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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

***

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.

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Svetlana Kuznetsova Svetlana Kuznetsova of Russia holds alloft the Fed Cup trophy on day two of the Fed Cup by BNP Paribas World Group Final between Spain and Russia at the Club de Campo on September 14, 2008 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Svetlana Kuznetsova

Dominant in the team competition of women’s tennis over the past several years, Russia hosts a challenger worthy of its steel in a Czech battalion spearheaded by the world #2.  If Kvitova aims to crack the Russian stranglehold, she may need to overcome Fed Cup stalwart Kuznetsova in the first meeting between these similarly named shot-makers.  We offer five keys to the Fed Cup final.

1)     Will Kvitova have a hangover?

After she catapulted into fame with the Wimbledon title, the leading Czech woman wandered through a fruitless summer of seemingly disinterred performances.  In the aftermath of her triumph at the year-end championships, anyone not from her nation could forgive Kvitova for suffering from a sense of anticlimax.  More marginalized in the women’s game than Davis Cup in the men’s game, a Fed Cup title would not rank among the most memorable accomplishments of a year during which she raced to the #2 ranking.  The single most valuable player on either squad cannot afford to slip into this mentality against a Russian team that already has ambushed one opponent this year (see below).  For inspiration, perhaps Kvitova could note the steady semifinal march of Djokovic in Basel, a tournament no more than a tiny footnote in the Serb’s season.

2)     Can Kuznetsova continue her Fed Cup heroics?

The flagship of the Russian squad following Zvonareva’s injury, Sveta spent most of the season mired in a malaise of brittle focus and uncertain motivation.  But she did rise to the occasion on two notable stages, reaching the Roland Garros quarterfinal and nearly upsetting Wozniacki in the fourth round of the US Open.  Fiercely proud of her national heritage, she also has distinguished herself in fiercely contested Fed Cup rubbers, such as a three-set tilt with Schiavone during the 2007 final.  Kuznetsova sparked Russia’s unprecedented rally from a 0-2 deficit against France earlier this season and has won two of three meetings from Safaraova, which bodes well for a Saturday rubber that her team must claim.  Moreover, she never has faced Kvitova, so canny captain Shamil Tarpischev may expect the element of surprise to rattle the Czech star when combined with the hostile, unfamiliar setting.

3)     Does Tarpischev have something up his sleeve?

Rarely does the grandmaster of Davis and Fed Cup approach an evenly matched tie without a specific plan, and virtually never does he approach an uphill battle without some stratagem calculated to level the odds.  Despite home-court advantage, Russia appears the underdog when comparing the two teams but only because of Kvitova.  While the Czechs will lean upon her brilliance, Tarpischev may rely upon the superior depth available to him, including Roland Garros and US Open quarterfinalist Pavlyuchenkova.  Relatively untested in Fed Cup, she has won her previous meetings against both Kvitova and Safarova.  If one of her countrywomen stumbles, Tarpischev may seriously consider a substitution.  On the other hand, Kirilenko has enjoyed notable success against Safarova, and the Russian captain typically places great confidence in head-to-head records.  No matter whether he embraces or eschews risk, Tarpischev will consider his options carefully at every stage of the weekend.   And, no matter the outcome, he will shoulder a larger share of the responsibility than do most captains.

4)     Who does the surface actually favor?

At first glance, Russia’s choice of a relatively fast indoor hard court strikes one as odd (the fast part, not the indoor part).  While mightiest first-strike weapons on either team belong to Kvitova, the sturdiest consistency on either team belongs to Kirilenko.  The choice of surface thus would seem more favorable to the visitors than to the home squad, which includes the 2009 Roland Garros champion and might have exploited the erratic stretches of both Kvitova and Safarova more effectively on indoor clay.  But the world #2 has won titles on every surface this year, including the Premier Mandatory tournament in Madrid.  Meanwhile, Russia’s #1 has proved much less than a model of consistency herself this season, so she might not relish the thought of hitting several extra shots to win points.  As Radwanska has demonstrated on grass and fast hard courts, counterpunchers like Kirilenko sometimes benefit from the extra jolt of pace added by the surface to their strokes.  The surface probably will prove a neutral factor, refreshing in a sense when one thinks of the numerous Davis and Fed Cup ties decided not by players but by the ground beneath their feet.

5)     What happens if it comes down to doubles?

Outside Peschke on the Czech side, neither team owns a double specialist if the tie reaches that decisive phase.  Both captains would need to decide between a singles player with greater talent and a singles player with more rest.  While the length of the singles rubbers might play a role in that evaluation, Tarpischev has favored momentum more often than not and trusted the top performer of the weekend to deliver one more time.  Considering that many players compete in singles and doubles on the same day in a best-of-three format, this philosophy seems sensible in most cases but probably will not apply to the opposition.  Since Kvitova and Safarova lack extensive doubles experience, captain Petr Pala should turn as advertised to Lucie Hradecka to partner Pesche, who just appeared with regular partner Srebotnik in the Istanbul final.  In that case, the visitors would prepare to rely upon superior doubles expertise against the superior overall talent of the Russian duo.

But the tie probably won’t reach the fifth rubber with the outcome uncertain.  In a surprising end to an often surprising season, the Czechs should topple the last decade’s Fed Cup leviathan 3-1.

 

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

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!

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

Team of Italy (left Corrado Barazzutti, Francesca Schiavone, Roberta Vinci, Sara Errani,Flavia Pennetta) lift the trophy after the final match of the Fed Cup World Group between Italy and the USA at Circolo Tennis Rocco Polimeni on November 8, 2009 in Reggio Calabria, Italy.

Embedded in an intensely individual sport, Fed Cup and Davis Caup continue to reward competitors who can maintain unity and cohesion under pressure.  Neither team in San Diego this weekend contains a marquee superstar familiar to casual fans, with the arguable exception of Schiavone.  Instead, both Italy and the United States have built their recent success upon a core of loyal players dedicated to Fed Cup, most of whom value this team competition more than many of the tournaments that they enter.  While the Italians arrive as considerable favorites, Team USA ambushed a Russian squad spearheaded by Dementieva earlier and will hope to exploit their home-court advantage to reverse the outcome of the 2009 final, held on hostile clay.  Yet Schiavone and her supporting cast enjoy greater experience and possess a deeper reservoir of talent.  We break down each member of the teams and analyze her individual impact upon the weekend.  Which squad will prove greater than the sum of its parts?

USA:

Mattek-Sands:  A stronger server than the Italians, Mattek-Sands won the key rubber in the USA’s semifinal victory, a three-set rollercoaster over Russia’s Ekaterina Makarova.  The fast indoor court will shield her from the inconsistency that has hampered her in longer points, and she will find opportunities to showcase her forecourt talents.  When she faces Schiavone in Sunday’s singles, an engaging all-court contest could ensue.  Idle since reaching the final in Quebec City, Mattek-Sands responded to enthusiastic fan support at the US Open by reaching match point against the much more formidable Petkovic.  Likely to partner Huber in the doubles rubber, the quirky American probably holds the key to victory—or defeat—for the home team.

Vandeweghe:  Choosing Coco over the more seasoned Oudin, captain Mary Joe Fernandez has assumed a calculated risk that seems likely to reward her.  Appearing in her Fed Cup debut, the volatile teenager from Southern California hopes to build upon her local success in the San Diego event this August.  There, Vandeweghe stunned Wimbledon finalist Zvonareva and severely tested Kuznetsova before succumbing to that tournament’s eventual champion.   With her massive serve-forehand combinations, she should secure numerous free points on the fast court and won’t find her questionable movement exposed by the shorter rallies there.  After an encouraging fall campaign, Coco should enter the weekend brimming with confidence, while the crowd support should inoculate her against the tension typically experienced by Fed Cup novices.

Oudin:  The toast of New York a year ago, the pugnacious Georgian staggered through most of 2010 with one notable exception:  Fed Cup.  Effective against a dysfunctional French team in the quarterfinals, the former US Open quarterfinalist scored a key victory for the US in their opening rubber against Russia.  She then extended Dementieva to three sets a day later, reminding audiences that she thrives upon the home crowd’s support.  But the fast indoor court should prove a little too fast for the diminutive American, who relies on counterpunching rather than first-strike shotmaking.  Barring a Coco catastrophe on Saturday, she probably won’t see any action in a meaningful match over the weekend.

Huber:  Despite playing only one rubber for the USA, the former doubles #1 brings valuable experience and leadership qualities to the team.  After separating from longtime partner Cara Black, Huber has continued to score victories at WTA events with various partners; moreover, she has won all of the deciding doubles rubbers in which she has participated for the Americans.  Accustomed to receiving little attention in doubles, she has embraced the heightened intensity of Fed Cup and regularly exhorts her teammates from the bench.

Italy v USA - Fed Cup World Group Final Day Two

Italy:

Schiavone:   Seeking to conclude the strongest season of her career with a third Fed Cup title, the crafty veteran may arrive in San Diego fatigued from her exertions in Doha.  During that week, Schiavone often looked weary at key moments against Stosur and Wozniacki, but perhaps she merely conserved her energy for an event with greater personal significance for her.  A proud Italian who has personified the spirit of Fed Cup, the Roland Garros champion demonstrated her hard-court prowess throughout the second half of 2010, even on the fast surface at the US Open.  Relishing the atmosphere of battle, Schiavone will not crumble in the hostile surroundings of San Diego.  On the other hand, she has compiled just a 4-9 Fed Cup singles record on hard courts and a 7-8 Fed Cup singles record indoors.

Pennetta:  Overshadowed this season by her flamboyant compatriot, Flavia has delivered much more impressive Fed Cup performances on hard courts (6-2) and indoors (8-3).  Somewhat more powerful than Schiavone, Pennetta possesses a more reliable serve that led her to a semifinal in San Diego and a quarterfinal in Cincinnati this summer.  The second-ranked doubles player in the world, the Italian collected momentum from Doha by winning the doubles title there with Dulko.  Pennetta sagged perceptibly over the last few months, however, and brings a three-match losing streak to the weekend in San Diego.  Notorious for an explosive temper, the Calabrian will need to restrain her emotions under the pressure of the American crowd.  If she stays positive with the assistance of captain Corrado Barazzuti, however, Pennetta likely will play the heroine for Italy by winning both of her singles matches.

Errani/Vinci:  On most occasions, Team USA would fancy its chances in a doubles rubber involving Huber.  But Luxembourg champion Vinci remains a perfect 15-0 in Fed Cup doubles competition, with seven indoor victories.  Her partner Errani has lost just once in seven Fed Cup doubles rubbers and never on a hard court, so the Americans should not rely upon simply splitting the four singles matches to preserve their hopes for the doubles.  If this weekend does reach the final rubber, it could produce a thrilling climax that would showcase the highest quality of this overlooked division of the sport.

***

We return over the weekend to preview the Rafa-less Masters 1000 tournament in Paris, but first we extend our birthday wishes to the smiling Serb in Bali!