Davis Cup, Quarterfinals
Having narrowly survived the treacherous eddies and rips of its opening two rounds, the 2013 Davis Cup has finally entered clear water down the home straight. The World Group semifinal line-up can now be made out, gathering detail as it drifts nearer. Serbia will host Canada, and Argentina, as they did last year, will face the Czech Republic, although this time they’ll likely face them on the banks of the Vltava. The World Group qualifying nations have also been decided, although until the draw occurs we can only guess at their configuration. Every nation assumes they will draw Spain, even as they hope they’ll meet Israel.
My hope that the quarterfinals would provide a more coherent viewing experience than the first round has been revealed as naïve. Canada only finished off Italy a few minutes ago, and already the weekend’s finer points are submerging themselves in the dark waters of general forgetting. I’ll try to note a few as their needle-like spires fitfully burst through the surging surface, before they recede astern and slip below forever, to be revisited only in nightmares, therapy or under hypnosis.
Argentina’s victory came at the expense of France, in the very stadium where they saw off Germany back in February. I feel like there’s a complicated point to be made there – something to do with World War Two – but I can’t quite grasp it. Carlos Berlocq was the hero of that earlier tie, a status he earned by claiming the opening rubber, and then advertised by tearing his t-shirt off in what has become a wearisomely common practice. Other than Hulk-like brawn and a surfeit of testosterone, I’m not entirely sure what this is supposed to signify. Given that Berlocq’s opponent, Philipp Kohlschreiber, had retired injured, and that it was merely the first match of the tie, some felt the Argentine’s reaction to be excessive. The delirious crowd at the Parque Roca felt otherwise.
Today was a different matter, though the venue was the same. This time Berlocq defeated Gilles Simon in a live fifth rubber, completing a dismal weekend for the Frenchman, who was reduced to tears by the end. Berlocq’s shirt never stood a chance. The locals, already losing their collective nut, immediately evaporated in a haze of pure ecstasy.
Jo Wilfried Tsonga was left in an unenviable position, having won both his matches yet not won the tie. Disappointment at his country’s capitulation must therefore be layered with satisfaction at his own fine performance on his least preferred surface in a hostile environment. He did everything he could, but they still lost. It’s no doubt a familiar sensation for star players in losing sports teams, but unusual for tennis players. David Ferrer knows how it feels, and probably has some useful tips on how to cope. A good night’s sleep on a bed made of money probably helps.
A 3-2 victory can be dissected any number of ways. At some level it’s unfair to say that Simon’s poor form placed undue pressure on the doubles team. If nothing else, it placed doubles right in the position where it should be in Davis Cup, which is that of the fulcrum around which the entire weekend pivots. Michael Llodra and Julien Benneteau surely fancied their chances, even on clay and away, but they were rightly wary of David Nalbandian, and whoever his plus one happened to be. If blame is to be apportioned – and it always is – I’d say Llodra and Benneteau deserve a fatter slice of it than Simon, although he could probably use the calories.
The Bryan Brothers, on the other hand, surely felt as surprised as I did when Nenad Zimonjic’s plus one turned out to be world No.1,150 Ilija Bozoljac. The USA – Serbia tie was locked at a rubber apiece, and the easy choice was to go with Novak Djokovic, who even after two matches would surely remain a lock to win the first of the reverse singles. But the Serbian captain Bogdan Obradovic insisted he’d never felt a moment’s doubt – it was to be Bozoljac all the way.
I’d never suggest the Bryans are anything less than consummately professional in their match preparation – as opposed to nauseating in their music – but they are the most successful doubles pairing in history, and currently ranked number one. While they’d fallen to Brazil in the opening round, that had been a shocking upset – which are by definition rare – in a near-empty barn in Jacksonville, in which the South American team appeared to have more support than the hosts. By contrast, the dense crowd within Boise’s Taco Bell Arena was a credit to the organisers, and supplied precisely the kind of febrile ambiance in which the twins typically thrive. (This has been statistically demonstrated; the volume of the home crowd has been indexed to the elevation at which the Bryans bump chests. In Boise, as the match entered its fifth hour, there was a real chance they’d hit the roof.)
But, somehow, it was the Serbian team that prevailed. Zimonjic was superb, especially on serve, but Bozoljac proved to be the real surprise. Insofar as many people have heard of him at all, he is known for losing his way on court, usually comprehensively, often histrionically, and occasionally hilariously. Yet on Saturday he remained utterly unflappable, even as the fifth set saw each team accumulate a dozen games each. Faced with the best doubles combination ever, knowing that a doubles loss would place his country in the unattractive position of relying on Viktor Troicki to win the deciding fifth rubber, Bozoljac actually seemed to be enjoying himself. Afterwards he insisted his faith in victory had never wavered. It was one of those moments that defines Davis Cup, in which a journeyman ranked outside the top thousand (in doubles) holds his place on court with three of the best doubles exponents on the planet, and achieves an outrageous victory for his nation.
One wonders whether Bernard Tomic’s excellent adventure in Uzbekistan will help to define him a little more generously, at least in the merciless gaze of the Australian media. As the great hope of a proud tennis nation fallen on hard times, Tomic is forced to endure more than his share of ecstasy and opprobrium from one day to the next. Last year when Australia failed to qualify for the World Group, falling to Germany, Tomic was the only man to win a rubber, yet it was upon him that the most lavish selection of ordure was heaped. He’ll probably never be well-loved, but those who seek to legitimise their antipathy by dubbing him ‘un-Australian‘ deserve to be reminded that he is now 10-2 in Davis Cup. This weekend Tomic won both his singles rubbers, including the clinching point against Denis Istomin. The other point was claimed by Lleyton Hewitt – whose every loss is merely a testament to his indomitable warrior spirit in the eyes of his nation – and Matthew Ebden. Once again the doubles was pivotal.
Some other quick notes: Milos Raonic is apparently unbeatable on Indoor Hardcourt Premier – the surface the Spanish federation once attempted to have declared illegal, before they won a tie on it – and by claiming both his singles matches has helped put Canada through to their first Davis Cup semifinal in history. They’ll face Serbia in Serbia, and it probably won’t be on an Indoor Premier court. It is supremely unlikely the Canadians will progress to their first ever final. But you never know – Djokovic could be injured.
Then again, it will hardly matter if he is. Today he rolled his ankle badly in the first set against Sam Querrey, came back to win it, lost the close second set in a tiebreaker, then took twelve of the next thirteen games to seal the tie. By all accounts – especially Djokovic’s own – the injury looks to be serious, and there’s a strong chance he’ll miss Monte Carlo next week. On the other hand, I’m not sure Querrey has any excuse. I’m sure he wasn’t as uninterested as he looked, but it was still a dispiriting way for a home tie to end.
Lukas Rosol won both singles matches in securing victory for the Czech Republic – there seems to have been a lot of that this weekend – who are of course the defending Davis Cup champions. Although on paper Kazakhstan was the most benign of potential quarterfinal opponents, even in Astana, things grew complicated when Tomas Berdych ruled himself out, and Radek Stepanek opted not to play singles. It only grew more complicated when Czechs lost the doubles (the only victorious team in the World Group to manage this rare feat). Also, the last time they played, in Prague, Kazakhstan was victorious, with Andrei Golubev playing as only he can, or can’t, as the case now is.
Which brings me to arguably the most stirring result of the weekend: Great Britain’s recovery from two rubbers down to defeat Russia. It was, of course, a Russia whose best players are aging, woefully short on form, and didn’t actually turn up. On the other hand, given the British squad lacked precisely one Andy Murray, Russia still began as the overwhelming favourites. Dimitry Tursonov and Evgeny Donskoy are both ranked in the top hundred, while Britain’s best available singles prospects – James Ward and Dan Evans – have rankings only expressible with scientific notation. Results did not defy expectations through the opening two days. Russia won both opening singles matches – although Donskoy, on debut, was compelled to recover a two set deficit – and Britain’s more accomplished pair made short work of Saturday’s doubles. Some have questioned Shamil Tarpichev’s decision to play young Victor Baluda, but it’s hard to see who else he might have picked that would have made a difference. Tarpichev is notorious for his occasional wily masterstrokes, but I suspect this was more a case of conceding the doubles and giving a young prospect valuable experience.
He should know better. The doubles – and I might have mentioned this before – is crucial. Suddenly, with their easy win, the Brits had momentum. Ward might have been crippled after blowing a two set lead on Friday, yet he opened the final day by recovering from two sets to one down to upset Tursonov. The tie was now locked at two rubbers apiece. The fifth rubber was between Donskoy, ranked No.80 and in his first Davis Cup tie, and Evans, ranked outside the top three hundred, and a five-tie veteran with an imposing record of 2-7. It wasn’t even close, which is fortunate, since Donskoy’s Davis Cup history is entirely composed of heroic two set recoveries, and Evans is not noted for maintaining form under pressure. The Russians were understandably despondent. The Brits were bouncing around in a vaguely amoebic cluster on the court. The British sporting public would have undoubtedly shared their team’s triumph, had they only known about it. Apparently it didn’t merit television coverage in Britain, or even a mention on the news.
Now Britain will get its shot at returning to the World Group, presumably with Murray available. I really hope they draw Spain; not because I’m mean-spirited, of course, or Australian, but because that would ensure it will be televised. I’m only interested in the good of the sport, and its profile in its land of origin. Trust me.