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

Serbia at Sweden:  Initially awaited as a clash between top-five superstars Djokovic and Soderling, this tie developed into a mismatch when Djokovic reaffirmed his Davis Cup commitment while Soderling withdrew.  Considering the Swede’s recent slump, however, the outcome probably would not have changed even if the route had grown more arduous.  As the tie currently stands, the home nation will field no players inside the top 250, so the world #1 and his understudy Troicki should cruise through a pair of comfortable wins on the opening day, barring illness or injury.  After conquering Tsonga and Nadal at Wimbledon, Djokovic should find Eleskovic and Ryderstedt unimposing foes indeed.  The mismatch becomes less severe in doubles, where Sweden might possess a slight advantage in the Olympic silver medalists Aspelin and Lindstedt against the aging Zimonjic and Tipsarevic or some other partner less skilled in doubles than in singles.  Should the home squad survive until Sunday, though, it merely will postpone the inevitable until Djokovic delivers a ringing coup de grace in the reverse singles.

Serbia 3-1

Kazakhstan at Argentina:  Contesting their first World Group tie earlier this year, the visitors remain undefeated in World Group with a stirring upset over 2010 semifinalist Czech Republic.  Crucial to that achievement were the exploits of Andrey Golubev, the team flagship who has posted an 11-1 record in Davis Cup singles including a victory over Berdych.  Outside that weekend, though, the Kazakh #1 has won only two of 20 matches in 2011 and has lost 14 straight encounters since Indian Wells.  At his least effective on clay, he leads his compatriots into not only their weakest surface but a notoriously hostile crowd atmosphere.  Without longtime Davis Cup genie Nalbandian, Argentina still has assembled a team with excellent clay skills, highlighted by former Roland Garros semifinalist Del Potro.  Steadily marching back into relevance, the Tower of Tandil has the weapons to overpower the Kazakhs from the baseline with ease.  But he continues to display psychological frailty at untimely moments, while his shaky loss to Lopez in the 2008 final suggests that national team competition exposes his weaknesses rather than showcasing his strengths.  Beyond Del Potro, the home squad also can rely upon grinding dirt devil Juan Monaco, a veteran unlikely to fold under Davis Cup pressure and likely to outlast the volatile Kazakhs.

Argentina 3-0

Spain at USA:  After copious weeping and gnashing of teeth, the 2008-09 Cup champions trudge reluctantly to a surface where their captain clearly does not fancy their chances.  Costa’s sour carping situates his team in a potentially perilous position, situated too close to fatalistic negativity on the emotional spectrum before the first ace descends.  Eyeing the relentless serving barrage of Fish and Roddick, the visitors may find Nadal’s absence decisive by robbing them of two near-certain victories.  On the other hand, Wimbledon quarterfinalist Lopez should bring considerable optimism to his clash with Roddick, whom he convincingly conquered in the third round at the All England Club.  In a potentially decisive fifth rubber, the American will have an opportunity to soothe the sting of that defeat before his compatriots, whose presence typically inspires his finest tennis.  Before that intriguing rematch, Costa may consider shuffling his lineups to pit Verdasco rather than Ferrer against Roddick on Friday and Fish on Sunday.  Despite the lefty’s 2011 woes, he defeated Roddick on an identical surface in the San Jose final last year and reached the final there again this season.  In contrast, Ferrer displayed uncharacteristically poor body language during his loss to Fish in Miami, while his puny serve will permit him to collect fewer free points on the fast court than will his countryman.  But the American supremacy in doubles with the Bryans may become the decisive factor in this tie.  Confident that the reigning Wimbledon champions can deliver Saturday’s third rubber, the home team knows that they need only split the four singles matches.  With two top-10 veterans on a surface tailored to their strengths, that objective seems well within range, but one cannot discount the ability of the Spaniards to elevate each other as a team to feats that they could not accomplish individually.  Even without Nadal, plenty of intrigue should unfold.

USA 3-1

France at Germany:  Although all of the probably French singles players perch higher in the rankings than all of their German counterparts, this tie could evolve into a more dramatic encounter than statistic would suggest.  With inspired runs to the Halle final last month, both Kohlschreiber and Petzschner demonstrated the emotional boost that they receive from playing at home, whereas les bleus have proven famously fallible under adversity.  Perhaps that national trait has faded lately, however, with a sparkling second-week runs by Gasquet at Roland Garros and Wimbledon accompanying Monfils’ triumph over Ferrer at the former Slam and Tsonga’s fierce comeback against Federer at the latter.  Organized around maximizing singles players, the French squad includes only Llodra among its players earmarked for the doubles, while the hosts enjoy a regular doubles squad in Petzschner and Kas.  At the top of this squad looms the enigmatic Florian Mayer, whom few would consider equal to his top-20 ranking after witnessing his unremarkable shot-making abilities.  More often than one would expect, Davis Cup trains the spotlight on the least heralded star, so one senses that Mayer may play a decisive role before the weekend concludes.  French captain Guy Forget faces a series of intriguing decisions over whether to showcase Monfils, Gasquet, or Tsonga, and against which opponent.  Armed with far more raw talent than the home squad, the visitors should suffer just enough wayward moments to furrow Forget’s brow before relying on their superior depth to advance.

France 3-2

Svetlana Kuznetsova Svetlana Kuznetsova (R) of Russia celebrates with Russian team captain Shamil Tarpischev (L) and other teammates after her win over Carla Suarez Navarro of Spain on day one of the Fed Cup by BNP Paribas World Group Final between Spain and Russia at the Club de Campo on September 13, 2008 in Madrid, Spain. Kuznetsova won the match in two sets, 6-3 and 6-1, giving Russia a 2-0 lead over Spain.

Italy at Russia:  Bereft of its leading ladies Schiavone and Pennetta, the decimated Italian squad ventures to Moscow with perhaps more hope than conviction.  Crushing Italy on home soil in the 2007 final, Russia looks fully equipped to pummel the visitors into submission once again.  But such a prospect loomed before its quarterfinal against France, when the plucky, vastly outgunned guests showed little courtesy to their hosts.  A heroine of Russia’s historic comeback from a 0-2 deficit, Kuznetsova enters this tie in unimposing form after premature exits in Indian Wells, Miami, and Marbella last week.  Moreover, Saturday opponent Vinci squelched her Beijing title defense last fall.  The two-time major champion often musters her most impassioned, motivated efforts in Fed Cup, however, and she may benefit from sliding into the #2 position behind third-ranked Zvonareva.  Not a participant in February’s miracle, the top Russian has displayed generally solid albeit not overwhelming tennis this year and has thoroughly dominated Vinci, scoring four straight wins during which she lost six or fewer games.  Playing on neither green clay nor red clay in the last two weeks, Zvonareva will arrive in Moscow neither fatigued from recent exertions nor maladjusted to the surface.

Lethal against Italians throughout her career, the world #3 should collect her two singles rubbers, requiring the visitors to defeat Kuznetsova twice in two days.  And Tarpischev also can respond to any stumble from Sveta by substituting Monterrey champion Pavlyuchenkova, just outside the top 20 and a valiant Fed Cup competitor despite her youth.  With this host of options, home-court advantage, and a starless Italy, the somnolent Shamil should enjoy his weekend very much indeed.

Czech Republic at Belgium:  They may not end the first day even in wins, but these two teams enter it even in withdrawals.  Potentially a much more competitive semifinal, the advantage here tilted sharply from the home squad to the visitors when Clijsters announced her withdrawal.  Somewhat softening the blow was the ensuing withdrawal of Safarova, replaced by the less reliable, less powerful Benesova.  Belgium counters the Czech Republic’s left-handed duo with Indian Wells semifinalist Wickmayer, who should relish the opportunity to snatch some of the spotlight from her renowned compatriots.  Resenting her status as the third-best player in her small country, the forehand-thumping firecracker will find her maturity tested as the flagship for her nation’s otherwise puny fleet.  How will Wickmayer respond to the pressure of winning two rubbers (and perhaps three) for the home team?

Her opposing flagship Kvitova has cooled considerably after a torrid, two-title start to 2011, winning just one total match on the North American hard courts.  En route to one of those titles, she outlasted Wickmayer in a third-set tiebreak; three of their five previous meetings, in fact, have reached 5-5 in the third set.  Drama thus may develop in a potentially tie-turning third rubber, but ambushes could occur in any of the weekend’s matches.  While Belgian #2 Flipkens defeated Kvitova a year ago, Benesova has troubled Wickmayer in both of their previous meetings.  Like Tarpischev, though, Czech captain Petr Pala has more ammunition in his arsenal than his opponent.  The pugnacious Zahlavova Strycova not only could thrive in the hostile atmosphere of Charleroi but should forge a doubles partnership with Benesova sturdier than any potential Belgian duo.  After consecutive semifinal losses in 2009 and 2010, the Czech Republic must feel especially determined to break through that barrier this year.

USA at Germany:  The architect of two unexpected finals runs, American captain Mary Joe Fernandez voiced justifiable optimism about a tie less beyond the reach of her squad than their clash with Russia in the same round last year.  Absent from this weekend, however, is the competitive spark of Bethanie Mattek-Sands that proved so critical in fueling that upset.  The United States instead rests its hopes upon two teenagers ranked outside the top 75, although Christina McHale has risen swiftly in recent weeks after victories over Kuznetsova, Kleybanova, and Hantuchova.  Once labeled the future of American tennis, world #81 Oudin has fallen well short of achieving that promise and struggles to cope with the high bounce on clay.  Yet surely the uniformly heavy-hitting German quartet of Petkovic, Goerges, Lisicki, and Groenefeld also would have preferred a hard court over the surface that dulls their power.  Fortunately for all concerned, the Porsche Arena generally has played much faster than a conventional clay court.  The Americans will possess a considerable advantage if they can preserve the tie until the final rubber, when Huber and King would face a German squad without a notable doubles specialist.  Bolstering their chances is Oudin’s Miami success against Goerges, which suggests that the tie could rest upon the shoulders of Fed Cup novice McHale in the fourth rubber.  Don’t discount these overachieving underdogs too easily.

France at Spain:  Frustrated by the historic Russian comeback discussed above, French captain Nicolas Escude publicly blamed then-singles #2 Alize Cornet for the team’s debacle.  One tie later, one wonders how the sensitive Cornet will respond to his criticism as well as her own disappointment.  Unlikely to provide much assistance is the controversy-drenched Rezai, who has wandered through a disastrous start to 2011 after what had appeared a breakthrough in Madrid last year.  Cast into these uncertain waters, Escude wisely selected the sporadically injured Razzano for singles duty despite her lower ranking.  On the other hand, controversy also has encircled the home team, which staged a short-lived Fed Cup boycott in order to extract greater support for women’s tennis from the national federation.  Unlike the French, though, the Spaniards stood united in their bold gambit, displaying a mutual loyalty that could make their seasoned group greater than the sum of its parts.  Designed to disrupt fragile minds, the quirky point construction and dazzling drop shots of Martinez Sanchez should disrupt the rhythm of the visitors.  This trans-Pyrenean encounter therefore might reverse the outcome of the Davis Cup quarterfinal that their nations contested last year.  But first we expect an avalanche of service breaks throughout a weekend populated by shaky servers, ruthless returners, and durable defenders.

Ana Ivanovic - Sony Ericsson Open

Serbia at Slovakia:  Distinctly the most glamorous tie of the weekend, this collision also could prove the most suspenseful.  Fractured by an acerbic fracas last year, the Serbian team has regained at least a semblance of unity as Ivanovic joins Jankovic in a partnership perhaps arranged merely to ensure their Olympic eligibility.  Or could a Davis Cup title last December have inspired Serbia’s feuding stars to bury their grudges and pursue a Fed Cup crown in 2012?  Whether their divisions persist below the surface remains a question crucial to this challenging weekend.  Unglued by the pressure of playing before her compatriots last year, Ivanovic seems more likely to shine in a stadium where expectations lie upon her opponents. Although she has carved out a winning record against Hantuchova, Ana has struggled against both Slovaks before and may require more time to recover from her loss to Clijsters in one of Miami’s most memorable matches.  Meanwhile, Jankovic has split her four clay meetings with Hantuchova and lost to her in Fed Cup last year (during the weekend that provoked the intra-Serbian scuffle).  Pitting soaring prodigy Jovanovski against Cibulkova is the opening rubber, which should tilt towards the diminutive but more clay-savvy Slovak.  If the tie arrives at a decisive doubles rubber, as seems plausible, the home squad should rely upon its superior chemistry to repeat its 2010 victory over Serbia.

Ukraine at Australia:  Without the Bondarenko sisters to shelter them, Ukraine heads to distant climes without a single player in the top 100.  Providing scant solace is the absence of Australian #1 Stosur, who entrusts leadership of the home squad to the eminently capable Groth.  The former Slovak leads the WTA in aces this season while marching into the top 30 for the first time, a status that neither of her Ukrainian opponents ever has approached.  Thriving in the Fed Cup atmosphere, Groth scored a stunning victory over Schiavone in the World Group quarterfinals a round ago and should comfortably capture both of her rubbers.  Beckoning for Cup neophytes Sophie Ferguson and Sally Peers, then, is a chance to stir national pride without incurring significant pressure.

***

We return shortly with thoughts on the Mediterranean playground of Rafael Nadal.

Rafael Nadal - Spain v Czech Republic - Davis Cup World Group Final - Day Two

Embarrassment of riches (BEL vs. ESP): Spearheaded by a reinvigorated Rafa, the Spanish team has marshaled no fewer than three top-10 players against a Belgian team with only one member (Malisse) in the top 100.  So potent is Spain’s firepower, in fact, that world #9 Verdasco initially planned to participate only in doubles before Ferrer’s neck cramp forced captain Alberto Costa to redesign his lineup.  While Nadal will profit from a virtual practice match against Bemelmans, the other Spanish lefty can rediscover his hard-court rhythm after consecutive losses to Raonic when he confronts Malisse in the opening rubber.  That match should prove the most competitive of a brutally one-sided tie, certain to deploy the Davis Cup’s new prohibition against dead fifth rubbers.

Weekend without superstars (SRB vs. IND):  Sensibly sparing his energies with the two mini-majors on the horizon, former Indian Wells and Miami champion Djokovic joined Indian Express Bhupathi and Paes on the sidelines as Serbia opens its title defense.  Stripped of its most notable participants, this tie nevertheless will feature a glimpse of rising Indian star Somdeev Devvarman, a Hewitt-esque player gradually inching further into main draws.  But the home squad should thoroughly control proceedings under the aegis of 2010 Davis Cup Final hero Troicki, Delray Beach finalist Tipsarevic, and aging doubles legend Zimonjic.  Just three months after winning their first title in this competition, Serbia should sweep comfortably and schedule a fascinating second-round meeting with Soderling’s Sweden or Tarpischev’s Russia.  On that occasion, they will need their superstar again.

Clinic on clay (ARG vs. ROM): Across from the Grouchy Gaucho stands the Romanian Spit-Fire in a clash of notably ill-tempered personalities.  An enigma in individual competition, Nalbandian has delivered  several memorable performances while compiling a 20-5 record in Davis Cup singles rubbers (16-2 on clay), but Hanescu could thrive on a surface where he has an 11-3 Davis Cup record.  Beyond the two #1s, the 31st-ranked Chela, the 33rd-ranked Monaco, and even Eduardo Schwank trump any member of the visiting squad in clay-court talent, so the surface and the thunderous Buenos Aires crowd should play a decisive role in this tie.   The plot could thicken if the tie reaches Saturday at 1-1, allowing Romanian doubles specialist Horia Tecau to showcase his craft in a potentially pivotal rubber against an Argentine team comprised entirely of singles stars.  In order for the visitors to prevail, though, Hanescu almost surely must win three rubbers, a task probably too tall for the weak-willed, heavy-legged #59 in surroundings as hostile as the Parque Roca.

Serves against the surface (CHI vs. USA):  We might have favored Chile to spring this upset had its marquee player Fernando Gonzalez played a role.  Instead, that inveterate ball-bruiser will join the legions of passionate Chilean fans in an attempt to propel four players outside the top 100 past Roddick, Isner, and the world’s top doubles team.  On any surface other than clay, this matchup would look no less intimidating than Belgium vs. Spain.  Even on clay, the serves of Roddick and Isner will garner many more free points than the the crumbling, 31-year-old Massu and the punchless Capdeville, famously feckless in Davis Cup.  Gallantly battling Djokovic on clay in Davis Cup last year, Isner projects surprising power from his inside-out forehand on this surface, while Roddick always brings an extra jolt of adrenaline and focus to national team competition.  First-time captain Jim Courier should enjoy a debut that will set up a far more imposing home encounter with Spain a week after Wimbledon.

Spotlight on the supporting actors (CRO vs. GER):  With Karlovic drifting towards retirement, Croatia hopes that Zagreb champion Ivan Dodig can slip smoothly into the role of #2 behind Cilic, edging back towards relevance after a final in Marseille.  But Germany bolsters the mercurial Kohlschreiber by bringing an even more promising #2 to this weekend’s collision, which looks destined to enter Sunday undecided.  A two-time semifinalist already this season, Florian Mayer has defeated Del Potro and Davydenko this year while quelling rising Lithuanian Berankis.  Perhaps more importantly, he ended Cilic’s Zagreb defense in February with a startlingly routine victory.  In addition to the Zagreb title, Dodig distinguished himself by winning the only set that Djokovic lost at the Australian Open, and the long-time journeyman has won at least one match at every tournament that he has played this year.  If he duels with Mayer in a decisive fifth rubber, scintillating Davis Cup drama could ensue.

Tomas Berdych - 2011 Australian Open - Day 5

Veterans and novices (CZE vs. KAZ):  While Davis Cup stalwart Stepanek may have Czeched out on this weekend’s action, but Berdych still towers over not only his teammates but their Kazakh opponents.  Squandering a 2-1 lead against Serbia in last year’s semifinals, the Czech Republic contested the Davis Cup final in 2009 and will benefit from a vast advantage in experience over a nation elevated to the World Group for the first time.  In the doubles, Berdych may partner doubles specialist Dlouhy in a Saturday rubber where the home squad should trump the singles-only visitors.  But captain Jaroslav Navratil may decide to reserve his ace for a fourth rubber against Golubev, who nearly defeated Tomas in Washington last summer.  The Kazakh #1 has started 2011 in miserable form, however, dropping four straight matches to start the season and earning his only victory in five tournaments courtesy of a Baghdatis retirement.  Unless he can reverse that momentum  immediately, Kazakhstan won’t play again until September.

One against many (SWE vs. RUS, AUS vs. FRA):  Eyeing his overmatched prey with relish, Soderling should feast upon a Russian team bereft of Davydenko, Youzhny, or any player in the top 75.  The Swede charges into the weekend with three titles in his last four tournaments and 17 victories in his 18 matches this season.  Although legendary strategist Shamil Tarpischev lacks a superstar to counterbalance the world #4, he has marshaled four veterans who have ample expertise in both singles and doubles, thus providing him with a variety of options to manipulate in his characteristically unpredictable style.  Almost certainly doomed in Soderling’s two singles rubbers, Russia conceivably could win the other three.  Behind Soderling stand only the doubles specialists  Aspelin and Lindstedt as well as the quasi-retired Joachim Johansson, summoned for probably perfunctory singles duty.  Johansson has won only one Davis Cup match in his career and none since 2005, while he has played only three total matches since the start of 2010.  At the core of the weekend thus lies the doubles rubber.  A combined 3-9 in Davis Cup doubles, the scheduled duo of Kunitsyn and Tursunov did win their only Cup collaboration against the formidable Argentine pairing of Canas and Nalbandian on Buenos Aires clay.  Curiously, their opponents also have underperformed in the Cup despite winning a silver medal at the 2008 Olympics.

A less striking version of the same storyline could unfold inside an Austrian aircraft hangar, where world #10 Jurgen Melzer seeks to soar above a French team crippled by injuries to its leading stars.  Among the questions surrounding the 2010 Davis Cup finalists is the tension between captain Guy Forget and singles #1 Gilles Simon, a dynamic absent in the avuncular Tarpischev’s squad.  Also, how will Llodra recover from the disappointment of losing the decisive rubber in last year’s final, and how will Jeremy Chardy respond to the pressure of his first meaningful match in Davis Cup, contested before a hostile crowd?  On the other hand, Melzer has looked vulnerable while accumulating a 5-3 record this year, and his supporting cast features no player more imposing than the 34-year-old, 206th-ranked Stefan Koubek.  (One might debate whether Koubek or Johansson will pose a more credible challenge.)  If the visitors can solve their internal differences, they can rely upon a sturdier doubles pairing in Benneteau and Llodra.  Outside that flamboyant duo, though, almost nothing looks certain in a tie that plausibly could come down to a bizarre final rubber between Koubek and Chardy or just as plausibly end in a resounding sweep—by either side.

***

We return in a few days to open our coverage of Indian Wells!

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

Conventionally considered a second-tier competition populated by mid-level players, the Davis Cup also can be perceived as a theater where those outside the ATP elite can seize a rare chance for immortality.  Contrasting with most tournaments in this individual sport, the raucous atmosphere of the national team competition often christens unexpected heroes.  Studded with several marquee attractions, though, will the quarterfinals perpetuate or diverge from this pattern?

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France vs. Spain:  Surely thrilled not to see the Wizard of Wimbledon and Ruler of Roland Garros (aka Nadal), the French will be disappointed to contest this tie without the services of fast-court specialist Tsonga.  Likely to rise to the occasion is Gael Monfils, who delighted his compatriots last year by reaching the final of the Paris Indoors.  Yet one never knows precisely what to expect from the mercurial “La Monf,” who exited prematurely at the last two majors while his first-rubber opponent, David Ferrer, excelled even on his worst surface.  Surging within a set of the Wimbledon quarterfinals, the second Spanish singles player has thrived in Davis Cup and can be expected to deliver as sturdy an effort as possible despite the fast indoor court.  This first rubber must be claimed by the home nation, for the visitors will be heavily favored to win the Verdasco-Llodra clash that follows it.  Although the left-handed Llodra did claim the Eastbourne title before testing Roddick at Wimbledon, Fernando will relish the surface speed and enjoys a far more imposing arsenal of weapons than his opponent.

Somewhat unusually in Davis Cup, the doubles match will oppose two teams who often compete together at ATP events (Benneteau/Llodra vs. Verdasco/Lopez) , so one should expect a hotly contested match at the pivot point of the weekend.  If France can secure the 2-1 lead, the hosts will head into the reverse singles with a vital boost of confidence, but Spain’s greater experience in crucial Davis Cup ties must provide them with a slight edge.  One of the key factors in the tie will be Verdasco’s ability to win three best-of-five matches in three days (albeit one in doubles), a feat that he nearly performed last year against Germany.  Potentially tasked with closing out the tie against Monfils in the fourth rubber, the highest-ranked Spaniard outside Nadal generally responds with aplomb to the demands of Davis Cup.  In the 2008 final, he scored the clinching victory over Argentina’s Jose Acasuso after a poorly played but suspenseful five-setter.  Since Ferrer will struggle to win either of his singles rubbers, we wouldn’t be surprised to see Spanish captain Albert Costa substitute the superior fast-court player Almagro for him in the fifth rubber should it prove decisive.  It probably won’t, for the Spanish team’s far superior teamwork and shared experience should prevail over their flaky trans-Pyrenean rivals.  Spain, 70-30.

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Serbia vs. Croatia:  As volatile as this intra-Balkans rivalry might be at a national level, all of the competition’s participants have developed personal friendships that should defuse the hostility bubbling around them.  Fresh (or not fresh) from a Wimbledon semifinal run, Djokovic enters the weekend in his best form of the season, whereas his first-rubber foe Ljubicic has fallen well short of his Indian Wells success thereafter, losing his Wimbledon opener to an anonymous Pole.  The Croatian veteran won their last meeting during that magical Indian Wells surge, though, so recent history might play a factor; otherwise, Djokovic has dominated their collisions.  During the Davis Cup first round in Belgrade, the Serb embraced this competition’s combative atmosphere and played forceful tennis against American giants Querrey and Isner.  After he scores the first point of Serbia, Croatia’s top singles player Marin Cilic should even the tie despite his recently underwhelming form.  An easily disheartened, mentally fragile competitor, his opponent Victor Troicki lacks the emotional poise to vanquish a distinctly superior foe before a hostile crowd.  Sometimes a little fragile himself, Cilic recorded two sturdy wins in the quarterfinals at home last year, when Croatia hosted the United States.

In the unlikely event that Serbia leads 2-0 after the first day, expect Croatian captain Goran Prpic to substitute Ljubicic and Cilic in the doubles, where Serbia’s doubles star Nenad Zimonjic provides the visitors with a clear advantage.  If Prpic sticks with Dodig and Veic, his team likely will be forced to win both of the reverse singles on Sunday, an imposing but not impossible challenge.  Serbia will want to finish the job immediately in the fourth rubber, a marquee clash between Djokovic and Cilic.  Although the budding Croat sternly tested the world #2 at the 2008 US Open, the Djoker has dominated their fledgling rivalry by winning all four meetings and nine of ten total sets.  If the tie comes down to a fifth rubber, Ljubicic would be distinctly favored over Troicki on a fast indoor court, so Serbian captain Bogdan Obradovic might consider substituting Tipsarevic, a sturdier competitor and superior server despite his lower ranking.  The efforts of Djokovic and Zimonjic should render such speculation unnecessary, however.  Serbia, 60-40.

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Russia vs. Argentina:  In this tie that might be labeled “Russia vs. Nalbandian,” the Argentine will be expected to win all three rubbers in order to propel his nation into the semifinals.  Relishing heroic roles, he skipped Wimbledon in order to prepare for this weekend, which opens with a stunning matchup against Davydenko, who also recently returned from injury.  Although their head-to-head is nearly even, Nalbandian has won three of their four non-clay meetings as well as two of their three Davis Cup clashes.  Having developed a highly similar style predicated upon early ball-striking and audacious angles, these bold shotmakers should produce scintillating tennis if both can shed the rust from their prolonged absences.  The second rubber should swing definitively towards the hosts, for Leonardo Mayer displays a far less complete game than Mikhail Youzhny, who often has shone in team competition. 

Far more adept in singles than doubles, Russia probably will surrender the doubles to Nalbandian and Horacio Zeballos while pinning their hopes upon the reverse singles.  If Nalbandian has defeated Davydenko at that stage, one should expect a decisive fifth rubber between the Argentine and Youzhny.  But if Davydenko starts the weekend with a victory, he should finish the task in the fourth rubber against Mayer.  Even supposing that Nalbandian does win the first rubber and the doubles, he would enter the reverse singles a little weary considering his lack of match play over the last few months.  Although he might deplete Youzhny’s limited reserves of patience and extend their encounter to a thrilling conclusion, he might struggle to win three sets from the versatile Russian.  Although Nalbandian played the hero expertly in the first round against Sweden, there is significantly more pressure on his shoulders when Argentina faces this much more formidable foe.  Russia, 60-40.

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Chile vs. Czech Republic:  Who are these people, and what did they do with Gonzalez, Berdych, and Stepanek?  While Fernando and Radek battle injuries, Tomas understandably proved reluctant to test his footing on red clay during the transition from grass to hard courts.  During the Czech Republic’s slightly surprising run to the 2009 Davis Cup final, Berdych and Stepanek played virtually every rubber including the doubles, which suggests that Czech captain Jaroslav Navratil possesses hardly any other weapons at all.  None of the visiting names here ring a bell except doubles specialist Lukas Dlouhy, so the home nation will be favored to prevail in all four singles matches, contested on their favorite surface and before a partisan crowd.  Capturing the 2004 Olympic gold medal for Chile, Nicolas Massu has competed impressively at the national level even as his ATP results have sagged.  Once a notorious under-performer in Davis Cup, Paul Capdeville has shown signs of dispelling that reputation with a few key recent wins.  If the Czechs can somehow find a way to survive this round, of course, they could catapult directly back into contention with Berdych’s return for the semifinals against Serbia or Croatia.  Therefore, a literally gritty performance by its B-team could reap greater rewards than simply survival into the next round.  But it’s difficult to see the Czech journeymen winning three rubbers from the Chilean veterans on a surface barely familiar to them, thousands of miles from home.  Chile, 80-20.

***

Over the weekend, we’ll compile the first of next week’s two player profiles, which will feature Wozniacki and Gulbis.  They’ll follow the trademark five-strength, five-weakness format with which we have prospered thus far.

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Despite the occasional fiery forehand, Ana’s second-round performance largely justified the desolate expression above.  At the root of her downfall once again lay her serve, which always has been a reliable barometer for the state of her game and confidence.  Players who rely less heavily on the shot can surmount poor serving days, but Ivanovic can’t afford to start the majority of points in neutral or defensive mode, the situation in which she found herself for most of the match against an inspired Kleybanova.  One of Ana’s finest moments of the day, however, came during her post-match press conference, when she was asked about the controversy that arose when Jankovic bitingly imitated her signature fistpump following their match in Madrid.  Stating in a crisp and well-articulated tone that “sports don’t build character; they show [character],” Ivanovic responded to her compatriot’s tasteless gesture with a resolute display of backbone—important in individual competition—without descending into petty vindictiveness.  She kept her words as impersonal as possible, not once mentioning Jankovic’s name.  We thought that the entire fistpump fracas would dwindle away rather quickly, but instead it has meandered on and on…and on, much like Fognini-Monfils.  Here’s a brief capsule of our thoughts on it, after which we will lay the issue to rest.

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Although Jankovic mishandled the situation by bringing it so crudely into the open, it’s true that Ivanovic often pumps her fist at inappropriate moments.  We differ from the commonly expressed perspective according to which only winners should elicit fistpumps; often, a player’s ball-retrieving skills force an opponent into hitting several extra shots…which they miss.  In those cases, a player’s brilliant defense wins them the point just as if they had struck a winner, so they deserve to relish the moment.  The boundary is somewhat subjective between what results from superb defense (fistpump appropriate) and what results from an opponent’s outright ineptitude (fistpump inappropriate), but Ana has crossed that line consistently.  During the 2007 Luxembourg final against Hantuchova, we first observed Ivanovic’s tendency to react in this way when the Slovak committed unforced errors from neutral positions early in rallies; this habit thus stems from long before Ana’s meteoric fall and cannot be explained by anxiety over returning to the top.  As much as we support Ivanovic and hope that she rises again, her excessive fist-pumping constitutes unsportsmanlike behavior and reflects poorly upon her, despite the fact that it’s probably unintentional.  We doubt that she’ll abandon such a deeply ingrained habit at this stage in her career, of course, and we should note that she’s far from the only offender (nor is Jankovic her only victim).  The prevalence of an unfortunate practice doesn’t inherently exonerate each individual who indulges in it, however.  As for Jankovic, this self-initiated distraction merely illustrates her continued immaturity, which has hampered her efforts to realize her vast potential.  Surely an opponent’s gestures don’t influence JJ’s ability to win a match, and a truly committed competitor shouldn’t care what happens across the net.  If Jelena fails to win a Slam, there’s nobody (including Henin) whom she should blame more than herself.  Now that the Serbs have exchanged salvos, though, here’s hoping that they can take a deep breath and progress from this sorry squabble, as we do now with the preview of a thrilling Day 6 menu.

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Cibulkova (26) vs. Venus (2) (Chatrier, 2nd match; 3rd including Henin completion):  Although a ten-inch height difference separates these competitors, their third-round meeting might be a little less routine than it appears. Many fans might not remember that the diminutive Slovak comfortably defeated the lanky American in their only previous collision (Doha 2008).  A surprise semifinalist here last year, Cibulkova profited from a section that had been vacated by the untimely demise of none other than…Venus.  Renowned for explosive movement and superb court coverage, she punches well above her size and could lure the second seed into unforced errors if her groundstrokes penetrate the court with adequate depth.  The contrast in their serves, however, should wield a significant impact even on this least serve-friendly surface.  Venus needs to move forward whenever possible in order to take time away from Cibulkova; if she can, she’ll be able to shorten the rallies and control the tempo of the match.

Rezai (15) vs. Petrova (19) (Chatrier, 4th match; 5th including completion):  The most intriguing WTA contest of the day represents the first serious test for Rezai in the bid to justify her new position among the game’s elite.  Defeating a pair of unheralded foes in her first two rounds, the Iranian-turned-Frenchwoman takes aim at Petrova, who ousted her rather comfortably at Roland Garros two years ago.  While the Russian didn’t claim a title during the preliminary events, she reached the quarterfinals in Rome before ambushing Serena en route to another quarterfinal in Madrid.  Whereas Rezai prefers to trade missiles from the baseline, Nadia has developed an all-court game in which her groundstrokes complement occasional forays to the net.  A former French Open semifinalist, Petrova adapts better to clay than most of her compatriots despite her infamously suspect mentality.  That flaw may be exposed by what surely will be a rabid French crowd on Chatrier tomorrow evening…or will the vociferous support unveil hitherto hidden cracks in Rezai’s veneer?  She’ll feel the expectations of a nation on her shoulders more firmly than ever before.

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Murray (4) vs. Baghdatis (25) (Lenglen, 3rd match; 4th including Bartoli completion):  Facing Gasquet on his least favorite surface before a partisan crowd, Murray shook his head in disgust, barked at his box, missed first serve after first serve, but somehow stayed around just long enough to watch the Frenchman fold.  A four-set win over Chela in the next round doesn’t greatly impress because he thoroughly throttled the Argentine just two weeks ago in Madrid.  Nevertheless, the Scot now confronts someone who relishes the clay as little as he does in the person of former Australian Open finalist and recent Federer nemesis Marcos Baghdatis.  Like Murray, the Cypriot fell to Ferrer in Madrid, yet (unlike Murray) he acquitted himself convincingly before finally succumbing deep in the third set.  The fourth seed’s motivation may not be running high at the moment with Wimbledon looming on the horizon; on the other hand, it’s almost impossible to ascertain the level of motivation and commitment that Baghdatis will bring to any given match.  Watch the battle of two-handed backhands as the match unfolds.  While Murray generally sacrifices some pace in exchange for more topspin (and thus more margin), the Cypriot connects with low-flying bullets that somehow repeatedly clear the net by centimeters when he’s at his best.

Dulgheru (31) vs. Wozniacki (3) (Court 1, 3rd match):  After contemplating withdrawal from Roland Garros, Wozniacki charged through her first two rounds with a Soderling-like efficiency that saw her drop just seven games in four sets.  Too hampered by an ankle injury to join the principal title contenders here, she still could reach the quarters or even a semi as a consequence of a relatively benign draw.  Two-time Warsaw champion Alexandra Dulgheru could pose an engaging challenge to that quest, however, for the Romanian preceded her unexpected title defense with wins over Safina in Rome and Dementieva in Madrid.  Although neither of Russian is exactly scalding at the moment, those triumphs demonstrated Dulgheru’s mental ability to defeat marquee players when they’re not at their highest level.  It’s hard to imagine that Wozniacki will reach her highest level, so an opportunity might arise for the Romanian.  On the other hand, she won’t be fresh after her Polish exertions last week and might lack the energy to cope with the prolonged rallies into which she’ll be dragged.

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Kuznetsova (6) vs. Kirilenko (30) (Court 1, 4th match):  Dodging not one but four bullets against the nerve-ridden Petkovic, Kuznetsova survived only to confront the compatriot who banished her from Rome just weeks ago.  Typically well-suited to clay, Kirilenko’s solid defense game and versatile shot repertoire will force Kuznetsova to harness her aggression, waiting patiently for opportunities but striking immediately when they arise.  As in Rome, the match lies in the hands of the defending champion, but she has proven reluctant to seize the initiative in such situations this year.  We’re curious to observe whether she elevates her game in the wake of her previous eleventh-hour escape, which could have lifted some pressure from Sveta’s mind.  After her remarkable comeback, has her confidence returned and expelled the fear of losing from her overactive mind?  When focused and composed, Kuznetsova is as dangerous as anyone on clay.

Montanes (29) vs. Soderling (5) (Court 2, 3rd match; 4th including Sharapova completion):  A thunderous beginning to the Swede’s Roland Garros campaign has obscured his mediocre results during the rest of the clay season.  Shelling a French wildcard and the clay-averse Taylor Dent, Soderling now faces the much more formidable assignment of Albert Montanes, a clay specialist who defended his Estoril title after defeating Federer there.  The Spaniard’s talent at tirelessly soaking up pace from deep behind the baseline tests any player’s patience and consistency, two virtues that last year’s finalist doesn’t possess in especially strong supply.  Far more imposing on serve than Montanes, however, Soderling needs to attack relentlessly and stay positive despite the occasional misfire.  If he allows himself to be lured into neutral rallies, he could find himself in the role of Monfils opposite Montanes’ impersonation of Fognini.

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Isner (17) vs. Berdych (15) (Court 6, 3rd match):  Attending this match?  You might want to wear a helmet.  Hammering 38 aces during a four-set, three-tiebreak victory over Chiudinelli, Isner intersects with the almost equally imposing serve of Tomas Berdych.  The toast of Miami with wins over Federer, Verdasco, and Soderling, the Czech has found his momentum slowed by nagging injuries over the last several weeks, during which he lost tense three-setters to clay artists Verdasco and Wawrinka.  A valuable opportunity awaits the winner of this match, who could profit from a toothless quarter to create some headlines and elevate their rankings.  Expect swift service holds, very few backhands, very little clay-court tennis, and more tiebreaks.  While Berdych can execute a greater range of shots than Isner, the American is mentally stronger and perhaps a little hungrier at this juncture.

Briefly noted:  A victim of rising Dutchman Thiemo de Bakker in the 500-level Barcelona tournament, Tsonga seeks revenge in front of a compatriot crowd that now must consider the leading male contender after Monfils’ premature exit.  If anyone can absorb the pressure, though, it’s the carefree Tsonga.  To be honest, we didn’t expect that either Youzhny or Troicki would reach the third round on their least favorite surface, but they’ve done so with aplomb and should showcase some crisp backhand-to-backhand rallies when they collide.  Scoring an impressively commanding upset over Safarova, Slovenian teenager Polona Hercog eyes a clash with Pennetta, who predictably overwhelmed Vinci but has struggled this year with the younger generation.  Lastly, the two gritty veterans Schiavone and Li duel in a contest between the crafty versatility of the Italian and the fearless shotmaking of the Chinese., who came within two games of the quarterfinals here last year.

***

You may want to refer back to the Day 5 preview for some of the matches that never took the court on Thursday, including Nishikori-Djokovic or Seppi-Kohlschreiber.  Let’s hope that the rain irrigates the grasses of Wimbledon while the clay stays as dry as the Sahara! 🙂

Rarely does Djokovic whisper as he does here to his charming compatriot and Hopman Cup doubles partner, Jelena Jankovic.  Generally, the ATP’s most engaging superstar proclaims his sentiments to the world in unambiguous fashion.  Typical of this trait was the bravado with which he addressed his Friday confrontation againt Verdasco, who inflicted Djokovic’s worst defeat as a top-10 player two weeks ago in Monte Carlo.  “I’ve played a lot of matches against him on different surfaces and I’ve won most of them,” trumpeted the Serb, who then announced that the aforemented match “wasn’t a real picture of my game.”  Having talked the talk, can he walk the walk?  His comments both will motivate him and place more pressure upon himself, thus increasing the intrigue in this first quarterfinal. 

Considering the rather lopsided lineups created by the upsets in Rome and Stuttgart, we’ve decided to create our own quarterfinal lineup comprised of two matches from each tournament.  From Rome, we’re taking Tsonga-Ferrer and Verdasco-Djokovic, jettisoning the bizarre Gulbis-Lopez nightcap and the foregone conclusion of Nadal-Wawrinka.   (As we mentioned on Twitter earlier, we might see an all-Spanish semifinal lineup at the Foro Italico on Saturday.)  From Stuttgart, we’re previewing Li-Stosur and Henin-Jankovic, omitting Safarova-Lapushchenkova and Peer-Safina.  Since all four of our selected matches should be highly competitive, we’ll construct the argument for why one player should win and then devise a counterargument for why the other player might win.  Therefore, you’ll be able to draw your own conclusions from the information provided!

Tsonga (7) vs. Ferrer (13):

Why Ferrer should win:  Clay is the surface that most favors substance over style.  Continuing his inspired play from Miami, Ferrer reached the semifinals in Monte Carlo and Barcelona, where he lost to the eventual champions on both occasions; strikingly, he leads all ATP players in clay-court wins this season, including the February events in South America.  Although Murray’s struggles have been well-documented, Ferrer still impressed us on Thursday with his routine victory over the fourth seed.  By contrast, Tsonga made little impact in either of the last two tournaments, falling to Ferrero and (mystifyingly) to De Bakker.  In addition to his distinct advantage on the surface, Ferrer possesses a style ideally equipped to exploit the Frenchman’s sporadic inconsistencies.  Numberless are the ATP shotmakers whom he has slowly stymied with his death-by-paper-cut tactics of bulletproof defense and crafty counterpunching.  Even when Tsonga thinks that he’s hit an outright winner, he’ll need to hit one more…and one more…

Why Tsonga might win:  This match is their first meeting, and Ferrer may need to adjust to Tsonga’s distinctive aggression before settling into the match.  If the acrobatic Frenchman can convert some early opportunities, Ferrer occasionally has faded when he falls behind by a significant margin.  A reliable barometer for his overall confidence, his tw0-handed backhand has been firing this week, and his often unreliable return game has been relatively solid.  Also, the surface may not be quite so firmly allied with the Spaniard as one would suppose.  Among others who prioritize power over consistency, Gulbis, Ljubicic, and Lopez have fared surprisingly well this week, suggesting that the clay may be playing a little faster than usual (but not so fast as the Porsche-speed grit in Stuttgart).

Verdasco (6) vs. Djokovic (2):

Why Djokovic should win:  The Serb stated his own case rather well in the comments quoted above, but we’ll amplify them.  Prior to the Monte Carlo catastrophe, he had defeated the Spaniard on five consecutive occasions, including two meetings on clay.  Absent from Barcelona, he entered Rome far fresher than Verdasco, who won the title in that Mediterranean city and looked somewhat weary against Bolelli earlier this week.  Spared the burden of facing Isner, Djokovic crushed Chardy before delivering a sturdy, focused performance against the potentially tricky Bellucci.  Either way, the second seed largely controls the outcome of the match.  If the confident, patient Novak of the 2009 clay season shows up tomorrow, he’ll win; if the nervous, nauseous-looking Novak of the Monte Carlo semifinal shows up, he’ll almost certainly lose.  We think that the loss to Verdasco a fortnight ago stung a little more than he was willing to admit, judging from his pugnacious statements.  He sounds motivated to avenge that embarrassment and has showcased the best tennis of his career when he has been most motivated.

Why Verdasco might win:  Although he may have lost those five straight clashes with Djokovic, the Spanish #2 threatened him in four of them and will know that openings will emerge.  Outside Nadal, he’s been distinctly the best player of the clay season so far, scoring wins over Berdych, Gulbis, Ferrer, and Soderling as well as Djokovic.  Only an elite player at the height of his powers could overcome the diverse playing styles of those opponents in such a short period.   Supporting claims of a strengthened mentality, Verdasco has performed with aplomb at crucial moments over the past few weeks.  Shot for shot, he can equal Djokovic’s power and currently possesses more confidence in his game than does the Serb, who has long been tampering with his service motion.  If he can seize the momentum early, Novak might lose self-belief and wander out of focus…and out of the tournament.

Li vs. Stosur (7):

Why Stosur should win:  Simply put, she’s been doing a lot of winning lately, whether on the green clay of Charleston or for the Australian national team in Fed Cup.  One might imagine that her serve-oriented game would not translate well to clay, but in fact she ignited her breakthrough last year by reaching the French Open semifinal; some analysts believe that her high-kicking second serve suits this surface better than the others.  Far from a conventional clay court, the Stuttgart surface has been playing much like the indoor hard court formerly chosen by the tournament.  (Did they just paint it red and call it clay?)  Consequently, Stosur should be able to hold serve more comfortably than Li, which in turn should allow her to take chances and be aggressive in her return games–the pattern that has succeeded so regularly for her during this recent winning streak. 

Why Li might win:  Rather like Verdasco, Stosur may be rather fatigued after winning her most recent tournament and a trip to Ukraine for the Fed Cup playoff.  Hinting at a slight decline in her form, she struggled early against the respectably but not eye-poppingly talented Alexandra Dulgheru.  More importantly, Li showcases a far better backhand than does the Australian and will win most of the backhand-to-backhand exchanges.  Unless Stosur can take control of the points early and run around her backhand to hit swarms of forehands, she’ll be in trouble against the symmetrical groundstroke game of the Chinese star.  When Li is at her best, moreover, she can topple anyone on any surface; her straight-sets win over defending champion Kuznetsova recalled the form with which she reached the semifinals in Melbourne.

Henin (W) vs. Jankovic (4)

Why Henin should win:  Thoroughly dominant on the clay during her “first career,” the four-time French Open champion holds a 9-0 career record against Jankovic.  Mentally more tenacious than Jelena, Justine has rallied from a one-set deficit against her three times, so she’ll remain confident if any early adversity should arise.  They played an astounding seven times in the single season of 2007 , including three times on clay, and Henin has won the last ten sets.  (Dept. of Odd Statistics:  she was responsible for over a quarter of Jankovic’s total losses that year.)  In her comeback so far, she has suffered only one loss to a non-Slam champion (Dulko at Indian Wells) while reaching at least the semis in three of four tournaments.  Although Jankovic has lost just eight games during her first four sets this week, she is struggling with a left wrist injury that undermines her principal weapon; just as the Belgian  owns the most beautiful one-hander in the WTA, the Serb owns one of the loveliest two-handers. 

Why Jankovic might win:  The smiling Serb may be coping with a wrist injury, but Henin will need to overcome a broken finger, albeit on her left and much less significant hand.  As one would expect from an offensive-oriented player early in a comeback, she has struggled with extended stretches of erratic play when her shot-making radar temporarily loses its range.  Jankovic’s consistency will not let the Belgian easily escape from donated points and games.  While Henin has struggled with her modified service motion thus far, the Serb’s delivery has improved since the seven reverses of 2007.  She’ll never have a better chance to break the Curse of Carlos, before Henin fully hones the ultra-aggressive style with which she has entered her “second career.”

After losing to Henin for the ninth time, Jankovic quipped that no player ever vanquishes her ten times in a row.  When the petite Belgian retired in May 2008, the Serb looked safe from the threat of proving her words.  Will she prove them now? 

***

Having started and ended our text with the Serbs, we’ll start and end the article with images of them as well.  Djokovic finds himself in a rather enviable position here…

…and in an even more enviable position here…

…and in a less comfortable but still enviable position here:

Enjoy the quarterfinals!

One might have thought that Henin’s broken finger would have given Team Estonia some hope, for they’ll be confronting a Belgian team without the seven-time Grand Slam champion as its #2 singles player.  But 13th-ranked Yanina Wickmayer (pictured above) represents the insurance policy of anyone’s dreams; the Belgian cup runneth over indeed.  Although that tie is virtually a foregone conclusion, some of the others are not; we’ll preview the World Group semifinal and World Group playoff ties straight ahead:

USA-Russia:  One might imagine that Russia would prevail comfortably in the absence of both Williams sisters, but the crafty  Shamil Tarpischev enters the weekend with a sadly depleted squad of Dementieva, Makarova, and Kudryavtseva.  Since Dementieva is the only top-30 player on either team, one can expect her to win both of her matches.  (Despite Oudin’s win over her at the US Open last year, Dementieva reversed that upset at the Paris Indoors this February and boasts an outstanding 20-5 record in Fed Cup, including wins over Clijsters and Mauresmo.)  Therefore, Team USA’s task will be to win the remaining three matches, which is a less imposing task than it sounds on paper.  Oudin should be able to defeat Kudryavtseva on Saturday, and the Americans have a distinct advantage in the doubles with world #1 Liezel Huber, so the decisive moment in this tie becomes the fourth singles rubber.  This match is scheduled to pit Mattek against Kudryavtseva, offering both of these relatively anonymous players a rare opportunity to play the heroine.  It’s almost impossible to discern how such a match would develop, and one might favor the veteran with the home-court advantage over the emotionally volatile Fed Cup novice.  On the other hand, Tarpischev has an uncanny knack for extracting excellence from unexpected sources at crucial moments.  Pick:  Russia, 60-40.

Italy-Czech Republic:  Like the Americans, the Italians possess the comfort blanket of a nearly guaranteed doubles win in the fifth rubber should they need it; the team of Errani and Vinci has lost a total of zero Fed Cup matches.  But it’s unlikely that the defending champions will need it, for they possess almost every imaginable advantage over the visitors, from the surface to mental strength to experience to recent form.  Regrouping from a dismal North American campaign, Pennetta won the Marbella title two weeks ago, while Schiavone emphatically seized her third career title in Barcelona last weekend.  Dangerous but streaky shotmakers, neither Safarova nor Hradecka can maintain the consistency necessary to outlast the tenacious Italians on clay in front of a raucous Roman audience.  If all players perform to their potential, the Italian team should win the first three rubbers rather routinely and book their tickets to either the U.S. or Russia for the November final.  Pick:  Italy, 80-20.

Belgium-Estonia In order to reach Belgium, the Estonian team took a ferry to Stockholm before driving the remaining distance (nearly 1,000 miles) through Sweden, Denmark, and Germany.  Unless Henin’s broken finger proves contagious, Kanepi & Co. will retrace their steps empty-handed.  Pick:  Belgium, 90-10.

Ukraine-Australia:  Fresh off her the biggest title of her career in Charleston, Stosur aims to collect all three wins that Australia will need to reclaim a position in the World Group.  Expect her to partner Stubbs in the doubles if necessary, but the comeback artist Alicia Molik can render that match irrelevant with a win over Koryttseva in the reverse singles.  With K-Bond absent and A-Bond slumping, the Ukrainians have few weapons that can threaten the Aussies.  Pick:  Australia, 75-25.

Germany-France:  This matchup might be the least predictable and most compelling (in a wacky way) among all of the weekend’s ties.  A Lisicki-less Germany seeks leadership from Petkovic–who should rise to the occasion–yet also needs support from Tatiana Malek and Julia Goerges–who might not.  We’re still trying to deduce why the Germans chose clay for the surface, which will blunt Petkovic’s blows without severely hindering the opposition.  Across the net stands Fed Cup enigma France, which generally displays the level of sturdiness associated with a ripe Camembert.  Behind a slumping, eccentric firecracker making her Fed Cup debut (Rezai), captain Nicolas Escude has mustered a player who has lost all eight of her Fed Cup matches (Cornet) and a player who has fallen in the qualifying rounds of five tournaments already this year (Pauline Parmentier).  Julie Coin actually might be the emotional anchor of this bateau.  A recipe for intrigue?  Definitely.  A recipe for victory?  Perhaps…or perhaps not.  Pick:  [Insert your country of choice here]. (In other words, we simply don’t know.)

Serbia-Slovakia:  Which absentee will be more sorely missed, Slovakia’s Cibulkova (groin injury) or Serbia’s Ivanovic, who wisely chose not to revisit the scene of February’s humiliation against Russia?  Although Cibulkova has been the better player of the two, the visitors enjoy substantially more depth and call upon the still-raw but certainly capable Magdalena Rybarikova., whereas the home team must lean almost entirely upon Jankovic to secure three wins.  Hampered by a sore wrist, the Indian Wells champion recently lost in Charleston to Hantuchova, whom she’ll encounter again in Belgrade.  Against Russia, she won both of her singles matches but proved unable to compensate for a lackluster partner (sorry, Ana!) in the doubles.  Even if the wrist pain allows her to participate, it’s reasonable to suspect that the same scenario might unfold here.  Pick: Slovakia, 65-35.

***

We’ll close this preview with a pair of relatively modest suggestions that might improve this sagging team competition for both spectators and participants.  First, reschedule the doubles match to the third rubber, as in Davis Cup; its current position as the final rubber renders it either utterly irrelevant (when the four singles are not split) or excessively important (all the eggs are in its basket).  By contrast, the third position would assure it neither too little nor too much significance as a potential swing match in the center of the weekend but not at its climax.  The second suggestion also stands for Davis Cup, which shares with Fed Cup a draw system that positions the two #1s in the first reverse singles and the two #2s in the second reverse singles.  Does it seem logical that the closest ties should be decided by the second-in-commands on both teams?  (This structure may in part be responsible for the bizarre sequences of events that so often define both competitions.)  If you’re an unbiased spectator looking for drama, would you want to see a 2-2 deadlock climax with Jovanovski-Rybarikova…or with Jankovic-Hantuchova?  If you’re a team captain or a national tennis federation representative, would you want Alla Kudryavtseva holding your flag with everything on the line…or Elena Dementieva? 

Or, better yet, of course…

Does anyone remember whom Maria defeated in her Fed Cup debut?  Hint:  she’s retired now.

We’ll be back shortly with an ATP Rome preview, unless everyone of consequence follows the example of Del Potro, Davydenko, Roddick, and Gonzalez.  The city has a splashy new stadium, but will anyone come play in it?  At any rate, we’ll keep your cup filled with tennis over the next few days!  🙂

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