September 19, 2010

The National Heroes

I've always enjoyed the camaraderie that comes along with Davis Cup tennis -- it's great to see players revel not just in their own victories, but in those of their teammates as well. And some performances this past weekend gave a few players real cause to celebrate.

In the World Group semifinals, the Serbs took on the Czechs, last year's runners-up, and the tie was close from the start. With superstar Novak Djokovic pulling out of his first singles match due to illness, it was up to the second string to pull the weight. The Serbs found themselves in an early deficit when Viktor Troicki lost his first rubber, but summer stand-out Janko Tipsarevic evened the score on Friday with a win over Wimbledon finalist Tomas Berdych.

Casual tennis fans might not have known about Tipsarevic a month ago, but the twenty-six year old had beaten players like Sam Querrey and Andy Murray this year, even before ousting Andy Roddick from the U.S. Open. Though he continues to struggle to put together more than a few wins at a time, he's a smart player, a tough hitter, and his second win over the top-ten Berdych had to feel good.

But it only got better. With the Serbs down 2-1 after losing their doubles match, Djokovic returned to win his first reverse singles match in dramatic fashion, battling back after an injury time out and playing through the pain. All even, it was up to Janko again to close out the tie. This time facing Radek Stepanek, a man who beat him handily last year in Barcelona, Tipsarevic was on fire. He bagelled his opponent in the first set and survived a tight tiebreaker in the second. He had momentum in the third and took an early 4-0 lead, but nearly lost it when the Czech fought to 4-5. With the tie on his racquet, Tipsarevic finally converted on his third match point and sent Serbia to their first ever Davis Cup final.

The U.S. wasn't playing for the final, but having lost their first round to the Serbs back in March, they were facing Colombia in the World Group playoffs. Missing perennial powerhouses like Andy Roddick and the Bryan brothers, the four men who flew down to South America were slightly less battle-tested than teams of the past. Though red-hot Mardy Fish, now the second best man in the country at #19, gave the Americans an early lead, he took five sets to dispatch Alejandro Falla, and Sam Querrey put the lead in jeopardy when he lost to world #61 Santiago Giraldo in straight sets.

But there's a reason Fish has clawed his way so far back up the rankings. Having played in the finals of four tournaments since June and picking up an extra doubles trophy in Washington, he's had one of the most successful summers on tour and proven just how fit he is. On Saturday he paired with pal John Isner to give the U.S. a 2-1 lead and got back on court Sunday to play the fourth rubber of the tie. And, as we've come to expect from Mardy over the past few months, we were in for a show.

Giraldo got off to a quick start on the American and seemed to have every advantage -- playing in Bogota and on clay -- but Fish got steady in the second set and took a lead into the fourth. The Colombian broke in the fifth game of that set, though, and was able to hold on long enough to force a decider. But Mardy's conditioning was the big advantage now, and even when both men had trouble serving late in the match, they were able to come up with some impressive shots. Ultimately, after over four hours of play, Fish went on a three game win-streak and won the match, 8-6 in the fifth. The win kept the U.S. in the World Group, a spot they have held onto since 1989.

India, on the other hand, had made the World Group last year for only the first time since 1998. Having lost to Russia in March, they took on Brazil in the playoffs this weekend, a team headlined by top singles player Thomaz Bellucci. After two rubbers that went a total of nearly nine hours, the Brazilians had the 2-0 lead going into the weekend, and it looked like India was primed for relegation again. But the reunited doubles team of Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes won their match and Bellucci was forced to retire from his reverse singles while trailing Somdev Devvarman by a set and a few breaks.

Then it was time for U.S. open hero Rohan Bopanna to shine -- the historic doubles finalist in New York is just barely ranked in the top five-hundred in singles, but that hadn't kept him from taking two sets from Bellucci on Friday. And in the decider versus world #75 Ricardo Mello, he didn't seemed phased in the least. He kept his match clean, lost only four points on his second serve -- incidentally, all double faults -- and doubled Mello in winners. In just over two hours he'd won India another spot in the World Group and scored the country their only comeback victory from two rubbers down.

Each of these wins might mean different things for the individual players, but for their teams it certainly means more. There are very few times when tennis is a team sport and to see these guys play not just for each other, but for their countries, is very profound. Who knows if they'll be as victorious in the next step of their journeys, but at least for now, they're certainly on top of their worlds.

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