Rare Air

by: Steve Tignor | April 06, 2013

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On Friday I wrote that “Davis Cup never lets you down.” You’re never supposed to say never, but so far this weekend the tie between the United States and Serbia has shown that, in the strange alternate universe of international team tennis, the word may not be an overstatement. The competition is, if nothing else, a place where players discover things inside themselves—serves, returns, guts—that they may have been only dimly aware existed beforehand. Yesterday, with his five-set comeback victory, it was Sam Querrey of the U.S. who found out that he can win when he absolutely has to win. Today it was Serbia’s turn, and more specifically Ilija Bozoljac’s turn, to find out even more. 

At the start of the day, most people assumed that Novak Djokovic would team with Nenad Zimonjic for the Serbian doubles team. This seemed, obviously, like the best chance they had of stealing the Saturday point from Bob and Mike Bryan and the Americans and giving themselves a 2-1 cushion going into Sunday’s singles. When the news came that instead of the world No. 1 Djokovic, it would be the world No. 355 (and world No. 1,150 in doubles) Bozoljac walking on court, it was clear to most that Serbia had decided to concede the doubles and throw all of their eggs in the final day’s singles basket. 

That may have been what they were trying to do, but Zimonjic and Bozoljac went out and foiled the plan—in the best way possible—by pulling off an all-time Davis Cup upset over the Bryans, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (1), 5-7, 4-6, 15-13. Zimonjic, a Grand Slam doubles champion in his own right, helped Bozoljac believe by playing a brilliant first two sets. And in the end Zimonjic saved his partner from a possible final game choke by single-handedly staving off two break points and holding serve for the match. But in between Bozoljac may have been the best player on the court. 

Bozoljac’s first serve was a bullet. He hit aces with his second serve. His cannon-shot two-handed crosscourt backhand seemed to scare the Bryans into not poaching as often as they normally do. And he had an uncanny knack for getting out of the way of a serve and simultaneously smacking a two-handed forehand return down the alley for a winner (see him doing something similar to Roger Federer at Wimbledon in 2010 here). Bozoljac, an energetic character at the best of times, the loosest of loose cannons at the worst, was this match’s live wire. Zimonjic brought the confidence; Bozo gave the team its spark.

His one weakness was around the net; there Bozoljac was tentative about poaching, and his two-handed volleys awkward. After the Serbs surprised the Americans in the first two sets, the match seemed to come down to whether Bozoljac could hang on long enough to help them to a third winning set, or whether his vulnerabilities would be exposed before that. When Bozoljac was broken at 5-6 in the third set, it looked like the weak link had finally snapped. But while the Bryans broke through again to win the fourth, the Serbs, led by Bozoljac’s serves and returns, gathered themselves again in the fifth. Through their first 13 holds of serve in that set, they didn't face a break point. If Bob and Mike, who were, as usual, amazingly sure-handed around the net, can blame themselves for anything in this match, it would be for not coming up with any clutch returns when they needed them at the end. Their one-handed backhands are great for volleying, but not for returning, and they couldn't handle the Serbs’ heavy serves.

When it was over, Bozoljac said that he was “happy Nenad was my partner.” Ilija did his own part, but he was right: He needed Zimonjic in the final game. At 14-13, after finally breaking the Bros' serve, the Serbs went down 15-30. A nervous Zimonjic tossed the ball wildly and double faulted. 15-40. Would the marathon ever end? Yes, because Zimonjic would take it into his own hands to end it. He hit an ace at 15-40, and another at 30-40. After Bozoljac wobbled on a putaway volley and they squandered their first match point, Zimonjic made sure it didn’t happen again. At deuce, he belted a monster service winner. On the second match point, he hit an ace. 

A stud’s finish, a team effort, an unthinkable upset, and a 2-1 lead with Novak Djokovic coming out fresh on Sunday. It’s good to be a Serb in Boise, Idaho, tonight.

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