Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down: Apr. 8

Monday, April 08, 2013 /by

World No. 1 Novak Djokovic took a big hit when he rolled his ankle in the first set of his fourth-rubber Davis Cup clash with top American Sam Querrey. But Djokovic sucked it up and played on, ultimately clinching the tie for Serbia (3-1) with a win.

It was a difficult decision, given Djokovic’s intense desire to complete a career Grand Slam at the French Open later in the spring. The injury seems fairly serious—so much so that Djokovic couldn’t help but shed tears during his interview with Serbian TV following the tie:

But he had a simple explanation for why he decided to play on: “Well, obviously it’s very strong emotion when you play for your country. I guess that’s the biggest reason why I kept playing.”

Of his ankle, he said, 90 minutes after the end of the match: “All I can say is it doesn’t look good.”

It doesn’t seem to matter much what happens to Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova at Wimbledon, Melbourne Park, or Flushing Meadows. She’ll always have Monterrey. The gifted but baffling Russian has struggled mightily to consolidate her talent and develop confidence, but she’s a bulletproof 15-0 down in old Mexico.

Ranked No. 26 going in, Pavlyuchenkova toppled No. 6 Angelique Kerber in the final, 4-6, 6-2, 6-4—despite having squandered a 5-0 third-set lead. Anywhere else on the planet Pavlyuchenkova loses that match. There must be something in the water in Mexico, and it isn’t Montezuma’s Revenge.

In Charleston, Bethanie Mattek-Sands wrestled Anastasia Rodionova through the longest match of the WTA year thus far, a bitter three-hour and 42-minute struggle that might have been at least a little shorter, had the American accepted the seemingly inevitable and yielded when her opponent had a match point at 5-4 in the third set.

But Mattek-Sands hung on to win, 6-4, 6-7 (4), 7-6 (3), after which she promptly took a 20-minute ice bath and then showed up for her press conference with chattering teeth.

“Right now, I’m a little bit cold,” she told the pencils. “I don’t think I’ve ever played a match that long. The good thing is I showed myself I can last out there and just grind it out. And saving the match point was another big thing for me—it showed me that when there’s a lot on the line I can come up with a big shot, a big play.”

Sloane Stephens, seeded fourth at the Family Circle Cup in Charleston last week, lost in the second round to Mattek-Sands (Stephens had a bye). The issue isn’t that Stephens lost, it’s how she lost: The young American got all of two games in the first set, and none in the second.

While Mattek-Sands is an exuberant and gritty competitor, she had to be physically vulnerable, having played the longest WTA match of the year just the previous day. Yet she easily rolled through Stephens, who rocketed into the Top 20 with her semifinal showing Down Under but has suddenly developed a case of stage fright. Excuses only go so far; Stephens simply must do better than that.

Vasek Pospisil of Canada and Ilija Bozoljac of Serbia played critical and nearly identical roles in their respective teams’ Davis Cup victories. Each of these guys is a journeyman—at best—in doubles: Pospisil is ranked No. 308, Bozoljac No. 1,150 (that’s not a typo). And each was partnered with a doubles expert and multiple Grand Slam champion; Pospisil with Daniel Nestor, Bozoljac with Nenad Zimonjic.

That’s a lot of pressure for a less than elite player (neither is lighting it up in singles, either), yet each man performed admirably to help earn the critical doubles point for his team. Incredibly, both Canada and Serbia won five-set thrillers, 15-13 in the final set, and both of their teams advanced to the semifinals.

Jelena Jankovic, who finished No. 1 in the world in 2008 but has yet to win a Grand Slam—or reclaim her place at or near the top—finally seems to be finding her consistency and confidence. She fell a bit short in the Charleston final, as current No. 1 Serena Williams stormed back from a set down to win in three, but Jankovic has now won 14 of her last 17 matches, the losses coming against a trio of women who have won multiple Grand Slam titles: Svetlana Kuznetsova, Maria Sharapova, and Serena.

Jankovic showed the composure that’s been lacking for some time as she struggled for three hours to win her first-round match against Melanie Oudin, and then she had to save two match points before she eliminated Caroline Garcia in the second round. “I think I have the confidence,” Jankovic said later.

Once she eliminates the ‘I think’ part, she’ll be good to go.

It wasn’t the easiest situation for Gilles Simon, the Frenchman who was called in as an 11th hour Davis Cup substitute for world No. 10 Richard Gasquet, after the latter rolled an ankle in Miami. Still, No. 13 Simon also played well in Miami, and ended up having the same amount of time to adjust to the clay in Argentina as his teammates, including Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

But Simon lost both of his matches, winning a grand total of one set against Juan Monaco and Carlos Berlocq. Simon was on the French team that lost the final to Serbia in 2010 (he lost to Djokovic), and the only players he’s beaten since then in the competition are Stefan Koubek and Ryan Harrison. Simon is now 4-8 in Davis Cup play.

Milos Raonic managed Davis Cup pressure beautifully as he led Canada into the unfamiliar territory of the semifinals. While one man can’t single-handedly decide a tie, Raonic made the most of the opportunity provided by the Canadian doubles win cited above, wrapping up the historic tie for the Maple Leafs with a solid four-set win over Andreas Seppi.

At No. 18, Seppi is ranked just two rungs below Raonic, but he’s more experienced, and wasn’t expected to win. That can be a recipe for disaster for a guy in Raonic’s position, but he came through with flying colors.

Carlos Berlocq did something unusual, at least for an Argentine Davis Cup player. He played above his head but with great self control to guarantee his country’s trip to the Davis Cup semifinals—once again raising hope that this might be the year that the best tennis nation never to win the Cup might break the hex.

The French had excellent singles players (see above), excellent doubles stand-bys (Michael Llodra and Julien Benneteau), and thorough familiarity with the clay on which Argentina decided to host. Even on the road, they looked like a good bet to advance. Argentine captain Martin Jaite even went ahead and said so before the tie.

But while Tsonga did his job, winning two matches, the Argentines took the doubles and the tie eventually went to a decisive fifth rubber. Berlocq, No. 71 in the ATP rankings, handled Simon with relative ease to clinch it for the baby-blue and white.

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