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Andy Murray - 2011 Shanghai Rolex Masters - Day 7

Checking off the boxes:  When Nadal tumbled in the third round to Florian Mayer, the Shanghai Masters event retained only one legitimate contender in its draw and thus only one logical outcome.  In the fall, however, foregone conclusion often prove anything but foregone.  More notably, players who become overwhelming favorites after upsets riddle key tournaments shoulder a ponderous burden of their own.  No clearer example of the dynamic emerges from recent history than the 2009 French Open, when observers sensed that Nadal’s fourth-round demise laid down a red carpet for Federer’s coronation.  But they had forgotten that the Swiss legend still had to win four more matches to complete the feat, which would include two five-setters and a comeback from a two-set deficit against the unheralded Haas.  To be sure, nothing approaching the magnitude of a career Slam weighed upon Murray as he approached his eighth Masters 1000 crown.  And neither Ebden nor Nishikori would have defeated the Scot except on an exceptionally wayward day.  When he faced an inspired Ferrer in the final, though, the second seed and prohibitive favorite knew that he could not escape with a performance lacking his usual focus and determination.  Further complicating his quest was the competitive fatigue from playing a final for a third consecutive week.  An especially short temper aside, however, few traces of fatigue afflicted Murray as he patiently stifled the Spaniard with his superior depth and court coverage.  Like Djokovic, he often won points with depth as much as precision, while his ability to strike backhands as assertively as forehands offered him a distinct advantage over the forehand-centered Ferrer on this fast court. Already accomplishing his fall objective of eclipsing Federer in the rankings, Murray now must find a fresh source of motivation before the World Tour Finals.

Spaniard under siege:  Colliding in an entertaining three-set semifinal was a pair of Spaniards who have recorded accomplished 2011 campaigns.  The Spaniard with the most accomplished 2011 campaign, however, fizzled for a third straight hard-court Masters 1000 tournament.  Downed by Dodig in Montreal and dominated by Fish in Cincinnati, Nadal fell to yet another opponent with a crackling serve and a penetrating backhand.  This combination frequently frustrated the younger Rafa, but second-tier opponents like Florian Mayer had scored scant success against the more mature version of Nadal, no matter how imposing their weapons or how neatly they fitted into the Spaniard’s frailties.  Considering his outstanding return game, the top seed should have engineered a break point on Mayer’s serve, and his tentative performance in the crucial first-set tiebreak hinted that loss after loss to Djokovic may indeed have diminished his confidence more generally.  On the other hand, Nadal exited in the same round here last year to Melzer and may have entered the week reeling from Murray’s audacious assault in Tokyo.

Young guns fire:  In the absence of Djokovic, Federer, and several other notable stars, the next generation or two of potential contenders enjoyed an opportunity to claim a noteworthy victory or two.  First among them was Nishikori, younger in tennis years than his age suggests because of recurrent injuries.  The Japanese prodigy charged to the Shanghai semifinals seemingly from nowhere, rallying after losing the first set to topple the fourth-seeded Tsonga.  In that section of the draw, rising stars cannibalized each other as Nishikori dispatched Dolgopolov, who himself had defeated the precocious teenager Tomic in an odd three-setter.  Before winning just six games in three sets from the Ukrainian, the quirky Aussie duplicated Nishikori’s comeback against a formidable foe, this time the perennially star-crossed Fish.  But the United States also benefited from the youthful surge in Shanghai when Ryan Harrison qualified before upsetting the sagging Troicki.  Unsatisfied with his Bangkok runner-up trophy, moreover, Donald Young displayed the resilience that so long has eluded him in qualifying for the main draw and nearly repeating his US Open ambush of Wawrinka.  Without the suffocating proximity of their superiors, these younger talents could test their footing at a relatively prominent tournament and gain experience valuable for their evolution as competitors.

Validating the validation:  Overshadowed by the events in Shanghai were two minor WTA tournaments in Linz and Osaka.  Although only the most ardent fans will remember their results a few months from now, they may have proved disproportionately meaningful for Kvitova and Stosur.  Two of the season’s three first-time Slam champions, they had settled comfortably into the post-breakthrough hangovers that now seem de rigueur in the WTA.  As the Czech won a title and the Aussie reached the final, succumbing to the ever-fearsome Bartoli, they took initial steps towards building upon their summer achievements.  While winning a major certainly validates a player as an elite member of her generation, they—and their Slam triumphs—earn another layer of legitimacy when they regroup to showcase their abilities at the Tour’s ordinary events.  Kvitova and Stosur cannot graduate from the class of “one-Slam wonders” until 2012, but a return to (some measure of) reliability before then would only consolidate their status. Now, can Li Na emulate them?

The last word…   …belongs to Kimiko Date-Krumm, who won the Osaka doubles title in a match tiebreak over two-time major champions King and Shvedova.  Architect of several stirring upsets in 2010, Date-Krumm had forged few accomplishments in singles this season, so this triumph in her home nation must have tasted especially sweet.  The evergreen Japanese veteran had won one previous doubles title in her career, partnering Ai Sugiyama at the Tokyo tournament—fifteen years ago, when Pete Sampras won the men’s title.

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

Maria Sharapova Maria Sharapova of Russia reacts against Samantha Stosur of Australia during the Sony Ericsson Open at Crandon Park Tennis Center on March 28, 2011 in Key Biscayne, Florida.

Sharapova vs. Dulgheru:  Emphatically delivering her first victory over a top-5 opponent since shoulder surgery, the two-time Miami finalist now hopes to replicate her semifinal surge at Indian Wells as her confidence grows with each victory.  Unusually crisp with her movement and footwork here, Sharapova has dropped her serve just three times in three matches despite occasional clusters of double faults, while her return arguably has unleashed even more impressive blows.  Yet the Russian has oscillated sharply from one match to the next throughout her comeback, suggesting that the excellence of Monday will not necessarily translate to Tuesday.  At Indian Wells, for example, she stifled the potentially dangerous Safina with intimidating ease before wobbling through extended stretches of her quarterfinal against the less intimidating Peng.  Never having faced the Romanian before, Sharapova will require a few games to adjust to Dulgheru’s style.  Without the opportunity to watch the world #28 during the past year, we cannot offer much insight onto that style.  Nevertheless, Dulgheru has advanced to this quarterfinal without dropping a set, an accomplishment that deserves respect although occurring entirely against unseeded players.  While the match surely rests in Sharapova’s hands, the three-time major champion cannot afford to loosen her focus against a competitor probably brimming with confidence.

Petkovic vs. Jankovic:  Fortunate to encounter Wozniacki on an uncharacteristically error-strewn afternoon, “Petkorazzi” still receives credit for polishing off the world #1 so confidently.  Serving out the match at love with an ace, the 21st seed showcased the swagger that could bring her into the top 20 if she learns how to harness her groundstrokes throughout an entire tournament.  Aligned against a second consecutive counterpuncher, Petkovic probably will deploy the same tactics that her coach suggested to undermine Wozniacki.  One wonders whether her strategy of out-counterpunching the counterpuncher would have succeeded so well, however, had the Dane not substituted an impersonator for her normally stingy self.  Even more susceptible to such wobbles than Wozniacki is the counterpuncher who now confronts the German, for Jankovic spent much of last year tottering from one misstep to the next.  Buoyed by a February revival, she atoned for a disappointing Indian Wells campaign with a sturdy performance here.  On the other hand, none of her previous victims possesses the same degree of weapons or poise as Petkovic.  Another resident in the WTA’s second tier of ball-strikers, Pavlyuchenkova, thumped heavy but not electric groundstrokes past her in the Monterrey final.

Mayer vs. Berdych:  Fallible in his first two victories, the 2010 runner-up needlessly dropped a set to the aging Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo and nearly another to the anonymous Carlos Berlocq.  Such profligacy could cost Berdych against an opponent who quenched the inflammable Almagro two rounds after circumventing Indian Wells quarterfinalist Karlovic.  Nor should this week’s success surprise those who closely followed the German this season, during which he has conquered Del Potro, Davydenko, and Cilic.  A two-time semifinalist already in 2011, Mayer can compile formidable serve-forehand combinations while struggling at times with his movement and shot selection.  Also a rather programmatic player, Berdych has settled into a netherworld this year between the leading contenders and the second tier, generally defeating the players whom he should defeat but losing to those ranked above him.  The Czech must defend vast quantities of points over the next few months, so one wonders how he will respond to the pressure.

Federer vs. Rochus:  A former doubles partner of the Swiss legend, the Belgian never has defeated him in their seven career meetings.  En route to this unexpected fourth-round encounter, though, Rochus not only qualified but defeated familiar names Baghdatis and Youzhny after winning the longest match of the men’s tournament in his opener.  Cruising at medium altitude in his first two matches, Federer should not need to elevate his performance to record another unremarkable straight-sets victory.  In return for brushing aside potential threats like a minesweeper, Rochus probably deserves a bit of compensation from the world #3.  Perhaps an autographed box of Lindt chocolates?

Tipsarevic vs. Simon:  Amidst a largely sparkling tournament for Serbs so far, the quirky Tipsarevic displayed his underrated talents by upsetting a flustered Cilic with one carefully constructed rally at a time.  Far less mighty than the Croat, the compact Serb outmaneuvered his lanky foe from the baseline with expertly placed groundstrokes while creating unpredictable angles on his serve.  But Tipsarevic now collides with an opponent who shares his competitive resilience and his scintillating two-handed backhand.  Although Tipsarevic reached the Delray Beach final in February, Simon generally has shone more brightly over the past several months with titles in Metz last fall and Sydney before the Australian Open.  After a rain-soaked three-setter with Cuevas that extended late into Monday night, the Frenchman may enter his meeting with the Serb a trifle jaded.  His brand of tennis relies upon indefatigable movement and concentration, whereas Tipsarevic more often showcases shot-making almost as bold and idiosyncratic as his hairstyle, sunglasses, and tattoos.

Ferrer vs Granollers:  Following a dismal defeat against Karlovic, the Spanish #2 regrouped commendably to overcome a rising Devvarman.  The highest-ranked player remaining in his section eyes a compatriot who rallied from the edge of the precipice against Llodra a round ago to win his third consecutive three-setter.  Not known for his serving prowess, Granollers nevertheless never conceded his delivery throughout three sets against twelfth-seeded Wawrinka.  And he already has proven his ability to topple notable opponents by conquering Soderling at the 2010 Australian Open.  Will three long matches hamper his fitness against Ferrer, perhaps the worst possible opponent to confront when tired?  Unless Granollers can continue to win free points on his serve, he probably will find himself dragged into prolonged baseline exchanges where Ferrer’s consistency should prevail.

Juan Martin Del Potro - Sony Ericsson Open

Fish vs. Del Potro:  In the most impressive victory of his comeback, the 2009 US Open champion comprehensively outplayed world #4 Soderling from the first ball to the last.  Covering the court with aplomb, Del Potro struck his backhand with as much purpose and confidence as his forehand, a dangerous omen for his rivals.  After such a comprehensive performance, he must guard against a lull when he faces an opponent who troubled him in the second set of their Delray Beach semifinal.  Among Fish’s more successful ploys in that match was pounding his two-hander down the line into Del Potro’s forehand, the side towards which the Argentine moves less effectively.  Unlikely to outlast or consistently outhit the Tower of Tandil from the baseline, the American must maintain a high first-serve percentage in order to open as many rallies as possible on the offensive, perhaps even following his serve to the net at times.  Across the net, Del Potro will aim to intimidate Fish with the percussive returns that his broad wingspan facilitates.

Isner vs. Anderson:  Serve…serve…serve.  In Federer’s view, with which we sympathize, these two leviathans do not play tennis but some ghastly and irreverent imitation of it.  Both of them have profited from the upsets that other players achieved over Murray and Verdasco.  Although Isner’s greater experience at elite tournaments should provide him with a vital edge, this match probably will hinge upon a missed first serve or a botched smash on break point or in a tiebreak.  Until that moment occurs, little action will stimulate audience members who hope to see something more than serve…serve…serve.

Troicki vs. Djokovic:  When the current world #2 struggled in 2010, his compatriot nearly capitalized with a pair of notable upsets in Dubai and the US Open.  Noted by a variety of commentators, his first-round encounter with Djokovic in New York may have represented a crucial turning point in the younger Serb’s revitalization.  Having failed to secure that match when it lay well within his grasp, Troicki appears to have lost self-belief against the Australian Open champion.  When they met in the same round at Indian Wells, he collected just one game from Djokovic in an effort that fell short even of Wawrinka’s standards against Federer.  Still undefeated in 2011, the second seed has conceded only three games in four sets here while spending 101 total minutes on court.  Striking every shot with effortless confidence, he has dominated opponents to an extent reminiscent of Nadal on clay.  Throughout this winning streak, viewers have started to wonder less whether the Serb would prevail than how he would arrive at his inevitable destination this time.

[As of publication, Nadal’s fourth-round opponent remained undecided.  See the article below for a preview of Ivanovic-Clijsters, postponed from Monday night as a result of inclement weather.]

 

 

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.

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

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