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Just days removed from the US Open’s climax, several of its notable performers descend upon Europe for a weekend of intriguing Davis Cup semifinals, saturated with intense personalities and stylistic variety.  We discuss the key players and matchups in the two ties, unfolding the most plausible narratives that might unfold in Lyon and Belgrade:

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Argentina at France:

Without lanky superstar Del Potro for its entire 2010 campaign, the Argentine team may in fact be stronger in his absence, which cloaks the temperamental Nalbandian in the hero’s mantle.  Relishing this role, the infamously “grouchy gaucho” splendidly rose to the occasion during the Davis Cup quarterfinals in Russia, when he defeated Davydenko and Youzhny in a weekend that signaled his summer resurgence.  Buttressed by the momentum of his recent exploits on the American hard courts, the former Wimbledon finalist also may suffer from fatigue after the US Open.  Although captain Tito Vazquez will want to conserve Nalbandian’s energy for the singles, he will be tempted to enlist his team’s only hard-court threat for doubles if the tie stays tense; thus, a difficult choice may loom on Saturday.  Cast as supporting actors, the trio of Monaco, Schwank, and Zeballos has accumulated respectable clay-court credentials but should struggle against the French shotmakers on the fast, indoor surface.

Not usually celebrated for teamwork and Davis Cup camaraderie, les bleus countered their reputation during their stunning whitewash of defending champion Spain in the quarterfinals, to which almost the entire squad contributed.  Even Gilles Simon, who didn’t play a live rubber that weekend, enthusiastically supported his compatriots and (tastefully) exhorted the spectators on their behalf.  In the often vital doubles rubber, France enjoys a significant edge with former Wimbledon titlists Clement and Llodra.  Yet captain Guy Forget has gambled by asking Llodra to play three rubbers, including the potentially decisive fifth rubber against Nalbandian.  If Argentina remains in contention until that stage, they would be favored to upset their hosts and advance to their second Davis Cup final in three years.  In order to split the first four rubbers, however, the visitors will need either the doubles rubber or a win from their clay specialists over Monfils or Llodra, both of whom have excelled on fast surfaces and recorded impressive results this summer.  Buoyed by a vociferous home crowd, Monfils might even defeat Nalbandian on Friday and effectively clinch the tie for France.  While the Argentine veteran probably wants a Davis Cup title more than anyone else in Lyon this weekend, the much superior depth and fast-surface talent of the French squad should comprise an insurmountable advantage.

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Czech Republic at Serbia:

Fresh (or not) from his sparkling New York performance, Djokovic opens this tie against a player whom he defeated in two of the last three US Opens.  Extending the Serb to the brink of defeat on the first of those occasions, Stepanek offered little resistance in their second meeting there and has faded dramatically this year.  Reliant on agility and timing, the idiosyncratic Czech has enjoyed extensive Davis Cup success but will struggle to cope with Djokovic’s superior consistency, versatility, and technique.  In the midst of a breakthrough season, Berdych will seek to level the tie against the unpredictable, ever-dangerous Tipsarevic.  Probably invigorated by a first-rubber victory, the Belgrade crowd will seek to fluster the Czech, who hasn’t entirely shed his reputation for mental fragility.  Although Tipsarevic hopes to recapitulate his scintillating upset over Roddick in New York, Berdych should control most rallies with his superior first-strike weaponry and pin the Serb behind the baseline.

Currently listing the unprepossessing duo of Hajek and Minar as his doubles team, Czech captain Jaroslav Navratil almost certainly will substitute Berdych and Stepanek once Saturday arrives.  Superb together in Davis Cup doubles, these singles specialists will confront the slightly odd pairing of Troicki and the perceptibly aging Zimonjic.  While the visitors might well win this battle, they probably will lose the war, for both of Serbia’s singles players will rest on Saturday as the Czech singles players continue their exertions without respite.  Reprising his Wimbledon semifinal with Berdych in the fourth rubber, Djokovic may face the task not of clinching the tie but of ensuring his nation’s survival into a decisive fifth rubber.  Despite his disappointingly passive loss to the world #7 a few months ago, one suspects that the new world #2 would outlast his weary opponent in an encounter of ferocious ball-striking and scintillating shot-making.  Ranked only two slots apart, Stepanek and Tipsarevic have split their two previous encounters and share a propensity for alternating the ridiculous with the sublime.  When so little separates two opponents in a Davis Cup fifth rubber, though, home-court advantage can play a pivotal role.

Davis Cup Final:  France at Serbia


Over the weekend, we will return with an article on leading Slam performers in 2010. Who were the top five men and top five women at the year’s four most important tournaments?  As you will find out, we take an extremely objective approach…

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