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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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