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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.

Ad-in:

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

Ad-out:

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.

 

Milos Raonic Milos Raonic of Canada celebrates match point in his third round match against Mikhail Youzhny of Russia during day six of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 22, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

No Melbourne mirage (Paris, San Jose):  Hard on the heels of his second-week appearance at the Australian Open, Milos Raonic took a crucial first step towards justifying the attention with a debut title in San Jose.  The stocky Montenegrin-turned-Canadian comfortably overcame the waning Blake and the waxing Berankis with serve-forehand combinations that rarely faltered despite his inexperience.  Confronting defending champion Verdasco in the final, Raonic revealed a precocious poise under pressure as impressive as his veering kick serves.  Undeterred by the Spaniard’s impenetrability on serve, San Jose’s new titlist preserved his focus through a complicated service game late in each set that likely would have spelled the difference between victory and defeat.  Moreover, the Canadian refused to relinquish the first-set tiebreak after Verdasco held four successive set points, a squandered advantage that haunted his higher-ranked foe thereafter.  While one cannot project Raonic’s future too closely at this stage, we noticed that he can stay in a rally longer than most powerful, slow-footed servers, while he generally finished points with ease once he gained the initiative.  Those traits suggest that this confident but not cocky newcomer should launch himself towards achievements from which both of his nations can take pride.

Both confident and cocky, Petra Kvitova rivaled Raonic for the upset of the weekend by defeating Clijsters in a startlingly comfortable final.  Announcing herself with a Wimbledon semifinal appearance in 2010, the 20-year-old Czech confirmed that breakthrough after an arid second half with a quarterfinal in Melbourne and now perhaps her most impressive accomplishment thus far.  Able to create angles and spins rare in a righty-dominated WTA, Kvitova saved match points against compatriot Zahlavova Strycova in the second round before surviving another third-set tiebreak against Wickmayer in the quarterfinals.  Then, she dropped just nine total games in the semifinal and final; the Czech thus can win both with and without drama, a useful trait to develop.  While we cannot quite warm to her harsh on-court mannerisms, we appreciate her ability to harness the wayward focus and unruly temper with which she struggled earlier in her career.  Like Zvonareva, Kvitova proved that mental flakiness does not always become a terminal disease.  (On the other hand, see below.)

Not again, Andy? (Rotterdam):  A tournament removed from a perplexing performance in the Australian Open final, Murray revived the specter of his 2010 post-Melbourne slump.  Likewise disconsolate after a straight-sets loss in last year’s final, the Scot proceeded to sag through the next five months with no semifinals and a handful of embarrassing opening-round losses.  Initially envisioning a respite from the battle, the two-time Australian Open runner-up may wish that he had followed his first impulses rather than moping through a first-round defeat against Baghdatis in Rotterdam.  Perhaps Murray aimed to reclaim a top-four seed before the marquee North American tournaments, but he succeeded only in echoing his 2010 malaise by dropping more than half of his service games for the second consecutive match.  By contrast, his replacement at #4 emulated Kvitova by winning his second title of the season after saving match point in an early round.  Steadily improving a once-ghastly finals record, Soderling coolly parried the thunderbolts that an inspired Tsonga flung at him.  From their respective performances, one might have thought that the Swede had reached the final in Melbourne, while Murray had lost to the unheralded Dolgopolov in the fourth round.

A man for all surfaces (Costa do Sauipe):  Less unheralded following a quarterfinal appearance at the Australian Open, Dolgopolov joined Raonic as the second first-time finalist of the weekend.  Winning greater acclaim for offense than defense in Melbourne, the Ukrainian showcased his overlooked movement in a victory over the clay-loving Starace.  Unable to duplicate Raonic’s feat when he faced Almagro in the final, Dolgopolov nevertheless competed with creditable vigor against an opponent with far greater accomplishments on this surface, including a title here three years ago.  Although hard courts have become the dominant currency of the ATP, such versatility can only accelerate the evolution of his still raw game.  Mercurial shotmakers like Dolgopolov can learn the more nuanced skills of point construction on clay, which tests their fitness as well as their patience and thus offers a foundation for building maturity.

Ana Ivanovic Ana Ivanovic of Serbia reacts after losing a point in her first round match against Ekaterina Makarova of Russia during day two of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 18, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

Thaid up in knots (Pattaya City):  Divergent from the soothing surroundings of this resort was the notably nervy tennis that unfolded there, infecting one star after another.  First to fall, the glamorous Kirilenko let triple match point vanish against a qualifier and then watched a third-set lead evaporate with a dismay that may have contributed to her opening loss in Dubai.  Just hours afterwards, Ivanovic tottered within a game of defeat when she confronted Craybas, who seemed to have receded into the mists of tennis history long ago.  Tiptoeing through that quagmire, the Serb surrendered meekly a round later to the guile of Roberta Vinci.  When an opportunity to reach the final beckoned, however, the Italian modulated from fearless to feckless herself.  But the most prominent downfall of all occurred atop the draw when two-time defending champion Zvonareva wobbled through a perilous three-setter against Peng only to unravel in familiar fashion against Hantuchova.  Failing to serve out the first set, the Russian soon soaked herself in a monsoon of exasperated disbelief at the Slovak’s precisely placed groundstrokes.  (One seriously questions her ability to win a major if the prospect of capturing a third straight title in Thailand unnerved her so strikingly.)  Ironically, a competitor notorious for emotional frailty surmounted the turmoil around her to collect her first title since 2007 and just the fourth of her career.  Can Hantuchova muster one more implausible surge at Indian Wells, the scene of her finest achievements?

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