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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

Roger Federer - 2012 Australian Open Previews

As bagels and breadsticks continue to fly out of the WTA bakery at a dizzying rate, Federer confronts a less appetizing challenge as the second week approaches.  We preview the four-time champion’s next obstacle among several other encounters on the first day of the third round.

Karlovic vs. Federer:  Resentful of the ATP’s serving leviathans, Federer deems their distinctive styles as something other than tennis, or the proper form of the sport in his view.  Although he has lost to Karlovic only once in his career, the Swiss master will know that his opponent’s nearly untouchable serve will force him into sets much closer than he would prefer in the first week—perhaps even a tiebreak or two.  Returning more competently than usual in his first two matches, the ATP’s tallest player will not threaten the Federer serve unless its owner slips into carelessness.   Still, the experience of playing Karlovic, for whom matches can hinge upon a few points, will sharpen Federer’s focus and reflexes, if not his endurance.  (After all, one doesn’t expend much energy watching barely visible bombs fly past.)  Less sharp in passing shots recently, the third seed will find ample opportunities to practice them as Karlovic regularly advances to the net.

Dolgopolov vs. Tomic:  A regular fixture in the night session now, Tomic resurrected his tournament in inspiring fashion and now seeks to reach the second week for the second time in three majors.  More imposing than it might seem is the challenge presented by last year’s quarterfinalist from Ukraine, a quirky personality more similar to Tomic in style than his two previous foes.  Defusing Verdasco and then Querrey, the teenager specializes in defusing one-dimensional opponents with a variation of speeds and spins.  How will he adapt against someone who shares those habits, relying upon timing and accuracy more than power?  Sometimes so effortless that he looks disinterested, Dolgopolov has seemed a somewhat enigmatic competitor who often plays to the level of his competition.  That habit, combined with the scintillating Rod Laver atmosphere, should produce an evenly matched contest filled with imagination

Azarenka vs. Barthel:  Conceding just two games in two matches, Vika has established herself among the leading contenders for the title.  Unflustered by the partisan crowd in a Rod Laver night session, she overwhelmed Casey Dellacqua in a nearly bulletproof effort.  The Sydney champion now faces the Hobart champion and owner of a ten-match winning streak as she seeks to reach the second week of the Australian Open for the fourth straight year.  No matter the quality of the opposition, a ten-match winning streak should give Barthel the confidence that  neither the brashness of youth nor the support of a nation could instill in her earlier victims.  On the surface most suited to her game of any major, Azarenka probably would benefit from a creditable test that will brace her for stiffer competition inevitably looming ahead.  This match should inform us about her near future this fortnight and about Barthel’s future as an aspiring threat to the top.

Isner vs. Lopez:  As he reached 6-6 in the fifth set against Nalbandian, Isner must have wondered how long this latest trudge towards tennis infinity would last.  Fortunately for him, he played only six more games and finished his comeback from a two-sets-to-one deficit in style with an uncharacteristically subtle sequence at the net.  Not the fastest player to recover from a protracted battle, Isner may bring depleted energy to his next round and will feel relieved to realize that this match will not require much energy from him.  Much like the American, Lopez prefers to end points as quickly as possible with either point-ending serves or brisk assaults on the forecourt.  Neither players can survive for long in extended rallies, so the points should represent bursts of rapid activity amidst the calm that surrounds the time between them.  Experiencing a taste of his own medicine in the Spaniard’s vicious lefty serve, Isner must carefully protect his own delivery while waiting for the untimely lapse in his opponent’s game that has plagued Lopez in many of his most important matches.  On a surface less than fast, the more methodical player holds the advantage, and in this case the American can lay claim to that distinction.

Clijsters vs. Hantuchova: Before their meeting two weeks ago, this match would have contained little intrigue.  Having lost one total set in their first nine meetings, Clijsters clearly had solved the conundrums posed by the Slovak’s audacious angles with her own court-stretching defense and transition game.  When they collided in a Brisbane semifinal, though, Hantuchova severely tested the Belgian’s movement with a surprisingly poised performance from the first ball onward.  One would have expected her flakiness to doom her in the many multiple-deuce games of the match, but in fact she prevailed more often than not in those situations.  And, although she lost the first-set tiebreak, her game did not collapse under pressure then as it so often has.  Rebounding to claim another lead early in the second set before Clijsters retired, Hantuchova displayed the type of resistance that would produce a scintillating third-round encounter here.  A semifinalist here in 2008, she should relish the pace and bounce of these courts as much as the defending champion, who improved significantly from her first match to her second.  With Li Na potentially just one round ahead, Clijsters will not want to display any signs of fragility.

McHale vs. Jankovic:  Amidst another encouraging Slam for young Americans, McHale reached the third round for the second straight major.  After knocking off Safarova in the first round with a display of nearly impeccable consistency (no unforced errors at all), she showed her mettle in adversity a match later.  Brought  by Erakovic to within a tiebreak, McHale found a way to turn the trajectory of their encounter in her favor and showed no sign of fading during the final set.  Her physical and mental stamina should aid her against Jankovic, who specializes in breaking down opponents one game at a time.  Following that pattern in her first two matches here, the former #1 played solid tennis to unravel the inexperienced Laura Robson and Kai-chen Chang.  While she may start by maintaining that strategy against yet another young challenger, Jankovic eventually may need to shift into offensive mode more often.  Since McHale can counterpunch comfortably from the baseline, the Serb should aim to exploit the greater pace and depth of her own groundstrokes.  She will find herself superior to her opponent in many areas and inferior in none, but the American has demonstrated her ability to score upsets and will not flinch when she meets a much more accomplished opponent.

Wawrinka vs. Almagro:  When we previewed both of their matches for the previous round, we somewhat favored their opponents to end their fortnights.  By dispatching Baghdatis and Dimitrov, these two Europeans of the second tier delivered a meaningful statement of intent that the rest of this weak section should not cast aside lightly.  A quarterfinalist at last year’s Australian Open, Wawrinka has battled an apparent inferiority complex to prominent rivals for much of his career but broke through at the 2009 US Open with a victory over Murray that catalyzed his best tennis to date.  While he no longer works with coach Peter Lundgren and has rejoined his family, the Swiss #2 can continue to apply the lessons of his eccentric, aggressive mentor.  Three of his four previous matches with Almagro have reached a final set, and he has won their only previous five-setter (on clay) in a testament to his superior fitness.  But the superior serve and shot-making power belongs to the Spaniard, who faces the challenge of pulling the trigger at the right moment in rallies.  Expect plenty of tightly contested service games, more breaks than the ATP average, and a critical test of nerve at some stage that separates them.

Falla vs. Kohlschreiber:  Two years after an upset of Federer at Wimbledon eluded him, Falla refused to let world #8 Fish off the hook in straight sets.  That victory likely marks the most notable achievement of the Colombian’s career, accomplished by lulling the American into bland, neutral rallies where his inconsistent groundstrokes undermined him.  Extremely solid with all shots except his second serve, Falla rarely slashes winners past opponents but slowly maneuvers them into awkward positions.  An effective lateral mover, he retrieved even Fish’s more penetrating backhands with surprising depth.  When he meets another volatile, erratic shot-maker in Kohlschreiber, the same tactics should serve him effectively.  Springing a much less notable upset over Monaco in the first round, the German dazzled Rod Laver Arena during a 2008 night session when his flat, deceptively fast groundstrokes whizzed past a helpless Roddick in a five-set thriller.  When streaky meets steady, expect a complicated match in which both players will attempt to deliver their most impressive bullets from their backhands rather than their forehands, a rarity in the ATP.

Novak Djokovic - Swiss Indoors Basel - Day Six

First quarter:  Clouding this diverse section is the uncertainty enveloping the world #1, who seems all but certain to withdraw but has not as of Sunday evening.  Should Djokovic find discretion the better part of valor, the two highest-ranked men in the tournament would reside in the same half of the draw.  Conversely, opportunity would knock for 2008 champion Tsonga, who has relished the stage-like setting of this indoor arena as well as its slick surface.  Amidst the second-best season of his career, the Frenchman won the Vienna tournament two weeks ago and has won three of his seven titles on home soil.   Yet this crowd favorite should not overlook the almost equally flamboyant Almagro in the third round.   Although he has won all five of their meetings, the Spanish shot-maker came within a point of ousting Nadal two years ago on this court.  Sandwiched between them is Davydenko, who may no longer deserve a special mention in these previews but historically has feasted on the depleted draws and battered opponents of fall.  Elsewhere, Nishikori may struggle to regroup both physically and mentally from a Shanghai semifinal followed by a Basel final.  Surely hoping for a Djokovic-less draw is his compatriot Troicki, a finalist in Moscow despite an otherwise unremarkable second half.  Only the third-best player in his own country, he has won three of four meetings from Tsonga.

Semifinalist:  Tsonga (whether or not Djokovic plays)

Second quarter:  Likely to compete with his characteristic vigor, the fourth-seeded Ferrer probably will not survive long on a surface antithetical to his strengths.  On the other hand, none of the opponents in the immediate vicinity may muster the determination to dispatch him.  Known for scintillating one-handed backhands, Youzhny and Kohlschreiber will battle for the opportunity to meet Dolgopolov, who has faded from awareness since testing Djokovic at the US Open.  The theatrical atmosphere in Bercy might inspire the charismatic Ukrainian to unleash his fluid, all-court style, while the laboratory-like environment should allow him to perfect his timing.  Weakened by the withdrawal of Del Potro, this quarter still contains two-time finalist Monfils, denied by Djokovic in 2009 and Soderling in 2010.  As enigmatic and engaging as ever, the French #2 recorded one of the most impressive wins of his career on this court when he saved multiple match points to stun Federer in a semifinal, and he collected the Stockholm crown as Tsonga seized Vienna.  Possibly awaiting “La Monf” in the second round is his compatriot and fellow 2010 semifinalist Llodra, who will engage with Lopez in a battle of serve-and-volleying lefties.  Mirroring each other, their vintage styles will contrast with the baseline-bound Monfils or Wawrinka.  Will the more modern game prevail on the surface least designed for it of all Masters 1000 tournaments, or will the fast courts in Paris set the stage for a miniature upset?

Semifinalist:  Monfils

Third quarter:  Having waited ten months from his previous title, Federer earned some desperately needed momentum by capturing his hometown tournament for the fifth time.  A champion only in Doha and Basel this year, he has reached just one total final this year at majors and Masters events as Djokovic’s ascendancy uprooted the ATP hierarchy.  And Federer never has reached the final here, a distinction that Paris shares with no other tournament of its level.  Thwarted by players like Nalbandian and Benneteau in previous appearances, he often has looked drained of motivation and already focused on the year-end championships.  Rome nemesis Gasquet could collide with Federer in the third round, but the former prodigy has specialized in squashing the hopes of his countrymen until reaching the second week of Roland Garros this spring.  Yet another bold-faced French name has ambushed Federer twice on hard courts, including once on an indoor hard court in the fall, and his comeback from a two-set deficit against Roger at the Australian Open clearly discomfited the GOAT.  Not until the quarterfinal would Gilles Simon earn the chance to accomplish a third “accident,” as he self-deprecatingly has termed his upsets over the Swiss.  Still, few opponents in his section impress at first glance, whether the recently injured Fish or the fading Stepanek.  The nemesis of Nadal in Shanghai, Florian Mayer might edge past the American with his underrated serve and penetrating backhand, but few would consider him a threat to Federer.  After a second-half campaign that has revitalized his stagnant career, Donald Young burst through a qualifying draw once more and eyes a winnable encounter with weary Valencia runner-up Monaco.  All of these names, except perhaps Simon, look like subplots if Federer’s form continues to climb as it did from one match to the next in Basel.

Semifinalist:  Federer

Fourth quarter:  Seeking his fourth consecutive title since the US Open, Murray propelled himself to the #3 ranking by demolishing all adversaries throughout the Asian season before a sore backside negated his Basel wildcard.  Unlikely to resist the Scot too fiercely is Valencia champion Granollers, who probably soared into Paris on a wave of elation from that most notable performance of his career. Nor do flammable, fickle second-tier Frenchmen Benneteau and Chardy appear legitimate upset bids.  Since reaching a US Open quarterfinal, Roddick’s form has ranged across the spectrum from the dangerous (third-set tiebreak loss to Ferrer in a Shanghai quarterfinal) to the dismal (opening-round loss to Kevin Anderson in Beijing).  Climaxing with one of the season’s most dazzling winners, his epic triumph over Raonic in the Memphis final might find an encore in his opener here, where their towering serves should produce at least one tiebreak.  Thoroughly stifled by Murray at Queens Club this year, Roddick would have to maintain a superb first-serve percentage to compensate for his inferiority to the Scot in almost all other departments.  A similar task awaits the fifth-seeded Berdych, who has won two of his last three meetings with Murray and should find the surface more suited to his offensive orientation.  But his recurrent bête noire Tipsarevic might lurk in the third round.  The Serb even has enjoyed sporadic success against Murray, while his first career title in Moscow built upon summer breakthroughs in Canada and New York.  In the absence of Djokovic, can one of his compatriots proudly plant his nation’s flag on French soil?

Semifinalist:  Murray

Semifinals:  Tsonga d. Monfils, Federer d. Murray

Final:  Tsonga d. Federer

Roger Federer - Swiss Indoors Basel - Day One

In the last match of individual competition that he played before his Basel opener on Monday, Federer marched within a point of the US Open final before Djokovic snatched that pearl out of the Swiss lion’s jaws.  Now, the Serb ventures into the den of the lion itself in an attempt to deny his vanquished rival even this modest prize, as he did in 2009 but could not do in 2010.  But plentiful intrigue awaits in Basel beyond the tantalizing thought of a Federer-Djokovic rematch.  We discuss the exceptional draw at this ATP 500 tournament.

First quarter:  Assigned to tackle the leviathan astride the ATP is the aging Belgian Xavier Malisse, who still can serve impressively at times while striking penetrating groundstrokes off both wings.  Considering Djokovic’s rust from an injury absence, one could imagine this match proving closer than their relative rankings would suggest.  In the second round, doubles specialist Lukasz Kubot shares many of Malisse’s strengths and has demonstrated the ability to score minor upsets, although he never has threatened an opponent of the Serb’s quality.  Ousting the eighth-seeded Troicki on Monday after saving match point, Baghdatis might pose the sternest pre-semifinal test for a Djokovic who probably will arrive slightly out of tune.  The former Australian  Open finalist has lost all five of his meetings with the two-time Australian Open champion, but he has won at least one set in each of the last four.  With his flat groundstrokes and a tendency to accelerate the tempo of a match, Baghdatis might deny the top seed the rhythm that he needs.  Also lurking in Djokovic’s quarter is the mercurial Youzhny, who has won all three of the indoor meetings (twice in Rotterdam and once in Marseille).  For most of this season, though, Youzhny has not reached the same level that he displayed in those victories but instead has undermined his own cause with untimely double faults and ill-advised shot selection.

Semifinalist:  Djokovic

Second quarter:  After the US Open, many observers expected Mardy Fish to fade in a fall far from the North American scene of his greatest successes.  While an early exit to Tomic in Shanghai seemed to confirm those thoughts, Fish can clinch his first career berth at the year-end championships with a solid autumn campaign and thus should bring plenty of motivation to these tournaments.  Moreover, the indoor environment should suit his precise style as the relatively faster courts maximize his serve.  Fish has struggled against Americans throughout his career, however, and he faces a potentially perilous opener against Blake, who flickered into life with a Stockholm semifinal appearance.  These courts should suit that veteran’s breathless, instinctive style as well, and the lefty serve of Gilles Muller may prove especially devastating here.  Aligned to meet Berdych in the second round, the pride of Luxembourg should not dismiss the possibility of facing Kei Nishikori instead.  Although he seems overmatched by Berdych’s power on serve and forehand, the highest-ranked man in the history of Japanese tennis won their only previous meeting and arrives fresh from a Shanghai semifinal.  Can Nishikori build upon that breakthrough, his greatest accomplishment so far, to march higher in the rankings before 2012 begins?

Semifinalist:  Fish

Third quarter:  Here roars the local lion, whose cubs may attend the tournament as they did last year.  In arguably the softest section of the draw, Federer allowed the unremarkable Potito Starace to stay within range longer than expected before notching his first victory of the week.  Either a youthful lefty or a veteran lefty will meet him in the second round, following a match that pits Bellucci’s power against the experience of Stockholm finalist Nieminen.  Then looms the prospect of a vintage meeting with Roddick, reprising the classic 2009 Wimbledon final in which the American served as the reluctant platform for Federer’s conquest of immortality.  Yet Roddick may not even reach that stage, for his form has oscillated unpredictably throughout a season that appears to mark the onset of an inexorable decline.  He must overcome a familiar nemesis in Tommy Haas to start the tournament and the lilting, maddening mosquito Radek Stepanek.  On the other hand, none of these curious encounters will pique interest in Federer, who long has dominated all of his potential quarterfinal opponents.  The elder statesman of the ATP should appreciate and capitalize upon the opportunity to reach a strenuous weekend with his energy mostly intact.

Semifinalist:  Federer

Fourth quarter:  Seeking his fourth consecutive title after sweeping the ATP Asian season, Murray has lost only one match at a non-major since the clay season.  When he met first-round opponent Robin Haase at the US Open, though, the Scot found himself forced to escape from a two-set deficit.  This time, he won’t have the luxury of time on a surface that tilts towards the lanky Dutchman’s strengths.   Elsewhere in this section loom Nadal-killers Ivan Dodig and Florian Mayer, the former near Murray and the latter adjacent to the sixth-seeded Tipsarevic.  After winning his first career title this fall and reaching another final, the Serbian #2 has every right to feel giddy (or perhaps Tipsy) with success.  One wonders how much motivation he will carry into a potentially dangerous draw with not only Mayer but Llodra and Ljubicic, imposing servers with a history of excelling in the fall.  Less likely to succumb to a dark horse is the second seed, who conceded sets here and there throughout his dazzling recent surge without ever coming close to defeat.  All the same, Wawrinka will benefit from the Swiss crowd and has defeated Murray before, so the Scot will need to elevate his level early in the week.  If he survives that test, he would arrive in the semifinals strengthened for his encounter with another Swiss foe.

Semifinalist:  Murray

Semifinals:  Djokovic d. Fish, Federer d. Murray

Final:  Federer d. Djokovic

Andy Murray - 2011 Shanghai Rolex Masters - Day 7

Checking off the boxes:  When Nadal tumbled in the third round to Florian Mayer, the Shanghai Masters event retained only one legitimate contender in its draw and thus only one logical outcome.  In the fall, however, foregone conclusion often prove anything but foregone.  More notably, players who become overwhelming favorites after upsets riddle key tournaments shoulder a ponderous burden of their own.  No clearer example of the dynamic emerges from recent history than the 2009 French Open, when observers sensed that Nadal’s fourth-round demise laid down a red carpet for Federer’s coronation.  But they had forgotten that the Swiss legend still had to win four more matches to complete the feat, which would include two five-setters and a comeback from a two-set deficit against the unheralded Haas.  To be sure, nothing approaching the magnitude of a career Slam weighed upon Murray as he approached his eighth Masters 1000 crown.  And neither Ebden nor Nishikori would have defeated the Scot except on an exceptionally wayward day.  When he faced an inspired Ferrer in the final, though, the second seed and prohibitive favorite knew that he could not escape with a performance lacking his usual focus and determination.  Further complicating his quest was the competitive fatigue from playing a final for a third consecutive week.  An especially short temper aside, however, few traces of fatigue afflicted Murray as he patiently stifled the Spaniard with his superior depth and court coverage.  Like Djokovic, he often won points with depth as much as precision, while his ability to strike backhands as assertively as forehands offered him a distinct advantage over the forehand-centered Ferrer on this fast court. Already accomplishing his fall objective of eclipsing Federer in the rankings, Murray now must find a fresh source of motivation before the World Tour Finals.

Spaniard under siege:  Colliding in an entertaining three-set semifinal was a pair of Spaniards who have recorded accomplished 2011 campaigns.  The Spaniard with the most accomplished 2011 campaign, however, fizzled for a third straight hard-court Masters 1000 tournament.  Downed by Dodig in Montreal and dominated by Fish in Cincinnati, Nadal fell to yet another opponent with a crackling serve and a penetrating backhand.  This combination frequently frustrated the younger Rafa, but second-tier opponents like Florian Mayer had scored scant success against the more mature version of Nadal, no matter how imposing their weapons or how neatly they fitted into the Spaniard’s frailties.  Considering his outstanding return game, the top seed should have engineered a break point on Mayer’s serve, and his tentative performance in the crucial first-set tiebreak hinted that loss after loss to Djokovic may indeed have diminished his confidence more generally.  On the other hand, Nadal exited in the same round here last year to Melzer and may have entered the week reeling from Murray’s audacious assault in Tokyo.

Young guns fire:  In the absence of Djokovic, Federer, and several other notable stars, the next generation or two of potential contenders enjoyed an opportunity to claim a noteworthy victory or two.  First among them was Nishikori, younger in tennis years than his age suggests because of recurrent injuries.  The Japanese prodigy charged to the Shanghai semifinals seemingly from nowhere, rallying after losing the first set to topple the fourth-seeded Tsonga.  In that section of the draw, rising stars cannibalized each other as Nishikori dispatched Dolgopolov, who himself had defeated the precocious teenager Tomic in an odd three-setter.  Before winning just six games in three sets from the Ukrainian, the quirky Aussie duplicated Nishikori’s comeback against a formidable foe, this time the perennially star-crossed Fish.  But the United States also benefited from the youthful surge in Shanghai when Ryan Harrison qualified before upsetting the sagging Troicki.  Unsatisfied with his Bangkok runner-up trophy, moreover, Donald Young displayed the resilience that so long has eluded him in qualifying for the main draw and nearly repeating his US Open ambush of Wawrinka.  Without the suffocating proximity of their superiors, these younger talents could test their footing at a relatively prominent tournament and gain experience valuable for their evolution as competitors.

Validating the validation:  Overshadowed by the events in Shanghai were two minor WTA tournaments in Linz and Osaka.  Although only the most ardent fans will remember their results a few months from now, they may have proved disproportionately meaningful for Kvitova and Stosur.  Two of the season’s three first-time Slam champions, they had settled comfortably into the post-breakthrough hangovers that now seem de rigueur in the WTA.  As the Czech won a title and the Aussie reached the final, succumbing to the ever-fearsome Bartoli, they took initial steps towards building upon their summer achievements.  While winning a major certainly validates a player as an elite member of her generation, they—and their Slam triumphs—earn another layer of legitimacy when they regroup to showcase their abilities at the Tour’s ordinary events.  Kvitova and Stosur cannot graduate from the class of “one-Slam wonders” until 2012, but a return to (some measure of) reliability before then would only consolidate their status. Now, can Li Na emulate them?

The last word…   …belongs to Kimiko Date-Krumm, who won the Osaka doubles title in a match tiebreak over two-time major champions King and Shvedova.  Architect of several stirring upsets in 2010, Date-Krumm had forged few accomplishments in singles this season, so this triumph in her home nation must have tasted especially sweet.  The evergreen Japanese veteran had won one previous doubles title in her career, partnering Ai Sugiyama at the Tokyo tournament—fifteen years ago, when Pete Sampras won the men’s title.

Rafael Nadal - Rakuten Open - Day 6

First quarter:  In the aftermath of yet another disappointment in a final, Nadal will have reason to smile when he crosses the Sea of Japan and examines his accommodating draw.  A runner-up in Shanghai two years ago, the world #2 exited in the third round to Melzer last year and will feel determined to improve upon that result.  With Djokovic and Federer absent, the top seed would not face any opponent more formidable than Ferrer until the final.  As Nadal attempts to rebuild his confidence, he could meet last year’s Bangkok nemesis Garcia-Lopez in the second round, but the prospect of a Dodig-like debacle seems distant.  Aligned for an intriguing first-round meeting with Gulbis is Nalbandian, who competed sturdily through two tight sets against Murray in Tokyo.  The Argentine might well justify his wildcard with a win over the Latvian, the victim of three consecutive losses to players outside the top 50 as his 2011 record has slipped to 17-18.  Despite failing to win a set from Nadal at the US Open, Nalbandian stretched him deep into two sets and continued to trouble Rafa with his flat two-hander.  If he advances to the quarterfinals, the top seed should brace himself to meet Djokovic’s compatriot Tipsarevic, who has evolved into a threat in his own right following a Montreal semifinal and US Open quarterfinal.  Edging within range of the top 10, the Serbian #2 has enjoyed success against sixth-seeded Berdych that includes a US Open Series victory.  Having won his first title in three year at Beijing, however, the Czech may have gained sufficient momentum to avenge that defeat.  But Berdych has lost nine straight matches to Nadal, including 21of their last 22 sets, while Tipsarevic has lost all six sets that he has played against the Spaniard.

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Second quarter:  Although the most prominent among them rests on the top line of the draw, Spaniards dominate this section in a demonstration of their nation’s depth in men’s tennis.  Bookending the quarter are Ferrer and Almagro, rarely perceived as threats during the fall season but both near or at their career-high rankings.  In Almagro’s case, though, the sheer quantity of matches that he has contested this year (especially on clay) has masked his unremarkable performances at the key hard-court tournaments.  There, he has recorded nothing more than a quarterfinal at the Rogers Cup and a fourth-round appearance in Melbourne.  On the other hand, early assignments such as a clash against his light-hitting compatriot Robredo should not trouble him unduly.  Only once has he faced Roddick, a first-round loser in Beijing who struggled to hold serve there on the same DecoTurf surface laid down in Shanghai.  In fact, the American may not escape a compelling challenge from Grigor Dimitrov if the Bulgarian can impersonate more of Federer’s game than his backhand.  Unlike Almagro, Ferrer stands in the curious position of having etched his reputation on European clay but having recorded his most notable accomplishments with semifinals at the two hard-court majors. His road looks more dangerous with an opening match against Raonic or Llodra, although he edged the Montenegrin-turned-Canadian in four sets at the Australian Open.  Potentially pitted against Ferrer two rounds later is the dark horse of this section in the ever-frustrating, ever-dangerous Verdasco.  A combined 11-6 against Ferrer and Almagro, the Spanish lefty has shown signs of life by winning two matches in each of his last three tournaments.

Semifinalist:  Verdasco

Third quarter:  Expected by many to fade after the US Open, Fish erased those suspicions with a  semifinal run in Tokyo.  If he duplicates that performance in Shanghai, he will thoroughly have earned it by navigating past a varied assemblage of streaky shot-makers.  First among them is Kevin Anderson, the South African who defeated Murray in Montreal and Roddick last week.  Or can Bernard Tomic, who thrilled at Wimbledon and fizzled in New York, build upon his Tokyo upset of Troicki to arrange a rematch with Fish?  In their quarterfinal last week, the American found himself forced to rally from a one-set deficit against the towering but nuanced Aussie.  Oscillating wildly from one tournament to the next, Dolgopolov faces dangerous doubles specialist Kubot before a probable meeting with the possibly resurgent Cilic.  A finalist in Beijing for the second time in three years, the Croat’s steady, understated personality and methodical approach to competition should serve him well during the final.  Cilic surely would relish an opportunity to avenge his loss to Dolgopolov on home soil in Umag, and he has swept his four meetings with Fish.  The #1 seed in Beijing, Tsonga has received perhaps the highest seed of his career at a Masters 1000 tournament as the top-ranked player in this section.  Few are the plausible upset threats in his vicinity, although Santiago Giraldo tested Nadal in Tokyo and Robin Haase severely threatened Murray in New York.  More athletically gifted than either of the above, Tsonga might need to solve the enigmatic Melzer, the architect of Nadal’s demise here last year.  In the event that the Frenchman does face Fish in the quarterfinals, he should gain conviction from his five-set comeback victory over the American at the US Open.

Semifinalist:  Tsonga

Fourth quarter:  With a Djokovic-like display of rifled returns, whizzing backhands, and surreal court coverage, Murray torched 2011 Slam nemesis Nadal in the Tokyo final as he collected his 19th victory in 20 matches and third title in four tournaments.  Unsatisfied with that achievement, he accompanied his brother to the doubles title afterwards in his first career singles/doubles sweep at the same tournament.  Following that hectic albeit rewarding week, Murray will need to elevate his energy once more as he prepares to defend this title more effectively than he did the Rogers Cup trophy.  One wonders whether he can sustain the level of his last match—or the last two sets of it—or whether a lull will overtake him.  Unlikely to profit such a lull are the underachievers Bellucci and Tursunov who will vie for the opportunity to confront the Scot, but third-round opponent Wawrinka might pose a sterner challenge.  The Swiss #2 defeated Murray at the 2010 US Open and may have reinvigorated his sagging fortunes with his heroic effort in winning the Davis Cup World Group playoff.  A surprise finalist in Bangkok, meanwhile, Donald Young qualified for the main draw, drew a Chinese wildcard in the first round, and will hope to repeat his New York upset over Wawrinka.  Another American of note has lain dormant for several weeks following his US Open embarrassment, but Ryan Harrison could trouble the staggering Troicki en route to the third round.  At that stage, he would face the tireless Gilles Simon, often at his best in the fall when his workmanlike attitude capitalizes upon the weary or the satiated.  Although we don’t expect Simon to defeat Murray, he might deplete the second seed’s energy for the more demanding encounters ahead this weekend.

Semifinalist:  Murray

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We return shortly to review the WTA Premier Five / Premier Mandatory fortnight in Tokyo and Beijing.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 We also investigate the World Group playoff ties:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roger Federer - 2011 US Open - Day 13

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

Roger Federer - 2011 US Open - Day 4

Federer vs. Cilic:  Untroubled through his first six sets of the fortnight, Federer now faces an opponent with an equally unblemished record through two rounds.  Whereas the third seed cruised past unheralded foes, though, Cilic dealt heavy blows to the hopes of promising youngsters Harrison and Tomic, either of whom would have seemed a more plausible challenger to Federer at this stage.  But the Croat has struck his inside-out forehand with devastating effect this week, and that weapon will prove vital in chipping away at the Swiss legend’s one-handed backhand.  Unable to seriously threaten Federer in their two previous meetings, Cilic has found his imposing serve neutralized by the former’s blocked returns.  Loath to finish points in the forecourt, this firmly rooted baseliner will find the initiative gradually wrested away from him as the world #3 exploits his ungainly movement.  Nevertheless, Federer has a mixed record against ATP sluggers in recent months, dominating Del Potro while falling twice to Tsonga and once to Berdych.  While Cilic surely cannot outlast him in a best-of-five format, he should force the five-time champion to raise his focus a notch or two if he wants to advance in straight sets.

Azarenka vs. Serena:  Dropping just three games in four sets so far, Serena has yet to encounter someone worthy of her steel.  In the most fascinating match of the middle weekend, Azarenka aims to prove her mettle as she did against the American in consecutive Australian Opens.  At both the 2009 and 2010 Melbourne tournament, the Belarussian pounded herself to a one-set lead by pinning Serena behind the baseline rather than allowing her to step inside the court.  On the latter of those occasions, Vika came within six points of a routine straight-sets victory before Serena roared back from the jaws of defeat.  Only once has Azarenka conquered the American, in fact, at a 2009 Miami final in which the latter’s injuries clearly undermined her.  Like Sharapova, the Belarussian has few options with which to solve Serena at her best, for no WTA contender possesses such raw athleticism that enables her to strike penetrating blows on the run and cover the court both vertically and laterally.  Solid if not spectacular when avenging her 2011 loss to Dulko, Azarenka must protect her weak second serve by seeking a high first-serve percentage.  When they met in Toronto this summer, Serena consistently targeted her opponent’s more reliable wing, the backhand—and still won in two relatively comfortable sets.  Even the best that the Belarussian could offer, therefore, still fell well short.  Not the sturdiest character on grand stages, the act of conquering a 13-time Slam champion on Arthur Ashe before a hostile crowd would represent her greatest achievement to date.

Ana Ivanovic - 2011 US Open - Day 2

Ivanovic vs. Stephens:  Enthusiastic about her first appearance in an Arthur Ashe night session, Ivanovic will need to improve upon her pedestrian opener in order to craft a happy ending.  Receiving a walkover from Cetkovska in the second round, the Serb has gained three crucial days of rest to refine her game and soothe her emotions.  A round after she battled through a hard-fought second set to upset Peer, Stephens may suffer from the same hangover that McHale seemed to experience against Kirilenko after she had overcome Bartoli.  The vocal crowd should stimulate the American, however, and the experience of playing on a similarly impressive stadium at Indian Wells once drew inspired tennis (albeit not a win) from her.  Still seeking to develop an explosive weapon, the home hope relied upon consistency and ball placement in her previous victory, as she did in her run to the San Diego quarterfinals.  A smooth mover with a talent for changing speeds, Stephens rattled the rhythm-oriented Peer by alternating lazy moonballs with flattened inside-out forehands.  Armed with far more formidable first-strike power, Ivanovic also relies upon a steady rhythm but possesses more options for ending points quickly than did Peer.  Although the Serb’s form ebbs and flows from one day to the next, she should decide her own fate in a match likely to produce statistical asymmetry in all categories.

Djokovic vs. Davydenko:  In his first match as the world #1, the new king of the ATP hill nearly lost his first set as a #1 to a player who spent years in the top 5 as a trendy underdog and a fascinating player to watch.  Known for his relentlessly vicious, flat groundstrokes and bursts of whimsicality, Davydenko has faded from the scene this season but proved again in Montreal that his ball-striking skills can trouble the most prestigious opponents.  If Djokovic enters this match complacent or unfocused, as he did then, beware of a potentially protracted encounter until he finds his range and starts punishing the Russian’s fallible serve (seemingly a national flaw).  At the Rogers Cup, his sparkling return game broke Davydenko seven straight times, while his first two opponents manage to hold serve exactly once in five sets against the top seed.  Considering Kolya’s own brilliance on the return, we could witness a WTA-like match where breaks set the tone rather than holds and when the serve wins relatively few quick points.  The fast surface in New York should soften Davydenko’s post-surgery inconsistency, allowing him to end rallies without creating as many audacious angles.  In a five-set victory over Dodig, moreover, he demonstrated the physical and mental endurance that often had eluded him this year.  Like Serena, Djokovic will benefit from the opportunity to play an opponent of this quality, which will prepare him for the increasingly arduous tests ahead.

Berdych vs. Tipsarevic:  Upon Djokovic’s ascent to #1, his compatriot proclaimed a belief that he could reach the top 10.  Perhaps in agreement with that assessment is the ninth seed, who has lost all three of their meetings and succumbed routinely to the Serb in Montreal this summer.  This head-to-head record puzzles in view of the superior weapons that Berdych possesses on virtually every shot, but Tipsarevic’s superior persistence has reaped rewards against the less determined Czech.  Often at his best against the best, the Serbian eccentric twice has defeated Roddick at majors (including last year’s Open) and came excruciatingly close to upsetting Federer at the 2008 Australian Open.  A semifinalist in Montreal, he confronts a Cincinnati semifinalist who has looked progressively more convincing since the clay season.  Before retiring against Djokovic in Cincinnati, Berdych delivered a comprehensive performance against Federer that stirred memories of his 2010 triumphs against the Swiss, Djokovic, and others.  In order to halt his slide down the rankings, though, he needs to more regularly win the matches that he should win:  matches like these.

Jankovic vs. Pavlyuchenkova:  Ranked just four slots apart, the Serb and the Russian should engage in another tense encounter similar to their three-set final in Monterrey.  Illustrating a trend in her performances this year, Jankovic cruised through the first set in the encounter before sagging in the second and failing to recover.  Hampered by a back injury in the second round against Dokic, the former #1 has earned a reputation of courageously battling through such ailments to victory.  Jankovic sometimes becomes most dangerous when beleaguered by such drama-creating circumstances, so one wouldn’t discount the possibility of a quarterfinal appearance.  Turning 20 in July, Pavlyuchenkova played over 250 matches as a teenager and has encountered injuries with disquieting frequency herself.  As Zvonareva learned the hard way at Roland Garros, her groundstrokes can hammer through counterpunchers on any surface.  Less impressive is a serve that conceded more than 50 double faults during a three-match stretch in Baku.  Long fallible on serve herself, Jankovic will struggle even more with that stroke if her back continues to trouble her.  We anticipate swarms of service breaks and few trips to the net except for the occasional swinging volley.

Anderson vs. Fish:  Gifted a pair of error-prone opponents in his first two matches, the top-ranked American man never needed to demonstrate the improvements in fitness, versatility, and court sense that have spurred his rise.  A towering South African who defeated Murray in Montreal, Anderson should earn sufficient free points with his serve to stay within range and subject Fish to pressure.  The US Open Series champion wobbled through several complicated service games this week, mostly when his first-serve percentage dipped or his mind wandered.  Still searching for the balance between caution and aggression, Fish can grow tentative in rallies even on these fast courts that suit his game.  In order to avoid an edgy encounter on Saturday, the world #8 will want to assert himself earlier in rallies while punishing his opponent’s second serve.  A respectable mover considering his height, Anderson falters when forced to reverse direction, so Fish could exploit his opponent’s awkward footwork.  Will either or both of them enliven their baseline style with an occasional serve-volley gambit?

Tsonga vs. Verdasco:  Only once have this flamboyant pair of shot-makers met, at the 2009 Australian Open when Verdasco recorded the most spectacular performance of his career.  Less flamboyant than frustrating in 2011, he has sunk to the fringes of the top 20 while losing six opening-round encounters.  In Cincinnati, however, Verdasco extended an ailing Nadal deep into a third-set tiebreak, an accomplishment that may have infused him with optimism.  On the other hand, his tennis rarely dazzled during a match notable largely for ineptitude, squandered opportunities, and mental frailty.  Far superior this summer, Tsonga blazed to consecutive semifinals at Wimbledon and the Rogers Cup behind memorable victories over Federer.  The Frenchman finally has enjoyed an extended span of health that has allowed him to consolidate his momentum, although a dubious retirement in Montreal  preceded a dismal loss in Cincinnati.  Whereas Verdasco suffers from a fatalistic streak that almost expects failure, Tsonga has embraced a carefree, optimistic attitude to a sport that he visibly relishes.  Both of these mentalities can lead their owners on circuitous routes to victory, and this collision should prove no exception.

Serena Williams Serena Williams celebrates winning a point against Jie Zheng of China on Day 4 of the Rogers Cup presented by National Bank at the Rexall Centre on August 11, 2011 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Far from Canada’s frozen north, Toronto and Montreal still have proven inhospitable habitats for elite contenders in both Rogers Cups.  Defending champions Murray and Wozniacki?  The three WTA Slam champions this year?  The two most dominant ATP players of the past decade?  Together with defending US Open finalist Zvonareva and former #1s Sharapova, Ivanovic, and Jankovic, all have departed to more humid surroundings in Cincinnati.  Scraping through the rubble after the avalanche of upsets are a host of talented, often under-appreciated figures—in addition to a reigning #1 and a thirteen-time Slam champion with carnivorous streaks.

Vinci vs. Stosur:  Glancing down the WTA rankings, few would suspect that the world #22 has won more tournaments than eight members of the current top 10.  But Vinci has enjoyed a modest counterpart to the late-career surge of her compatriot Schiavone, capturing three titles in 2011 and baffling more notable opponents with her deceptively penetrating backhand slice.  Among the baffled this week were two former #1s, Wozniacki and Ivanovic, who struggled to find a rhythm against the Italian’s unpredictable mixture of slices, chops, and spins.  Although this quarterfinal seems a serving mismatch on paper, Vinci protected her underpowered delivery with considerable success against the excellent return games of the Dane and the Serb.  Facing only one break point in her second 2011 victory over Li Na, meanwhile, Stosur has responded to the loss of her top-10 status with one of her most encouraging performances this year.  Nevertheless, she now must shoulder the burden of the favorite in a half stripped of the Roland Garros champion, the Wimbledon champion, the defending US Open finalist, and the reigning world #1.  Often fragile under pressure, Stosur may require time to adjust to a distinctive game that she never before has faced and that may threaten her composure unless she can assert her dominance in the early stages.

Radwanska vs. Petkovic:  Less than a week ago in San Diego, they met in a semifinal defined mostly by Petkovic’s nausea-induced sprint from the court.  Drained of energy by that experience, the top 10’s newest inhabitant mustered scant resistance thenceforth against a foe who has won all three of their encounters and excels at eroding the physically or mentally vulnerable and.  Radwanska repeated her Sunday victory over Zvonareva on Thursday, suggesting that her first title in over three years has boosted her confidence.  Regularly impressive during the US Open Series, the San Diego champion often has thrived on faster surfaces that add an ounce of extra sting to her serve.  Halting Kvitova in the previous round, Petkovic benefited considerably from the Wimbledon champion’s errant groundstrokes but deserves credit for staying crisp and focused rather than allowing her opponent’s waywardness to infect her.  At the core of this quarterfinal are Radwanska’s serve and Petkovic’s return, which could savage the Pole’s second delivery if she fails to maintain a high first-serve percentage.  Able to maneuver through rallies reasonably well when healthy, the German must resist the temptation to pull the trigger too aggressively too early in the point.  At the same time, she will want to keep Radwanska stretched along the baseline, preventing her from constructing her clever combinations at leisure.

Voskoboeva vs. Azarenka:  If one of the other quarterfinalists wins this tournament, they will have needed to collect only five or six victories.  Voskoboeva already has won five matches here, having progressed through qualifying, and has defeated two top-10 opponents in Bartoli and Sharapova.  Sometimes flustered by unknown challengers before, Azarenka suffered such a fate when she lost to Erakovic in her Stanford opener.  Far more impressive are her first two performances in this tournament, when she conceded three total games in four sets against home hope Dubois and former nemesis Martinez Sanchez.  Despite Voskoboeva’s stunning run to this stage, fatigue may hamper her as she confronts a player more consistent than those whom she previously has ambushed.  The Kazakh has spent nine hours on court this week compared to just two for the Belarussian, who seeks her third semifinal at one of the Canadian tournaments.

Safarova vs. Serena:  A rematch of a 2009 quarterfinal, this meeting would seem to offer little drama.  Riding an eight-match winning streak into a clash with an opponent who never has defeated her, Serena has wasted little time in establishing herself as the leading contender for the US Open.  Since Wimbledon, she has conquered not only veterans like Sharapova and Bartoli but some of the WTA’s more promising younger stars, such as Lisicki and Goerges.  The root of Serena’s success remains a serve that has distanced itself ever further from the competition, resulting in a streak of 24 consecutive holds between Stanford and Canada.  After a series of emphatic victories, though, the former #1 faced ten break points and lost serve twice in a tense three-setter against Zheng Jie, a valiant competitor but a fading force in singles.  One wonders whether that scratchy performance signaled an ebb in Serena’s momentum or a dip in her motivation.  On the other hand, she survived a similarly unimpressive performance against Kirilenko in the same round at Stanford before roaring to life when the title neared and the opponents grew more worthy of her attention.  Having overcome Schiavone in two routine sets late on Thursday, Safarova may have gained a burst of self-belief that she can use to challenge an opponent who has not faced a lefty in over a year.  Should Serena find her trademark determination, though, the flaky Czech probably will show little appetite for battle.

Novak Djokovic - Rogers Cup - Day 4

Djokovic vs. Monfils:  Aiming to move 50 wins over .500 just 52 matches into the season, the top seed and only surviving member of the Top Four must fancy his chances of a fifth Masters 1000 crown.  Undefeated in six previous meetings with Monfils, the Serb has won ten of their last eleven sets, including emphatic victories at the US Open and Davis Cup final last year.  This authoritative head-to-head underscores the gap separating the Frenchman from the players above his inflated ranking of #7.  Lucky to survive a third-set tiebreak against Troicki on Thursday, Monfils lost the Washington final to Stepaek and has not shed his reputation of an unreliable competitor whose mind wanders from one point to the next.  Once smeared with a similar reputation, Djokovic can attribute much of his spectacular season to his elevated commitment and maturity, a lesson that his ultra-talented opponent could learn.  Nevertheless, the world #1 struggled in his opener against Davydenko and should have felt fortunate to evade a three-setter when he trailed by two breaks and later faced set point.  Although his serving improved during a Thursday victory over Cilic, the first set remained tighter than one might have expected.  On both occasions, Djokovic merely accelerated to steamroll his opponents once he earned the one-set lead, and Monfils should anticipate no more mercy if he relinquishes the initiative.

Tsonga vs. Almagro:  For the second time in four matches and for the second time in Montreal, the acrobatic Frenchman conquered Federer.  After those two earlier victories, Tsonga slumped to defeat a round later, so he must beware of another hangover against an opponent who arrived in the top 10 this year for the first time.  Less visibly talented than Tsonga, Almagro has enhanced his fitness this season and owns one of the ATP’s most elegant one-handed backhands, which he deployed to overcome fellow backhand artist and 2011 breakthrough story Gasquet.  The Spaniard and the Frenchman have tangled four times since the start of 2010, including a spectacular five-setter at the Australian Open last year that showcased not only shot-making skills but sportsmanship on both sides.  Especially ominous for the world #10, three of those matches came on the clay where he possesses much greater aptitude than does Tsonga.  His more elongated strokes require more precise timing than the compact, bludgeoned whacks of his opponent, who relies less upon placement than upon raw power.  Since the minds of both combatants can drift, though, a plot twist or two should enliven this narrative of stunning winners and stunning errors.

Fish vs. Wawrinka:  Unlike Federer, the top-ranked American avenged a recent defeat on Thursday when he reversed the Los Angeles final result against Gulbis.  Having withdrawn from Washington to rest his ankle, Fish found his caution rewarded with his second Masters 1000 quarterfinal of the season.  Expected to face Murray at the stage, he instead eyes an opponent whom he has not faced in four years and who should pose a much less formidable threat.  After consecutive Slam quarterfinals at the US Open and Australian Open, as well as an Indian Wells quarterfinal, Wawrinka has watched his results taper and his ranking rise stall.  Best suited to clay, his sturdy game rarely breaks down for extended stretches but conceals little of brilliance.  Much the opposite, Fish remains prone to inconsistency in his groundstrokes but remains an explosive server with sparkling touch around the net.  Considering that skill, one wonder why he does not approach the forecourt more frequently.  If Wawrinka lures him into baseline rallies, he could neutralize his disadvantage in first-strike power.  The American instead must hope to set the tone with his much brisker pace of play on serve while swinging freely on returns.

Berdych vs. Tipsarevic:  A beneficiary of Dodig’s monumental upset, Berdych has become the arguable favorite to reach the final from this half.  Last year, the Czech served for the match against Federer and has found the fast-but-not-too-fast hard courts a suitable venue for exploiting his serve while protecting his questionable movement and groundstroke asymmetry.  Contrary to expectations, Berdych has lost both of his previous meetings with Tipsarevic, who nearly choked away a match against Verdasco for the second time this year but managed to survive 12 double faults.  The Serb often raises his level to meet the competition, delivering his finest tennis when battling opponents like Federer and Roddick.  Against the Czech, Tipsarevic has compensated for his deficiency in power with relentless focus, a weapon against an opponent as mentally flaky as girlfriend Safarova.  His stellar 2010 spring and summer nearly forgotten, Berdych has reached a position where he must prove himself again to the ATP elite.  Another defeat to Tipsarevic would heighten impressions of him as a dangerous floater capable of wins or losses against anyone, while a first victory would fan hope that last year represented no anomaly.

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