City featured a final filled with drama and entertainment throughout its 194 minutes.  No less responsible than Hantuchova for its quality was runner-up Kirilenko, who battled through game after game with unexpected tenacity.

Sorana Cirstea / Mona Barthel:  Flavors of the month in January, they started February with promise.  After she upset Stosur in the first round of the Australian Open, the former prodigy Cirstea reached the semifinals in Pattaya City, where she extended Kirilenko to three sets.  Even more notable was the continued surge of Hobart champion Barthel, who has amassed 16 victories already this year.  The last five of those came when she qualified for the main draw and then reached the quarterfinals at the Paris Indoors.  If her progress continues, the Germans could boast five players in the top 30 by midsummer, more than any other nation except Russia.

Deuce:

Team Kazakhstan:  One might wonder how a team can take positives away from losing a second straight Davis Cup tie 5-0, but Kazakhstan’s 10 straight losses mask a brighter story.  Faced with the task of playing a much superior Spanish team on clay, many more talented squads would have crumbled before the first ball even without the presence of Nadal and Ferrer.  In a 2011 quarterfinal, moreover, the Kazakhs had mustered only minimal resistance to Argentina in a clay tie under similar circumstances.  This year, they improved considerably by winning two sets from Ferrero and a set from Almagro in a weekend when victory lay inevitably beyond their grasp.  Still a fledgling Davis Cup power, they may have started to feel as though they belong.

Team Japan:  Literally overshadowed by their Croatian guests, Nishikori and Go Soeda nevertheless left their compatriots little reason for regret.  Although one expected a somewhat more competitive match between the Japanese #1 and Karlovic in Friday, he redeemed himself with an equally imposing triumph over Dodig on Sunday when the tie hung in the balance.  Unable to threaten Karlovic for more than a set in the decisive match, Soeda galvanized the crowd in the Bourbon Beans Dome by erasing a two-set deficit in the opening rubber.  On the heels of Nishikori’s quarterfinal appearance at the Australian Open, this scintillating Davis Cup tie might enhance the prominence of tennis still further in Japan.

Switzerland's Roger Federer Reacts

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Federer:  Winning two total sets in two rubbers, the Swiss #1 lost little time in finding not one but two scapegoats for his embarrassment:  the poorly laid surface (fair) and his teammate Wawrinka (unfair).  So heavily did Federer criticize the latter, someone who didn’t watch the tie might have thought that Wawrinka had slumped to a four-set defeat against Isner while Federer had extended Fish deep into a fifth set.  Despite his surprising listlessness, this defeat will occupy scant space in any survey of the 16-time major champion’s career, but his reaction built upon earlier suggestions (cf. Wimbledon 2010, Roland Garros 2011) that Federer’s sportsmanship correlates directly to his success.

Sharapova:  Spraying more than 30 unforced errors in 20 games, she fell well short of justifying her status as the top seed in a draw of players who almost never had defeated her.  A reminder that no conclusions are foregone, Sharapova’s loss paralleled Federer’s setback in the lack of intensity or purpose shown by their protagonists.  Although Kerber’s ensuing march to the title mitigated the disappointment in retrospect, it still surprised considering her dominance of that opponent in Melbourne.  Perhaps February simply offers a necessary lull for these two champions between the demanding months of January and March.

WTA health:  Just one month and one significant tournament into the season, the casualty list has started to mount.  A few days after Li retired from Paris, Zvonareva retired from Pattaya City.  Before Paris even began, both Lisicki and Jankovic excused themselves with lingering injuries that had nagged them during Fed Cup.  Even with the Premier Five tournament in Doha on the horizon, world #3 Kvitova decided to save her ammunition for grander stages.  To some extent, these injuries stem from the habit (and ability) of the top women to set their own schedules, a trend that no Roadmap can cure.  But it still raises concern to see so many injuries to important figures so early in the season.

Alex Bogomolov:  Having stirred the cauldron of controversy by playing Davis Cup for Russia rather than the United States, Bogomolov did nothing to reward the trust of Tarpischev in his first World Group tie.  This most improbable Russian #1 won one total set in two singles rubbers, including an ignominious thrashing by Melzer in the tie-clincher during which he lost only seven games.  Just as embarrassing, though, was a four-set loss on Friday to the 127th-ranked Haider-Maurer that essentially sealed Russia’s fate.  If Tarpischev has any other weapons at his disposal, the Russian-turned-American-turned-Russian should watch the next tie’s live rubbers from the safety of the bench.

 

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Rafael Nadal Rafael Nadal (L) of Spain holds the Davis Cup trophy as he celebrates with his teammate David Ferrer during the third and last day of the final Davis Cup match between Spain and Argentina on December 4, 2011 in Seville, Spain.

Barely two months ago, Spain celebrated the latest title captured by its Davis Cup dynasty.  But now the greatest power of the past decade must start to defend its crown once more.  While their path does not look steep, other contending nations eye more imposing challenges to their hopes.

Spain vs. Kazakhstan:  In its first year of World Group experience, the Kazakhs burst onto this grand stage by ambushing the Berdych-led Czech squad in a victory of David over Goliath.  When David traveled to Argentine clay, though, their discomfort on the surface led to an emphatic shutout.  Once again mired in clay, they face the nation most renowned for its success on the terre battue.  But most of that success came from two players absent from Spain’s B-level squad in Oviedo, Nadal and Ferrer.  As Spain enters an era of Davis Cup without its leading stars, the defending champions rely on the fading Ferrero and the enigmatic Almagro, together with the unremarkable Granollers and the second-tier doubles specialist Marc Lopez.  Considering the quality of their competition and home-court advantage, Spain should advance routinely even with this relatively modest quartet.  This easy draw provides a chance for the team’s comprehensive remodeling to coalesce before meeting stiffer resistance.  ESP in 3

Austria vs. Russia:  Not especially intriguing at first glance, this tie features no player in the top 30.  Several curious subtexts lurk beneath its apparent mediocrity, however, including the narrative of Alex Bogomolov’s debut in Russian colors after controversially spurning the United States.  The most reliable member of either squad in Cup action, Youzhny arrives with his spirits soaring from a Zagreb title and owns a 4-2 advantage over Austrian #1 Melzer.  Likely to appear if needed in Sunday’s reverse singles is the Austrian resident Davydenko, whose aggressive ball-striking suits the indoor hard courts better than Bogomolov’s counterpunching style.  Bereft of imposing singles #2s, the hosts will lean heavily on Melzer to participate in winning three rubbers, for they have little hope of survival if the tie hinges upon the 127th-ranked Haider-Maurer.  While the streaky Austrian #1 could ride his lefty net-rushing to a heroic feat, he has won consecutive main-draw matches only once since last July.  His best tennis almost certainly lies behind this 30-year-old Wimbledon doubles champion.  RUS in 5

Canada vs. France:  Like the Austrians, the Canadians pin their ambitions upon a single potential hero in Milos Raonic.  Although Vasek Pospisil and Frank Dancevic have excelled on home soil before, one would not fancy their chances to win two singles rubbers from Tsonga and Monfils, even with the latter perhaps not fully fit.  In the doubles, Canada might combine Dancevic’s net skills with the vast doubles expertise of Daniel Nestor, only a little less effective with age.  Nevertheless, Franch also will bring a talented doubles pairing in Benneteau and Llodra, who have won titles together before and might out-serve the Canadians on these fast courts.  Stirring internal Canadian controversy before the tie was fiercely patriotic advertising by Tennis Canada that irritated the country’s French-speaking citizens.  The weekend’s action will unfold far from Quebec in the British Canadian city of Vancouver, though, notorious for fanaticism in other sports.  Famously fallible throughout their history, the French Davis Cup team must ignore the distractions to showcase their more versatile talent.  Outside the serve, Tsonga and Monfils have far more weapons than Raonic, who might upset one of them but seems unlikely to topple both without their assistance.  Three best-of-five victories on three straight days represents a towering task for the towering Canadian.  FRA in 4

Switzerland vs. USA:  Whereas the previous two ties look more interesting upon further inspection than at first glance, this tie looks more interesting at first glance than upon further inspection.  On the indoor clay in Fribourg, Federer and Wawrinka should tie knots around the one-dimensional American servers.  Unimpressive at the Australian Open, neither Fish nor Isner will bring the level of self-belief necessary to overcome the Swiss master, although Isner did win two sets from Nadal at Roland Garros.  A stronger competitor than formerly (except against Federer), Wawrinka still struggles with maintaining a positive attitude under pressure sometimes.  One wonders a little how he will respond to the challenge of blunting the American serves under the gaze of his expectant compatriots.   So far superior are the Swiss singles players on clay, however, that they could afford to burn understudies Chiudinelli and Lammer on the doubles while relying on winning three of four singles rubbers.  (Thus far, however, they have slotted Federer and Wawrinka into that rubber as well.)  Paired with Ryan Harrison rather than former partner Isner, Mike Bryan should spare the visitors from a shutout before they drift down to the playoff round once more.  In a minor footnote, Harrison should benefit from the experience of playing a visiting Davis Cup tie as his maturation process continues.  SUI in 4

Czech Republic vs. Italy:  Surely seething to avenge their first-round loss last year, the former Davis Cup finalists probably can expect only one or two more seasons from their reliable duo of Berdych and Stepanek.  A two-man team with remarkable success in doubles together, they will host a clay-loving quartet of Italians on fast indoor courts where their superior serves and aggressive tactics should make spaghetti out of Starace et al.  After extending Nadal to four tight sets in an Australian Open quarterfinal, Berdych won the Montpellier title last week and has played more consistently impressive tennis over the last few months thane he generally does.   Not to be outdone by his countryman, Stepanek won the Australian Open doubles crown with Leander Paes in a commendable late-career highlight.  Boosted by their individual momentum, they should prove once again that divergent playing styles and divergent personalities can fuse in explosively effective fashion.  Like the Swiss, the Czechs probably can afford to concede the doubles and rest their stars for the singles.  CZE in 4

Serbia vs. Sweden:  Neither of their nation’s #1s, Djokovic and Soderling, will play a role in this starless Belgrade weekend.  So sanguine was Serbian captain Bogdan Obradovic about his team’s chances that he encouraged the five-time major champion to focus upon preparing for the majors and Olympics.  All the same, two top-25 singles threats in Tipsarevic and Troicki add to doubles veteran Zimonjic in comprising a balanced squad that always shines most under Serbian skies (or roofs, in this case).  Across the net stands no Swede in the top 250 of the ATP singles rankings, although Robin Lindstedt should duel intriguingly with Zimonjic in the doubles rubber.  But otherwise we expect minimal suspense from the greatest mismatch of the weekend.  SRB in 3

Japan vs. Croatia:  A mismatch in height alone, this tie offers a second straight weekend of tennis in the Bourbon Beans Dome.  Partnering Kimiko Date-Krumm in mixed doubles at the Australian Open, Nishikori will aim to emulate that legend’s success in Fed Cup against another Balkans team.  Unexpectedly reaching the singles quarterfinals in Melbourne, the Japanese #1 should relish the rare opportunity to play before his home fans—at least more than the opportunity to blunt Karlovic’s serving power.  The doubles looks even more uncertain than the singles rubbers, although perhaps the Croat’s towering serve will prove decisive by earning ample free points.  In the first meeting between these nations, the straightforward power and forward movement of the visitors will contrast with the steady baseline resilience of the home squad.  While the indoor hard court would seem to tilt towards Croatia, Nishikori and his compatriots will not surrender without a fierce struggle.  CRO in 5

Germany vs. Argentina:  Rebounding from a valiant but doomed effort against a Nadal-led Spain in last year’s final, the perennial bridesmaids of Davis Cup begin yet another Sisyphean quest towards its elusive summit.  Curiously without their flagship Del Potro, a key factor in their semifinal victory over Serbia in 2011, Argentina will rely one more time upon Cup stalwart Nalbandian against a German team lacking its most dangerous player in Kohlschreiber.  Considering the characteristics of Mayer, Petzschner, and Haas, one must query the host country’s decision to put Monaco and Chela on their favored red clay.  Fast-court players who prefer short points, the Germans would seem at a disadvantage against the Argentine clay specialists.  Also notable is the age of the participants, of whom the youngest (Monaco) will turn 28 next month.  Under the rigors of the best-of-five format on a slow court, fatigue and injury may play a role for some of these veterans.  As with Japan vs. Croatia, either team could win any of the rubbers.  But only one of these players, Nalbandian has compiled a history of Davis Cup heroics, and he should lift his nation again in a tie that looks less formidable than it did when the draw first appeared.   ARG in 5

Feliciano Lopez Davis Cup team captain Albert Costa (R), Feliciano Lopez (2nd R), Rafael Nadal (C), Fernando Verdasco (2nd L) and David Ferrer of Spain celebrate with the crowd after the last match during the third and final day of the semi final Davis Cup match between Spain and France at the Plaza de Toros de los Califas on September 18, 2011 in Cordoba, Spain.

As December descends, most of the competitors who toiled so tirelessly through the labyrinthine tennis season enjoy a well-deserved respite.  But not quite all of them do.  Proving that this sport’s calendar, unlike all others, lasts twelve months a year is the Davis Cup final in Seville this weekend.  On the (red and gritty) surface, Argentina’s visit to the land of Nadal looks even more fruitless than Spain’s trip to the indoor hard courts of Mar del Plata three years ago.  Nevertheless, the Davis Cup final three years ago took more than one unexpected twist, reminding viewers that the team competition does not always fulfill expectations.  What key questions should we ask of the last men standing this year?

1)     Will Nadal repeat what he did in 2009?

Two years ago, the greatest clay player in tennis history had endured one of the most disappointing seasons of his career, including what remains his only loss in a five-set match on a favorite surface.  When Nadal slumped through a winless week in the World Tour Finals, many wondered whether his presence in Davis Cup would lift the fortunes of his team as significantly as he had in the past.  Assigned the task of facing Berdych on Friday, the Spanish #1 did in fact look uneasy through the first several games—before utterly demolishing the Czech once a set threated to slip away from him.  Although he earned only one victory in that tie, Nadal celebrated the title ecstatically with his team and compatriots.  This momentum-reversing triumph may have propelled him towards the most impressive season of his career so far in 2010, just as a Davis Cup title boosted Djokovic’s moral before his year to remember in 2011.  After another inconsistent second half and tepid performance in the World Tour Finals, a return to his homeland should raise Nadal’s spirits for the short term and could lift his game in the long term.

2)     Will Argentina repeat what it did in 2008?

In what became known as the Massacre of Mar del Plata, a Nadal-less Spanish team tiptoed into the Argentine beach town to face an ebullient home squad on indoor hard courts, the surface least suited to Spanish strengths.  All went according to script during the first rubber, an emphatic victory for Nalbandian over Ferrer.  As Del Potro edged towards a two-set lead over Lopez in the second rubber, a first Cup title looked almost a foregone conclusion.  But then Argentina’s rising star played a poor tiebreak before fading physically, the Argentine doubles team wasted multiple opportunities to seize control of the next rubber before fading physically, and suddenly the battered veteran Jose Acasuso found himself handed a must-win assignment against Verdasco.  Following a hideous five-setter, the Spanish lefty finally clinched the Cup for the leading ATP nation of the last decade.  The humiliation for the still Cup-less Argentines, meanwhile, reached staggering heights as reports of friction between Nalbandian and Del Potro bubbled to the surface.  This time, the same duo will hope to avoid the dissension that made their talented squad less than the sum of its parts.  Far from their compatriots, the away location of this tie may relieve some of the pressure that Del Potro especially seemed to sense in Mar del Plata.

3)     Will we see the Del Potro of the first half or the Del Potro of the second half?

Through Wimbledon, the Tower of Tandil had progressed promisingly and more swiftly than one would have expected.  Winning two small titles in Delray Beach and Estoril, he had reached a semifinal at Indian Wells, a quarterfinal at Miami, defeated Soderling twice, and won a set apiece from Djokovic and Nadal at majors.  Since he enjoyed an outstanding reputation on North American hard courts, the US Open Series offered the perfect platform to vault him towards what looked like an almost certain berth in the top 10.  But the summer did not unfold as one would have expected, combining losses to underachievers Gulbis and Cilic withan unsightly deluge of unforced errors in a first-week defeat to Simon at the US Open.  On the same court where he had dethroned Federer, Del Potro’s forehand suddenly lacked its characteristic explosiveness and his demeanor the quiet confidence that had intimidated his rivals.  Nor did the fall indoor season much improve his fortunes.  Looking much more like the tentative, brittle introvert of his pre-2009 self, he bookended a creditable loss to Tsonga in Vienna with unexpected stumbles against Blake and Granollers in Stockholm and Valencia.  A product of these early losses and a limited schedule, Del Potro’s second half has allowed him ample time to rest for Davis Cup, but rest may translate to rust.  In a must-win match against Ferrer on the first day, with Argentina almost certainly trailing 0-1, will the Spanish crowd unnerve a personality much less imposing than his physique?  Mentally inferior to Ferrer, Del Potro will need to rediscover his bullet serves and forehands for this tie to survive the first day in any meaningful fashion.

4)     Does Nalbandian have another miraculous moment left?

At the 2005 year-end championships, the Argentine with the smooth two-hander and dubious fitness rallied from losing the first two sets to stun Federer in a final-set tiebreak.  Just a few months later at the 2006 Australian Open, he carelessly let a two-set lead slip away against Baghdatis when victory would have allowed him to play for his first major title.  In such an erratic fashion has his long, injury-plagued career veered between spectacular success and spectacular collapses.  His Slam ambitions have long since evaporated, if they ever existed, but Nalbandian long has harbored hopes for his nation’s first Davis Cup crown.  A controversial figure in his home country as elsewhere, he would become a hero forever by snapping Argentina’s futility in Cup competition.  If Nalbandian plays as he did against Ferrer in the first rubber of the 2008 final, the Spaniards will have reason to furrow their brows if he meets Ferrer again in the potentially decisive fifth rubber.  (Although Argentina currently has scheduled Monaco for that match, one expects to see the Grouchy Gaucho riding to the rescue should their title hopes hinge upon it.)  Well past his prime, he still has amassed a formidable 22-5 record in Davis Cup singles rubbers that demonstrates his tendency to shine under national colors.  For Argentina to have any chance at all, Nalbandian must spearhead their doubles charge while conserving adequate energy to fluster Ferrer on Sunday.  The task looms large, but so do the stakes and likely the motivation—the only factor that has prevented him from becoming one of his generation’s elite contenders.

5)     Why don’t we have more questions about Spain? 

Unlike Argentina, the hosts have assembled a squad beyond Nadal that can accomplish more than the sum of its parts, especially at home and on clay.  Whereas uncertainty swirls around the visitors, one can expect an unwaveringly professional effort from Ferrer, who would serve almost any other country well as their #1 singles player.  One need only recall his five-set comeback against the then-imposing Roddick in the 2009 semifinal, or his five-set comeback against Stepanek in the 2009 final, to realize the value of his tenacity in this context, on this surface, and under the eyes of his compatriots.  Somewhat less steady are Lopez and Verdasco, but this flamboyant duo has competed valiantly throughout many a Cup campaign.  More likely than not, Argentina must defeat Ferrer twice and the two lefties once in order to claim its first Davis Cup title. Unless complacency strikes Spain in 2011 as it did Argentina in 2009, the visitors lack the depth and resilience to accomplish that mission.

Prediction:  Spain 3-1

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Outside exhibitions, this weekend witnesses the last matches of the 2011 season.  We return next week to start reviewing the greatest performances from a fascinating season in both the ATP and the WTA.

Lleyton Hewitt - Davis Cup - Australia v Switzerland: Day 3

Despite the mounting drama over the star-studded World Group semifinals, this Davis Cup weekend delivered the greatest drama in the playoff ties that determine which nations participate in World Group next year.  In a sense, the combatants at that level play with even more at stake than the semifinalists, who can expect to begin another charge towards the title in just a few months.  Needing to win only four rounds in a year, the World Group nations know that their fortunes in any given year can hinge upon a few external factors or serendipitous combinations of circumstances:  untimely injuries to opponents, home-court advantage, a more comfortable draw.  By contrast, the nations in the playoff round know that a loss postpones their dreams of the Cup until at least 2013, forcing them to play virtually a year of qualifications simply to gain this opportunity once more.  One could compare the playoffs to the final qualifying round at a major, after which the winners earn the opportunity to play in one of the sport’s top four tournaments while the losers recede into challengers and irrelevance.  For this reason, tightly contested ties at this stage often feature desperate heroics or memorable achievements, such as Mardy Fish’s two victories last fall on the high-bouncing, heavy Colombian clay.

Fraught with intrigue from the outset, the Australia-Switzerland tie featured chanting Aussies, clanging cowbells, and flaring tempers.  A collision more competitive than it seemed on the surface, the weekend extended into four days and became the only Davis Cup tie to reach the fifth set of the fifth rubber after each of the first three rubbers swung to the nation that lost the first set.  His appetite for battle undimmed, Hewitt supplied the central narrative of the weekend by charging within a few points of a two-set lead against Federer on Friday, led teammate Chris Guccione past the Olympic doubles gold medalists on Saturday, and wrested two of the first three sets from Wawrinka on Sunday before fading.  The two-time major champion had won only nine ATP matches this year as his career had waned, yet his returns and reflex volleys on the grass looked as sharp as his court coverage.  While the defeat will taste bitter to this fierce combatant, he will leave with the knowledge that he tested the Swiss far more sternly than they or anyone had anticipated.  One could say the same of the controversial Bernard Tomic, who rallied from a one-set deficit to overcome Wawrinka, and of the Swiss #2 himself, who became the hero of a tie in which Federer participated—no small feat.  Already having lost his first two rubbers of the weekend, Wawrinka might well have slumped dejectedly after he wasted five set points in the third set to edge within a set of elimination.  But the patience of his comeback suggested that he can summon a much greater tenacity than he showed in his recent defeat or in his farcical losses to Federer, the occasions on which fans see him most often.  Winning two of his three rubbers in unremarkable fashion, the Swiss #1 seemed to have imported his post-US Open angst to Australia, where he disparaged his doubles partner and harshly castigated the umpire.  As his prowess on the court inevitably wanes, Federer continues to age less gracefully off the court than one would have hoped and expected.

If the fading, battle-scarred veteran Hewitt defined the Australian weekend, an equally valiant youngster delivered all three of Canada’s points during a challenging tie in Israel.  Known for fans most positively described as “intense,” the home nation ironically hosted the matches in the Canada Stadium, named after its Canadian donors.  Ranked outside the top 100 but swiftly ascending, the 21-year-old Vasek Pospisil turned Canada Stadium into Canada’s Stadium and eventually clinched the decisive fifth rubber against similarly overachieving Israeli #2 Amir Weintraub, who had overcome top Canadian Milos Raonic on Friday.  That victory had loomed large after Pospisil had outlasted Dudi Sela in a five-hour, three-tiebreak epic that opened the weekend with a crucially emphatic statement for the visitors.  Had the Canadian novice succumbed to his more experienced opponent, Israel likely would have capitalized upon the early momentum to seize control of the tie.  Instead, Pospisil partnered the ageless Daniel Nestor a day later to score a rare four-set upset over the formidable doubles squad of Ehrlich and Ram.  Despite playing nine sets in two days, he somehow returned physically and mentally fresh on Sunday to silence a crowd buoyed by Sela’s tie-leveling win in the fourth rubber.  As Djokovic’s resurgence has demonstrated, Davis Cup exploits can offer an sturdy foundation upon which to build a career, so the sport’s followers should remember Pospisil as 2012 approaches.

But perhaps the greatest drama of the playoffs came from deep in south-central Russia, where the historic city of Kazan set the stage for the weekend’s only comeback from a 1-2 deficit.  The principal author of that script, the stylish, mentally fallible Youzhny delivered the first rubber for the hosts uneventfully before finding himself locked in a struggle for survival against Brazilian #1 Bellucci.  Notorious for his mental fallibility, the Russian rallied from within a set of elimination during the longest match of any tie, saving two match points in a 26-game final set.  As he served to stay in the match eight times, Youzhny surely knew that any misstep would lead to his nation’s defeat at the hands of the talented Bellucci, yet he survived the escalating pressure with a fortitude reminiscent of his comeback victory over Paul-Henri Mathieu in the 2002 final.  Earlier this year, “Misha” had announced his withdrawal from Davis Cup competition, so his compatriots will have greeted his renewed participation with relief.  His heroics then allowed the famously canny Shamil Tarpischev to execute one of his characteristic and almost invariably successful substitutions, inserting Tursunov for Andreev in the deciding rubber.  Saddled with erratic, temperamental competitors for much of his Davis Cup career, Tarpischev has excelled in extracting some of their finest performances on this stage.

Guy Forget - Serbia v France - Davis Cup World Group Final - Day Three

Quite unlike the Russian captain’s cunning was another bizarre decision from his French counterpart, Guy Forget, that contributed to the thoroughly forgettable clash in Cordoba.  A year ago, France had shut out Spain in a Cup quarterfinal, and the home nation’s revenge this year proved even more resounding, albeit not a shutout.  Admittedly without top-10 resident Gael Monfils, Forget decided to stake his team’s fortunes on an all-or-nothing gamble that involved sacrificing Gasquet to Nadal in the opening rubber, relying on Simon to defeat Ferrer in the second rubber, taking the lead in the winnable doubles, and substituting Tsonga at maximum rest in one of the reverse singles rubbers.  Only one of these stratagems unfolded according to plan, an absurdly lopsided doubles victory fueled by the Berlocqian inability of Feliciano Lopez to hold serve.  Rarely do doubles teams manage to win only three games in three sets, but Spain easily forgot that embarrassment when its singles players surrendered only 19 games in 11 sets (16 games in live rubbers).  By effectively donating the first rubber, Forget allowed a visibly weary Nadal to settle comfortably into that weekend and accumulate confidence.  Moreover, he subjected Simon to undue pressure by thrusting him immediately into a must-win situation against an opponent much superior in Davis Cup.  On the other hand, Tsonga’s ghastly performance in singles may have negated any scheme concocted by Forget, for he would not have defeated any member of the Spanish team on clay with the sort of low-percentage shot selection that he unleashed on Sunday.  And the cohesive home squad has proven an almost insurmountable challenge at home in the Nadal era, when they can rely upon receiving at least two rubbers and thus need find a way to collect just one more.

That mission now will fall to Argentina, thus far the best nation never to win a Davis Cup title and Spain’s victims in the 2008 final.  Ridiculed for their internal disunity on that occasion, the squad led by Del Potro and Nalbandian displayed noteworthy grittiness in sweeping the first two rubbers from top-20 Serbian opponents inside the boisterous Belgrade Arena.  The defending champions saw their hopes dwindle sharply, though, when Djokovic could not contribute meaningfully to the tie after his exertions in New York.  To his credit, the world #1 submitted a valiant effort for a set or so against Del Potro on Sunday before yielding to a back injury.  Far from his slightly dubious retirement in Cincinnati, this premature termination stemmed from clear necessity.  Less to Serbia’s credit were the bizarre statements of captain Bogdan Obradovic, evidently a conspiracy enthusiast who attributed the team’s loss to Djokovic’s absence (plausibly), in turn to the Monday finish of the US Open (somewhat plausibly), and in turn to the deliberate plot of the USTA to refrain from building a roof over Arthur Ashe in the hope that a late finish to the tournament would undermine other nations and especially Serbia (ludicrously).  One suspects that not even Forget could have devised such a serpentine scheme.

Since neither of the fourth rubbers in the World Group semifinal extended beyond three sets, both semifinals concluded with the odd “dead rubbers” that remain a fixture in Davis Cup, concluding ties clinched before the fifth rubber.  Under the new 2011 rules, captains can agree to omit these irrelevant matches only if the fourth rubber remains live and lasts at least four sets.  As a result, Tipsarevic and Monaco played a listless set in Belgrade before the Argentine retired, while Verdasco and Gasquet played a pair of equally tepid sets in Cordoba.  Amidst the ITF’s efforts to preserve the Cup’s relevance through a rapidly changing era, it should consider dispensing entirely with these anachronisms.  Only the most fervently nationalistic fans would take pride from watching a compatriot win a meaningless match, while the dead rubbers produce an anticlimactic conclusion far from the flag-waving finish that a clinching victory would achieve.  Yet the ITF generally has opposed any attempts for significant reforms, even contemptuously flicking aside Nadal’s plea for a less ruthless schedule as “inconsistent” and self-contradictory.  When this organizations shows such little respect to one of its greatest assets, one must wonder about the future of Davis Cup in a world where the sport’s elevated physicality permits elite contenders to play fewer events than they once could.  Considering the outstanding efforts of Hewitt, Pospisil, Youzhny, and others, however, this competition relies less upon the marquee names than do the individual tournaments.

***

In our coming posts, we will discuss the Asian fall season, which began last week in Tashkent with Pervak’s first career title. What can each of the stars gain by shining as the sun sets on 2011?

Rafael Nadal Rafael Nadal of Spain looks on during his match against Novak Djokovic of Serbia on day two of the Davis Cup World Group first round tie between Spain and Serbia at the Parque Tematico Terra Mitica on March 8, 2009 in Benidorm, Spain. Nadal defeated Djokovic in three straight sets 6-4, 6-4 and 6-1 sending Spain into the Davis Cup quarter-finals with a 3-1 win over Serbia.  (Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Rafael Nadal

If their respective nations advance through the Davis Cup semifinals, the top two men in the world could meet in Belgrade on the final day of the 2011 season.  Less than a week after the US Open’s captivating conclusion, Spain and Serbia aim to conquer France and Argentina in home ties where they should enjoy a distinct advantage.

Losing consecutive Slam finals for the first time in his career, Nadal should find his recovery from a sixth straight loss to Djokovic boosted by a return to his nation and his favorite surface.  On the other hand, the transition from hard courts to clay late in an arduous season will test the Roland Garros champion’s battered physical condition.  During a similarly timed tie against the United States in Madrid, the greatest clay-court player of all time lost a set to the clay-averse Querrey before collecting himself.  Nadal has accumulated a sensational Davis Cup singles record, however, and he had won five of six meetings from probable Friday opponent Tsonga until the Frenchman reversed that trend at Queens Club this year.  Never have they met on clay, where the acrobatic shot-maker who has reached an Australian Open final and a Wimbledon semifinal rarely excels.  Lacking the patience for extended rallies, Tsonga will find that his net-rushing style plays into the hands of Rafa’s passing shots more on this surface than any other.  In the last five years, only Federer, Djokovic, and Soderling have toppled Nadal on the terre battue, so one struggles to imagine any of the famously fickle French winning three sets from him before a Spanish crowd likely to rattle their fragile nerves.

With two near-certain  rubbers from Nadal, assuming his full participation, Spain need collect only one further from the strong supporting cast of Ferrer and the doubles pairing of Verdasco/Lopez.  Although the world #5 has not played much tennis since Wimbledon, he showcased his continued clay excellence with a title and three finals on this surface, including the Masters 1000 tournament in Monte Carlo.  Battling Djokovic through a three-set semifinal in the Madrid Masters tournament, Ferrer has feasted upon the support of his compatriots in previous Davis Cup epics such as five-set victories over Roddick and Stepanek, the latter in a Cup final.  Yet curiously this tenacious competitor has lost all three of his meetings with Friday opponent Monfils, most notably a five-set rollercoaster that ended the Spaniard’s sojourn at Roland Garros this year.  Just two places below Ferrer in the rankings, the exuberant shot-maker also quelled him as part of a Davis Cup shutout when these teams met in France last year.  On both of those occasions, though, the boisterous French fans inspired their hero to a more sustained effort than he might produce before a crowd unappreciative of his showmanship.  Somewhat more successful over the past few months than the Spaniard, Monfils must continue his dominance in their rivalry for France to survive until Sunday, for the experienced doubles squad of Verdasco/Lopez should overcome whatever pairing Guy Forget assembles to face them.

Choosing to load his rifle with four top-15 singles players rather than bring doubles specialist Llodra, the French captain perhaps expected a post-Open withdrawal from Nadal, or else an excellent serving day from Tsonga or Monfils in doubles duty.  Although Lopez probably prefers faster surfaces, he has elevated his form this year to record a near-upset over Federer, a quarterfinal appearance at Wimbledon, and a scintillating five-set Cup victory over the much higher-ranked Fish in a dangerous Austin tie.  Far less impressive are the results produced by Verdasco, but his explosive lefty serve and raw forehand power should prove greater assets in doubles than in singles.  Unless the French secure the doubles, this tie will not extend to a fifth rubber.  Despite all of the talent that they have mustered, the visitors should consider themselves fortunate to avoid a reverse shutout.  Spain

Novak Djokovic Novak Djokovic of Serbia celebrates at match point after defeating Gael Monfils of France during day three of the Davis Cup Tennis Final at the Begrade Arena on December 5, 2010 in Belgrade, Serbia.

The image of a tightly knit team during their Cup title run last year, Serbia has contrasted with the often dysfunctional squads assembled by Argentina.  An apparent feud (or at least disdain) between Del Potro and Nalbandian undermined their efforts in a 2008 home final against Spain that they entered heavily favored.  In the hostile, raucous confines of Belgrade Arena, any internal division would magnify into a crippling liability.  Like Spain, Serbia will hope to rely for two virtually automatic singles rubbers upon one of the greatest players of this generation.  Weary from his third Slam title during a historic season, however, Djokovic may find discretion the better part of valor in this instance and prefer to recover from recent injuries incurred during his grueling consecutive victories over Federer and Nadal.  Nevertheless, he has not participated in Davis Cup since last year’s final and may sense an especially pressing need to demonstrate his national pride.  The only top-5 player who never has lost to Del Potro, he has relished trading flat baseline missiles with the giant while using his superior footwork and movement to outmaneuver him.  Whether the home nation actually needs Djokovic to win this tie lies open to interpretation, though.  Receding as sharply as the economy over the summer, Del Potro could not propel his US Open winning streak past the counterpunching wiles of Simon, while he fell meekly in straight sets to Gulbis and Cilic on the summer hard courts.  When he played the 2008 final that became known as the Massacre in Mar del Plata, the nerve-jangling pressure led to the sort of tentative performance that Lopez exploited then and that Tipsarevic could exploit now.

Retiring from the US Open with an injury, the eccentric Serbian #2 still seems a better option for starting singles duty than Serbian #3 Troicki, an early victim in New York.  As he demonstrated with a crucial victory over Berdych in last year’s Cup, Tipsarevic does not shrink from the Tour’s heavy hitters as does his less assertive compatriot.  His astonishing career-high ranking of #13 stems from an outstanding summer that included not only his first major quarterfinal, where he acquitted himself impressively against Djokovic, but also his first Masters 1000 semifinal in Montreal.  On the other hand, captain Bogdan Obradovic might contrast his disappointing effort against Monfils in last year’s final with Troicki’s commanding victory over Llodra in the decisive fifth rubber, although those contrasting results seemed to spring somewhat from the opponents and their relative aptitudes on a slow hard court.  Should Djokovic participate, Obradovic still could substitute world #16 Troicki for Sunday’s reverse singles in the event that the home squad requires further heroics.

A perfect 6-0 against Tipsarevic and Troicki  but 0-4 against Djokovic, Del Potro probably must deliver both of his rubbers for the visitors rather than relying upon his meager understudies to deliver two wins of their own.  In fact, the Serbs should consider themselves favored to defeat anyone on this squad outside the recently tottering Tower of Tandil.  Although they combined for five victories at the US Open, Monaco and Chela remain natural dirt devils far from their best in indoor conditions that reward shot-making more than stamina.  A Davis Cup hero for his nation before, Nalbandian has scored improbable victories under Argentine colors but has won only 12 matches since reaching the Auckland final in January, none against top-30 opponents.  The doubles format should showcase his talents for constructing clever angles, however, while its lesser exertions will ease the strain upon his aging, often-injured limbs.  Like France, Argentina brings four singles players rather than any doubles specialists, whereas Serbia can complement its three top-20 residents with top-10 doubles star Nenad Zimonjic.  The defending Cup champions have not fared well lately in doubles, however, losing the valuable middle rubber in both the semifinal and the final last year.  But Zimonjic’s disappointing performances did not return to haunt them, for both times Djokovic galvanized his squad to comebacks from 1-2 deficits by winning the fourth rubber.  Maybe Serbia does need him after all.   Serbia

 We also investigate the World Group playoff ties:

Romania vs. Czech Republic:  This utter mismatch features two top-30 players, the experienced Davis Cup duo of Berdych and Stepanek, against a Romanian squad without anyone in the top 100.  Playing in their capital of Bucharest, the home team will hope to discomfit the 2009 Cup finalists by playing this tie on red clay.  In similar David-Goliath encounters, like recent American trips to Chile and Colombia, the surface could not compensate for the vast gap in talent.  Czech Republic

Russia vs. Brazil:  Far from the sun-soaked beaches of Rio is the central Russian city of Kazan, famously conquered by Ivan the Terrible during the rise of Muscovy into an intimidating empire.  Much less intimidating is the team fielded by ageless Davis Cup savant Shamil Tarpischev, spearheaded by a player with just a 20-19 record this year.  Only three rankings spots higher than Brazilian #1 Bellucci, Youzhny seems an unlikely spearhead for a team filled with unreliable competitors.  The solid doubles pairing of Melo and Soares should secure the third rubber and perhaps vault the visitors to a small upset, but Bellucci likely will have to win both of his singles rubbers.  A clay specialist with short patience and a long history of underachievement, he probably won’t rise to the challenge in a sterile indoor arena that lacks the atmosphere to inspire him.  Russia

Israel vs. Canada:  The only top-50 player to participate in this tie, Milos Raonic has not played since suffering a leg injury at Wimbledon.  If his serve crackles through the court as it did in the first half of 2011, he could win this tie almost single-handedly for the visitors by dominating Israel’s underpowered singles players and combining with doubles specialist Daniel Nestor for a formidable doubles team.  Best known for producing the doubles duo of Ehrlich and Ram, the home nation also has relied upon its exceptional cohesion to slay favored foes like Russia before.  The raucous crowds in Ramat Hasharon have rattled visiting players, but neither Raonic nor Nestor seems easily flustered.  Will rising talent Vasek Pospisil, who impressed Federer this summer and won a match at the Open, play a meaningful role in Sunday’s reverse singles?  Aligned potentially against Israeli #2 Amir Weintraub, he could clinch the tie in a decisive fifth rubber.  Canada

South Africa vs. Croatia:  Unlike Canada, this second English-speaking tennis nation enters this playoff as a clear underdog to a resurgent Cilic, who won a set from Federer at the Open, and the suddenly relevant Dodig, who defeated Nadal and won a set from Djokovic this year.  In a weekend of huge serves, Anderson will hope to channel the energy that led him to the title in the final edition of the Johannesburg tournament.  But Croatia’s much deeper team should win both of the singles rubber that he doesn’t play and find a way to eke out one of the other three matches.  Croatia

Chile vs. Italy:  Electing to exploit their opponent’s weakness rather than their own strength, Chile chose to play this tie on a hard court inimical to clay specialists Starace and Bolelli.  A nation that shares Russia’s tilt towards the WTA, Italy still should feel confident against a team with no player ranked higher than #101 Capdeville, who has subjected his compatriots to a catalogue of Davis Cup disappointments.  Always at his most fiery before an enthusiastic crowd, Olympic medalist Fernando Gonzalez has played only seven ATP matches (winning three) in an injury-marred season.  Retirement looms just over the horizon for most of this Chilean team, especially 2004 gold medalist Nicolas Massu, so they should bring an elevated sense of urgency to gain one more opportunity to play in World Group I next year.  Against a group as unpredictable as the Italians, intangibles determination and home-court advantage might translate into something valuable.  Chile

Japan vs. India:  The visiting team certainly will win the doubles team with the veteran duo of Bhupathi and Paes, so Japan must earn a singles win from someone other than world #55 Nishikori.  And the prospect of two wins in the best-of-five format looks far from assured, considering that Kei just retired from the US Open.  In a year filled with optimism for Asian sports, from Li Na to Japan’s own World Cup-winning women’s soccer team, this beleaguered nation would delight in the chance to reach the Cup’s highest division.  Knowing nothing about the games of Tatsuma Ito or Go Soeda, we somehow doubt that the experienced Indian squad will let this winnable tie slip away.  India

Belgium vs. Austria:  After his startling rush to the top 10 last year, Austrian #1 Melzer has faded from contention in 2011 amidst injuries and a series of unfocused performances.  An accomplished talent in both singles and doubles, he will hope to bring the momentum from winning the US Open men’s doubles crown to a successful partnership with Olivier Marach.  Whether Melzer alone can propel the Austrians past an underrated group of Belgian ball-strikers depends in part on the efforts of the equally enigmatic Belgian #1, Xavier Malisse.  In the twilight of his career, the 31-year-old “X-man” arrives on a six-match losing streak but has wins over Tsonga and Tipsarevic this year as well as Melzer, whom he toppled comfortably in the third round of Wimbledon.  Belgium’s supporting cast of Darcis and Rochus should capitalize upon the support of their compatriots to overcome the rest of Austria’s indifferent singles stars, although the flagship of the visiting squad could make their efforts irrelevant if he catches fire at a key moment.  Belgium

Roger Federer - 2011 US Open - Day 13

Australia vs. Switzerland:  Into the Royal Sydney Golf Club strides the dethroned king of the ATP, freshly committed to Davis Cup this season.  Perhaps hoping to snag a title for Switzerland before he retires, Federer demonstrated his dedication to this team competition by flying from New York to Sydney immediately after absorbing a heartbreaking loss in the US Open semifinal.  As proved the case after his Wimbledon disappointment, the Davis Cup experience might lift Federer’s spirits by offering him the opportunity to devour an overmatched collection of foes.  The home team’s emotional anchor, Lleyton Hewitt, has won only nine matches in a season comprised largely of majors and small events that offered him wildcards for nostalgic reasons.  For the first time in a meaningful tie, therefore, Australia leans upon precocious teenager Bernard Tomic to lead them past the heavily favored visitors.  While Tomic might well deliver a heroic effort against Swiss #2 Wawrinka, Federer should win both of his singles matches while reprising his gold medal-winning partnership with Wawrinka in the doubles, a pairing to which the Aussies can offer little answer.  Switzerland

With the season half completed, we revisit the 11 predictions with which we began 2011.  Have we struck more aces or double faults so far? After reviewing the initial calls that we made in December, Halftime Hawkeye delivers its verdicts….

Rafael Nadal (L to R) Finalists Rafael Nadal of Spain and Roger Federer of Switzerland pose for the cameras prior to the men's singles final match between Rafael Nadal of Spain and Roger Federer of Switzerland on day fifteen of the French Open at Roland Garros on June 5, 2011 in Paris, France.

1)      Federer-Nadal rivalry revives (somewhat):  Bereft of Slam meetings since the 2009 Australian Open, the greatest rivalry in sports lay dormant for most of the last two seasons.  After Nadal struggled with injury and confidence from mid-2009 through early 2010, Federer sank into a slump shortly before the Spaniard finally emerged from his.  With the aid of Paul Annacone, however, he showed flashes of vintage form during the fall and will have gained reassurance from defeating Nadal at the year-end championships.  Although Federer’s consistency will continue to wane with age, it seems probable that we will see at least one more Slam final with Rafa in 2011.  But perhaps we should ask whether we want to see several more iterations of a rivalry that has declined over their past few meetings.  Just as the Djokovic-Nadal semifinal in Madrid 2009 dwarfed the Federer-Nadal final there, the Murray-Nadal semifinal in London reduced the Federer-Nadal final to anticlimax.  The greatest rivalry in sports soon may become something less than the greatest rivalry in its own sport.

Halftime Hawkeye:  Service winner.  That “one more Slam final” did occur at Roland Garros, and their tepid Miami semifinal illustrated the overall decline of this rivalry, so the note of nostalgia struck here sounds apt in retrospect.  But the Roland Garros final edged the Wimbledon final in drama and intrigue, suggesting that Djokovic-Nadal has not quite overtaken Nadal-Federer as this prediction had hinted.

2)      Djokovic wins a hard-court major:  Three long years ago, the Serb seemed a near-certain #1 when he dismantled Federer en route to the Australian Open title.  Enduring erratic and unconvincing performances at most majors since early 2008, Djokovic basked too long in the afterglow of his breakthrough and allowed his rivals to snatch the initiative from him.  When he finally scored a second Slam victory over Federer this year, he looked as surprised as anyone in the audience.  Just three months later, the Serb recorded what he considers the most impressive victory of his career with the Davis Cup title.  While the challenge of defeating Federer and Nadal consecutively may test his fitness, he should approach 2011 with renewed motivation.  Djokovic has little chance against the top two at Wimbledon or Nadal at Roland Garros, but he has repeatedly challenged them on the surface that best showcases his main advantage over the top two:  groundstroke symmetry created by the best backhand in tennis.

Halftime Hawkeye:  Ace.  Fortunately, we buried that line about Djokovic’s Wimbledon chances so deep into the paragraph that most of you probably didn’t notice it. 

3)      Murray doesn’t win a major:  In urgent need of guidance other than the clay specialist Alex Corretja, the Scot often lacks confidence against the top two on the grandest stages.  Accustomed to the role of supporting actor, Murray believes in himself enough to feel disappointment when he loses but not enough to win.  Mired in this quicksand between believing and not believing, the world #4 allows demoralizing losses to derail him for extended periods.  Moreover, he remains vulnerable on fast surfaces to the Verdascos, Tsongas, and even Wawrinkas of the ATP, high-risk but relatively one-dimensional shotmakers who can hit through his defenses when at their best.   Although timely aggression has won the Scot’s most important victories, he has proven reluctant to leave his counter-punching comfort zone for more than one or two matches at a time, as he must to win a major.  If Murray continues to collect more Masters 1000 titles, he may claim the dubious designation of “master of the minors” that a noted publication once inappropriately pasted on Nadal.

Halftime Hawkeye:  Chalk…flew…up?  The Scot did leave his counterpunching comfort zone during the European spring, surpassing our expectations.  On the other hand, his mental state remains in the “quicksand between believing and not believing” that we described above.  Murray prefers the US Open to all other majors and always flourishes most on hard courts, but it’s difficult to imagine him defeating two of the top three in best-of-five matches on consecutive days.

4)      Del Potro starts slowly but finishes strong:  With a game built upon a ferocious forehand and spine-tingling aggression, confidence will prove essential to the Argentine’s revival.  In a pallid fall reincarnation, Del Potro scarcely resembled the player who battered Nadal and Federer into submission at the US Open.  Not a natural showman but a gentle, sensitive personality, he must accumulate tournament play before unleashing his weapons with full vigor; thus, he must hope that his draws do not situate him too close to a leading contender.  The clay season could offer an excellent opportunity for Del Potro to regain his rhythm by allowing him to engage in longer rallies.  By the second half, he should have reassembled his mighty game to a degree sufficient for success on the American hard courts where his greatest successes have occurred.  His fans have no cause to fear, for his vast reservoir of talent is destined to overflow sooner or later.

Halftime Hawkeye:  Let.  The Argentine left little impact at the Australian Open, but he bounced back faster than we expected with an Indian Wells semifinal.  The clay season did play a major role in the process as noted, highlighted by wins over Soderling and Verdasco en route to the Estoril title.  Still, the vital “finishing strong” part of the prediction remains open to conjecture, so we must wait a little longer for an official ruling.

5)      Serbia meets USA in the Davis Cup final:  If Djokovic maintains his devotion to the national team competition, the Ajde Attack should cruise through not only its opener against India but a subsequent round against the one-man show of Sweden or fading Russia.  While the Argentina of Del Potro and Nalbandian might lurk in the semis, Serbia’s far superior collective chemistry should prevail; another potential adversary, the Czech Republic, has grown less intimidating as Stepanek ages.  On the other side of the draw, American captain Jim Courier faces a Gonzalez-less Chile (albeit on clay) and then a fascinating clash with Spain on home soil.  Spurred by their energetic new leader and the return of Cup stalwart Roddick, the American team should edge a Spanish squad that probably will travel to the United States without Nadal, resting from another Wimbledon title.  If they can trust the evergreen Bryans to avenge a Davis Cup loss to Clement/Llodra, a semifinal with fragile France lies within Team USA’s grasp.  Considering the excellence of both Roddick and Djokovic in Davis Cup, one would expect a scintillating match if they battle for the silver salad bowl on the last day of the season.

Halftime Hawkeye:  Double fault.  Remind us never again to underestimate Spain in Davis Cup competition,after the Rafa-less squad proved superior to the American A-team with two top-10 singles stars.  We still will have “a scintillating match” in the Davis Cup final, though, if both Spain and Serbia collect another win in September.  Halfway through the season, #5 is our only prediction that already has no chance of fulfillment.

6)      Nadal, Wozniacki finish #1:  Entrenched well above his nearest competition, Nadal will enjoy opportunities to expand his lead further early in the season.  He will expect to surpass his quarterfinal result at the Australian Open and at least maintain his semifinal results from the spring Masters 1000 tournaments.  Unlikely to relinquish his dominance over the clay and grass seasons, he probably won’t defend all of his second-half points, but leading rivals Federer and Djokovic also defend significant amounts during that period.  For his WTA counterpart, mere durability and consistency should shield the #1 ranking from more talented, more erratic rivals.  Since the Williams sisters, the Belgians, and the other major (haha) contenders play a significantly shorter schedule, none of them can muster the requisite points total with anything less than thorough dominance, difficult to achieve in the WTA’s current period of parity.

Halftime Hawkeye:  Second serve.  Wozniacki’s tireless schedule indeed has earned her a stranglehold on the WTA #1 despite ignominious defeats at the last two majors and a generally unimpressive European spring.  But Nadal did “relinquish his dominance” over grass and much of clay, while a worthy #1 rose to supplant him.  With another Slam title and the year-end championships final still to defend, Rafa will struggle to validate the ATP half of this prediction.  He defends more points than Djokovic does at the key second-half tournaments; the Serb should outdo him there in 2011 and merely consolidate his grasp on #1.

7)      Federer, Zvonareva do not finish #2:  Although he probably hasn’t won his final major, the Swiss superstar’s greatest seasons clearly lie behind him.  His peaks and valleys will heighten, and his schedule may shorten to preserve him for the majors that he covets.  While Djokovic won’t gain much ground at majors other than the Australian Open, he should prove more consistent than Federer at the Masters 1000 events.  An early loser at Indian Wells and Miami in 2010, the Serb has excelled at those events in the past and should shine there again with his struggles seemingly behind him.  During the clay Masters tournaments, he also should increase his point totals as he challenges Nadal more often than will Federer.  After an eye-opening 2010 campaign, Zvonareva seems ripe for a small sophomore slump.  Unless she can buttress her elevated status with a strong first half, she likely will buckle under the pressure of defending her outstanding performances at the season’s last two majors.

Halftime Hawkeye:  Chalk…flew…up?  If anything, we underestimated the depth of Zvonareva’s sophomore slump, which has included six losses to players outside the top 20 and pre-quarterfinal defeats at the last two majors.  Federer’s season has unfolded mostly according to expectations with a few glittering moments punctuating the overall spiral of decline.  One struggles to imagine him overtaking either Nadal or Djokovic, considering his 1-6 record against them this year.

8 ) For the first time since 2006, the Williams sisters fail to win multiple majors:  Long impervious to the effects of time, this WTA dynasty finally began to totter late in 2010, when injuries to the elder sister’s knee and the younger sister’s foot derailed them for extended periods.  Merely a fragment of the champion that she once was, Venus has won no titles outside Dubai and Acapulco during the last two and a half years.  Far more menacing than her sister, Serena will forgo the opportunity to collect a record sixth Australian Open crown.  The younger Williams may not return until Miami or later, and she doesn’t seriously contend at Roland Garros in these latter stages of her career.  Still almost untouchable at Wimbledon, Serena will profit from the short points there as she regains her rhythm after the injury.  But she has become just one of several contenders at the US Open, and she has not won the season’s last two majors consecutively since the legendary Serena Slam of 2002-03.

Halftime Hawkeye:  Ace.  This prediction sounded bold when the year began but came true in rather anticlimactic fashion.  With both sisters effectively crippled for the first two majors, they had to sweep the last two.  Despite their miraculous comebacks before, one week at Eastbourne couldn’t catapult them back into Wimbledon contention in an invigorated, increasingly less intimidated WTA.

9)      Clijsters wins a major other than the US Open:  Even better in her second incarnation than her first, the Belgian enjoyed the finest season of her career in 2010.  During her comeback, she has won 13 of 14 matches against current and former #1s, including a dazzling 8-0 record against primary challengers Serena, Venus, Henin, and Sharapova.  And yet she still lacks a Slam title outside New York, an odd asterisk for a player who combines a balanced, consistent game with impressive athleticism.  Over the past year, most of her losses came against unexpected, usually Russian nemeses such as Petrova, Kleybanova, and Zvonareva.  Now further settled into her comeback, Clijsters will more often avoid those early-round stumbles while continuing to frustrate foes of her caliber.  As injuries raise questions over almost all of her rivals, the Belgian should seize the window of opportunity that will lie open as long as the younger generation continues to tread tentatively.

Halftime Hawkeye:  Ace.  One of our least ambitious predictions, Kim’s Australian Open title arrived after slightly more suspense than most had anticipated.  Required to defeat none of the “primary challengers” mentioned above, she nevertheless came within three games of defeat against Li in the final.  Previously, though, Clijsters enjoyed an uneventful route through the draw against thoroughly overmatched opponents, including the aforementioned Zvonareva.  Since the younger generation now has ceased “to tread tentatively,” she may find her future routes to Slam glory more arduous.

10)   Azarenka bounces back:  In the wake of a breakthrough 2009 campaign, the Belarussian rather predictably regressed this year despite showing glimmers of what she will become.  The fiercest competitor among her peers, Azarenka also has the power, the versatility, and the athletic instincts of a future champion.  Barely blocked by Serena at the last two Australian Opens, she will relish the sight of early-season draws without the American.  Azarenka unveiled a sparkling all-court game at Melbourne and Dubai before injuries overtook her during the clay season; as those physical issues recede, her explosive movement will return.  Still flustered by quirky styles like those of Schiavone and Martinez Sanchez, she probably has gained focus and maturity after the adversity that she experienced this season.  Neither the grandest settings nor the most prestigious opponents intimidate the brash Belarussian vixen.

Halftime Hawkeye:  Service winner.  While she may not have won a major, the blazing-eyed Belarussian achieved her highest career ranking this year as she captured Miami for the second time.  Azarenka also became one of only three players to reach the second week of every major, attaining her first Slam semifinal at Wimbledon.  With Wozniacki somewhere between stagnation and regression, her burgeoning rivalry with Kvitova could become one of the key narratives in the second half.  Injuries and retirements do continue to accumulate at an alarming rate, however, raising questions about her training regimen.

Ana Ivanovic - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Two

11) Ivanovic becomes the highest-ranked Serb in the WTA:  Finally surfacing from a two-year slump, the smiling Serb ended 2010 by winning two of her last three tournaments and 13 of her last 15 matches.  Although she will enter the Australian Open around the border of the top 20, she faces almost no points to defend between mid-January and early May.  Expanding her schedule for early 2011, Ivanovic thus can scramble up the rankings swiftly with respectable performances at the Australian Open, the Premier Five event in Dubai, and the Premier Mandatory events at Indian Wells and Miami.  At Roland Garros and Wimbledon, moreover, she won just one total match in 2010, so she will have ample opportunity to improve upon those performances and gobble up still more points.  Ivanovic’s confidence should rise from the encouraging first-half results that most observers anticipate, improving her chances of defending the second-half points that she accumulated this year.  Meanwhile, Jankovic has headed in the opposite direction by recording just six victories in nine second-half tournaments.  Since 57% of her total points come from three tournaments at Indian Wells, Rome, and Roland Garros, she could tumble precipitously if she falls early at one or two of them.  Turning 26 in February, Jankovic faces a losing battle with time as she attempts to reinvent herself.  Nearly three crucial years her junior, Ivanovic conversely can continue to believe that her best tennis still lies ahead.

Halftime Hawkeye:  Second serve.  Following an erratic first half littered with opening-round losses, Ivanovic led the WTA in bagels served but excelled in few other statistical categories.  Since her ranking has remained in virtually the same position where it ended 2010, the gap separating her from her countrywoman has narrowed almost entirely as a result of the latter’s shortcomings.  Currently at her lowest ranking since 2007, Jankovic won four total matches at the first three majors but has many fewer points to defend during the second half.  Conversely, Ivanovic defends two fall titles and a pair of strong North American runs in Cincinnati and New York, so the gap may not narrow further.

***

Well, we fared a bit better at the service notch than did Pavlyuchenkova in Baku.  This weekend, we return with a preview of Stanford, one of the most star-studded small tournaments in the WTA calendar.

Novak Djokovic Novak Djokovic of Serbia celebrates at match point after defeating Gael Monfils of France during day three of the Davis Cup Tennis Final at the Begrade Arena on December 5, 2010 in Belgrade, Serbia.

Serbia at Sweden:  Initially awaited as a clash between top-five superstars Djokovic and Soderling, this tie developed into a mismatch when Djokovic reaffirmed his Davis Cup commitment while Soderling withdrew.  Considering the Swede’s recent slump, however, the outcome probably would not have changed even if the route had grown more arduous.  As the tie currently stands, the home nation will field no players inside the top 250, so the world #1 and his understudy Troicki should cruise through a pair of comfortable wins on the opening day, barring illness or injury.  After conquering Tsonga and Nadal at Wimbledon, Djokovic should find Eleskovic and Ryderstedt unimposing foes indeed.  The mismatch becomes less severe in doubles, where Sweden might possess a slight advantage in the Olympic silver medalists Aspelin and Lindstedt against the aging Zimonjic and Tipsarevic or some other partner less skilled in doubles than in singles.  Should the home squad survive until Sunday, though, it merely will postpone the inevitable until Djokovic delivers a ringing coup de grace in the reverse singles.

Serbia 3-1

Kazakhstan at Argentina:  Contesting their first World Group tie earlier this year, the visitors remain undefeated in World Group with a stirring upset over 2010 semifinalist Czech Republic.  Crucial to that achievement were the exploits of Andrey Golubev, the team flagship who has posted an 11-1 record in Davis Cup singles including a victory over Berdych.  Outside that weekend, though, the Kazakh #1 has won only two of 20 matches in 2011 and has lost 14 straight encounters since Indian Wells.  At his least effective on clay, he leads his compatriots into not only their weakest surface but a notoriously hostile crowd atmosphere.  Without longtime Davis Cup genie Nalbandian, Argentina still has assembled a team with excellent clay skills, highlighted by former Roland Garros semifinalist Del Potro.  Steadily marching back into relevance, the Tower of Tandil has the weapons to overpower the Kazakhs from the baseline with ease.  But he continues to display psychological frailty at untimely moments, while his shaky loss to Lopez in the 2008 final suggests that national team competition exposes his weaknesses rather than showcasing his strengths.  Beyond Del Potro, the home squad also can rely upon grinding dirt devil Juan Monaco, a veteran unlikely to fold under Davis Cup pressure and likely to outlast the volatile Kazakhs.

Argentina 3-0

Spain at USA:  After copious weeping and gnashing of teeth, the 2008-09 Cup champions trudge reluctantly to a surface where their captain clearly does not fancy their chances.  Costa’s sour carping situates his team in a potentially perilous position, situated too close to fatalistic negativity on the emotional spectrum before the first ace descends.  Eyeing the relentless serving barrage of Fish and Roddick, the visitors may find Nadal’s absence decisive by robbing them of two near-certain victories.  On the other hand, Wimbledon quarterfinalist Lopez should bring considerable optimism to his clash with Roddick, whom he convincingly conquered in the third round at the All England Club.  In a potentially decisive fifth rubber, the American will have an opportunity to soothe the sting of that defeat before his compatriots, whose presence typically inspires his finest tennis.  Before that intriguing rematch, Costa may consider shuffling his lineups to pit Verdasco rather than Ferrer against Roddick on Friday and Fish on Sunday.  Despite the lefty’s 2011 woes, he defeated Roddick on an identical surface in the San Jose final last year and reached the final there again this season.  In contrast, Ferrer displayed uncharacteristically poor body language during his loss to Fish in Miami, while his puny serve will permit him to collect fewer free points on the fast court than will his countryman.  But the American supremacy in doubles with the Bryans may become the decisive factor in this tie.  Confident that the reigning Wimbledon champions can deliver Saturday’s third rubber, the home team knows that they need only split the four singles matches.  With two top-10 veterans on a surface tailored to their strengths, that objective seems well within range, but one cannot discount the ability of the Spaniards to elevate each other as a team to feats that they could not accomplish individually.  Even without Nadal, plenty of intrigue should unfold.

USA 3-1

France at Germany:  Although all of the probably French singles players perch higher in the rankings than all of their German counterparts, this tie could evolve into a more dramatic encounter than statistic would suggest.  With inspired runs to the Halle final last month, both Kohlschreiber and Petzschner demonstrated the emotional boost that they receive from playing at home, whereas les bleus have proven famously fallible under adversity.  Perhaps that national trait has faded lately, however, with a sparkling second-week runs by Gasquet at Roland Garros and Wimbledon accompanying Monfils’ triumph over Ferrer at the former Slam and Tsonga’s fierce comeback against Federer at the latter.  Organized around maximizing singles players, the French squad includes only Llodra among its players earmarked for the doubles, while the hosts enjoy a regular doubles squad in Petzschner and Kas.  At the top of this squad looms the enigmatic Florian Mayer, whom few would consider equal to his top-20 ranking after witnessing his unremarkable shot-making abilities.  More often than one would expect, Davis Cup trains the spotlight on the least heralded star, so one senses that Mayer may play a decisive role before the weekend concludes.  French captain Guy Forget faces a series of intriguing decisions over whether to showcase Monfils, Gasquet, or Tsonga, and against which opponent.  Armed with far more raw talent than the home squad, the visitors should suffer just enough wayward moments to furrow Forget’s brow before relying on their superior depth to advance.

France 3-2

Rafael Nadal - Spain v Czech Republic - Davis Cup World Group Final - Day Two

Embarrassment of riches (BEL vs. ESP): Spearheaded by a reinvigorated Rafa, the Spanish team has marshaled no fewer than three top-10 players against a Belgian team with only one member (Malisse) in the top 100.  So potent is Spain’s firepower, in fact, that world #9 Verdasco initially planned to participate only in doubles before Ferrer’s neck cramp forced captain Alberto Costa to redesign his lineup.  While Nadal will profit from a virtual practice match against Bemelmans, the other Spanish lefty can rediscover his hard-court rhythm after consecutive losses to Raonic when he confronts Malisse in the opening rubber.  That match should prove the most competitive of a brutally one-sided tie, certain to deploy the Davis Cup’s new prohibition against dead fifth rubbers.

Weekend without superstars (SRB vs. IND):  Sensibly sparing his energies with the two mini-majors on the horizon, former Indian Wells and Miami champion Djokovic joined Indian Express Bhupathi and Paes on the sidelines as Serbia opens its title defense.  Stripped of its most notable participants, this tie nevertheless will feature a glimpse of rising Indian star Somdeev Devvarman, a Hewitt-esque player gradually inching further into main draws.  But the home squad should thoroughly control proceedings under the aegis of 2010 Davis Cup Final hero Troicki, Delray Beach finalist Tipsarevic, and aging doubles legend Zimonjic.  Just three months after winning their first title in this competition, Serbia should sweep comfortably and schedule a fascinating second-round meeting with Soderling’s Sweden or Tarpischev’s Russia.  On that occasion, they will need their superstar again.

Clinic on clay (ARG vs. ROM): Across from the Grouchy Gaucho stands the Romanian Spit-Fire in a clash of notably ill-tempered personalities.  An enigma in individual competition, Nalbandian has delivered  several memorable performances while compiling a 20-5 record in Davis Cup singles rubbers (16-2 on clay), but Hanescu could thrive on a surface where he has an 11-3 Davis Cup record.  Beyond the two #1s, the 31st-ranked Chela, the 33rd-ranked Monaco, and even Eduardo Schwank trump any member of the visiting squad in clay-court talent, so the surface and the thunderous Buenos Aires crowd should play a decisive role in this tie.   The plot could thicken if the tie reaches Saturday at 1-1, allowing Romanian doubles specialist Horia Tecau to showcase his craft in a potentially pivotal rubber against an Argentine team comprised entirely of singles stars.  In order for the visitors to prevail, though, Hanescu almost surely must win three rubbers, a task probably too tall for the weak-willed, heavy-legged #59 in surroundings as hostile as the Parque Roca.

Serves against the surface (CHI vs. USA):  We might have favored Chile to spring this upset had its marquee player Fernando Gonzalez played a role.  Instead, that inveterate ball-bruiser will join the legions of passionate Chilean fans in an attempt to propel four players outside the top 100 past Roddick, Isner, and the world’s top doubles team.  On any surface other than clay, this matchup would look no less intimidating than Belgium vs. Spain.  Even on clay, the serves of Roddick and Isner will garner many more free points than the the crumbling, 31-year-old Massu and the punchless Capdeville, famously feckless in Davis Cup.  Gallantly battling Djokovic on clay in Davis Cup last year, Isner projects surprising power from his inside-out forehand on this surface, while Roddick always brings an extra jolt of adrenaline and focus to national team competition.  First-time captain Jim Courier should enjoy a debut that will set up a far more imposing home encounter with Spain a week after Wimbledon.

Spotlight on the supporting actors (CRO vs. GER):  With Karlovic drifting towards retirement, Croatia hopes that Zagreb champion Ivan Dodig can slip smoothly into the role of #2 behind Cilic, edging back towards relevance after a final in Marseille.  But Germany bolsters the mercurial Kohlschreiber by bringing an even more promising #2 to this weekend’s collision, which looks destined to enter Sunday undecided.  A two-time semifinalist already this season, Florian Mayer has defeated Del Potro and Davydenko this year while quelling rising Lithuanian Berankis.  Perhaps more importantly, he ended Cilic’s Zagreb defense in February with a startlingly routine victory.  In addition to the Zagreb title, Dodig distinguished himself by winning the only set that Djokovic lost at the Australian Open, and the long-time journeyman has won at least one match at every tournament that he has played this year.  If he duels with Mayer in a decisive fifth rubber, scintillating Davis Cup drama could ensue.

Tomas Berdych - 2011 Australian Open - Day 5

Veterans and novices (CZE vs. KAZ):  While Davis Cup stalwart Stepanek may have Czeched out on this weekend’s action, but Berdych still towers over not only his teammates but their Kazakh opponents.  Squandering a 2-1 lead against Serbia in last year’s semifinals, the Czech Republic contested the Davis Cup final in 2009 and will benefit from a vast advantage in experience over a nation elevated to the World Group for the first time.  In the doubles, Berdych may partner doubles specialist Dlouhy in a Saturday rubber where the home squad should trump the singles-only visitors.  But captain Jaroslav Navratil may decide to reserve his ace for a fourth rubber against Golubev, who nearly defeated Tomas in Washington last summer.  The Kazakh #1 has started 2011 in miserable form, however, dropping four straight matches to start the season and earning his only victory in five tournaments courtesy of a Baghdatis retirement.  Unless he can reverse that momentum  immediately, Kazakhstan won’t play again until September.

One against many (SWE vs. RUS, AUS vs. FRA):  Eyeing his overmatched prey with relish, Soderling should feast upon a Russian team bereft of Davydenko, Youzhny, or any player in the top 75.  The Swede charges into the weekend with three titles in his last four tournaments and 17 victories in his 18 matches this season.  Although legendary strategist Shamil Tarpischev lacks a superstar to counterbalance the world #4, he has marshaled four veterans who have ample expertise in both singles and doubles, thus providing him with a variety of options to manipulate in his characteristically unpredictable style.  Almost certainly doomed in Soderling’s two singles rubbers, Russia conceivably could win the other three.  Behind Soderling stand only the doubles specialists  Aspelin and Lindstedt as well as the quasi-retired Joachim Johansson, summoned for probably perfunctory singles duty.  Johansson has won only one Davis Cup match in his career and none since 2005, while he has played only three total matches since the start of 2010.  At the core of the weekend thus lies the doubles rubber.  A combined 3-9 in Davis Cup doubles, the scheduled duo of Kunitsyn and Tursunov did win their only Cup collaboration against the formidable Argentine pairing of Canas and Nalbandian on Buenos Aires clay.  Curiously, their opponents also have underperformed in the Cup despite winning a silver medal at the 2008 Olympics.

A less striking version of the same storyline could unfold inside an Austrian aircraft hangar, where world #10 Jurgen Melzer seeks to soar above a French team crippled by injuries to its leading stars.  Among the questions surrounding the 2010 Davis Cup finalists is the tension between captain Guy Forget and singles #1 Gilles Simon, a dynamic absent in the avuncular Tarpischev’s squad.  Also, how will Llodra recover from the disappointment of losing the decisive rubber in last year’s final, and how will Jeremy Chardy respond to the pressure of his first meaningful match in Davis Cup, contested before a hostile crowd?  On the other hand, Melzer has looked vulnerable while accumulating a 5-3 record this year, and his supporting cast features no player more imposing than the 34-year-old, 206th-ranked Stefan Koubek.  (One might debate whether Koubek or Johansson will pose a more credible challenge.)  If the visitors can solve their internal differences, they can rely upon a sturdier doubles pairing in Benneteau and Llodra.  Outside that flamboyant duo, though, almost nothing looks certain in a tie that plausibly could come down to a bizarre final rubber between Koubek and Chardy or just as plausibly end in a resounding sweep—by either side.

***

We return in a few days to open our coverage of Indian Wells!

Sharing not only a profession but a passport with two of the sport’s most luminous stars, Wawrinka and Troicki have worn the uncomfortable label of the second-best players from their two small countries.  On one hand, their diminished stature has allowed them to escape the intrusive scrutiny to which their compatriots subject Federer and Djokovic.  On the other hand, the Swiss #2 and Serbian #2 must eye their nation’s tennis juggernauts wistfully at times, knowing with painful clarity that they cannot challenge the hegemony of the two #1s over the hearts and minds of their countrymen.  Nevertheless, both Wawrinka and Troicki have surged to unexpected accomplishments during the last several months as they aim to emerge from the shadows that loom above them.

Stanislas Wawrinka - 2011 Australian Open - Day 7

Once a mere acolyte in the Order of St. Roger, Wawrinka long seemed content to play the role of best supporting actor against the ATP elite.  The meekly subordinate tone of his relationship with Federer trickled into his clashes with other prominent figures, such as Djokovic and Nadal.  Recurrently testing the Serb and the Spaniard, the Swiss #2 failed to muster the self-belief required to tighten his grasp over matches that hovered within range but ultimately slipped away.  On the most momentous occasion of his career thus far, he largely outplayed Djokovic for a set and a half in the 2008 Rome final but could not quite capture crucial break points.  Likewise, he unexpectedly outslugged Nadal from the baseline through a captivating first set at last year’s Rogers Cup before sagging in the second set after a tiebreak eluded him.   The Swiss #2 always has enjoyed a balanced, reliable groundstroke game, sturdy fitness, and generally sensible shot selection, but the relentless intensity demanded for such upsets continued to lie dormant.

Enter former Safin guru Peter Lundgren, armed with a personality and a pair of lungs as overflowing as his girth.  Determined to awaken the “inner beast” in his pupil, Lundgren perhaps injected his own bellicosity into the unassuming Wawrinka.  As his coach exhorted him with stentorian bellows, the Swiss charged to the quarterfinals of consecutive hard-court majors in New York and Melbourne.  At both of those Slams, he not only defeated but dominated a pair of prominent opponents against whom his former self might well have succumbed.  Avenging a limp straight-sets loss to Murray at an earlier US Open, Wawrinka rebounded from an early deficit to ambush this top-five foe.  Expected to falter when victory beckoned as he had in the past, the Swiss #2 instead sharpened his focus and elevated the pressure on an increasingly irked Scot, who retreated further behind the baseline and into a fog of resignation.  The only Swiss man to reach the quarterfinals at this year’s Australian Open without dropping a set, Wawrinka dispatched Roddick with a nearly bulletproof performance that denied the American even a flicker of hope.  Unflustered by the atmosphere of a Rod Laver night session, Federer’s understudy rose to the occasion with a 67-winner barrage that finally swung the cameras in his direction.

To be sure, the limits to Wawrinka’s progress emerged a round later when he summoned scant resistance against an imperious Federer, whom not even Lundgren can intimidate.  And not enough time has passed to determine whether the Swiss #2 can embed his coach’s ferocity within himself, or whether his decision to separate from his family and focus exclusively upon tennis will exact an emotional toll.  Yet he has evolved into a distinctly more compelling player to watch than before his recent transformation, a statement that also applies to his Serbian counterpart.

Viktor Troicki - Serbia v France - Davis Cup World Group Final - Day Three

Overshadowed much less sharply by Djokovic than Wawrinka by Federer, Troicki once slipped just as spinelessly into the role of understudy.  Like his Swiss counterpart, the Serbian #2 long struggled to channel his competitive instincts into positive energy rather than allowing his perfectionism to gnaw at him unforgivingly after each squandered opportunity.  This fatalism surfaced during a loss to Nadal at the 2008 US Open, where he tested the Spaniard through the first set and a half.  A few sparkling Spanish winners later, though, his confidence melted away to leave behind a third-set bagel that spoke less to his opponent’s brilliance than his own malaise.  In meetings with Murray at Miami and Wimbledon the following year, similarly sorry spectacles unfolded as Troicki slumped through listless losses against the Scot.

Unlike the 14th-ranked Wawrinka, the 24th-ranked Troicki derived his recent surge in self-belief without external impetus and thus may find it more durable.  While some observers would trace his emergence to the Davis Cup final, we can find traces of his reversal in what initially seemed just a gallant defeat.  Bombarding newly minted US Open champion Nadal through three scintillating sets, the Serb managed to neutralize the Spaniard’s brisk returns with a serve that pinpointed unpredictable corners of the box.  Rafa appeared to assert his authority with a break deep in the final set, but his unruffled foe then proceeded to break the world #1 when he served for the match—and then once again to create the same opportunity for himself.  Unable to convert that chance, Troicki battled Nadal toe to toe through a labyrinthine tiebreak that illustrated his ability to dictate rallies with either groundstroke wing.  The challenger succumbed to the champion on his own terms, slapping a forehand just a trifle too aggressively towards the sideline on the 16th point of the tiebreak.  Even before that match, moreover, Troicki had edged within three service holds (and later six points) from toppling a heat-drained Djokovic at the US Open, a feat more notable than anything that Wawrinka has accomplished against Federer

Whereas many competitors would have left those contests demoralized, Troicki drew confidence from them that propelled him towards his first career title.  Two short weeks after his collision with Nadal, the Serb demonstrated his newfound resilience by erasing a one-set deficit against Baghdatis in the Moscow final.  The supreme test did not arrive until a December afternoon in Belgrade, however, where a player who had compiled a meager 5-5 Davis Cup record confronted the task of collecting the decisive fifth rubber in his nation’s first Davis Cup final.  Although the surface clearly tilted in his favor against the net-rushing Llodra, one still must applaud the poise with which he subdued the more experienced Frenchman.   Whatever he accomplishes henceforth, Troicki likely will regard his passing-shot winner on the final point as his signature moment.

Still in the prime of their careers, Wawrinka and Troicki will seek to consolidate their momentum in 2011.  As so many tennis arrivistes have discovered, this task can prove the most imposing of all.  Will the two #2s subside into obscurity once more, or will they embrace their new mission undaunted?

In the final article of our offseason series, we look forward rather than backwards and unfurl a series of predictions for the season to come.  Will we go 11 for 11 in ’11?

1) Federer-Nadal rivalry revives (somewhat):  Bereft of Slam meetings since the 2009 Australian Open, the greatest rivalry in sports lay dormant for most of the last two seasons.  After Nadal struggled with injury and confidence from mid-2009 through early 2010, Federer sank into a slump shortly before the Spaniard finally emerged from his.  With the aid of Paul Annacone, however, he showed flashes of vintage form during the fall and will have gained reassurance from defeating Nadal at the year-end championships.  Although Federer’s consistency will continue to wane with age, it seems probable that we will see at least one more Slam final with Rafa in 2011.  But perhaps we should ask whether we want to see several more iterations of a rivalry that has declined over their past few meetings.  Just as the Djokovic-Nadal semifinal in Madrid 2009 dwarfed the Federer-Nadal final there, the Murray-Nadal semifinal in London reduced the Federer-Nadal final to anticlimax.  The greatest rivalry in sports soon may become something less than the greatest rivalry in its own sport.

2) Djokovic wins a hard-court major:  Three long years ago, the Serb seemed a near-certain #1 when he dismantled Federer en route to the Australian Open title.  Enduring erratic and unconvincing performances at most majors since early 2008, Djokovic basked too long in the afterglow of his breakthrough and allowed his rivals to snatch the initiative from him.  When he finally scored a second Slam victory over Federer this year, he looked as surprised as anyone in the audience.  Just three months later, the Serb recorded what he considers the most impressive victory of his career with the Davis Cup title.  While the challenge of defeating Federer and Nadal consecutively may test his fitness, he should approach 2011 with renewed motivation.  Djokovic has little chance against the top two at Wimbledon or Nadal at Roland Garros, but he has repeatedly challenged them on the surface that best showcases his main advantage over the top two:  groundstroke symmetry created by the best backhand in tennis.

3) Murray doesn’t win a major:  In urgent need of guidance other than the clay specialist Alex Corretja, the Scot often lacks confidence against the top two on the grandest stages.  Accustomed to the role of supporting actor, Murray believes in himself enough to feel disappointment when he loses but not enough to win.  Mired in this quicksand between believing and not believing, the world #4 allows demoralizing losses to derail him for extended periods.  Moreover, he remains vulnerable on fast surfaces to the Verdascos, Tsongas, and even Wawrinkas of the ATP, high-risk but relatively one-dimensional shotmakers who can hit through his defenses when at their best.   Although timely aggression has won the Scot’s most important victories, he has proven reluctant to leave his counter-punching comfort zone for more than one or two matches at a time, as he must to win a major.  If Murray continues to collect more Masters 1000 titles, he may claim the dubious designation of “master of the minors” that a noted publication once inappropriately pasted on Nadal.

4) Del Potro starts slowly but finishes strong:  With a game built upon a ferocious forehand and spine-tingling aggression, confidence will prove essential to the Argentine’s revival.  In a pallid fall reincarnation, Del Potro scarcely resembled the player who battered Nadal and Federer into submission at the US Open.  Not a natural showman but a gentle, sensitive personality, he must accumulate tournament play before unleashing his weapons with full vigor; thus, he must hope that his draws do not situate him too close to a leading contender.  The clay season could offer an excellent opportunity for Del Potro to regain his rhythm by allowing him to engage in longer rallies.  By the second half, he should have reassembled his mighty game to a degree sufficient for success on the American hard courts where his greatest successes have occurred.  His fans have no cause to fear, for his vast reservoir of talent is destined to overflow sooner or later.

Novak Djokovic celebrates Davis cup HAIRCUTS! NOVAK DJOKOVIC, TEAM SERBIA CELEBRATE DAVIS CUP FINAL VICTORY

5) Serbia meets USA in the Davis Cup final:  If Djokovic maintains his devotion to the national team competition, the Ajde Attack should cruise through not only its opener against India but a subsequent round against the one-man show of Sweden or fading Russia.  While the Argentina of Del Potro and Nalbandian might lurk in the semis, Serbia’s far superior collective chemistry should prevail; another potential adversary, the Czech Republic, has grown less intimidating as Stepanek ages.  On the other side of the draw, American captain Jim Courier faces a Gonzalez-less Chile (albeit on clay) and then a fascinating clash with Spain on home soil.  Spurred by their energetic new leader and the return of Cup stalwart Roddick, the American team should edge a Spanish squad that probably will travel to the United States without Nadal, resting from another Wimbledon title.  If they can trust the evergreen Bryans to avenge a Davis Cup loss to Clement/Llodra, a semifinal with fragile France lies within Team USA’s grasp.  Considering the excellence of both Roddick and Djokovic in Davis Cup, one would expect a scintillating match if they battle for the silver salad bowl on the last day of the season.

6) Nadal, Wozniacki finish #1:  Entrenched well above his nearest competition, Nadal will enjoy opportunities to expand his lead further early in the season.  He will expect to surpass his quarterfinal result at the Australian Open and at least maintain his semifinal results from the spring Masters 1000 tournaments.  Unlikely to relinquish his dominance over the clay and grass seasons, he probably won’t defend all of his second-half points, but leading rivals Federer and Djokovic also defend significant amounts during that period.  For his WTA counterpart, mere durability and consistency should shield the #1 ranking from more talented, more erratic rivals.  Since the Williams sisters, the Belgians, and the other major (haha) contenders play a significantly shorter schedule, none of them can muster the requisite points total with anything less than thorough dominance, difficult to achieve in the WTA’s current period of parity.

7) Federer, Zvonareva do not finish #2:  Although he probably hasn’t won his final major, the Swiss superstar’s greatest seasons clearly lie behind him.  His peaks and valleys will heighten, and his schedule may shorten to preserve him for the majors that he covets.  While Djokovic won’t gain much ground at majors other than the Australian Open, he should prove more consistent than Federer at the Masters 1000 events.  An early loser at Indian Wells and Miami in 2010, the Serb has excelled at those events in the past and should shine there again with his struggles seemingly behind him.  During the clay Masters tournaments, he also should increase his point totals as he challenges Nadal more often than will Federer.  After an eye-opening 2010 campaign, Zvonareva seems ripe for a small sophomore slump.  Unless she can buttress her elevated status with a strong first half, she likely will buckle under the pressure of defending her outstanding performances at the season’s last two majors.

8 ) For the first time since 2006, the Williams sisters fail to win multiple majors:  Long impervious to the effects of time, this WTA dynasty finally began to totter late in 2010, when injuries to the elder sister’s knee and the younger sister’s foot derailed them for extended periods.  Merely a fragment of the champion that she once was, Venus has won no titles outside Dubai and Acapulco during the last two and a half years.  Far more menacing than her sister, Serena will forgo the opportunity to collect a record sixth Australian Open crown.  The younger Williams may not return until Miami or later, and she doesn’t seriously contend at Roland Garros in these latter stages of her career.  Still almost untouchable at Wimbledon, Serena will profit from the short points there as she regains her rhythm after the injury.  But she has become just one of several contenders at the US Open, and she has not won the season’s last two majors consecutively since the legendary Serena Slam of 2002-03.

9) Clijsters wins a major other than the US Open:  Even better in her second incarnation than her first, the Belgian enjoyed the finest season of her career in 2010.  During her comeback, she has won 13 of 14 matches against current and former #1s, including a dazzling 8-0 record against primary challengers Serena, Venus, Henin, and Sharapova.  And yet she still lacks a Slam title outside New York, an odd asterisk for a player who combines a balanced, consistent game with impressive athleticism.  Over the past year, most of her losses came against unexpected, usually Russian nemeses such as Petrova, Kleybanova, and Zvonareva.  Now further settled into her comeback, Clijsters will more often avoid those early-round stumbles while continuing to frustrate foes of her caliber.  As injuries raise questions over almost all of her rivals, the Belgian should seize the window of opportunity that will lie open as long as the younger generation continues to tread tentatively.

10) Azarenka bounces back:  In the wake of a breakthrough 2009 campaign, the Belarussian rather predictably regressed this year despite showing glimmers of what she will become.  The fiercest competitor among her peers, Azarenka also has the power, the versatility, and the athletic instincts of a future champion.  Barely blocked by Serena at the last two Australian Opens, she will relish the sight of early-season draws without the American.  Azarenka unveiled a sparkling all-court game at Melbourne and Dubai before injuries overtook her during the clay season; as those physical issues recede, her explosive movement will return.  Still flustered by quirky styles like those of Schiavone and Martinez Sanchez, she probably has gained focus and maturity after the adversity that she experienced this season.  Neither the grandest settings nor the most prestigious opponents intimidate the brash Belarussian vixen.

11) Ivanovic becomes the highest-ranked Serb in the WTA:  Finally surfacing from a two-year slump, the smiling Serb ended 2010 by winning two of her last three tournaments and 13 of her last 15 matches.  Although she will enter the Australian Open around the border of the top 20, she faces almost no points to defend between mid-January and early May.  Expanding her schedule for early 2011, Ivanovic thus can scramble up the rankings swiftly with respectable performances at the Australian Open, the Premier Five event in Dubai, and the Premier Mandatory events at Indian Wells and Miami.  At Roland Garros and Wimbledon, moreover, she won just one total match in 2010, so she will have ample opportunity to improve upon those performances and gobble up still more points.  Ivanovic’s confidence should rise from the encouraging first-half results that most observers anticipate, improving her chances of defending the second-half points that she accumulated this year.  Meanwhile, Jankovic has headed in the opposite direction by recording just six victories in nine second-half tournaments.  Since 57% of her total points come from three tournaments at Indian Wells, Rome, and Roland Garros, she could tumble precipitously if she falls early at one or two of them.  Turning 26 in February, Jankovic faces a losing battle with time as she attempts to reinvent herself.  Nearly three crucial years her junior, Ivanovic conversely can continue to believe that her best tennis still lies ahead.

***

Trying not to contradict anything that we said above, we now present the Slam champions of 2011.  Rest assured that we didn’t just pull names out of a hat.  We pulled them out of Serena’s mysterious cast.

Australian Open:  Djokovic, Clijsters

Roland Garros:  Nadal, Stosur

Wimbledon:  Nadal, Serena

US Open:  Federer, Sharapova

Happy Holidays!  After celebrating the first Christmas of this blog, we return next week with a Hopman Cup preview and more.

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