That’s Davis Cup For You

Davis Cup, Quarterfinals, Day One

The first day of the 2012 Davis Cup World Group quarterfinals has concluded, and three of the four ties are balanced intriguingly at a rubber each. The other tie, involving Spain at home, has hardly intrigued at all, although Alex Corretja’s remarks afterwards – essentially: ‘Well, that went even easier than we thought it would’ – were refreshingly frank.

Of the other six matches, two were ostensibly upsets, although one of these – Isner d. Simon – was largely just a failure of the bookmaker’s art. The other upset – Cilic d. Nalbandian – was a soul-lacerating carnival of suck played out in an atmosphere of rambunctious and virulent machismo, prompting one to wonder just how poor a crowd has to behave before it no longer merits an indulgent chuckle: ‘Well, that’s Davis Cup for you . . .’

Serbia v Czech Rep., Prague, 1-1

Berdych d. Troicki, 6/2 6/1 6/2

Tipsarevic d. Stepanek, 5/7 6/4 6/4 4/6 9/7

The centrepiece of today’s spread was undoubtedly the second match between Serbia and the Czech Republic, an improbably sustained, highly dramatic and technically uninspiring dust-up between Janko Tipsarevic and Radek Stepanek, which concluded in a flurry of ill-will, and almost a flurry of blows. Being controversial, this is the moment destined to survive.

Tipsarevic had battled the partisan crowd and, periodically, the umpire on his way to a five hour victory, saving three match points along the way. I had seen nothing untoward between him and his opponent, and there had been at least one example of good sportsmanship. (There was by some accounts an issue with a disputed double-bounce in the second set, though I confess I did not see it.) Tipsarevic claimed the match with a final backhand pass up the line, whereupon he commenced the required sequence of bellows at his support bench. Stepanek marched sourly to the net, and offered the Serb a weak handshake, and they exchanged some words. Tipsarevic paused, visibly gob smacked, and began to remonstrate furiously at Stepanek’s back, and was restrained by both the Serbian and Czech captains. It wasn’t immediately clear what had happened. Interviewed afterwards, Tipsarevic revealed that Stepanek had in fact given him the finger during the handshake, and had summarily pronounced him to be a stinking vagina, or words to that effect. His comments were in Serbian, and every effort at translating them via Google has turned out to be a) contradictory, and b) hilarious (‘He told me I was smelling something like a natural woman’). Nevertheless, it was clear from his tone that giving someone the finger and comparing them to malodorous genitalia is no more complimentary in Eastern Europe than here in Australia, where it is frowned upon.

Inevitably, the incident has received plenty of airtime, and unfortunately overshadowed Stepanek’s greater transgression, which was the public unveiling of a t-shirt that was eye-wrenchingly foul even by his lofty standards. It appears to be some variety of obese leonine creature, over which is draped the Czech coat of arms. Tomas Berdych, whose otherwise similar outfit mercifully lacked mutant lions, had earlier thrashed the hapless Viktor Troicki. The doubles tomorrow should be fun, and the reverse singles even funner.

Argentina v Croatia, Buenos Aires, 1-1

Cilic d. Nalbandian, 5/7 6/4 4/6 7/6 6/3

Del Potro d. Karlovic, 6/2 7/6 6/1

Meanwhile David Nalbandian, if not Argentina’s greatest Davis Cup player then certainly its most famously committed, lost to Marin Cilic in a staggeringly uneven five set match. At the extremes of quality, statistics usually tell the story, and this match bears that out. The two men produced a combined 241 unforced errors (128 to Nalbandian). Both players served under 50%, and attained an aggregate 10/40 on break points conversion. What the stats don’t tell you is how it actually felt to endure the match. As a viewer I certainly had a better time of it than the participants, since the miasma of hopeless ennui dissipated quite quickly, whereas each player must also overcome physical exhaustion. Their wealth and fame probably helps to make up the difference, though.

The issue was raised in last year’s Davis Cup final of why Nalbandian wasn’t selected to play singles on the opening day, instead of either Juan Martin del Potro or Juan Monaco. The issue now, apparently, is why Monaco wasn’t playing in place of Nalbandian. The lesson, presumably, is how when you lose the strategy was always the wrong one. Del Potro then demolished Ivo Karlovic, who might have taken the second set had he played smarter on any of his four set points, but never looked much like winning the match.

USA v France, Monte Carlo, 1-1

Tsonga d. Harrison, 7/5 6/2 2/6 6/2

Isner d. Simon, 6/3 6/2 7/5

John Isner recorded his second ‘upset’ on clay in as many matches, although beating Gilles Simon is not quite comparable to beating Federer. Nonetheless, it was a masterpiece of sustained aggression from Isner, which is hardly surprising, since he seems physically and temperamentally incapable of playing any other way. These two met several weeks ago in Indian Wells, with Isner narrowly prevailing on his way to the final. Grit, luck and crowd support got him through that one. None of those factors proved relevant today, because he was playing in France, and because performances this complete never require one to display their true mettle.

I suggested a few days ago that Isner needs to learn how to win quickly, although I didn’t have Simon in mind, against whom even Federer prevails only gradually, if at all. In all, it was a masterful performance from the giant American, who suggested earlier in the week that he wasn’t just a serve and a forehand. By his standards, he wasn’t even a serve today, but his forehand was potent enough to achieve the twin miracles of cutting through the Monte Carlo surface and of getting past Simon, time and again.

Speaking of sustained aggression, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga earlier defeated Ryan Harrison in fine style but for a third set let-down, smacking winners all over the place. As expected, the Frenchman moves up to No.5 in the world, supplanting David Ferrer. There was also a cockerel, signifying, er . . . Well, that’s Davis Cup for you.

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