Wild and Wonderful Weekend

Monday, April 07, 2014 /by
Roger Federer (SUI), Andreas Seppi (ITA), and Gael Monfils (FRA) all won fifth-rubber matches to send their countries to the Davis Cup semifinals. (AP Photos)
Roger Federer (SUI), Andreas Seppi (ITA), and Gael Monfils (FRA) all won fifth-rubber matches to send their countries to the Davis Cup semifinals. (AP Photos)

If you had a rooting interest in the Davis Cup quarterfinals this past weekend, your heart is probably in one of two places: Still lodged in your throat, or lying on the carpet in your living room, shattered into tiny pieces. Has there ever been a weekend that so vividly demonstrated that rankings and talent mean little in international team competition than this one?

Two prohibitive underdogs almost pulled off staggering upsets—three, if you include the Great Britain vs. Italy tie in Naples—a valiant one-man effort fell just short of success, and Roger Federer found himself playing the first live fifth rubber of his Davis Cup career. Welcome to the fraternity, Rog!

Czech Republic d. Japan in Tokyo, 5-0

Winners of the last two competitions, the Czechs are proof that being completely invested in Davis Cup is an enormous advantage in a an event driven in large part by patriotic feeling and commitment. Some players and many fans find all kinds of fault with this 114-year old international team competition, but the individuals and teams that do best are the ones like the Czech Republic, whose players are all-in—mentally, emotionally, and physically.

Both teams were missing their top stars in this clash; Kei Nishikori of Japan had to pull out with a groin injury, while Tomas Berdych was willing to gamble that the defending champs could win this road tie without his services. This was a painful blow to the home side, because the way Nishikori had been playing in recent weeks, Japan had a terrific chance to make its first-ever semifinal.

To make matters worse for Japan, world No. 134 Go Soeda, the player promoted to in Nishikori’s place, came down with a bad fever on the eve of the tie and also pulled out.

Still, Tatsuma Ito and Taro Daniel acquitted themselves well in losing efforts against wily veteran Radek Stepanek and volatile power-puncher Lukas Rosol on opening day. Ito took Stepanek to four sets—including two tiebreakers—and Daniel gave Rosol numerous anxious moments in a five-set tussle. The Czechs completed the sweep the following day, when Rosol and Stepanek overpowered Ito and Yasutaka Uchiyama in straights sets in the doubles.

Here’s the thing, though: If you remember the outrage the German team triggered when it tried to blow off off the dead-rubber reverse singles following their first-round sweep of Spain, you’ll appreciate the way Rosol and Jiri Vesely played on Sunday. They looked at taking part less as a meaningless chore demanded by the lords of tennis, but a way to get a bit more Davis Cup experience under their belts.

As Czech captain Jaroslav Navratil said, with emphasis: "My players play together and fight for their country. It is always an honour to play Davis Cup."

Italy d. Great Britain in Naples, 3-2

Andy Murray now knows firsthand just how difficult it is for a proverbial “one-man team” (no slight intended to James Ward) to carry a squad on his shoulders over the course of successive ties. The Brits survived the first round when Ward, a journeyman ranked No. 161, came up unexpectedly big on a clay court in San Diego to spark the visitors’ upset of the United States.

But unless Murray won all three matches in which he was involved in Naples, the Brits would need another stunner from Ward to prevail.

Were this tie on any surface other than clay, Murray might have come up with a hero moment regardless of Ward’s results. But Murray isn’t a dirt devil, while on clay Italy’s Fabio Fognini and Andreas Seppi are happy as pigs in slop—and slop it was, as heavy rain ushered in this tie to make the red courts even slower than is typical. Further, rain interruptions ensured that Murray had to play the bulk of his first singles match (vs. Seppi) on Saturday morning, with only two hours to recuperate—as per Davis Cup rules—before partnering Colin Fleming in the doubles.

Murray was on court for a total of four hours and 15 minutes on Saturday. He impressively finished off Seppi, 6-4, 7-5 6-3, to level the tie at one match apiece. Then he and Fleming upset Fognini and Simone Bolelli, 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 7-5. On Sunday morning, the Italians were on the brink of elimination.

But in the preordained fourth-rubber clash of the No. 1s, Fognini handled Murray with ease, 6-3, 6-3, 6-4, in two hours and 19 minutes. That sent the tie to the sudden-death fifth rubber, in which Ward proved no match for Seppi, or the typically raucous Italian Davis Cup fans. In fact, during his match with Fognini, Murray himself had appealed to umpire Pascal Maria because of all the hooting and whistling the crowd rained on him between first and second serves.

France d. Germany in Nancy, 3-2

It’s no secret that the French have been underperforming in the Davis Cup for some time now. They may not have had a single Grand Slam champion on the docket since Yannick Noah called it quits, but they’ve produced loads of gifted players, including Grand Slam finalists (Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Arnaud Clement) and all kinds of Top 10 material (Richard Gasquet, Gael Monfils). Yet France has made just one Davis Cup final since they last won in 2001.

This time, the French were without the services of their top-ranked player, No. 11 Gasquet (bad back). Still, playing at home with No. 12 Tsonga on board along with No. 25 Monfils, No. 50 Julien Benneteau, and doubles whiz Michael Llodra, this one had the makings of a rout. After all, the German squad had been ripped apart by injury, politics, and controversy in the first round, and the nation’s top three players (Tommy Haas, Philipp Kohlschreiber, and Florian Mayer) were either injured or “unavailable.”

But the German team—a “C” team—consisting of youngsters and journeymen surpassed expectations, aided by French captain Clement’s surprise decision to start Benneteau in the second singles slot ahead of Monfils. The reason: Benneteau had played better than Monfils recently on U.S. hard courts, comparable to the indoor court in Nancy.

The stunt backfired, as No. 96 Tobias Kamke easily cut down Benneteau. The bad dream turned into a full-blown nightmare for Clement when No. 119 Peter Gojowczyk, playing his first Davis Cup rubber, stunned Tsonga, 8-6 in the fifth. It was a terrific match and a moving testament to the role inspiration so often plays in Davis Cup.

Benneteau partially exonerated himself by teaming with Llodra to win the doubles in four tough sets, keeping France’s hopes kindled on Sunday.

In the reverse singles, Tsonga crushed Kamke, leaving Gojowczyk to play the decisive fifth rubber against Monfils (substituting for Benneteau). Monfils clinched it for France, winning easily in under two hours over the emotionally and physically drained German.

This was the fourth time the erratic French rebounded from an 0-2 deficit to win a tie. And it was first time a comeback of such has occurred in the World Group since April 1998 (Sweden d. Slovak Republic).

Switzerland d. Kazakhstan, 3-2, in Geneva

The Swiss, whose top players are fully committed to the Davis Cup for the first time in many years, learned this week that there are spooky disadvantages as well as obvious benefits to being the overwhelming favorites to win the competition.

The Swiss were in the catbird seat against Kazakhstan for obvious reasons: Roger Federer, the 17-time Grand Slam champion, wasn’t even the No. 1 player on the team. That distinction fell to Stanislas Wawrinka, who’s ranked one tick above Federer at No. 3.

Wawrinka quickly abused his vaunted station by falling prey to the pressures of Davis Cup. To be sure, the Kazakhs were a remarkably game bunch, from the moment the first ball was hit until the last shot—a Federer serve that left Andrey Golubev lunging in vain to return—was fired to end the weekend.

In the first rubber, Golubev got off the a good start and never let up. Had he done so, Wawrinka might have found the confidence to breathe easier and dial in his big game. But Golubev held firm, and while Wawrinka held his own for reasonable periods, he fell victim to a combination of his own nerves and his opponent’s flat, stinging shots. Wawrinka undoubtedly felt the full weight of the expectations as Golubev won in four sets, bookended by tiebreakers.

Federer got the Swiss back on the right track in the second rubber, though, with a neat and systematic deconstruction of Mikhail Kukushkin. But even that wasn’t enough to settle Wawrinka’s nerves. In the doubles, he was less the familiar bull in a china shop than a deer in the headlights, and the Kazakhs mercilessly pounded away at him. Federer and Wawrinka are Olympic gold medalists in doubles (2008) but it didn’t matter much. Kazakhstan won the doubles in four close sets, two of them settled in tiebreakers.

All of Switzerland held its collective breath when Wawrinka met Kukushkin in the war of the No. 1s. They continued to hold it together and began to turn purple when Wawrinka lost the first set in a tiebreaker. But at the brink of disaster, with the Swiss two sets from elimination, Wawrinka mastered his fluttering stomach, and once again his arm began to flex at the elbow. He worked his way back into the match and won each of the next three sets by 6-4.

That set the stage for a vintage Federer moment. Golubev played well in the decisive fifth rubber, but Federer navigated a first-set tiebreaker without the loss of a point, and then lost just five more games to close out the tie.

In a way, the adventure suggested that Federer had good reason to avoid full commitment to Davis Cup in previous years. The competition makes enormous demands, but it has unique, towering rewards as well.

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