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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Before shifting to preview the Miami draws, we reflect upon some of the more memorable events at Indian Wells.  Not a comprehensive recap, this article merely sketches the storylines that most piqued our interest during the last week.

Novak Djokovic - BNP Paribas Open

First among equals:  Confirming what the first two months of 2011 already had suggested, Djokovic established himself as the leading challenger to Nadal’s hegemony over the ATP.  For the third consecutive tournament, the Serb decisively defeated Federer despite a generally solid and occasionally splendid display from the 16-time major champion.  When he progressed through the early rounds, moreover, the craven performances of his victims evoked the same defeatist attitude with which opponents approached Federer at his peak.  Just as he cruised past the former world #2 in the final set of their semifinal, Djokovic dominated the world #1 in the third set of their championship match and extended his hard-court record against Rafa to 8-5.  Defeating the two legends on consecutive days for the first time since 2007, the Serb responded to adversity with a mental resilience rarely seen in his formative period.  Although he did not quite maintain his lofty level from Australia, the new #2 heads to Miami on a 20-match winning streak that includes seven victories over top-10 rivals.  With his serve, fitness, and confidence soaring higher than ever, the elusive Indian Wells-Miami double seems well within range unless his weary knee falters.

With the most notable title of her career to date, Wozniacki weathered sporadic stumbles against Kleybanova and Bartoli to collect her fifth consecutive Premier Mandatory or Premier Five trophy.  In the absence of the Williams sisters, Henin, and perhaps Clijsters, few foes can hit through the Dane’s dogged defenses or outlast her consistency.  (While Zvonareva springs to mind, the Russian has fallen well short of matching Wozniacki’s poise under pressure on grand stages.)  Surely destined to break through at the majors, the world #1 has remained unruffled despite the heightening scrutiny and expectations surrounding her.  More confident in her status than other Slam-less#1s, the self-assured Dane has the physical and mental durability to sweep the North American spring events.  But she still could fall prey to an exceptionally inspired shot-maker, such as a Li or a Kvitova on their brightest days.

Spaniards:  Coming within a few games of a 19th Masters 1000 shield, Nadal can consider this week an encouraging yet tentative step forward following his injury-enforced absence.  While the world #1 defeated no opponents in the top 50 en route to the final, few should underestimate the ability of Karlovic or the resurgent Del Potro to unsettle a top seed.  Rafa deserves credit for delicately navigating past those unnerving obstacles, but he will rue the uncharacteristic avalanche of unforced errors that reversed his momentum against Djokovic on Sunday.  Also concerning was Nadal’s struggle to deliver his first serve, resulting in a crushing sequence of four consecutive breaks between the second and third sets from which he never recovered in scoreline or spirit.

On the other hand, Nadal fared considerably better than his two most prominent compatriots.  Ferrer looked thoroughly perplexed by Karlovic in his opener, and Verdasco continued a desultory 2011 campaign with a limp, unfocused loss to Querrey.  A less renowned member of the Spanish Armada, Robredo counterbalanced those disappointments with an unexpected quarterfinal run that included a dual triumph over both Querrey and a painful leg injury.

Americans:  A ray of hope for this tottering tennis power, the 18-year-old Ryan Harrison stunned not only the experienced Garcia-Lopez but the recently incandescent Raonic.  Relishing his fierce competitive zeal and his authoritative returns, we also appreciated his precocious talents in more subtle areas such as a respectable backhand slice and crisp forecourt reflexes.  In an engaging clash with Federer, Harrison showcased all of those qualities in a gallant effort that bodes well for his future.  Meanwhile, Querrey scored the strongest victory since the US Open by upsetting Verdasco in two relatively routine sets.  And Donald Young capitalized upon the opportunity to score a massive upset, triggering speculation that he may yet break free from what has seemed terminal underachievement.

Amidst this optimistic trend were discouraging performances by Isner and Roddick, whose 16-3 record this season does not reflect his pedestrian play (although he still owns the shot of the year so far in the Memphis final).  Scheduled to defend championship points in Miami, the top-ranked American will descend swiftly if he continues to fluff second-serve returns on set points and uncork double faults in tiebreaks.  Harrison’s emergence has come none too soon, one senses.

Belgians:  Far from surprising was the presence of a Belgian in the women’s semifinals.  But few would have guessed that Wickmayer rather than Clijsters would have carried her nation’s banner to that stage.  While the injury to the Australian Open champion raises broader questions about her season, Wickmayer ‘s gritty victories over Kanepi, Cibulkova, and Peer hinted that she may have awakened from a dismal slump during the second half of 2010.  Self-destructing in the semifinals against Bartoli, this natural athlete could rise even further if she can control her perfectionist streak and prevent minor mid-match setbacks from spiraling into meltdowns.  Also filling Belgian fans with pride this week was veteran Xavier Malisse, who accompanied Dolgoopolov in an eventful journey to the doubles title built upon the bones of the Bryans, the Murrays, the Indo-Pak Express, and Federer/Wawrinka.

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal - BNP Paribas Open

Doubles:  Usually relegated to the least desirable courts and times, the sport’s poor cousin took center stage (often literally) after Nadal, Federer, Djokovic, Murray, Ivanovic, Jankovic, and a host of other heralded singles stars entered the doubles draws.  Spectators starved of the Federer-Nadal rivalry seized the opportunity to see them engage in a light-hearted doubles semifinal, while WTA fans enjoyed the chance to watch three top-10 players take the court simultaneously when Schiavone and Stosur collided with Azarenka and Kirilenko.  From the success of these cameo appearances emerged once again the superiority of singles players to their doubles counterparts and the relative insignificance of teamwork compared to sheer talent.  While Nadal and Marc Lopez dispatched the fourth-seeded Polish duo of Fyrstenberg and Matkowski, Federer and Wawrinka overcame the second-seeded pairing of Mirnyi and Nestor.  In the women’s draw, the unlikely combination of Jankovic and Pavlyuchenkova conquered world #1s Dulko and Pennetta.  Despite the discomfiture of leading doubles teams, however, doubles itself gained a significant boost in visibility during the tournament, including screentime on national television following the women’s semifinals.

Double-fisters:  Not among the sport’s most elegant stylists, Bartoli and Peng carved through their sections of the draw as much with fortitude as with timely shot-making.  Steadier under pressure than her quarterfinal and semifinal opponents, the Frenchwoman dragged world #1 Wozniacki into a third set despite suffering from illness.  While Bartoli returned to the top 10, Peng continued her eye-opening 2011 campaign with three consecutive three-set victories, two over seeded players.  Although a fourth three-setter proved just beyond her reach, the Chinese double-fister recorded her finest performance at an event of this significance by reaching the quarterfinals at the expense of Petrova and Li.  Armed with fewer weapons than Bartoli, Peng shares the Frenchwoman’s mental relentlessness as well as her opportunistic streak.

Entombments:  Winless since the Australian Open semifinal, Murray failed to win a single set at the season’s first Masters 1000 tournament.  Hampered by a wrist injury in February, the Melbourne runner-up veered between passivity and impotent frustration during an ignominious loss to Donald Young, who collected only four games from Robredo a round later.  On the other hand, at least the Scot did not sink quite to the abyss inhabited by Stosur during a loss to Safina in which the Russian hit 16 double faults and nevertheless won in straight sets.  Flinging a smash several feet over the baseline on match point, the 2010 Roland Garros runner-up missed routine forehands and service returns throughout this ghastly encounter.  Whereas Murray can wallow in self-pity until Wimbledon without adverse consequences, Stosur must reassemble her confidence much sooner.  With a heavy forehand and kicking serve that shine on clay, the Aussie still has a legitimate chance to win the Roland Garros crown if she can halt her recent skid.

Resurrections:  Accelerating in momentum with every week that passes, Del Potro vaulted himself to the threshold of the top 50 with victories over defending champion Ljubicic, Dolgopolov, and Kohlschreiber.  The 2009 US open champion unleashed his forehand with progressively greater confidence as the tournament unfolded, even freezing Nadal at times in a creditable semifinal defeat.  Also thriving in the relaxed atmosphere of Indian Wells was the enigmatic Gasquet, who looked fitter, fresher, and more focused than he has since 2007.  A round after thrashing world #10 Melzer, the ATP’s most spectacular one-handed backhand dominated Roddick for a set and a half before briefly faltering when he stood on the verge of victory.  The familiar, diffident version of Gasquet would have allowed that stumble to ruin his confidence, but instead he regained his composure and played a commanding tiebreak concluded by—what else—a balletic backhand winner that barely clipped the baseline.

Yet perhaps the most surprising and noteworthy revival of the week occurred in the  women’s draw, where former #1 Safina launched an unexpected charge through three opponents.  Overcoming two-time champion Hantuchova, Marat’s sister displayed flashes of the imposing backhand and the combative spark that defined her tenure at the top.  Against world #4 Stosur, the Russian participated in one of the worst matches of the women’s season (see above) but still found a way to win the most important points, including the potentially tense first-set tiebreak.  Thoroughly outgunned by Sharapova a round later, Safina nevertheless should take immense reassurance from this week as she heads to Miami and a potential second-round meeting with Zvonareva.

Maria Sharapova - BNP Paribas Open

Glamor girls:  In one of her most impressive results since shoulder surgery, Sharapova reached the final four of this Premier Mandatory event and stands within range of rejoining the top 10.  Rusty from a February illness, she required three hours to maneuver through her opener but then bludgeoned Rezai and Safina while losing just six total games.  Although her erratic play resurfaced against Peng, Sharapova demonstrated elevated confidence by surmounting a wayward serve, windy conditions, and an obdurate opponent.  Having fallen to Zheng in similar circumstances last year, she avoided an encore by trusting her shots to scorch the lines when it mattered most.  Mitigating these encouraging portents was a loss to Wozniacki in which the three-time major champion evinced a listlessness almost as odd as Nadal’s error-strewn collapse in the final.  After a sprightly, fist-pumping beginning, the three-time major champion looked resigned to defeat when the momentum turned against her rather than showcasing her fabled steeliness.  On the other hand, one disconcerting evening should not outweigh the sequence of successes that preceded it.

On the other side of the draw, Ivanovic more than doubled her victory total for the season by recapturing traces of the magic that propelled her to consecutive Indian Wells finals in 2008-09.  Under Djokovic’s watchful eye, she defused the dangerous Kimiko Date-Krumm in her opener, an accomplishment that she may need to repeat in Miami.  Two rounds later, the smiling Serb confronted compatriot and defending champion Jankovic, who had won their two previous meetings during Ivanovic’s slump.  Clenching her fist and twirling in joy with each swinging volley or forehand winner, Ana reasserted her dominance over the intra-Serbian rivalry during an emphatic victory.  Perhaps too spent from that cathartic triumph to muster sufficient energy on the following day, Ivanovic nevertheless can reflect with satisfaction upon a week that banished many melancholy memories of the last two months from her mind like clouds from the cerulean California sky.

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