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US Players

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deuce:

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

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

Switzerland's Roger Federer Reacts

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bernard Tomic - 2012 Australian Open - Day 1

After a Day 2 that offered much more intrigue from the women than the men, Day 3 presents greater entertainment from the men’s field.  We focus our attention there in our preview of the day’s most notable encounters, as well as a curious clash or two.

Querrey vs. Tomic:  With his stunning comeback from a two-set deficit against a highly talented opponent, Tomic earned his marquee position as the featured men’s match in the Rod Laver night session.  Two and a half sets into his victory over Verdasco, this meeting between two giants from former British colonies looked improbable as the Aussie emerged only sporadically from his passivity.  According to Tomic, that passivity eventually turned the tide as his opponent also slipped into an unfocused lull.  But he cannot afford to wage such wars of attrition in each round if he aims to plow deep into the draw, and this clash with a player recovering from injuries and chronically struggling with motivation presents an opportunity to economize on effort.  Disheartened by Stosur’s first-round exit, the Australian crowds should rally ever more fervently behind their brightest remaining hope.  Under the bright lights of Rod Laver, Tomic extended the then-intimidating Cilic to five sets in an earlier Australian Open, well before he reached his current level of versatility and maturity.  One senses that the Melbourne faithful will go home happier than they did on Day 2.

Berdych vs. Rochus:  Often vulnerable early in majors, Berdych dropped a set in his first match to the anonymous Albert Ramos.  Fresh from reaching the final in Auckland, Rochus strikes the ball significantly harder than his unimposing physique would suggest, although he lacks the Czech’s formidable serve.  The stage seems set for a collision in which Berdych controls the short points but may find himself outmaneuvered in many of the longer exchanges.  Beyond the length of the rallies, note the contrast between their footwork, one of the dimensions in which Rochus can compensate for his physical limitations.  In this battle between an underachiever and an overachiever, one’s thoughts may drift towards the ways in which each of these men represent the virtues of talent and effort, the elusive combination that separates the elite contenders from their inferiors.

Isner vs. Nalbandian:  The beneficiary of a retirement from the well-traveled Nieminen, Nalbandian remains a threat at nearly every tournament he enters when healthy.  Even in the twilight of his career, he competed effectively against Nadal for extended stretches of their US Open encounter last fall.  Gifted with a crystalline vision of the court’s geometry, Nalbandian sometimes recalls Daniela Hantuchova in his inveterate taste for crafting angles.  Also like Hantuchova, he has excelled in neither fitness nor mental stamina throughout his career, leaving this former Wimbledon finalist with far fewer laurels than he should have earned.  Somewhat the opposite, Isner proved both of those attributes throughout his immortal Wimbledon marathon but can rely upon few shots outside his serve on any given day.  Against the American’s straightforward, monochromatic approach, then, stands the Argentine’s mercurial inflammability and imagination.

Wawrinka vs. Baghdatis:  For those who admire backhands in all of their flamboyant flavors, the meeting of the Swiss and the Cypriot will showcase a florid one-hander against a more streamlined but equally scintillating two-hander.  A semifinalist in Sydney, Baghdatis can rely upon the support of Melbourne’s vocal expatriate community, while the sometimes weak-willed Wawrinka might find the opposition unnerving.  Often successful on clay, Federer’s understudy usually wins by grinding down his opponents with steady, high-percentage tennis, whereas the charismatic shot-maker from Minassol wins with a baseline barrage of groundstrokes that barely skim over the net.  Neither man dominates behind their serve, but both can use that shot effectively to set up their next gambit.  Both men have enjoyed some of their most successful performances at the Australian Open, although six long years have passed since Baghdatis reached the final.  Can he recapture that magic?

Dimitrov vs. Almagro:  Another young star who escaped from first-round trouble, Dimitrov profited from the wildly erratic play of Chardy even more than Tomic benefited from Verdasco’s profligacy.  Commentators and fans long have awaited the emergence of this latest “baby Federer,” a sobriquet that seems to bode ill for all those burdened by it.  Much improved over the past year is his serve, which allows him to strike his elegant groundstrokes from more advantageous positions.  Inflated by his annual prowess on South American clay, Almagro’s ranking exaggerates the accomplishments of a player with ample talent but not always the most intelligent point construction or shot selection.  Considering the Spaniard’s meager results at majors, Dimitrov should consider victory well within range.  An upset would open his draw for a first career appearance in the second week of a Slam, a critical step forward for him.

Karlovic vs. Berlocq:  Against one of the best servers in the ATP stands a player whom many consider the worst server in the top 100.  At last year’s US Ope, Djokovic laid waste to Berlocq’s delivery and never allowed him to hold across the course of three sets.  During a first-round upset of Melzer, Karlovic broke serve no fewer than five times, an oddity for a player whose returning ineptitude usually compensates symmetrically for his serving prowess.  If this match arrives at a tiebreak or two, though, we will find out just how neatly those two features of his game balance each other.  Watch this match for ghoulish curiosity rather than aesthetic entertainment.

The ladies (briefly noted):  To be honest, one struggled to find many captivating matches as the second round began.  The most promising Australian woman still in the draw, Casey Dellacqua will attempt to frustrate Azarenka a round after the third seed looked intimidatingly imperturbable against Heather Watson.  Together with the support of her Stosur-starved compatriots, memories of her second-week appearance several Australian Opens ago might catalyze this lefty, and Vika sometimes has struggled with southpaws before.  Realistically speaking, though, neither Dellacqua nor Li Na’s next opponent, the sprightly Olivia Rogowska, can harbor much hope of an upset.  More convincing in that regard is Hobart champion Mona Barthel, who marched to that title as a qualifier and dominated Wickmayer in the final.  Perhaps Barthel’s ambush of Kuznetsova last year represented just the first notable victory of a promising career.  Since Cetkovska wavered throughout her three-set victory over Morita, the 32nd seed might fall victim to a player with accelerating momentum.

Novak Djokovic Novak Djokovic of Serbia reacts after he won match point against Rafael Nadal of Spain during the Men's Final on Day Fifteen of the 2011 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 12, 2011 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City.

First quarter:  Absent from most of the preliminary tournaments, Djokovic should ease comfortably into his draw without facing serious opposition until the second week.  At that stage, though, the competition might rise significantly if he meets the winner of a third-round serving duel between Roddick and Raonic, who contested a suspenseful final in Memphis last year.  Also in their vicinity is Hewitt, perhaps playing his last Australian Open and likely hoping to record at least one more memorable triumph in the genre of his late-night victories here over Baghdatis and Safin.  Defeating Djokovic at the 2009 Australian Open, when he also attempted to defend a title, Roddick has achieved repeated success against the Serb throughout their careers.  But the world #1’s ascendancy in 2011 accompanied the American’s decline, suggesting that this trend might not continue.  On the opposite side of the quarter are Ferrer, a semifinalist here last year, and Tipsarevic, a quarterfinalist at the US Open.  Both seeds will benefit from the slow Australian hard courts, although Gasquet might build upon his strong performance in Hopman Cup to threaten the Serbian #2 in the second round.  At the year-end championships, Tipsarevic and Ferrer each toppled a beleaguered Djokovic despite their underpowered styles.  In a best-of-five format against a refreshed top seed, though, their gallant resistance probably will fall short.

Semifinalist:  Djokovic

Second quarter:  Assigned the most difficult early task of the title contenders, Murray must navigate past rising American Ryan Harrison in one of the most intriguing first-round encounters.  While his route grows more gentle thereafter, the perpetually unpredictable Gulbis might meet him in the third round and the almost equally unpredictable Monfils when the second week begins.  Having defeated Nadal en route to the Doha final, the Frenchman often has disappointed at majors, including first-week exits at both hard-court majors in 2011.  Nevertheless, he has troubled the Scot in three of their last four meetings and becomes especially dangerous when buoyed by the momentum of recent accomplishments.  The most entertaining of the potential quarterfinals in the men’s draw, a clash between Murray and Tsonga would reprise their meeting at the 2008 Australian Open, won by the Frenchman early in his unforeseen march to the final.  Before anticipating that match too confidently, though, one should remember the presence of Nishikori as a possible fourth-round foe for Tsonga.  The Japanese star upset the Frenchman last fall and could lure him into a war of attrition that could sap his concentration.  Should Simon instead intercept his compatriot in that round, he would pose a similar challenge.  As he showed while capturing the Doha title, however, Tsonga has not allowed his focus to waver lately as often as he once did.  That quarterfinal with Murray should prove a very even match, but the guidance of Ivan Lendl may need a bit more time to percolate before the Scot can profit from it fully.

Semifinalist:  Tsonga

Third quarter:  Together with a 20-match winning streak, Federer brings a slightly dubious back to the season’s first major.  Yet few serious obstacles should present themselves in his first three matches, unless Karlovic recaptures the serving impenetrability that once undid Federer in Cincinnati.  Assuming no such revival, the Swiss master should glide to the quarterfinals past an opponent like Dolgopolov, who has not proven consistently that he can sustain his timing and rhythm throughout an extended encounter with an elite opponent.  Victories over Tsonga and Soderling at last year’s Australian Open did reveal the Ukrainian’s prowess on these courts, which might help him if he meets the declining former semifinalist Verdasco in the third round.  Likely fancying his chances of upsetting the Spaniard in his opener, meanwhile, is leading home hope and Brisbane semifinalist Bernard Tomic.  Generally able to score at least one creditable victory in each of his previous appearances here, Tomic appeared to enjoy his breakthrough moment with a Wimbledon quarterfinal last year.  Despite his inexperience, he threatened Federer in the Davis Cup playoff and could produce scintillating tennis against him again should they meet in the second week.  Towering over the other side of this quarter is Del Potro, an enigmatic force since his comeback from injury.  The Argentine has mixed impressive efforts against leading rivals with disappointing losses to unfamiliar names last season, but here he would face no player more imposing than Fish en route to Federer.  In large part because of injury, the top-ranked American has underachieved since August, so viewers should anticipate a rematch of the 2009 US Open final in the quarterfinals—although not the same result.

Semifinalist:  Federer

Fourth quarter:  Among the most compelling questions of this Australian Open are those revolving around Nadal.  Has he developed a new strategy for solving Djokovic?  How much, if at all, will his heavier racket and supposedly strengthened serve help his hard-court game?  How much has his motivation dipped?  But we may learn the answers to none of those questions until at least the semifinals, for Rafa’s section features players either far inferior in talent, currently playing well below their potential, or notably futile in their resistance to him.  In the former category, one finds players like his compatriots Lopez and Almagro, arguably better on hard courts than on clay yet still no match for a healthy Nadal’s far more balanced game at any major.  In the intriguing middle category are players like Nalbandian and Davydenko, both of whom have frustrated the Spaniard repeatedly earlier in their careers before age eroded them into shells of their formerly brilliant selves.  Spearheading the last category is projected quarterfinal opponent Berdych, who has lost nine consecutive meetings to Nadal on every surface since 2007 while winning just one total set.  All the same, a few names still deserve mention, such as former finalist Baghdatis and towering server Isner.  Although he succumbed to Benneteau in a Sydney semifinal, the charismatic Cypriot can ambush a weary or deflated Nadal and will enjoy rousing support.  The main protagonist of “70-68” led the world #2 two sets to one on clay last year in a Roland Garros clash that both men surely will remember.  In short, Nadal probably will reach the semifinals but probably not without losing a set somewhere.

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Final:  Djokovic vs. Nadal

Champion:  Novak Djokovic

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.

Rafael Nadal - Rakuten Open - Day 6

First quarter:  In the aftermath of yet another disappointment in a final, Nadal will have reason to smile when he crosses the Sea of Japan and examines his accommodating draw.  A runner-up in Shanghai two years ago, the world #2 exited in the third round to Melzer last year and will feel determined to improve upon that result.  With Djokovic and Federer absent, the top seed would not face any opponent more formidable than Ferrer until the final.  As Nadal attempts to rebuild his confidence, he could meet last year’s Bangkok nemesis Garcia-Lopez in the second round, but the prospect of a Dodig-like debacle seems distant.  Aligned for an intriguing first-round meeting with Gulbis is Nalbandian, who competed sturdily through two tight sets against Murray in Tokyo.  The Argentine might well justify his wildcard with a win over the Latvian, the victim of three consecutive losses to players outside the top 50 as his 2011 record has slipped to 17-18.  Despite failing to win a set from Nadal at the US Open, Nalbandian stretched him deep into two sets and continued to trouble Rafa with his flat two-hander.  If he advances to the quarterfinals, the top seed should brace himself to meet Djokovic’s compatriot Tipsarevic, who has evolved into a threat in his own right following a Montreal semifinal and US Open quarterfinal.  Edging within range of the top 10, the Serbian #2 has enjoyed success against sixth-seeded Berdych that includes a US Open Series victory.  Having won his first title in three year at Beijing, however, the Czech may have gained sufficient momentum to avenge that defeat.  But Berdych has lost nine straight matches to Nadal, including 21of their last 22 sets, while Tipsarevic has lost all six sets that he has played against the Spaniard.

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Second quarter:  Although the most prominent among them rests on the top line of the draw, Spaniards dominate this section in a demonstration of their nation’s depth in men’s tennis.  Bookending the quarter are Ferrer and Almagro, rarely perceived as threats during the fall season but both near or at their career-high rankings.  In Almagro’s case, though, the sheer quantity of matches that he has contested this year (especially on clay) has masked his unremarkable performances at the key hard-court tournaments.  There, he has recorded nothing more than a quarterfinal at the Rogers Cup and a fourth-round appearance in Melbourne.  On the other hand, early assignments such as a clash against his light-hitting compatriot Robredo should not trouble him unduly.  Only once has he faced Roddick, a first-round loser in Beijing who struggled to hold serve there on the same DecoTurf surface laid down in Shanghai.  In fact, the American may not escape a compelling challenge from Grigor Dimitrov if the Bulgarian can impersonate more of Federer’s game than his backhand.  Unlike Almagro, Ferrer stands in the curious position of having etched his reputation on European clay but having recorded his most notable accomplishments with semifinals at the two hard-court majors. His road looks more dangerous with an opening match against Raonic or Llodra, although he edged the Montenegrin-turned-Canadian in four sets at the Australian Open.  Potentially pitted against Ferrer two rounds later is the dark horse of this section in the ever-frustrating, ever-dangerous Verdasco.  A combined 11-6 against Ferrer and Almagro, the Spanish lefty has shown signs of life by winning two matches in each of his last three tournaments.

Semifinalist:  Verdasco

Third quarter:  Expected by many to fade after the US Open, Fish erased those suspicions with a  semifinal run in Tokyo.  If he duplicates that performance in Shanghai, he will thoroughly have earned it by navigating past a varied assemblage of streaky shot-makers.  First among them is Kevin Anderson, the South African who defeated Murray in Montreal and Roddick last week.  Or can Bernard Tomic, who thrilled at Wimbledon and fizzled in New York, build upon his Tokyo upset of Troicki to arrange a rematch with Fish?  In their quarterfinal last week, the American found himself forced to rally from a one-set deficit against the towering but nuanced Aussie.  Oscillating wildly from one tournament to the next, Dolgopolov faces dangerous doubles specialist Kubot before a probable meeting with the possibly resurgent Cilic.  A finalist in Beijing for the second time in three years, the Croat’s steady, understated personality and methodical approach to competition should serve him well during the final.  Cilic surely would relish an opportunity to avenge his loss to Dolgopolov on home soil in Umag, and he has swept his four meetings with Fish.  The #1 seed in Beijing, Tsonga has received perhaps the highest seed of his career at a Masters 1000 tournament as the top-ranked player in this section.  Few are the plausible upset threats in his vicinity, although Santiago Giraldo tested Nadal in Tokyo and Robin Haase severely threatened Murray in New York.  More athletically gifted than either of the above, Tsonga might need to solve the enigmatic Melzer, the architect of Nadal’s demise here last year.  In the event that the Frenchman does face Fish in the quarterfinals, he should gain conviction from his five-set comeback victory over the American at the US Open.

Semifinalist:  Tsonga

Fourth quarter:  With a Djokovic-like display of rifled returns, whizzing backhands, and surreal court coverage, Murray torched 2011 Slam nemesis Nadal in the Tokyo final as he collected his 19th victory in 20 matches and third title in four tournaments.  Unsatisfied with that achievement, he accompanied his brother to the doubles title afterwards in his first career singles/doubles sweep at the same tournament.  Following that hectic albeit rewarding week, Murray will need to elevate his energy once more as he prepares to defend this title more effectively than he did the Rogers Cup trophy.  One wonders whether he can sustain the level of his last match—or the last two sets of it—or whether a lull will overtake him.  Unlikely to profit such a lull are the underachievers Bellucci and Tursunov who will vie for the opportunity to confront the Scot, but third-round opponent Wawrinka might pose a sterner challenge.  The Swiss #2 defeated Murray at the 2010 US Open and may have reinvigorated his sagging fortunes with his heroic effort in winning the Davis Cup World Group playoff.  A surprise finalist in Bangkok, meanwhile, Donald Young qualified for the main draw, drew a Chinese wildcard in the first round, and will hope to repeat his New York upset over Wawrinka.  Another American of note has lain dormant for several weeks following his US Open embarrassment, but Ryan Harrison could trouble the staggering Troicki en route to the third round.  At that stage, he would face the tireless Gilles Simon, often at his best in the fall when his workmanlike attitude capitalizes upon the weary or the satiated.  Although we don’t expect Simon to defeat Murray, he might deplete the second seed’s energy for the more demanding encounters ahead this weekend.

Semifinalist:  Murray

***

We return shortly to review the WTA Premier Five / Premier Mandatory fortnight in Tokyo and Beijing.

 

Rafael Nadal Rafael Nadal of Spain celebrates a point in the Men's Singles semi final match against Viktor Troicki of Serbia on day six of the Rakuten Open tennis tournament at Ariake Colosseum on October 9, 2010 in Tokyo, Japan. Rafael Nadal of Spain defeated Viktor Troicki of Serbia 7-6, 4-6, 7-6.

Having previewed the WTA tournaments in the capitals of Japan and China, we revisit those venues to discuss the less significant but still noteworthy ATP events this week.

Tokyo:

Top half:  The top seed here for the second straight year, Nadal aims to defend a non-clay title for the first time in his career.  Potentially complicating his passage is second-round opponent Milos Raonic, who led the ATP in aces earlier this year.  Nevertheless, the Canadian of Montenegrin origins looked distinctly rusty during a four-set loss to an overmatched Israeli opponent in Davis Cup, his first event since hip surgery this summer.   In the quarterfinals, Nadal might meet the newly crowned Kuala Lumpur champion Tipsarevic, finally a victor in his fifth final after four unsuccessful attempts.  Embedding himself well inside the top 20 during recent months, Djokovic’s compatriot harbors an innate confidence with which he has troubled more familiar foes.  An unwary Rafa thus might encounter stiffer resistance than usual from Tipsarevic, unable to offer even a mildly compelling test in their two previous meetings.  Much less dangerous against the elite than Tipsarevic, yet another Serb stands poised to block Nadal’s route in the semifinals as he nearly did here a year ago.  Holding match points against Nadal on that occasion in a match that wound deep into a third-set tiebreak, Troicki still struggles with a fatalistic streak that hampers him when he finds himself in a promising position.  Nor can one pencil his name into that semifinal berth with too great certitude, for summertime storyline Mardy Fish will import much greater momentum to Tokyo.  Handed the assignment of Ryan Harrison for the third time since Wimbledon, Fish likewise could face Gulbis for the third time this year—and those dangerous opponents stand aligned to meet him in his first two matches.  If the fourth-seeded American survives those threats, he will have proved himself a serious contender who could cause Nadal concern on this fast surface.  Meanwhile, can Bernard Tomic accomplish something noteworthy after slumping to hideous losses in his last two tournaments?

Semifinal:  Nadal d. Fish

Bottom half:  Among the highlights of the 2008 US Open, the first-week battle between Ferrer and Nishikori twisted through five suspenseful sets before “Project 45” claimed the upset.  Reprising that contest on home soil, the often injured Japanese prodigy has honed a style strikingly similar to the grinding Spaniard.  Elsewhere in their section, the ageless Stepanek lilts into another clash of experience against youth when he tangles with Somdeev Devvarman, a lithe Indian with a crisp two-handed backhand somewhat reminiscent of Hewitt.  But few players in this section can mount a serious challenge on a hard court to Murray, who won Bangkok as the top seed last week.  Just when many of his rivals seem vulnerable to competitive ennui, Murray has managed to motivate himself with the objective of overtaking Federer as the year-end #3.  His identification of that goal should aid the Scot in sharpening his focus deep in a season of impressive peaks and gloomy valleys.   The architect of Murray’s demise in Rotterdam, Baghdatis reached the final in Kuala Lumpur last week with upsets over Melzer and Troicki.  If Murray reaches Tokyo weary or unwary, the Cypriot could spring an opening-round ambush with his precisely timed groundstrokes.  A few years ago, the fall showcased David Nalbandian’s mostly squandered talents at their finest.  Following another valiant effort in Davis Cup, this veteran again might stir from his nearly irrelevant state, although Murray comfortably dominated him at Cincinnati this year.  Perhaps more ominous is Juan Monaco, who split his two meetings with Murray last fall and resembles a diluted South American version of Ferrer.

Semifinal:  Murray d. Ferrer

Beijing:

Top half:  In the absence of defending champion Djokovic, the prolific tennis nation of France provides three of this tournament’s top eight seeds.  A champion in Metz two weeks ago, the top-seeded Tsonga may find that distinction less than enviable on this occasion, for he immediately encounters the temperamental Bulgarian shot-maker Dimitrov.  At Wimbledon, they engaged in a four-set rollercoaster of alternately head-turning and head-scratching tennis.  Much more predictable than his compatriot, Simon will rely upon his monochromatic style to seek a quarterfinal against Tsonga in which the relatively slow Beijing courts might assist him.  Before that all-French fracas, Gilles might meet the Brazilian lefty Thomaz Bellucci, nearly the hero of his nation during the Davis Cup World Group playoff but eventually (and once again) disappointing home hopes.  Even if that disappointment does not weigh heavily upon him, though, he has failed comprehensively at breaking through Simon’s defenses before.  Either Tsonga or Simon should brace themselves for a semifinal with Berdych, despite a dangerous opening clash with Melzer.  Typically at his best when under least pressure, the Czech should relish the fall season as an opportunity to scarf down rankings points with minimal scrutiny.  His quarter features a trio of unreliable shot-makers from Verdasco and Kohlschreiber to rising star Dolgopolov.  Puzzling Djokovic throughout an epic first set at the US Open, the last of those figures seems the most plausible test for Berdych, whom he could trouble with his idiosyncratic timing and dipping backhand slices.  Remarkably, Berdych and Tsonga never have confronted each other on a court before; that lacuna should end this week.

Semifinal:  Berdych d. Tsonga

Bottom half:  Looming throughout this section are massive servers, two of whom collide in the first round when US Open quarterfinalist Isner meets Metz runner-up Ljubcic.  Both juggernauts acquitted themselves creditably here last year, and this year’s draw lies open for the winner to reach a semifinal.  Poised to intercept one of them is Almagro, but the Spaniard’s overstuffed schedule during the first half and focus on clay tournaments probably will have undermined his preparation for the fall.  On the other hand, the moderately paced surface should offer him more time to set up his elongated swings, and a tepid summer may have allowed him to refresh his energies.  In the first round, Almagro would meet Youzhny in a rematch of the infamous Miami meeting in which the Russian hammered not the ball but his head with a racket.  Both with exquisite one-handed backhands, they inhabit a quarter with two-handed backhands that vary from the clumsy—Roddick and Anderson—to the serviceable—Monfils and Fognini—to the potentially spectacular—Davydenko and Cilic.  None of those players has proven that they can contend consistently this year, so each match will offer a narrative without foregone conclusions.  Reaching a US Open quarterfinal with a sturdy victory over Ferrer, Roddick may carry that impetus into his next tournament, while Cilic showed signs of resurgence in a competitive loss to Federer and a dominant Davis Cup effort.  At the 2010 French Open, Monfils met Fognini in a protracted war of endless rallies, service breaks, and taut tempers, so one wonders what the first-round sequel here might bring.  Whereas Tokyo should build towards a stirring climax, Beijing might unfold a less linear storyline.

Semifinal:  Roddick d. Isner

***

We return in a few days to preview the WTA quarterfinals in Beijing, perhaps with digressions to any intriguing ATP encounters that develop.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

Rafael Nadal - 2011 US Open - Day 5

Nalbandian vs. Nadal:  Splitting his four previous meetings with the Argentine, Nadal has lost at least one set to him in each of their encounters.  After Nalbandian overwhelmed him at two indoor events in 2007, Rafa rallied from one-set deficits against him at the North American Masters tournaments more recently.  Even in his decline, therefore, the former Wimbledon finalist continues to threaten the far superior Spaniard with a two-handed backhand pounded into the forehand corner towards which Nadal moves less naturally.  Already ill at ease since losing the Wimbledon final, the world #2 lost his serve six times in his opener and escaped a four- or five-setter largely through the profligacy of an erratic opponent.  Similar generosity may flow from the racket of Nalbandian, who has struggled with injuries and overall fitness throughout a career beset by questions concerning his commitment.  By reaching the third round with a four-set triumph over Ljubicic, however, he has demonstrated his most compelling form of the season so far.  Inclined to waxing as the season wanes, the Argentine has feasted before on opponents weary from first-half successes.  Since he wins relatively few free points on his serve, one struggles to imagine him winning this match, and the early start time may find him sluggish.  But a test of Nadal’s confidence will loom if Nalbandian can assert himself immediately as he has without fail in each of their earlier collisions.

Roddick vs. Benneteau:  Amidst a formidable year for French tennis, this doubles specialist with a brisk down-the-line backhand and superb net skills has lain relatively dormant.  Shouldering a losing record in 2011 before the US Open began, Benneteau won renown by defeating Federer at the Paris Indoors two years ago and then holding a match point against Nadal less than a year later.  At first glance, Roddick’s much steadier game would seem to offer him few loopholes, yet the Frenchman’s doubles prowess should allow him to unleash some cleverly angled reflex returns.  In order to silence the American crowd, meanwhile, Benneteau should focus on projecting positive energy and pulling the trigger early in rallies.  Roddick’s strange mixture of explosive serves and passive groundstrokes will allow him to outlast the impulsive French shot-maker in most neutral points.  Unimpressive in his first match, the 2003 champion rose in intensity during a potentially dangerous second-round encounter with the intriguing Jack Sock.  Having played night sessions in each of his previous two rounds, how will Roddick adjust to daytime conditions?  Since both players venture to the net more frequently than their average ATP peers, entertaining cat-and-mouse exchanges might unfold in addition to some vintage serve-volley and chip-charge tactics.

Lopez vs. Murray:  Conquering the third-ranked Spanish lefty with ease at Wimbledon, Murray has won 11 of the 12 sets that they have played.  Lopez’s net-rushing style plays into the hands of the fourth seed’s key strengths, return and passing shots, while his wayward backhand offers an obvious target for the intelligent Scotsman to strike.  Content to rally from the baseline until the Spaniard concedes an error, Murray should not need to leave his comfort zone unless his opponent delivers well-placed first serves at key moments.  Nevertheless, Lopez has played some of his more impressive tennis this year, ranging from that Wimbledon quarterfinal to a heroic victory over Fish in Davis Cup on a fast hard court.  Unlike most Spaniards, this lefty has scored greater exploits on grass and hard courts than on clay.  Thrust into a two-set deficit against Haase in the third round, Murray regrouped on that occasion to outmaneuver in an opponent with more potent weapons but a far less complete game.  The heavy ball-striking of Cilic and Wawrinka ended his last two US Opens at this stage, while Lopez should shine under the lights of Arthur Ashe as he did during a scintillating four-setter against Federer four Opens ago.  If Murray stays alert and showcases his characteristically crisp timing on his groundstrokes, though, he should suffer less suspense than in his previous round.  A trend throughout this tournament, the mundane men’s matches on Arthur Ashe may continue into the second week.

Sabine Lisicki - 2011 US Open - Day 2

Lisicki vs. Zvonareva:  For the third time this year and for the second straight US Open, the top-ranked Russian faces the WTA’s heaviest serve outside Serena.  Overwhelming when she finds corners and lines with her first serve, Lisicki becomes vulnerable when forced to resort to her unremarkable second delivery.  In edgy three-set victories at Roland Garros and San Diego, Zvonareva capitalized opportunistically whenever the German’s first-serve percentage sagged, while her consistency allowed her to capture the majority of the extended rallies.  In the effort to exert ever more first-strike power, Lisicki donated too many double faults and return errors late in those losses, so she should seek to lean slightly further towards the side of restraint on this occasion.  Illustrated by her struggles against Stosur, Zvonareva often has faltered both physically and mentally against players who can hold serve more easily than she can.  A tepid 2011 campaign has witnessed an occasional highlight but few sequences of sustained brilliance, whereas Lisicki has suffered only one serious stutter (Cincinnati) since exploding into relevance in the grass season.  Tilted in the Russian’s favor, though, is the late-night atmosphere in which they will battle.  Zvonareva has played many more night matches in her career and should profit from the experience of playing in their distinctive atmosphere.  Favored to reach the final is the winner of this match, ready to exploit a decimated half of the draw without any Slam champions or former #1s.

Peng vs. Pennetta:  In a quarter that will produce a first-time Slam semifinalist, Peng seems the most plausible candidate.  Pressing towards the threshold of the top 10, this understated double-fister displayed her compact strokes and competitive resilience in a tight two-set victory over the far more powerful Goerges.  Similarly streamlined in playing style if not in emotions, Pennetta capitalized upon a fallible Russian here for the second time in three years by upsetting trendy finalist choice Sharapova.  The tempestuous Italian rarely thrills with her shot-making talents or hustles opponents off the court, but she rarely succumbs without a creditable effort.  Adding interest to this encounter is the fact that one could say the same about Peng.  When steady meets steady, who will stay steadier?  Probably fatigued by her elating but draining victory over Sharapova, Pennetta may descend from that emotional height into a flat, unfocused performance.  One wonders whether the inviting prospect of a quarterfinal against Niculescu or Kerber will infuse the competitors with additional motivation or weigh upon them as an additional burden.

Del Potro vs. Simon:  At Wimbledon this year and the US Open three years ago, they engaged in nine total sets of grinding baseline rallies.  Equally assured with both groundstrokes, the Argentine and the Frenchman shine on a surface that rewards their symmetrical games.  Although Del Potro can flatten his forehand into instantly terminal strikes, Simon’s agile movement has dragged the Tower of Tandil into longer exchanges.  In contrast, Gilles lacks the power to end points without first constructing them, but he can generate surprising depth of shot from his abbreviated swings.  A prominent weapon in Del Potro’s arsenal, the serve has played an underestimated role in Simon’s successes, but both men have experienced chronic lapses into double faults.  Whereas the Argentine has advanced comfortably to this stage, the Frenchman dropped three sets in his first two matches to unremarkable opponents.  Can Simon halt the nine-match US Open winning streak of the 2009 champion?  In order to sustain the necessary level, he must focus on redirecting the ball to keep the gawky Del Potro off balance, not an easy task against a player who moves more crisply than most of the ATP giants.  Covering the baseline with a few vast strides, the Argentine does not move forward as effectively.  But luring opponents towards the net does not conform to Simon’s strengths either, so this contest will rest in Del Potro’s hands as a test of whether he can consistently execute his offensive combinations.

Maria Sharapova - 2011 US Open - Day 3

Sharapova vs. Pennetta:  In each of their three matches, a similar script has witnessed a player win the first set, sag in losing the second set, and then rebound to capture the third.  Not only undefeated when she wins the first set this year, Sharapova has compiled a stunning 12-0 record in three-setters, including eight comebacks from one-set deficits.  One thus would favor her should she engage in another epic with Pennetta, an emotional competitor with few clear weaknesses but few overpowering weapons.  Rarely does the Italian undermine herself, instead compelling opponents to sustain a solid if not spectacular level in order to conquer her.  Despite a poor first half, the 29-year-old veteran has shown flickers of improvement on the summer hard courts with triumphs over Kirilenko and Pavlyuchenkova.  Seeking her eighth straight victory, meanwhile, Sharapova surged forward from a shaky three-setter in her opener here to a commanding double-breadstick win under the Arthur Ashe lights.  The daytime breezes may trouble the 2006 champion’s ball toss and serve as they have in previous US Opens, while Pennetta’s high-percentage style should suffer less from the elements.  Toppled in the third round at two of her last three US Opens, Sharapova expects considerably more from herself this year and finally has the confidence to achieve it.  All the same, Pennetta probably will force her to hit an additional shot or two to finish points, a challenge to which the Russian has risen courageously in recent months.

McHale vs. Kirilenko:  As the year’s final major approached, hopes for American players focused mostly around surging men’s players like Harrison and Bogomolov, but the home nation’s women have stolen the spotlight from them.  Triggering memories of the US Open two years ago, Christina McHale aims to become the Oudin of the 2011 tournament after defeating eighth-seeded Bartoli in the second round.  Like her compatriot, this rising American thrives more when she can exploit the pace or placement of her opponent than when she must generate her own offense.  A smart counterpuncher with more power than Oudin, McHale benefited from the intimate confines of the Grandstand in her upset two days ago, for the home crowd clustered around that stadium to exhort her.  In the more intimidating atmosphere of Arthur Ashe, she must hold together her nerves better than she did two years ago in a night session here against Sharapova.   Moreover, the consistent but not powerful Kirilenko will force McHale to take the initiative in creating opportunities to take control of rallies.  Just as Oudin failed to solve the steady defense of Wozniacki two years ago, her successor may struggle to strike a balance between aggression and judicious shot selection—a skill that comes with experience.

Roddick vs. Sock:  Seemingly more and more defensive as he ages, the 2003 champion failed to catch fire from the spark of playing under the Arthur Ashe lights in the first round.  Still recovering from an abdominal injury this summer, Roddick has not recaptured the sting on his serve and has double-faulted with increasing frequency.  A combination of solid groundstrokes and occasional net forays sufficed to edge him past the unremarkable Russell in four sets, but one couldn’t escape the thought that this match would have ended much more emphatically a few years ago.  Likely to suffice against the untested Sock is a similarly solid performance from the veteran.  A fellow Nebraskan, Sock won his first career match at a major two days ago against Marc Gicquel, demonstrating explosive serve-forehand combinations.  The teenager can extract valuable lessons from his Arthur Ashe debut, and this match should become more competitive than their rankings would suggest.  While it seems implausible to expect him to win three sets from Roddick, Sock could capitalize upon the lulls in the older American’s fading game.  Known for a volatile temper, he should learn from his opponent’s example and curb his emotions in tense moments.

Haase vs. Murray:  Three years ago, the Dutchman defeated Murray at the former’s home tournament in Rotterdam.  Now elevated to #41 in the rankings, Haase has won 10 of his last 11 matches while capturing his first career title in Kitzbuhel and reaching the semifinals in Winston-Salem.  Defeating Verdasco at Wimbledon, he came within a few points of a two-set lead against Roddick in Melbourne this year before succumbing to injury.  This 24-year-old possesses effortless power with his serve and forehand but can lose the rhythm on both shots as a result of fluctuating technique.  More streamlined in his strokes and more versatile in his options, Murray sometimes can out-think himself against relatively straightforward opponents like Haase.  Yet the Scot, who also collected a (much more prestigious) title this summer, struck his much-maligned forehand with authority in an opening-round victory that grew more convincing as it progressed.  Efforts to flatten out that groundstroke has produced mixed results for Murray in recent months, so his refusal to retreat from that tactic illustrates a positive product of his trademark stubbornness.  Like the women’s #1, the men’s #4 can use such strategies to progress more smoothly through early rounds, conserving energy for the second week.

Peng vs. Goerges:  Steady meets streaky in this match between two top-20 stars who have recorded the finest seasons of their careers to date.  Whereas Peng has built her breakthrough upon reaching semifinal after semifinal, Goerges soared into instant notoriety by twice conquering Wozniacki on clay and winning the moderately notable Stuttgart title.  Congruent with those results are their personalities and playing styles, for the Chinese double-fister generally plays percentages and competes relentlessly throughout the match while the German can veer in and out of focus as she impetuously targets lines and corners early in rallies.  In their first career encounter, Peng will attempt to pepper the center of the baseline with penetrating groundstrokes that prevent Goerges from creating angles without too much risk.  The German owns far more firepower with both her groundstrokes and her serve, although the Chinese star has improved the latter stroke this year.  Hoping to take time away from her agile opponent, Goerges seeks to dictate points from inside the baseline and cannot recover easily from a defensive position.  Court positioning thus should offer a key to who holds the edge in this evenly matched encounter.

James Blake - 2011 US Open - Day 2

Ferrer vs. Blake:  In the twilight of his career, the battered American shot-maker clings to the tenuous hope of leaving one last glowing memory behind him.  Such an accomplishment seems relatively plausible against Ferrer, whom Blake has defeated in both of their previous meetings and whose underpowered serve would seem to play into the hands of his crackling return.  A contrast to the Spaniard’s methodical style, the American’s breakneck pace could rush the fifth seed out of his comfort zone as it has with Nadal.  Nevertheless, Ferrer demonstrated his prowess even on these fast hard courts by reaching the 2007 semifinal, a feat that Blake at his best never could achieve.  Repeatedly raising the hopes of his fans only to disappoint them, this serial Slam quarterfinalist has gained most acclaim for gallant defeats such as his 2005 quarterfinal epic against Agassi.  Blake’s career may have suffered from the omnipresence of the more accomplished Roddick, a predicament with which Ferrer could empathize in the Nadal era of Spanish tennis.  When the two understudies collide, their returns of serve will mirror their conflicting perceptions of the game.  A personification of first-strike tennis, Blake takes massive swings at second serves and even first serves, whereas grinder par excellence Ferrer forces his opponent to play every point rather than attempt an outright winner.

Ljubicic vs. Nalbandian:  The history between these venerable bastions of the ATP extends back to 2004 across meetings at five different Masters tournaments, the year-end championships, and Davis Cup.  Never have they met at a major, however, where one would expect the injury struggles and fitness issues of the Argentine to hamper his performance.  Winning four of their last five meetings, the Croat possesses the superior serve and forecourt ability but less reliable groundstrokes.  Often at his best in the second half and especially the fall, Nalbandian still impresses sporadically with a two-handed backhand that creates shallow angles, drawing opponents far from the center of the court.  Although his timing has declined with age, the “grouchy gaucho” continues to challenge net-rushers like Ljubicic with pinpointed passing shots whenever his ailing legs permit.  Several years ago, they might have met in the quarterfinal or even semifinal of a major.  With physicality and raw power increasingly central to this sport, however, they meet in a second-round glimpse of how tennis might have developed in the absence of Federer and Nadal.   After a trip to the outer court, few will feel nostalgic for what might have been.

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