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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

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 Rafael Nadal of Spain looks on during his match against Novak Djokovic of Serbia on day two of the Davis Cup World Group first round tie between Spain and Serbia at the Parque Tematico Terra Mitica on March 8, 2009 in Benidorm, Spain. Nadal defeated Djokovic in three straight sets 6-4, 6-4 and 6-1 sending Spain into the Davis Cup quarter-finals with a 3-1 win over Serbia.  (Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Rafael Nadal

If their respective nations advance through the Davis Cup semifinals, the top two men in the world could meet in Belgrade on the final day of the 2011 season.  Less than a week after the US Open’s captivating conclusion, Spain and Serbia aim to conquer France and Argentina in home ties where they should enjoy a distinct advantage.

Losing consecutive Slam finals for the first time in his career, Nadal should find his recovery from a sixth straight loss to Djokovic boosted by a return to his nation and his favorite surface.  On the other hand, the transition from hard courts to clay late in an arduous season will test the Roland Garros champion’s battered physical condition.  During a similarly timed tie against the United States in Madrid, the greatest clay-court player of all time lost a set to the clay-averse Querrey before collecting himself.  Nadal has accumulated a sensational Davis Cup singles record, however, and he had won five of six meetings from probable Friday opponent Tsonga until the Frenchman reversed that trend at Queens Club this year.  Never have they met on clay, where the acrobatic shot-maker who has reached an Australian Open final and a Wimbledon semifinal rarely excels.  Lacking the patience for extended rallies, Tsonga will find that his net-rushing style plays into the hands of Rafa’s passing shots more on this surface than any other.  In the last five years, only Federer, Djokovic, and Soderling have toppled Nadal on the terre battue, so one struggles to imagine any of the famously fickle French winning three sets from him before a Spanish crowd likely to rattle their fragile nerves.

With two near-certain  rubbers from Nadal, assuming his full participation, Spain need collect only one further from the strong supporting cast of Ferrer and the doubles pairing of Verdasco/Lopez.  Although the world #5 has not played much tennis since Wimbledon, he showcased his continued clay excellence with a title and three finals on this surface, including the Masters 1000 tournament in Monte Carlo.  Battling Djokovic through a three-set semifinal in the Madrid Masters tournament, Ferrer has feasted upon the support of his compatriots in previous Davis Cup epics such as five-set victories over Roddick and Stepanek, the latter in a Cup final.  Yet curiously this tenacious competitor has lost all three of his meetings with Friday opponent Monfils, most notably a five-set rollercoaster that ended the Spaniard’s sojourn at Roland Garros this year.  Just two places below Ferrer in the rankings, the exuberant shot-maker also quelled him as part of a Davis Cup shutout when these teams met in France last year.  On both of those occasions, though, the boisterous French fans inspired their hero to a more sustained effort than he might produce before a crowd unappreciative of his showmanship.  Somewhat more successful over the past few months than the Spaniard, Monfils must continue his dominance in their rivalry for France to survive until Sunday, for the experienced doubles squad of Verdasco/Lopez should overcome whatever pairing Guy Forget assembles to face them.

Choosing to load his rifle with four top-15 singles players rather than bring doubles specialist Llodra, the French captain perhaps expected a post-Open withdrawal from Nadal, or else an excellent serving day from Tsonga or Monfils in doubles duty.  Although Lopez probably prefers faster surfaces, he has elevated his form this year to record a near-upset over Federer, a quarterfinal appearance at Wimbledon, and a scintillating five-set Cup victory over the much higher-ranked Fish in a dangerous Austin tie.  Far less impressive are the results produced by Verdasco, but his explosive lefty serve and raw forehand power should prove greater assets in doubles than in singles.  Unless the French secure the doubles, this tie will not extend to a fifth rubber.  Despite all of the talent that they have mustered, the visitors should consider themselves fortunate to avoid a reverse shutout.  Spain

Novak Djokovic Novak Djokovic of Serbia celebrates at match point after defeating Gael Monfils of France during day three of the Davis Cup Tennis Final at the Begrade Arena on December 5, 2010 in Belgrade, Serbia.

The image of a tightly knit team during their Cup title run last year, Serbia has contrasted with the often dysfunctional squads assembled by Argentina.  An apparent feud (or at least disdain) between Del Potro and Nalbandian undermined their efforts in a 2008 home final against Spain that they entered heavily favored.  In the hostile, raucous confines of Belgrade Arena, any internal division would magnify into a crippling liability.  Like Spain, Serbia will hope to rely for two virtually automatic singles rubbers upon one of the greatest players of this generation.  Weary from his third Slam title during a historic season, however, Djokovic may find discretion the better part of valor in this instance and prefer to recover from recent injuries incurred during his grueling consecutive victories over Federer and Nadal.  Nevertheless, he has not participated in Davis Cup since last year’s final and may sense an especially pressing need to demonstrate his national pride.  The only top-5 player who never has lost to Del Potro, he has relished trading flat baseline missiles with the giant while using his superior footwork and movement to outmaneuver him.  Whether the home nation actually needs Djokovic to win this tie lies open to interpretation, though.  Receding as sharply as the economy over the summer, Del Potro could not propel his US Open winning streak past the counterpunching wiles of Simon, while he fell meekly in straight sets to Gulbis and Cilic on the summer hard courts.  When he played the 2008 final that became known as the Massacre in Mar del Plata, the nerve-jangling pressure led to the sort of tentative performance that Lopez exploited then and that Tipsarevic could exploit now.

Retiring from the US Open with an injury, the eccentric Serbian #2 still seems a better option for starting singles duty than Serbian #3 Troicki, an early victim in New York.  As he demonstrated with a crucial victory over Berdych in last year’s Cup, Tipsarevic does not shrink from the Tour’s heavy hitters as does his less assertive compatriot.  His astonishing career-high ranking of #13 stems from an outstanding summer that included not only his first major quarterfinal, where he acquitted himself impressively against Djokovic, but also his first Masters 1000 semifinal in Montreal.  On the other hand, captain Bogdan Obradovic might contrast his disappointing effort against Monfils in last year’s final with Troicki’s commanding victory over Llodra in the decisive fifth rubber, although those contrasting results seemed to spring somewhat from the opponents and their relative aptitudes on a slow hard court.  Should Djokovic participate, Obradovic still could substitute world #16 Troicki for Sunday’s reverse singles in the event that the home squad requires further heroics.

A perfect 6-0 against Tipsarevic and Troicki  but 0-4 against Djokovic, Del Potro probably must deliver both of his rubbers for the visitors rather than relying upon his meager understudies to deliver two wins of their own.  In fact, the Serbs should consider themselves favored to defeat anyone on this squad outside the recently tottering Tower of Tandil.  Although they combined for five victories at the US Open, Monaco and Chela remain natural dirt devils far from their best in indoor conditions that reward shot-making more than stamina.  A Davis Cup hero for his nation before, Nalbandian has scored improbable victories under Argentine colors but has won only 12 matches since reaching the Auckland final in January, none against top-30 opponents.  The doubles format should showcase his talents for constructing clever angles, however, while its lesser exertions will ease the strain upon his aging, often-injured limbs.  Like France, Argentina brings four singles players rather than any doubles specialists, whereas Serbia can complement its three top-20 residents with top-10 doubles star Nenad Zimonjic.  The defending Cup champions have not fared well lately in doubles, however, losing the valuable middle rubber in both the semifinal and the final last year.  But Zimonjic’s disappointing performances did not return to haunt them, for both times Djokovic galvanized his squad to comebacks from 1-2 deficits by winning the fourth rubber.  Maybe Serbia does need him after all.   Serbia

 We also investigate the World Group playoff ties:

Romania vs. Czech Republic:  This utter mismatch features two top-30 players, the experienced Davis Cup duo of Berdych and Stepanek, against a Romanian squad without anyone in the top 100.  Playing in their capital of Bucharest, the home team will hope to discomfit the 2009 Cup finalists by playing this tie on red clay.  In similar David-Goliath encounters, like recent American trips to Chile and Colombia, the surface could not compensate for the vast gap in talent.  Czech Republic

Russia vs. Brazil:  Far from the sun-soaked beaches of Rio is the central Russian city of Kazan, famously conquered by Ivan the Terrible during the rise of Muscovy into an intimidating empire.  Much less intimidating is the team fielded by ageless Davis Cup savant Shamil Tarpischev, spearheaded by a player with just a 20-19 record this year.  Only three rankings spots higher than Brazilian #1 Bellucci, Youzhny seems an unlikely spearhead for a team filled with unreliable competitors.  The solid doubles pairing of Melo and Soares should secure the third rubber and perhaps vault the visitors to a small upset, but Bellucci likely will have to win both of his singles rubbers.  A clay specialist with short patience and a long history of underachievement, he probably won’t rise to the challenge in a sterile indoor arena that lacks the atmosphere to inspire him.  Russia

Israel vs. Canada:  The only top-50 player to participate in this tie, Milos Raonic has not played since suffering a leg injury at Wimbledon.  If his serve crackles through the court as it did in the first half of 2011, he could win this tie almost single-handedly for the visitors by dominating Israel’s underpowered singles players and combining with doubles specialist Daniel Nestor for a formidable doubles team.  Best known for producing the doubles duo of Ehrlich and Ram, the home nation also has relied upon its exceptional cohesion to slay favored foes like Russia before.  The raucous crowds in Ramat Hasharon have rattled visiting players, but neither Raonic nor Nestor seems easily flustered.  Will rising talent Vasek Pospisil, who impressed Federer this summer and won a match at the Open, play a meaningful role in Sunday’s reverse singles?  Aligned potentially against Israeli #2 Amir Weintraub, he could clinch the tie in a decisive fifth rubber.  Canada

South Africa vs. Croatia:  Unlike Canada, this second English-speaking tennis nation enters this playoff as a clear underdog to a resurgent Cilic, who won a set from Federer at the Open, and the suddenly relevant Dodig, who defeated Nadal and won a set from Djokovic this year.  In a weekend of huge serves, Anderson will hope to channel the energy that led him to the title in the final edition of the Johannesburg tournament.  But Croatia’s much deeper team should win both of the singles rubber that he doesn’t play and find a way to eke out one of the other three matches.  Croatia

Chile vs. Italy:  Electing to exploit their opponent’s weakness rather than their own strength, Chile chose to play this tie on a hard court inimical to clay specialists Starace and Bolelli.  A nation that shares Russia’s tilt towards the WTA, Italy still should feel confident against a team with no player ranked higher than #101 Capdeville, who has subjected his compatriots to a catalogue of Davis Cup disappointments.  Always at his most fiery before an enthusiastic crowd, Olympic medalist Fernando Gonzalez has played only seven ATP matches (winning three) in an injury-marred season.  Retirement looms just over the horizon for most of this Chilean team, especially 2004 gold medalist Nicolas Massu, so they should bring an elevated sense of urgency to gain one more opportunity to play in World Group I next year.  Against a group as unpredictable as the Italians, intangibles determination and home-court advantage might translate into something valuable.  Chile

Japan vs. India:  The visiting team certainly will win the doubles team with the veteran duo of Bhupathi and Paes, so Japan must earn a singles win from someone other than world #55 Nishikori.  And the prospect of two wins in the best-of-five format looks far from assured, considering that Kei just retired from the US Open.  In a year filled with optimism for Asian sports, from Li Na to Japan’s own World Cup-winning women’s soccer team, this beleaguered nation would delight in the chance to reach the Cup’s highest division.  Knowing nothing about the games of Tatsuma Ito or Go Soeda, we somehow doubt that the experienced Indian squad will let this winnable tie slip away.  India

Belgium vs. Austria:  After his startling rush to the top 10 last year, Austrian #1 Melzer has faded from contention in 2011 amidst injuries and a series of unfocused performances.  An accomplished talent in both singles and doubles, he will hope to bring the momentum from winning the US Open men’s doubles crown to a successful partnership with Olivier Marach.  Whether Melzer alone can propel the Austrians past an underrated group of Belgian ball-strikers depends in part on the efforts of the equally enigmatic Belgian #1, Xavier Malisse.  In the twilight of his career, the 31-year-old “X-man” arrives on a six-match losing streak but has wins over Tsonga and Tipsarevic this year as well as Melzer, whom he toppled comfortably in the third round of Wimbledon.  Belgium’s supporting cast of Darcis and Rochus should capitalize upon the support of their compatriots to overcome the rest of Austria’s indifferent singles stars, although the flagship of the visiting squad could make their efforts irrelevant if he catches fire at a key moment.  Belgium

Roger Federer - 2011 US Open - Day 13

Australia vs. Switzerland:  Into the Royal Sydney Golf Club strides the dethroned king of the ATP, freshly committed to Davis Cup this season.  Perhaps hoping to snag a title for Switzerland before he retires, Federer demonstrated his dedication to this team competition by flying from New York to Sydney immediately after absorbing a heartbreaking loss in the US Open semifinal.  As proved the case after his Wimbledon disappointment, the Davis Cup experience might lift Federer’s spirits by offering him the opportunity to devour an overmatched collection of foes.  The home team’s emotional anchor, Lleyton Hewitt, has won only nine matches in a season comprised largely of majors and small events that offered him wildcards for nostalgic reasons.  For the first time in a meaningful tie, therefore, Australia leans upon precocious teenager Bernard Tomic to lead them past the heavily favored visitors.  While Tomic might well deliver a heroic effort against Swiss #2 Wawrinka, Federer should win both of his singles matches while reprising his gold medal-winning partnership with Wawrinka in the doubles, a pairing to which the Aussies can offer little answer.  Switzerland

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Standing head and shoulders above their respective challengers (figuratively in Nadal’s case), the two #1s asserted their authority with emphatic victories in Wimbledon’s final weekend.  As the victors bask in the glow of their well-deserved triumphs, we present report cards for the principal contenders as well as those who surprised us, for better or for worse.  Brace yourselves for a lengthy but hopefully entertaining read.

A:

Nadal:  For the third consecutive year, the men’s tour witnessed a Channel Slam as the same player swept Roland Garros and Wimbledon, but this feat may become commonplace considering Nadal’s dominance at both venues.  Especially important to his legacy are his non-clay majors, which cement his reputation as a magnificent all-surface player and eventually will incorporate him in the GOAT debate if he remains healthy.  Also significant were his straight-sets triumphs over ball-bruising behemoths in the last two Slam finals, for the style of Soderling and Berdych will characterize most of the opponents whom he must vanquish in the later rounds of majors.  Finally, we saw Nadal outside the stifling context of his evaporating rivalry with Federer, the narrative of which often cast him as the foil to the Swiss legend’s majesty, an upstart who courageously sought to dethrone the king.  Now Rafa reigns supreme, fortified in the #1 ranking for the foreseeable future and ideally positioned to pursue the elusive career Slam at the US Open. 

Serena:  “Dependable” and “steady” might not be the first words that spring to mind when describing the flamboyant Serena, yet they accurately evoke the order and continuity that she has brought to the mercurial WTA.  While Belgians bomb, Russians reel, and a sister sinks, the world #1 fires ace after ace, makes top-50 players look like practice partners, and wins virtually at will.  During her seven victories here, she lost her serve just three times and faced ten total break points (none in the final); only once, against Sharapova, was the American in any real danger of losing so much as a set.  Having won five of the last six non-clay majors, Serena will enter the US Open as the clear favorite to record a 14th major.  We’ll be curious to see whether she ends her career with more Slams than Federer.

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Berdych:  Proving that Miami was no accident, the enigmatic Czech appears to have solved his own riddle and finally assembled his mighty game, which for so long was less than the sum of its parts.  At the core of his last two Slam performances was his vastly improved confidence, which carried him past the six-time champion in a quarterfinal that offered multiple opportunities to falter.  In future majors, he’ll want to take care of business more efficiently in the first week, during which he played a five-setter against Istomin and a four-setter against Brands.  But his achievements in the most pressure-laden environment of all demonstrated that he’s ready to breathe the rarefied air at the top of the game.  With few points to defend on the American hard courts, his ranking should keep rising.

Zvonareva:  She didn’t hold the Venus Rosewater Dish on Saturday, but in a personal sense Zvonareva achieved even more than did Serena during this fortnight.  Whereas we’ve accustomed ourselves to the younger Williams sister delivering such performances, the rebirth of this volatile Russian as a mature competitor should have elated the WTA.  Armed with a complete arsenal of weapons and an excellent tennis IQ, Zvonareva should build upon this tournament as Berdych built upon his Miami breakthrough.  Even in the final, she competed courageously rather than folding as have so many of Serena’s craven foes, while her two previous matches featured n uncharacteristically sturdy comebacks  by a player formerly most famous for her meltdowns.   It’s a pleasure to see the prettiest pair of eyes in women’s tennis sparkling with joy rather than brimming with tears.

A-:

Murray:  Just as in Australia, the Scot was the best player of the men’s tournament until the semis, conceding one lone set en route to that stage.  During his first five matches, he looked nearly invincible as he defused the explosive offenses of Querrey and Tsonga after dismissing a trio of garden-variety foes.  Murray’s emergence from a prolonged post-Australian Open slump will have boosted his confidence at a timely moment before the shift to American hard courts, where he generally prospers.  And his post-defeat press conference was far more gracious than one would have expected from the often truculent Scot.  Nevertheless, he continues to fall just short at Slams and oddly seemed reluctant to carpe the diem against Rafa as he did so expertly in Melbourne.

Surprise WTA semifinalists:  Nadal wasn’t the only lefty who shone on the lawns of the All England Club, nor was Berdych the only Czech.  En route to a surprisingly respectable loss to Serena, Kvitova overwhelmed both Azarenka and Wozniacki as well as 2008 semifinalist Zheng Jie.  Presaged by a trip to the second week of last year’s US Open, the quirky shotmaker’s triumphs against these three diverse playing styles bodes well for her future as a dark horse in key tournaments.  Told that one player other than Serena would reach the semis without dropping a set, few spectators would have guessed Tsvetana Pironkova.  Despite a counterpunching, movement-based game seemingly antithetical to grass, the Bulgarian radiated calm poise throughout her upsets of Bartoli and Venus.  She doesn’t hit anyone off the court, but she makes those who do win points three times or more in order to oust her.

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Sharapova:  Why is a fourth-round loser in this prestigious category?  We grade on improvement (or “dis-improvement”—see below), and that ghastly first-round debacle in Melbourne has receded into distant memory after Maria’s sterling competitive efforts in the last two majors.  If she hadn’t netted a routine forehand on set point in the tiebreak against Serena, she might well have scored a stunning victory last Monday in what became the de facto final; afterwards, the Russian likely would have navigated to a second Wimbledon title.  Even more of a confidence player than Nadal, she proved a shade tentative on key moments in the Serena encounter but looked sharper at Wimbledon than she has since 2006.  When she translates those fearsome serve-groundstroke combinations to her best surface, the hard courts, Sharapova could prove Serena’s primary challenger again at the US Open.

Isner / Mahut / Mohammed Lahyani:  The longest match ever was far from the greatest match ever, yet its B-level tennis shouldn’t detract from the spectacular resilience of its participants.  Kudos to perhaps the most good-natured umpire of all for withstanding seven stiff hours on his lonely perch.  Greater kudos to Isner for defying exhaustion and finding the willpower to propel his massive frames through 118 games in a single day.  And greatest kudos of all to Mahut, who gallantly held serve to stay alive not once, not twice, not thrice, but 64 times.  Perhaps the French World Cup team should watch the spectacular feat of their compatriot, who offered a splendid lesson in how to lose with grace and glory.

B+:

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Djokovic:  He was excellent at times and solid at others, but he doesn’t quite seem like the second-best player in the world, as the rankings would suggest.  Escaping a potential first-round catastrophe against Miami nemesis Rochus, the Serb seemed to settle into the tournament with each successive match, of which the most impressive was his four-set win over the ever-tenacious Hewitt.  In the quarterfinals, Djokovic suffocated the sprightly challenge of Yen-Hsun Lu with arguably his strongest, steadiest single-match performance of 2010 thus far.  Two days later, his serve unraveled ignominiously against Berdych with a double fault to lose the second-set tiebreak and consecutive doubles to drop serve in the third set.  Still uneasy against confident, big-serving opponents, Djokovic stubbornly stuck to an unintelligent game plan in the semis despite possessing ample alternatives.  Most concerning, though, was his fitness; after two hours, he looked more drained than did Mahut after seven.  

Kanepi:  While reaching the quarterfinals was more than sufficient cause for celebration, consider that Kaia Kanepi accomplished that feat after qualifying and while playing doubles.  The indefatigable Estonian reminded us that a crunching serve and mountains of first-strike power often can compensate for an otherwise one-dimensional style on this surface.  Once in the top 20, Kanepi has played with conviction since defeating Henin in Fed Cup  this spring, and her momentum should extend onto the fast hard courts.

Querrey:  After collecting the Queens Club title, the lanky Californian reached the second week of a major for just the second time, an achievement especially remarkable considering his bizarre French fadeout.  In the third round against the ever-dangerous Malisse, he refused to buckle after squandering opportunities in the fourth and fifth sets, instead calmly continuing to hold serve until the Belgian blinked.  When he wasted an opportunity to build an early lead against Murray, however, the Scot swiftly punished him for his profligacy.

Li:  Capitalizing upon her Birmingham title just as Querrey capitalized upon his Queens Club triumph, Li scored a commanding win over two-time quarterfinalist Radwanska in the final 16.  She managed to keep pace with Serena before unaccountably letting a service game slip away late in the first set, after which she faded swiftly.  But the Chinese star has now reached the quarterfinals or better at three of the last four majors, summoning her best tennis for the grandest stages and finally accumulating the consistency that long has constituted her greatest flaw.

B:

Tsonga:  Despite an injury that endangered his participation here, the acrobatic Frenchman leaped and lunged through an eventful first week to reach the quarters.  Had he closed out the second-set tiebreak against Murray, a semifinal spot almost surely would have awaited.  An embarrassing  (but unfortunately not uncharacteristic) faux pas at 5-5 in that tiebreak cost him dearly, though; positioned to demolish a floating return, Tsonga motionlessly watched it sail past him in the expectation that it would land out.  It didn’t, and Murray took full advantage of the reprieve.

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Soderling:  The Swedish juggernaut still exposes the frailties in Nadal, who looked unduly anxious during much of their quarterfinal.  Yet the Spaniard has distinctly recaptured the edge in this mini-rivalry, while Soderling’s temper returned in an unnecessarily prolonged five-set win over Ferrer.  After he refused to drop serve throughout the entire first week, one expected a bit more confidence in the second week.  Nevertheless, a foot injury clearly undermined him against the eventual champion, so look for him to wield an impact again at the US Open.

Melzer:  Winning just eight games from a clearly less-than-flawless Federer in the round of 16:  C+.  Seizing the doubles title with Petzschner:  A-.  Those divergent performances average to a B for this maddeningly mercurial but fascinatingly distinctive veteran, who now has won consecutive third-round matches at Slams after dropping his previous eleven.

Hewitt:  Following his superlative performance in Halle, many observers (including ourselves) expected him to record an upset over Djokovic last Monday.  Although he proved unable to do so, his previous win over Monfils illustrated the dogged determination that he brings to every point of every match.  While that unflinching intensity alone would justify watching him, his superb court sense and point-construction skills scintillate on a more intellectual level.  Rarely does the Australian beat himself, which is a description that one can’t apply to several higher-ranked players.

Groth:  Like Melzer, she reached the second week for the second consecutive major, pounding last year’s sensation Melanie Oudin into submission en route.  Although her competitive fourth-round encounter with Venus looked less impressive two days later, she showed greater poise than she formerly had on such occasions…until she served for the second set, when her game predictably fell apart.  All the same, the Slovak-turned-Australian is steadily learning how to channel her prodigious power, ominous news for whoever draws her early in New York.

Clijsters:  Losing to a pair of mentally dubious Russians (Petrova, Zvonareva) at her last two Slams, the 2009 US Open champion will be hard-pressed to defend her title unless her level rises distinctly in Cincinnati and Canada.  Sluggish and seemingly disinterested for much of her quarterfinal here, Clijsters looked more like a mom who plays tennis than a tennis player who is a mom.  Yet perhaps she was mentally drained from yet another three-set triumph over Henin on the previous day, a match that reaffirmed her position as currently the Best in Belgium.  Kim won’t need to worry about such a hangover at the next major, where she’ll gain the psychological boost of flying her country’s flag alone.

Haase / Petzschner:  Unknown outside the inner circle of aficionados, these northern European sluggers both won two sets from Nadal.  Those five-set losses represent greater accomplishments than any of their prior victories and should inspire them to future exploits.

Wimbledon crowd:  A thunderous standing ovation for the six-time men’s champion as he trudged off Centre Court in defeat:  A.  Boos for the five-time women’s champion when she arrived ten minutes late on Court 2:  C.  Does that sixth title really garner so much additional respect?  Apparently not, since nobody dared to boo Sharapova when she appeared ten minutes late on the same court (and probably for the same, perfectly justifiable reason).

B-:

Federer:  After nearly finding himself on the wrong side of history in the first round, the defending champion seemed to be playing his way into the tournament when he crashed into Berdych and out of Wimbledon.  That Sampras record of total weeks at #1 may be safe after all unless the Swiss legend suddenly reinvigorates himself as he did in 2008.  Leading us to expect otherwise, however, are these consecutive pre-quarterfinal losses at majors to players whom Federer formerly had dominated, losses that he rationalized a little too glibly in his post-match interview.  His final unforced error of the day, that sour press conference revealed a much less gracious personality than we had identified with the former #1.  Not unlike Serena at her worst, he attributed his loss to everything—from injuries to simple bad luck—except his opponent.  Has Federer perhaps been concealing a churlish streak beneath his genteel veneer?  It’s not hard to look and sound classy when you’re always holding a trophy.

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Henin:  We’ve reached a key crossroads in her comeback, which has garnered two minor titles and the Australian Open final but has fallen well short of most expectations.  During her protracted injury absence, she might want to assess the state of her game and consider what could be changed to take the next step forward.  But a third loss to Clijsters in six months—at the tournament for which this entire project is designed—must have struck a heavy blow to her easily deflated morale.

Azarenka / Wozniacki:  Once described as the future faces of women’s tennis, the Belarussian and the Dane have taken winding detours on their respective routes to what seemed inevitable Slam glory.  Both of them gulped down bagels courtesy of Kvitova, and both remain chronically hampered by injuries that restrict their movement.  Let’s hope that the post-Wimbledon hiatus provides a much-needed physical and mental respite.

Roland Garros women’s finalists:  The toasts of France quickly became French toast at Wimbledon, garnering just one set between them.  While Schiavone doesn’t need to win another match if she doesn’t want, Stosur needs to dispel the lingering aftermath of her Paris disappointment before it festers too long.

C:

Roddick:  For the second straight Wimbledon, he held his serve through five sets until losing it in the final game of the match.  For the second straight Wimbledon, he lost two of three tiebreaks.  For the second straight Wimbledon, he rallied from a two-sets-to-one deficit to force a final set.  For the second straight Wimbledon, he came within a point of serving for the match.  But this time he was playing Yen-Hsun Lu in the fourth round instead of Federer in the final.  A major setback for the top-ranked American, Roddick’s tournament effectively erased his momentum from Indian Wells and Miami while intensifying the pressure that he’ll confront at the US Open.  Just beyond his grasp a year ago, that second Slam now looks as far away as ever.

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Venus:  Accustomed to routine quarterfinals at her favorite tournament, the elder Williams is not accustomed to being the victim of routine quarterfinals at her favorite tournament.  Facing break point in all but two of her service games, she never found her range against an energetic but far from overpowering Pironkova, the type of player whom she must conquer in order to contend for majors again.  It’s becoming increasingly difficult to imagine her harnessing those unruly groundstrokes throughout an entire fortnight.  In the twilight stages of Venus’ career, her game is hideous when it is anything less than sublime.

Men’s doubles stars:  Seeking to break the Woodies’ titles record, the Bryans let a potentially magical moment slip away in the quarterfinals.  Their perennial nemeses, defending champions Nestor and Zimonjic departed even earlier. 

F:

Blake / Pam Shriver:  Both of them forfeited considerable respect by stooping to engage in a mid-match war of words after Pam’s biting critique of James.  Credit Robin Haase for not allowing the fracas to distract him from the task of pulverizing Blake, whose career has drifted out to sea for good. 

Hanescu:  Keep your saliva to yourself.  Nobody wants to be infected with the type of malady that engenders such disrespect for the sport.  Or did you confuse Wimbledon with the World Cup, where such antics might be applauded?

***

Although most of the top players now embark upon quasi-summer vacations, we will not vanish into the London mist.  Here are some of the articles that you can expect to read here in the next few weeks:

Five to Frame:  The Five Most Memorable Matches of the First Half (ATP edition and WTA edition)

Rivalries Renewed:  Davis Cup Quarterfinal Preview

5 (+1) Plotlines to Ponder:  US Open Series Edition

Pushing Forward:  Caroline Wozniacki (player profile)

To Have and Have Not:  Ernests Gulbis (player profile)  [Sorry for the delay on this article, a pre-Roland Garros request.  We didn’t forget, though!]

Service with a Smile:  John Isner (player profile)

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Eagerly exploiting the faster surface, Sharapova followed her Birmingham finals appearance with a suffocating salvo to ignite her Wimbledon campaign.  The transition from clay to grass proved a bit less hospitable, however, to two terrors of the terre battue.  Unceremoniously ushered out of their All England Club debuts, Verdasco and Stosur failed to translate their six combined clay finals into the language of grass.  But their defeats speak less about their shortcomings than about the prodigious achievements of Nadal and Federer in winning “Channel Slams” during the past two years.  A relatively obscure feat in the tennis statistical pantheon, the Roland Garros-Wimbledon sweep ranks with the elusive Indian Wells-Miami double.  One Andy came within a single victory of that rare accomplishment last year, while another Andy duplicated that near-miss this year.  He opens Centre Court and our Day 3 preview.

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Llodra vs. Roddick (5) (Centre Court, 1st match):  Facing a rather indifferent field at an ATP Eastbourne event not to be confused with its high-quality WTA counterpart, the left-handed Frenchman served and volleyed his won to a rare singles title.  A week earlier, Roddick fell to unheralded Israeli Dudi Sela at the Queens Club event two hours to the north.  Do these divergent grass-court results portend a potential upset?  The American swiftly dispatched one of his compatriots in his All England Club debut, while the perhaps weary Llodra eked out a four-set win over an unimposing American qualifier.  In their Davis Cup meeting on a fast indoor surface two years ago, Roddick prevailed in one of the tightest straight-set matches that one could imagine, which featured just a single break of serve.  Since both players don’t hesitate to move forward on grass, we should see shoals of volleys and passing shot attempts with few points lasting more than four or five strokes.  Possessing an elegant backhand volley, the Frenchman displays more grace at the net than Roddick but often proves a little too clever and artsy for his own good.  The fifth seed’s more functional, less exuberant style should carry him through unless his timing falters as badly as it did against Tipsarevic in 2008.  In order to counter the charging Llodra, he needs to be more aggressive than usual on returns and intelligent with his passing-shot placement.

Makarova vs. Venus (2) (Centre Court, 2nd match):  The other Eastbourne champion, Makarova faces an equally imposing challenge as her male counterpart yet enters this encounter on an eight-match winning streak that included straight-set triumphs over Pennetta, Petrova, Kuznetsova, Stosur, and Azarenka.  Against the aging, over-matched Rossana de los Rios, Venus looked as potent as ever on her favorite surface; she started the match with a 119-mph delivery and was largely untouchable in her service games.   Remaining firmly entrenched inside the baseline, she cracked crisp groundstrokes from both sides without slipping into recklessness (most of the time).  Nevertheless, the elder Williams seems a different player every time that she enters the court this year, looking impressive in the early rounds of both previous Slams before donating a sudden clunker.  As a result of Makarova’s solid serve, this match should feature more holds than we’re accustomed to seeing from the breaktastic WTA.  The Russian is an expert at saving break points (10 of 11 in the Eastbourne final), a talent towards which lefties are naturally predisposed; ask if you want to know why.  Although Makarova probably can’t secure the massive upset, don’t be surprised to see one tight set before Venus takes control.

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Djokovic (3) vs. Dent (Q) (Centre Court, 3rd match):  Stubbornly adhering to retro serve-and-volley tactics, Dent is far from a legitimate contender at any significant tournament but still possesses the weapons to occasionally ambush someone who is.  Susceptible to an opportunistic underdog, Djokovic coughed up a two-set lead to Melzer at Roland Garros before nearly falling to Rochus in his Wimbledon opener.  Contrasting with the Serb’s recently wayward delivery, Dent’s elephantine serve comprises a formidable weapon on grass, allowing him to hold with sufficient regularity to put pressure on opponents’ service games and bomb his way into some tiebreaks.  Unless the American collapses as he did against Soderling in Paris, he should test Djokovic’s ever-shaky nerves by remaining within range for most of the match.  Considering the gulf between Dent’s superlative serve and erratic return, any breaks probably will be terminal.  The match should provide Djokovic with an opportunity to hone his timing and his concentration for a possible collision with Hewitt two rounds ahead.

Korolev vs. Hewitt (15) (Court 1, 2nd match):  Seeking to extend the momentum from his unexpected Halle title, the Aussie hopes to avoid the untimely demises of compatriots Stosur and Dellacqua.  A relentlessly ferocious ball-striker, Korolev should prosper on the grass, although his mediocre footwork sometimes leaves him off balance for his mighty groundstrokes on surfaces with little reaction time.  Whereas Hewitt will seek to stretch the Russian laterally along the baseline, his adversary will attempt to shorten points with constant risk-taking and unflinching aggression.  Almost everything must go right for him, however, in order to overcome the Aussie’s consistency, superior technique, and far superior tenacity.  In a best-of-five format, it’s easier to weather a temporary storm and wait for the deluge of errors that inevitably will succeed the deluge of winners.  Here, Hewitt’s patience could prove a more valuable attribute than anything related to a racket.

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Wickmayer (15) vs. Flipkens (Court 12, 3rd match):  Welcome to the next generation’s edition of Henin-Clijsters.  While this second intra-Belgian rivalry certainly lacks the intensity of its ancestor, this clash provides an intriguing means of measuring the progress of these ascending stars.  Still recovering from an elbow injury, Wickmayer avenged a Birmingham loss to Alison Riske in an opening three-setter, while Flipkens has sizzled during a semifinal run at the UNICEF Open.  Ranked lower than her compatriot, her high-risk, first-strike style may prove more effective on grass and allow her to post the mini-upset.  Built more for durability and consistency, Wickmayer often struggles to identify the appropriate moments to unleash her aggression and either flinches before pulling the trigger or pulls it indiscriminately until it jams.  Fortune favors the brave, and so do the lawns of the All England Club, so it’ll be intriguing to see which youngster will seize the day more authoritatively.

Troicki vs. Melzer (16) (Court 14, 1st match):  Often the forgotten Serb behind the trio of Djokovic, Jankovic, and Ivanovic, Troicki showcases an exquisite two-handed backhand that should produce engaging cross-court rallies with Melzer’s whipping lefty forehand.  An intriguing counterpoint to the net-rushing Austrian, the Serb has honed a full arsenal of passing shots that should produce a classic grass-court duel of cat-and-mouse.  In this match, raw power will be trumped by placement, guile, reflexes, and dexterity, always a compelling entertainment in the first week.  After Roland Garros, we wrote that the aging Melzer probably couldn’t reproduce his achievement at another Slam, but he has a comfortable draw that might allow him to reach the second week for the second consecutive major. 

Groth vs. Oudin (33) (Court 14, 3rd match):  Largely failing to capitalize upon her US Open quarterfinal run, Oudin expertly defused the powerful game of Groenefeld in the first round and now tackles a similar assignment.  Agile and low to the ground, the pugnacious American compensates for her lack of a powerful serve with seamless movement and a forehand much more formidable than her size would suggest.  Surprisingly charging to the second week of Roland Garros, the Slovakian-Australian exploited an open draw similar to the soft section in which she currently finds herself.  The match will be decided mostly on Groth’s terms, for she possesses the capacity either to hit Oudin off the court or to hit herself off the court.  In New York last year, Oudin feasted upon erratic, temperamental baseline sluggers, which indicates that she’ll approach this contest with confidence and an intelligent plan. 

Briefly noted:  A couple of you wrote for insight on Wozniak-Jankovic, which perplexes us a bit because the Serb has won all three of their previous meetings in straight sets and appears to have emerged this spring from her protracted slump.  Meanwhile, the Canadian enters the match with a meager 14-14 record in 2010 with losses to opponents such as Cornet, Pironkova, and Heather Watson.   Consequently, it’s difficult to see an upset here unless Jankovic enters as flat as she was at the Roland Garros semifinal.  Although grass is her weakest surface, she couldn’t have asked for a more benign draw…until a Belgian arrives in the quarters.  The new pride of Lithuanian tennis, Ricardas Berankis has won four consecutive matches at the All England Club and will have a legitimate chance to threaten Queens Club semifinalist Lopez, who may still be nursing a shoulder injury incurred at Eastbourne.  Famous for a slightly tarnished upset over Venus on these very lawns, Karolina Sprem pursues more marquee prey in a second-round collision with Clijsters, superb at one Slam in her comeback and a disaster at the other.  A great serving day for the Croat could spell a spot of bother for the eighth seed, who can look tentative against players who are constantly taking chances and making things happen.  The Belgian’s nemesis at Indian Wells, Kleybanova faces a power-saturated duel with compatriot Alla Kudryavtseva, the architect of Sharapova’s demise in 2008 and nearly the architect of Venus’ demise in 2007.  Elsewhere, Teimuraz Gabashvili attempts to extend his momentum from clay to grass as he battles flamboyant German Kohlschreiber for the right to share a show court with Roddick, who fell to the Russian a month ago and to the German two years ago.  If you fancy a bit of doubles, meanwhile, check out Marray/Murray against Nestor/Zimonjic on one of the small outer courts, where a raucous home crowd doubtless will congregate to support their favorite Scot.  

***

Keep sharing your comments and suggesting intriguing matches for the days ahead!

Glancing through the Wimbledon draws, we found them more balanced and intriguing than their Roland Garros counterparts.  Rather than reaching a premature climax early in the second week, the narratives should build compellingly throughout the fortnight.  Yet perhaps this impression merely stems from the fact that grass suits more elite players than does clay; there are many fewer “grass specialists” than “clay specialists,” especially as the former surface slows over the years.  At any rate, welcome to the quarter-by-quarter breakdown of what to expect early, middle, and late at the All England Club.

ATP:

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First quarter:  Seeking an eighth consecutive final at the All England Club, Federer will be delighted to face Davydenko rather than Soderling in a potential quarterfinal.  Since the Russian has recently returned from injury and doesn’t deliver his best tennis on grass, however, the top seed might be facing his compatriot Wawrinka or Miami nemesis Berdych instead at that stage.  Few potential threats loom in the first week, except perhaps from Janko Tipsarevic; the eccentric Serb nearly upset Federer in a memorable 2008 Australian Open clash and just reached the UNICEF Open final this week.  Nevertheless, there’s nobody in this section who possesses all of the physical and mental attributes necessary to win three sets from the six-time champion, not even crafty lefty servers Lopez and Melzer.  The next Slam semifinal streak starts here

Quarterfinal:  Federer def. Berdych

Second quarter:  Although Djokovic is the highest seed in this section, the quarter actually belongs to three-time finalist Roddick, whose route looks moderately challenging.  After a possible second round against Eastbourne champion Michael Llodra, the American will confront flamboyant shotmaker Kohlschreiber, the only player other than Roddick to win a set from Federer at last year’s Wimbledon.  Despite the German’s victory over Roddick at the 2008 Australian Open, one suspects that the fifth seed will advance to a meeting with either the Croat who defeated him in Melbourne (Cilic) or the Croat who defeated him in Indian Wells (Ljubicic), yet Mardy Fish represents a dangerous sleeper in that neighborhood.  On the other side, Djokovic will find his tenacity severely tested by Halle champion and new Federer-beater, Lleyton Hewitt, if he can solve the first-round conundrum of Olivier Rochus (3-1 against the Serb).  Dueling in a memorable five-set quarterfinal here last year, Roddick and Hewitt should reprise that battle in 2010.

Quarterfinal:  Roddick def. Hewitt

Third quarter:  Anywhere between pedestrian and ghastly since the Australian Open, Murray received the benign draw that he needed to gain his footing at his home major.  His first three rounds appear as easy as he could reasonably expect, but his second week might begin against Queens Club champion Sam Querrey.  Comfortably defusing the formidable serve of Gulbis at the 2009 Wimbledon, the Scot should profit from his outstanding return game to outmaneuver the inexperienced, relatively one-dimensional American.  The somewhat injured Almagro and Tsonga might stage an encore of their thrillingly uber-aggressive five-setter in Melbourne, with the winner likely to face Verdasco.  After an exhausting clay season, the Spaniard hasn’t played a competitive match on grass; neither has Tsonga, and Almagro exited his grass-court prep on a stretcher.  All of this information suggests that the home hope should reach a second consecutive Wimbledon semifinal.

Quarterfinal:  Murray def. Tsonga

Fourth quarter:  After the withdrawal of Gulbis, Nadal faces a somewhat less intimidating route to the semifinals that the draw previously had indicated.  In an intriguing second round with Blake, though, he’ll confront a fading veteran whose first-strike style has repeatedly flustered Rafa even during the American’s decline.  Twice defeating Youzhny in the fourth round here, Nadal might need to overcome the dangerous Russian once again, but Isner seems a slightly more probable opponent at that stage.  Can the American duplicate Karlovic’s quarterfinal run last year?  This potential match would be decided by a few crucial points, probably in tiebreaks.  On the other side, Soderling will be salivating over an appetizing first week of overmatched opponents, among whom the most impressive might be former Wimbledon quarterfinalist Marcos Baghdatis.  For the second consecutive year, we should see the French Open final reprised in the second week of Wimbledon.

Quarterfinal:  Nadal def. Soderling

Semifinals:  Roddick def. Federer, Murray def. Nadal  Having lost four times to the Swiss at the All England Club, Roddick would enter their meeting with greater motivation than Federer for the first time and may feel less pressure in a semifinal than in a final.  He’s 0-and-plenty against Roger in majors, but many 0-and-plentys involving the 16-time Slam champion have ended recently.  Don’t forget that Nadal rebounded from a painful five-set loss to Federer in 2007 before vanquishing him in 2008.  Meanwhile, Murray has twice proved on hard courts (2008 US Open, 2010 Melbourne) that he can defeat Rafa in a best-of-five format if he plays with focus and aggression.  The partisan crowd should inspire him to rediscover that intensity, while the Spaniard may enter their contest a bit jaded after surviving a thorny quarter.  But both semifinals should be scintillating if they happen.

Final:  Roddick def. Murray Mentally, both players would find themselves under enormous pressure, individual pressure for Roddick and collective pressure for Murray.  Although he would need to control his elation from defeating Federer, Roddick possesses a much more reliable serve than the Scot, a crucial advantage on grass.  During their four-set semifinal at last year’s Wimbledon, the American’s aggressive play ultimately broke down Murray’s patient counterpunching. 

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WTA:

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First quarter:  Scheduled to start the action on Tuesday, Serena will be jolted out of any drowsiness by the uniquely deafening yodels of Larcher de Brito.  The first week might prove more intriguing than usual for the top seed, since the mighty-lunged Portuguese phenom probably will be followed by UNICEF Open finalist Petkovic, a steadily rising star with a confidence level to match her blistering groundstrokes.  Elsewhere in Serena’s vicinity, Sharapova looks likely to surpass her untimely second-round exits here the last two years and set up a third-round encounter with Hantuchova that no man will want to miss.  The second Monday should feature a rematch of the fateful 2004 final that catapulted the Russian into international stardom; as far as tennis is concerned, however, Serena’s star has burned more brightly lately.  Set for a compelling clash with Kuznetsova, Li Na should recapitulate her past success against the stumbling Sveta before confronting two-time Wimbledon quarterfinalist Radwanska in a dramatic contrast of styles.  Recently acquiring the Birmingham title, the Chinese star often has troubled the world #1, including at this year’s Australian Open, so their potential quarterfinal could be suspenseful.

Quarterfinal:  Serena def. Li

Second quarter:  The least imposing district of the draw features four names who seem equally likely to advance from it:  Wozniacki, Azarenka, Zheng, and Stosur.   Yet Zheng may be the only player who enters the tournament in solid physical and mental condition, for the youngsters are struggling with assorted lag injuries, while the Aussie probably needs a respite to recover from the disappointment of losing the Roland Garros final.  On the other hand, Azarenka enjoyed a solid week in Eastbourne prior to the final, defeating Radwanska, Clijsters, and Bartoli, while Zheng crashed out to local wildcard Elena Baltacha.  Moreover, Stosur’s draw should allow her to settle into the tournament before confronting Rezai in a likely fourth round; the Frenchwoman has yet to reproduce her WTA-level success at the majors, so Sam should progress to the quarters.  At that stage, her serve should allow her to hold much more comfortably than anyone whom she might face there, always a vital advantage on grass.  Balancing that factor, however, is the more balanced baseline game that all three of her potential foes would use to expose her mediocre backhand.

Quarterfinal:  Azarenka def. Stosur

Third quarter:  With the Battle of the Belgians looming at the top of this section, one might almost forget about Jankovic and Zvonareva at its base, yet neither of these players likely would topple the winner of the second Monday’s collision between Henin and Clijsters.  Before anticipating that match too eagerly, though, remember that Justine first must navigate past Petrova, her probable third-round opponent and a quarterfinalist at both previous Slams in 2010.  The Russian memorably knocked off Clijsters in the third round of Melbourne before upsetting Venus at Roland Garros.  Fresh from her second title of the year in the Netherlands, Henin will need the confidence from this week in order to overcome Petrova’s powerful serve and adroit transition game.  In the intra-Belgian rivalry, Clijsters has won both meetings since Henin’s return and evened the overall head-to-head with her flashy compatriot.  But Justine typically has enjoyed the last laugh at Slams.

Quarterfinal:  Henin def. Jankovic

Fourth quarter:  Despite a likely second round with Eastbourne champion Makarova, Venus mostly just needs to play competent tennis in order to reach the semis.  Kleybanova does possess the serve-groundstroke combinations to overcome the five-time champion, whom she edge in Madrid last year; nevertheless, the Russian requires a little more time to mature before such a sensational breakthrough.  Well suited to the short points on grass, Bartoli might penetrate a comfortable draw to set up a quarterfinal rematch of the 2007 final, in which her far less imposing serve was ruthlessly exposed by Venus’ return once the elder Williams adjusted to the Frenchwoman’s idiosyncrasies.  Remember Francesca Schiavone?  She’s hovering around this area too, although probably not for long.

Quarterfinal:  Venus def. Bartoli

Semifinals:  Serena def. Azarenka, Venus def. Henin  The defending champion would be clashing with the Belarussian for the fourth time in the last seven majors, of which Serena has won the previous three.  Whereas the Australian meetings were highly suspenseful, their Wimbledon quarterfinal last year proved relatively routine although filled with high-quality rallies.  Azarenka did defeat Serena in Miami a year ago, but thus far she lacks the mental fortitude to dispatch her from a Slam.  Meanwhile, Venus holds a substantial mental edge over the petite Belgian and can expect to hold serve more comfortably.  Unless the elder Williams endures an erratic performance, which she rarely does at Wimbledon, Henin won’t be able to pass such a stern test at this phase of her comeback.  Maybe next year.

Final:  Serena def. Venus  While little sister will have endured the more difficult route to the final Saturday if something similar to our projections materializes, she also sailed more turbulent seas than Venus last year.  Challenging pre-final confrontations often force Serena to raise her level and sharpen her focus, ultimately benefiting her more than would a benign draw.  Less psychologically uneasy than Venus at the thought of playing her sister, the world #1 has won their last four meetings, seven of their last nine Slam meetings, eight of their eleven finals, and three of their four Wimbledon finals.  Slam number 13 won’t feel unlucky to Serena when she hoists the Venus Rosewater Dish for the fourth time.

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***

If Roddick and Serena (or Venus) do prevail, the American might sweep all of the Wimbledon titles outside the mixed doubles.  While the Williams sisters should be nearly impossible to conquer on grass, the Bryan brothers will possess a legitimate chance to break the team doubles title record of Australia’s Woodies.  Beyond the defending champions Nestor and Zimonjic, their most imposing competition might come from the Polish duo Fyrstenberg and Matkowski, two mighty serves who have toppled the Bryans on multiple occasions and demonstrated their grass expertise by winning Eastbourne.  A week ago, Queens Club champions Djokovic (yes, that Djokovic) and Ehrlich paid the Bryans homage by celebrating their title with this light-hearted gesture:

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See you soon with the first of our Wimbledon daily previews!

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