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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.

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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?

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It seems like only a week or so ago that Schiavone was ingesting particles of crushed brick and Nadal was crying softly into his towel.  Well, it was only a week or so ago.  Nevertheless, another Slam looms on the history-laden lawns of Wimbledon, which means that another preview is straight ahead.  We start at the top with the tournament favorites, profiling causes for confidence and concern in each of their individual circumstances.

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1)       Roger Federer:

Causes for confidence:  There are six of them, shining in gold on some mantle in Switzerland or Dubai.  But beyond his spectacular 47-1 (one walkover) record at the All England Club since 2003, one can look to the ideal fit between the grass and Federer’s aging playing style, which delivers just as much power and artfulness as it ever did while fading a little in consistency.  On the green lawns of Wimbledon, fewer shots are required to win points than at most other tournaments.  Often not exhibited elsewhere, his superlative net skills still thwart all but the most challenging passing shots.  Federer’s loss to Hewitt in Halle shouldn’t be overestimated, for those tournaments have long since ceased to wield an impact upon his legacy and rarely inspire the level of performance that he achieves at the majors.  Moreover, the resurgence of a certain Mallorcan and the loss of his #1 ranking should have infused Roger with fresh motivation to prove that he’s still the best of the sport’s past, present, and future.  During his pedestrian post-Australian performances, motivation seemed the major ingredient that was lacking. 

Causes for concern:  Nadal’s return comprises a mixed blessing, for he holds a distinct mental edge over Roger in their rivalry and would force him to battle memories of 2008 should they meet in the final.  Casting a broader shadow is the much-discussed trend among players who have endured endless years of futility against Federer (Davydenko, Soderling, Berdych, Hewitt) only to break through in recent months.  Despite the burden of an 0-for-life record, these talents proved that the GOAT “has two arms and two legs, like anyone else,” as Hewitt wryly put it; others may take note and approach the Swiss with greater confidence earlier in the draw.  Federer escaped a flat Australian quarterfinal against the dangerous Davydenko, but he couldn’t escape a flat French quarterfinal against the even more dangerous Soderling.  Keep an eye on whom he draws in that round at Wimbledon.

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2)      Rafael Nadal:

Causes for confidence:  The only player to defeat Federer at the All England Club since 2002, Rafa proved that he can adjust swiftly from clay to grass when he completed the “channel Slam” in 2008.  For the third time, he won the French Open without dropping a set and gained an immense psychological boost by dominating last year’s nemesis, Soderling, in the final.  Following a quarterfinal loss at Queens Club, he wisely headed home to Mallorca to refresh himself before what likely will be an emotionally taxing fortnight.  The Spaniard plans to work on his backhand, serve, and grass movement during that time, accurately pinpointing the three elements of his game that require particular attention at this juncture in the season.  Once again a fearless competitor, he possesses more than enough tenacity to weather the ebbs and flows of a brilliant but erratic shotmaker.  And he has nothing to lose because he withdrew from the event last year; therefore, he will feel unburdened by the pressure of defending his title.  As in the past, Federer represents the favorite and the target towards which Nadal aims himself, and he tends to prosper most in this familiar dynamic.

Causes for concern:  During his brief visit to Queens Club, Rafa looked oddly tentative for a player who had just won his seventh major.  Framing overheads, botching drop shots, and crashing into the net, he displayed a timing and focus several notches below his exquisite best.  The quarterfinal loss to Lopez reminded observers that he remains vulnerable on fast surfaces to staccato playing styles that disrupt his rhythm.  If a Roddick or a Tsonga finds peak form while Nadal endures a mediocre day (by his lofty standards), they might hustle him out with a barrage of electric serves and first-strike tennis before he has time to settle into the match.  But it’s much easier said than done.

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3)      Andy Roddick:

Causes for confidence:  Three times the American has reached the final Sunday at Wimbledon, and three times he has watched a dapper Federer saunter into the winner’s circle.  Nevertheless, Roddick came excruciatingly close to winning last year’s history-making clash; even before the break points that he failed to convert in the seventeenth game of the final set, he led by 6-2 in the second-set tiebreak after having won the first set.  If he had converted one of those four points, two of which were on his massive serve, Federer would have been forced to face a two-set deficit and his demons from the previous year.  Understandably shaken by this painful loss, Roddick didn’t recover until early this year, when his Indian Wells runner-up appearance and Miami title illustrated his presence as a threat anywhere other than clay.  If he can work his way into tiebreaks, he’ll have a chance against anyone on a surface as serve-friendly as Wimbledon.  Also, don’t forget what Nadal accomplished in 2008 after losing a five-set final to Federer in 2007.  Time may be running out on Roddick’s attempt to capture that second Slam, but that knowledge should only infuse him with valuable urgency.

Causes for concern:  Who is Dudi Sela?  No Wimbledon title threat by any means, he not only defeated Roddick at Queens Club but managed to win a tiebreak from him.  Beyond this disconcerting result, one should remember that last year’s runner-up will enter this year’s tournament a bit rusty, having played only five competitive matches (two tournaments) since Miami.  A talented sharpshooter like Gasquet might have a chance against him in the early rounds if he starts a little flat, so keep an eye on his draw.  Finally, the American probably would need to defeat both Federer and Nadal in order to win the title.  Only Del Potro has toppled the top two at the same Slam during this era of their greatness, while as fierce a competitor as Soderling has failed on both attempts.

And now for the ladies:

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1)       Serena Williams:

Causes for confidence:  As long as line judges don’t interfere, she continues to win the only tournaments that matter to her.  The pomp and circumstance of the All England Club require a special type of champion who can adeptly handle the moment, and Serena fits that profile distinctly better than anyone in the WTA (just consider her 12-3 record in Slam finals).  After a typically underwhelming clay season, she’ll feel especially determined to produce a typically scintillating performance at Wimbledon.  Although Serena might not admit it, Wimbledon offers her a compelling opportunity to prove once again that she’s the best player in the family.  She trails her sister five titles to three here while leading the intra-Williams competition at all of the other Slams; if she can close that gap to one, she’ll charge ever closer to undisputed family bragging rights.  Should she meet Venus in the final for the third consecutive year, one senses that she is slightly better equipped mentally to play her sibling than is her older sister.  Although their overall head-to-head is very even, Serena possesses a pronounced edge at the Slams.

Causes for concern:  Playing just two tournaments outside the clay season, Serena missed her favorite non-Slam in Miami with a severe knee injury.  A recurrence of that issue could hamper her on a surface where the low bounce renders knee mobility imperative.  Probably able to compensate for any injury against the rank-and-file of the WTA, Serena might not be able to overcome it when she confronts a top-drawer opponent (Henin, Clijsters, Venus, etc.) in the second week.  At the 2007 tournament, Henin showed little mercy to the battered American during their quarterfinal, ruthlessly targeting a backhand that she couldn’t strike with authority.  Moreover, her loss at the French Open sounded a startling note of vulnerability, for an opponent much less experienced on major stages outplayed the world #1 deep in a third set.  How often have we seen that narrative unfold in past majors?

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2)      Venus Williams:

Causes for confidence:  Owning just one fewer Wimbledon than Federer, the elder Williams plays a notably higher level of tennis on grass than on other surfaces.  Her serve penetrates the court with unparalleled vigor, sometimes allowing her to hold serve without hitting groundstroke, while her often wayward groundstrokes generally click at crucial moments.  Again like Federer, she has preserved her power as her consistency has steadily declined, but not many of those bludgeoned forehands will return at the All England Club.  Winning the same two titles this year as she did last year (Dubai, Acapulco), Venus additionally reached two finals in Miami and Madrid.  The seven-time major champion remains a steady, unruffled competitor, who doesn’t panic when her baseline missiles misfire as do many of her rivals.

Causes for concern:  At her previous Slam in Melbourne, the world #2 looked fairly convincing through four rounds but then skidded off the rails completely in the quarterfinals against Li Na, also not at her best that day.  Venus has few alternatives when her high-power, high-precision game doesn’t find lines and corners, and her flat strokes travel through the court with little margin; on a dismal day at Roland Garros, she couldn’t or wouldn’t adapt her game to solve Petrova.  After an impressive run to the Madrid final, furthermore, Serena’s sister faltered against Rezai in a situation when she was the clear favorite.  While most of her contemporaries (outside her family) respect her too much to threaten her at her favorite tournament, a brash upstart from the Frenchwoman’s mold might be able to unflinchingly attack her.

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We return tomorrow with part two of the preview:  the Wimbledon challengers.  Who can break the triangular Federer / Nadal / Williams stranglehold on this coveted crown?  Answers to come…

 

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 1)      Business as usual for Roger, Maria (more or less):  After Soderling snapped his Slam semifinal streak in Paris, Federer once again found that the grass was greener in Halle, where he reached the final for the sixth time in six attempts since 2002.  Meanwhile, Sharapova charged to the Birmingham semifinals for the seventh time in seven attempts and reached her fourth final at the posh-sounding Edgbaston Priory Club, a record unparalleled among all of her tournaments.  Cracking the fastest serve of her career at 121 mph, she recorded double-digit ace totals in two separate matches while delivering 33 aces against just 14 double faults during the entire week.  Although both marquee stars profited from mediocre opposition en route to the championship match, they found their grass-court games with aplomb, serving brilliantly and moving forward at the earliest opportunity.  Their serves let them down a bit in the finals against a pair of extremely gritty competitors in Hewitt and Li Na; Federer’s first serve faltered at key moments, while Sharapova donated nearly half of her meager tournament double-fault total in the first set of the final.  Fully content with their weeks despite these lapses, Roger and Maria gained a key injection of confidence before traveling to the All England Club. 

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2)      Business emphatically not as usual in London:  On the other hand, the downgraded ATP Queens Club event witnessed a WTA-worthy avalanche of upsets.  Who would have expected the Quirky Quintet of Lopez, Malisse, Fish, Sela, and Llodra to topple the not-very-Fab Five of Nadal, Djokovic, Murray, Roddick, and Cilic?  Never at his most comfortable on grass, Djokovic did secure some solace by winning the doubles title with Jonathan Ehrlich, while Rafa perhaps overstretched himself by switching surfaces days after his fifth French Open title.  Of greater concern were the losses by the two Andys, commonly perceived as the primary challengers to Federer and Nadal on grass.  Petulant and passive during his loss to Fish, Murray continued to demonstrate his vulnerability to any ultra-aggressive player on any fast surface, which bodes ill for his Wimbledon fortnight should he collide with a bold shotmaker early in the draw.  Roddick had little excuse for not closing out the second-set tiebreak against the Israeli, considering his outstanding career tiebreak record and his far superior serve.  After the match, he sounded oddly complacent, not the appropriate attitude to adopt at this crucial stage of the season.

3)      ATP veterans keep winning:  Hold off on the pension plans for former Wimbledon semifinalist Rainer Schuettler, two-time former Wimbledon quarterfinalist Feliciano Lopez, and the still rocket-serving Mardy Fish, all of whom accompanied Sam Querrey to the semifinals at Queens Club.  In Halle, moreover, the multiple-surgery survivor Hewitt halted a 15-match losing streak against Federer, doubtless inspiring other players who are struggling to return from assorted injuries.  Although youth eventually prevailed at Queens Club, we’re curious to see whether the surge of the senior citizens can extend into the more draining best-of-five format at Wimbledon.  As suggested in our Indian Wells tournament summary, Ljubicic’s title at Indian Wells seems to have signaled the revival of some names who looked destined to quietly fade away.  Now the youngsters must strive to follow Querrey’s example and ensure that the past doesn’t become the present.

 4)      Americans start winning:  Not so long ago, Querrey moped out of Paris in a noxious cloud of self-doubt.  This weekend, however, the London tournament finally found itself an oversize champion to match its absurdly oversize trophy.  Also delighted to see green rather than red was his opponent in the Queens Club final, the first-strike, serve-and-volley specialist Fish.  About a hundred miles northwest of that all-American final, the 185th-ranked Alison Riske earned a Wimbledon wildcard by pounding her way to the Birmingham semifinals past Wozniak, Chakvetadze, and the third-seeded Wickmayer.  Most impressive in her run was her ability to hold serve throughout the three-set victory over the Belgian, during which she rallied from a one-set deficit.  Against Sharapova, she showed sterling fortitude by rebounding from a lopsided first set to force a decider.  Keep an eye on her as well as the two men’s stars when looking for potential snakes in the grass at the All England Club.

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Enjoy Eastbourne and the UNICEF Open this week!  How will Henin and Clijsters adapt to grass in their first green tournaments since 2007?  Are grass standouts Bartoli and Radwanska ready to wreak havoc again?  Can a bandaged Ivanovic find her footing in a relatively comfortable draw?  Can Kuznetsova find her footing in a highly uncomfortable draw?  How many rackets will Azarenka obliterate?  How much tape will Wozniacki need for her ankle?  And what in the world are we to expect from our new French Open champion?

We return very shortly with the first of four articles in our Wimbledon preview.  Tuesday, the favorites.  Wednesday, the challengers.  Thursday, the dark horses.  Friday or Saturday, thoughts on the draws.  Happy reading!  🙂