Archive for the ‘Davis Cup’ Category
The 2013 edition of the Australian Open had everything: déjà vu, extreme heat, summer cold, ankle and head injuries, drama, rivalries, and, oh yeah, brilliant tennis with a side of history. It’s too much to summarize in 10 final thoughts without turning this into “War and Peace”. So let’s make it a “baker’s dozen” so I can give you a few more, and accept my apologies for all of the things NOT covered in this rendition “Final Thoughts”.
Let’s start with the champions…
- Congratulations to Novak Djokovic on an historic three-peat in Melbourne. Though it wasn’t quite as easy as I thought it would be in the final, Novak weathered the Andy Murray storm and came through in four sets. With this third Aussie title in three years (following on the heels of his ATP World Tour Championship), the bar has been raised even further for the rest of the top guys. I wonder if Rafa watched?
- I may not always think that Victoria Azarenka comports herself as a No. 1 should (see Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, or Rafael Nadal), but I give her mad props for winning the title in front of a hostile crowd. Apart from Serena Williams’ infamous win over Kim Clijsters at Indian Wells, few players have successfully battled external as well as internal stresses like she did following her controversial medical timeout against Sloane Stephens. I hope that she’s able to reflect on this episode later and realize that life is a lot easier when you have the crowd with you and not against you.
- Andy Murray is an infinitely better player now than he was last year at this time. He’s freakishly “fit”, much more disciplined, faster than ever, and is as aggressive as needed to challenge his rivals. The partnership with Lendl has clearly paid benefits, and it’ll be interesting to see how the rest of his spring plays out after this loss. Now if he could just do something about that “potty mouth”!
- It was great to see Li Na’s resurgence with the help of her new coach, Carlos Rodriguez. He’s helped her fitness and given her better strategic focus for her matches. She might still be prone to stretches of errors, but deals with them better now. More importantly, in a sport where so many take themselves way too seriously, she continues to be a breath of fresh air. And yes, her husband continues to provide much of her press conference comedic material.
- Williams Sister Summary
Serena: It will be interesting to see how Serena rebounds from a bum ankle and the loss to her “protégée” of weeks, Sloan Stephens. She’s not playing at the Open GDF, is doubtful for the upcoming Fed Cup match against Italy, and will undoubtedly continue to be a no-show at Indian Wells. So our first glimpse of her post-Australia will be on the hard courts of Miami before heading onto clay. Will she come into Miami with something to prove, or will she be more focused on getting the No. 1 ranking? We’ll find out in March.
Venus: Venus continues to be at a crossroads as she balances the world of professional tennis while coping with a chronic condition. On ability alone, Venus is still capable of beating many. But when it comes to the game’s elite, her struggles are only going to increase. You can’t beat elite players when your condition doesn’t allow you to train sufficiently in order to do so. Many friends have asked me when I think she might retire, but I’m uncomfortable scripting anyone’s retirement speech. She’s got lots of good tennis left in her, so it’s her decision alone; even if I do think that playing until the Rio Olympics isn’t very realistic.
- Sloane Stephens had a heck of an Australian summer, reaching the Brisbane quarters, and the Hobart and Australian Open semis. Her ranking has jumped to No. 17, her Twitter followers have tripled, and the endorsement opportunities seem endless for her cute face with smile and personality to match. She’s still got lots of room for improvement, technically and strategically, but looks to be much more capable of realizing her potential than some of the temporary standouts of the past few years. Next up: Madison Keys.
- Roger Federer played back-to-back five setters for the first in his illustrious Slam career, and it showed in that last set against Murray. Though he’s still able to easily dispatch the young ones like Tomic and Raonic at his spry age of 31, he’s physically hard-pressed against the stronger guys like Tsonga, Berdych, Murray, Nadal, and Djokovic. We’re all still in awe of his abilities, but Doug Robson of USA Today put it best when he tweeted, “There have been times in this match when Federer just looks…older.”
- There’s no way to come out of this Open and NOT feel sorry for world No. 5, David Ferrer. He’s hard-working, and a great player coming off of his most successful year. But there’s absolutely no way he leaves from that semifinal embarrassment against Djokovic feeling good about his future prospects against the four players in front of him.
- With John Isner sidelined due to a knee injury, American men had one of their worst showings in years. American women, on the other hand, showed great talent and depth. After many years of wondering who might fill the inevitable void of the post-Williams Sisters era, we now have names: Stephens, Hampton, McHale, Keys, Lepchenko, and Davis.
- Speaking of American men and women, Davis and Fed Cup ties are looming on the horizon. The men take on Brazil at home while the women travel to Italy. Even if Isner doesn’t play because of his ongoing knee issues (replaced by Ryan Harrison), the men look to have an easier time than the women. The best that the Brazilians can offer for resistance is a struggling Thomaz Belluci. The Italians, however, will most likely be led by Sara Errani, Francesca Schiavone, and Roberta Vinci. Even with the depth of talent, that’s a formidable team to face. Even more so for a team that will likely be without Venus or Serena.
- ESPN’s match commentary left much to be desired. With too many commentators working every match, the chatter was incessant. The most dissonant moments were when studio interviews ran side-by-side on screen against compelling matches, making both unbearable to watch. The Tennis Channel, on the other hand, did a great job. Martina Navratilova and Bill Macatee were a great combo, and the occasional court reports from Lindsay Davenport and Justin Gimelstob added just the right amount to the equation. Good job TC.
- The issue of “grunting” grabbed the spotlight again after an Open that featured some full-throated screaming, and not just from the usual suspects. It’s got to be dealt with, and not just because of the potential hindrance to their opponents. Stay tuned for my piece grunting and tennis’ bottom line.
- Victoria Azarenka isn’t the most well-liked player on tour, but the controversy around her questionable medical timeout against Sloane Stephens was over the top! Led by commentator Patrick “It’s a travesty” McEnroe, Vika was flayed in the press non-stop until the moment she walked on court for the final. It was wrong, especially given the many instances of this type of MTO being used in the past without the same ire (Mary Pierce versus Elena Dementieva, 2005 US Open). The media obsession and coverage of this incident almost felt equivalent to that surrounding Serena’s “foot fault” incident. Unless I’m mistaken, media does NOT equal bully pulpit. Does it?
It’s time to get off my soapbox, and wrap this up. G’day until next year!
Oh, what could have been for Spain this weekend if not for that darned doubles point!
Nicolas Almagro’s inconsistent play aside, this final wasn’t decided by his loss to Radek Stepanek in the fifth rubber. This match was decided, and lost, when Marcel Granollers and Marc Lopez lost the doubles point to Tomas Berdych and Radek Stepanek on Saturday.
One of the many things that will be discussed about Spain’s loss to the Czech Republic in the finals of the Davis Cup is the selection of Almagro for the second singles spot behind David Ferrer over Feliciano Lopez. It was a risky move for the fast court used in Prague. It was also a risky move given the hot and cold temperament of Nico: a devastating player when all is working well, and an error-filled temperamental mess when it’s not. Unfortunately this weekend, the mess side won.
But this loss can’t be laid solely on Almagro’s shoulders. When you have a team like Granollers and Lopez for the doubles point, as Spain does with the newly-crowned ATP year-end champions, you need to know that you can rely on that doubles point; much in the same way that the United States has relied on the Bryan Brothers to win their double point in our Davis Cup matches. And Spain was let down badly by this loss.
Marc Lopez is the surprising “rock” of this team. He may not have the singles prowess of his partner, but he sees the doubles court extremely well and gives himself as many options as he can with his forehand. Granollers is a strong singles player, but is clearly the weak link in this pair. His strong groundstroke game can’t make up for deficiencies in his net game. These deficiencies were the source of their undoing against the Czechs. At the top levels, doubles is all about holding serve and making volleys. Granollers missed on both fronts for the deciding break in the fourth set.
Granted, there is a big difference between the newly-crowned Spaniards and a doubles team that will go down as one of the greatest of all time. With 4 doubles titles to their credit in 2012, there really isn’t much of a comparison to be made with the record-breaking 84 titles won by the Bryans. Not to mention the Grand Slam titles won, and the capper gold medals they picked up at this year’s London Olympics. In all honesty, it’s like comparing Andrew Luck to Peyton Manning.
One must remember that the Bryans reached that status through lots of hard work, much of it in the trenches of the Davis Cup. When Patrick McEnroe put them in the lineup, it came with the implicit understanding that they must win. I think that this expectation laid much of the groundwork for their ability to rise to the occasion in the pressure-filled Davis Cup atmosphere, and directly led to their future successes. It’s much easier to rise to the occasion when you’ve done it countless times beforehand.
I don’t mean to suggest that the Spaniards should be expected to produce the crucial doubles point like the American team can expect from the Bryans. Lopez and Granollers don’t have the same kind of history from which they can draw upon having only played together for the last couple of years. Moreover, a new pairing of individual players will probably never produce the same results as the pairing of two brothers who have played and honed their skills together for decades.
This is not a value judgment on the ability of this Spanish pair. They are a good pairing in many ways, and proved as much by taking the year-end title. In the vernacular, “it is what it is”. But it brings into clear focus two important aspects of doubles within the context of Davis Cup. The first is the necessity of ensuring the doubles point whenever possible. Home field advantage notwithstanding for the Czech Republic, there were equivalent singles players on each side of the roster for both teams: Ferrer and Berdych, Almagro and Stepanek. The doubles point was always going to be the decider. As fine a doubles player as Stepanek is, the point should have been won by the more experienced team of the Spaniards. And it wasn’t.
The second aspect of Davis Cup doubles this loss illuminates, at least in my mind, is the brilliance of the Bryans for the US Davis Cup team. Andy Roddick, Mardy Fish, and John Isner are all recipients of a Davis Cup landscape made easier with the knowledge that at least one point out of five was relatively secure on their side. David Ferrer probably felt the same initial sense of security for the win with the Spanish doubles team, but was let down badly.
I felt sorry for him as he watched Almagro’s match from the stands. You could see the look of helplessness in his eyes. After doing all he could for his team, the outcome was well out of his hands. And his triumph over Berdych, a great win for a small guy playing a bigger guy on a fast court against a hostile crowd at the end of a crazy long season of tennis, couldn’t make up for the missed doubles point. The Czechs knew that Almagro would be the weak link in a deciding rubber…and so it came to pass.
The Spaniards badly needed their own version of Bob and Mike Bryan this weekend. Too bad they couldn’t use ours.
Much has been written about the United States second improbable victory in this year’s Davis Cup competition. Most of these articles have sung the well-deserved praises of John Isner, whose two singles victories were vital to the outcome. But this victory on the red clay of Monte-Carlo left us much more food for thought than “Yay Isner”! Here are five thoughts that still stand out for me two days after the fact:
1. John Isner has taken the next step needed to become one of the game’s elite in dramatic fashion!
John Isner’s superb performance goes well beyond the achievement of his tremendous wins against top players (Roger Federer, Gilles Simon, and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga) in the last two Davis Cup ties on what is arguably his least-preferred surface (clay). Over the past several months, the physical and mental transformation of John Isner has made him more than “a big guy with a big serve and forehand”. Those things still exist, but the sum total of the increases to his game and confidence are much more. Also, with his improved fitness and endurance, John plays as smartly at the end of his matches as he does at the beginning. In fact, it was Tsonga who looked to be the more desperate player in the fourth set of their match.
The greatest aspect of his performance in Monte-Carlo, however, was the calm expectation he carried throughout. John unflinchingly believes in himself, his game, and the work he has put in to get to this point. Some players walk on court and you completely sense in their body language the belief that they are going to win, no matter what it takes. John has now joined that group, and it’s been a pleasure to witness the transformation!
2. Jim Courier has been an unqualified success as Davis Cup captain! Since taking over the position from Patrick McEnroe in early 2011, Courier has brought a clear work ethic and strategy to his work as captain. He believes in thorough physical and mental preparation for the tasks at hand, so when these guys start a match they are ready to compete. Mardy Fish and John Isner both mentioned their preparation heading into the tie against Switzerland, with Isner reiterating the same theme this time around in France. The guys respect him and want to play for him.
The public face of the team is unified. I’m sure there are “behind the scenes” issues regarding personnel and singles assignments. That is bound to happen when selection for a limited number of spots is in the hands of one person. Whereas Patrick McEnroe sometimes publicly aired these issues, Courier is only focused on the team effort. The proof is in the pudding or, in this case, the red clay.
3. I love Ryan Harrison’s competitive spirit, and his clear desire to learn and grow each day on the tour. But as this tie showed, he wasn’t quite ready for Davis Cup “prime time”. The US team’s options were slim, with Mardy Fish and Andy Roddick both on the sidelines, so I can understand the selection. Given his moxie, and the composure he showed in his “dead rubber” during the Swiss tie, he was the only choice that made sense. It wasn’t a choice that was going to bear any fruit, however. The red clay surface was too tough for such little clay court experience, and the pressures of this stage were too big for Ryan to show his best stuff.
He was outclassed in his match against Tsonga, and I felt bad for him. Ryan was the straight man to Tsonga’s dashing on-court persona. Clay, supposedly the easiest of the surfaces for a tennis player’s body, can be unforgiving when patience and footwork are lacking. Ryan lacked both, breaking racquets and often falling because of his footwork. Maybe he’ll be ready in a year or two, but not right now.
4. The question of US depth lurks dangerously behind future US team selections. We have a ton of guys in the wings (Young, Blake, Querrey, Odesnik, Reynolds, Ram, Levine, Russell, Sweeting, Kudla), but none were ready to perform as needed for Davis Cup for this quarterfinal tie, and help ease the load on Isner. We are lucky to have three strong players (Isner, Fish, and Roddick) capable of winning Davis Cup matches on a (mostly) reliable basis. But two of them are closer to the end of their careers than the beginning, which doesn’t bode well for our future Davis Cup ambitions.
Spain can have both Rafael Nadal and David Ferrer out, yet still field an amazing team with their depth. The same holds true for Serbia in the absence of Novak Djokovic. But with Mardy Fish and Andy Roddick out for the US team, it’s all on the big man. He was more than capable of handling the burden this time, but it will be a different story for the semifinals. If it comes down to Isner and the Bryans again for all the marbles versus Spain, we might not be as fortunate in the final outcome.
5. The Bryan brothers have admirably anchored this team through thick and thin, always giving the US squad its’ best effort in providing the crucial doubles point. Given the circumstances of this weekend, the doubles point was a “must-have” along with two Isner wins, and they produced as they always have. I don’t think there’s enough appreciation for this aspect of their Davis Cup careers as there should be. Very few players are able to thrive when the expectation to win is placed on their shoulders, yet these guys do it time and again with eagerness.
Many suggested Guy Forget could have substituted Tsonga for Julien Benneteau, perhaps giving France an edge in dubs given Tsonga’s singles prowess. I don’t agree. A great singles player doesn’t always make the best doubles player, and the Bryans are too good to fall prey to this strategy. They would have beaten anyone the French team placed alongside Michael Llodra, because that’s what the team needed. I’m glad we can count on their presence, and look forward to their induction into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
The United States plays Switzerland, and looks to be at a pretty big disadvantage. The match is being played in Switzerland, Roger Federer is participating in the tie, and the US team is without two of the its’ most tested reliable members: Andy Roddick and Bob Bryan. Andy is still healing from his hamstring injury that he got while playing in the Australian Open, and Bob is at home spending time with his wife and new baby daughter Micaela.
Mardy Fish and John Isner will face Roger and Stan Wawrinka. It’s a tough task, but who knows… stranger things have happened, right? Mike will play doubles with Ryan Harrison. Usually the Bryan brothers are a guaranteed doubles point in any Davis Cup tie. But without Bob, one half of the best doubles team to play the game, the point is up for grabs. Hopefully Ryan will be up for the challenge.
Elsewhere in Davis Cup competition, Spain is fielding what can best be described as its’ JV squad in their tie against Kazakhstan. Rafael Nadal, David Ferrer, Feliciano Lopez, and Fernando Verdasco are all sitting this one out. Nicolas Almagro will be the top-ranked player in this one. Even with their depleted roster Spain should still be able come through this one.
Serbia plays Sweden without world number one Novak Djokovic. However, his absence shouldn’t be an issue for the Serbian team. Tipsarevic and Troicki are more than capable of pulling off the necessary wins for the team. Sweden’s highest ranked players are number 10 and number 104… in doubles. Yes, this will be an easy one for the Serbs.
France looks to have an easy weekend over Canada. When you have depth in a team that fields Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Gael Monfils, Julian Benneteau, and Michael Llodra against a team that boasts only Milos Raonic in singles and Daniel Nestor in doubles, it could easily become a one-sided affair. The only question mark is the status of Gael’s knee. It’s hurting him a bit, and he is also scheduled to appear in San Jose next week. Let’s hope for no more injury withdrawals from a tournament that’s already struggling with earlier withdrawals.
Pat Rafter has Lleyton Hewitt pulling double duty for Australia in their Asia/Oceania Group 1 tie against China. He will play singles and doubles, with Bernie Tomic filling the other singles spot. It’s always funny to see a player pushing this hard for a competition after already withdrawing from a subsequent event with “a severe toe injury”. We understand that representing one’s country might have more appeal than traveling over 15 hours to play in San Jose at the SAP Open. But come on?!?!?! Maybe wait until afterward to make the withdrawal?
It’s only the second week of February and already the top guys are battered and beat up. The upside is that since most of them are sitting out this weekend, it will give them a chance to rest up for the spring hardcourt season and also give some of the lower-ranked guys a chance to prove themselves on a bigger stage. And hopefully that will still mean some great matches. Good luck guys.
Novak Djokovic won the Australian Open title in impressive fashion. It was his third Australian Open title, his fifth overall Grand Slam title. And the victory was once again over his current rival, Rafael Nadal.
This win puts him one slam title away from holding all four slam titles at the same time, gives him a seventh consecutive finals victory or Rafael Nadal, and give him a victory in the longest grand slam final in history. More importantly, Novak has a legitimate chance to achieve a calendar-year Grand Slam. It’s pretty heady stuff… the stuff of dreams, for sure.
Novak showed us (again) all the reasons why he will be a continuing force in the ATP for 2012. But at the risk of throwing cold water on his achievement, a 6-hour grand slam final that didn’t even go beyond a 7-5 scoreline in the fifth set left me a little bit disturbed.
We have seen from their past achievements that the top 4 men, Djokovic, Nadal, Federer, and Murray, are all talented tennis players; sometimes bordering on brilliant. All of them, even Murray. Increasingly, matches between them are becoming much more than “mere” tennis matches. They are becoming superhuman feats of tennis brilliance combined with superhuman levels of physical endurance to a degree that defies description. That is a troubling trend.
There are many who think this level of sustained intensity and shot-making is a great thing. I’m not one of them. I admit that I haven’t even watched the entire Aussie Open men’s final. Part of the reason is because I’m a busy guy who could better use that 6 hours getting other stuff done. I’m also a Rafa fan who was more than a little dismayed to discover upon awaking that he had lost the match (though to be completely honest I wasn’t shocked at the result owing to Rafa’s 0-6 record against Novak in finals last year). Do I really need to watch a match that I know is going to end in my disappointment?
Those reasons aside, the main reason I haven’t watched the entire final is because it would be like watching a 20 round bare knuckle boxing match. It was a match that ended up being much more about its’ historic duration and intense physicality than tactically brilliant shot-making. It is said that the Grand Slams are as much of a test of a player’s fitness as they are of a player’s skills. But when the matches are this extreme, even for players as brilliant as these two, is it simply too much?
By “too much”, I mean that matches like this are too much for these athletes to ask of themselves and their bodies for Grand Slam glory. And they are also way too much to ask of spectators to sit and remain engaged in the battle.
This match reminded me of the US Open final, with just almost 2 hours of additional tennis. Watching it live in Rod Laver Arena must have been the equivalent of sitting through “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby” or the complete “Angels in America”, accompanied by over-amped rock guitars. You lose your appreciation for the excellent production because of fatigue brought on due to the hyper intensity.
Yes, I’m sure the atmosphere was as electric as many writers (Wertheim, Bodo, and Cronin to name a few) reported. But at some point we all reach our limits, no matter how brilliant or electric the atmosphere or match. At the 4-hour mark, you could definitely stick a fork in me because I would be “done”! At 5 hours I’m over it. At 6 hours I wouldn’t go to another live match again.
Spectator concerns take a back seat, however. I think the greater concern should be for the athletes. The Nadak-Djokovic US Open final was 4 hours and 10 minutes of brutal hitting. This Aussie Open final was 5 hours and 53 minutes of “more of the same”. Matches on red clay, which is used at The French Open’s Roland Garros, are notorious for long matches. What are we to expect from a final there with the same participants? 8 hours? Do we really need to see that much tennis? And who does it benefit? Isner/Mahut made for great Wimbledon theater, but would surely raise LTA (Lawn Tennis Association) eyebrows if matches like that happened every year.
I remember watching Rafa’s semifinal win over Fernando Verdasco in 2009 followed by his win in the final over Roger Federer. Within a 3 day span Rafa played just under 10 hours of tennis to win the title. It seemed unreal that he would be able to compete as well as he did in the final against Roger, especially given that he couldn’t even practice on the day off due to his physical condition from the semifinal. But compete he did in back to back 5 setters.
His situation was very much like Novak’s this year in that Novak’s section of the draw also only had one day off to recover and prepare for the final. Novak beat Andy Murray in the semifinals, had one day off to rest and sleep, then was victorious over Rafa in the final. Back to back 5 setters, and just under 11 hours of total tennis time. At this pace it’s no wonder that we see such battered bodies and shabby tennis at the ATP World Tour finals. Who can forget Novak yelling in pain and sinking to his knees during Davis Cup as his body complete gave out. Even the best athletes can’t punish themselves to this extent and remain viable over the long haul.
I had a long discussion with one friend who equated what Novak did to Rafa in the final as being very similar to what Rafa does to Federer in these long matches. In best 2 out of 3 set matches, Roger has a much better chance of beating Rafa. If his game is on, he can jump out to a quick start and hopefully overwhelm Rafa with fast quick points. In a best of 5 match, he has to endure in a way that has always been difficult for him with Rafa’s game. Roger’s fans point out that it’s not because Rafa is better that he wins these matches. He just lasts longer. Rafa’s fans say that the endurance factor is just as much a part of the game in Grand Slams as Roger’s shot-making skills.
From my friend’s point of view, this match – all 6 hours of it — is what Novak needed in order to “out-Rafa” Rafa. He did to Rafa what Rafa does to Federer. Historic in duration? yes. But completely fair game, and it adds to Novak’s credibility as a burgeoning Grand Slam “great”.
I still don’t buy it though. Endurance in the slams is part of the “championship greatness” package we expect from the top guys. But this 6 hour match seems to part of a great trend unfortunately. 88 minutes, almost an hour and a half, for one set of tennis in a best 3 out of 5 set match? God help us all if they start lasting much longer than that!
So where do we go from here?
I can tell you where I hope we don’t go: longer rallies and longer matches. I can’t take the current length and severity of these matches anymore as a spectator, and I don’t think their bodies can take much more either. We are enjoying such a great “golden age” of men’s tennis with these top 4 guys… and I want to see it last a little longer before it ends in injury.